Have you ever considered attending a yoga retreat or yoga festival? I have always thought it would be nice but never made a sincere effort to make something happen. Since I began my yoga practice over 5 years ago, I’ve fantasized about different yoga events that have caught my eye. I would imagine gallivanting off to breathtaking locations and being welcomed by warm-hearted yogis. In January, I came across a Facebook ad for the Sedona Yoga Festival and I knew it was time. I was determined to make it a reality.
The next decision I made was to attend the Sedona Yoga Festival solo. In the last few months, I went on an amazing couples trip to Costa Rica, traveled to SF to visit my best friends, and backpacked the Superstitions with my husband. It may sound selfish, but I felt like this was something I had to do on my own. We get pulled in so many different directions in our social and emotional lives, it is important to take time for yourself, clear out the noise, and remember what you really want for your own life. I know I always want to be traveling, but I also crave health and balance, in mind, body, and spirit.
The website and scheduling tool was easy to navigate. I was blown away with the variety of classes offered. Multiple classes every few hours in every different type of yoga you could want. I spent hours with my schedule, torn between this class and that class, they all look so fun! Should I do Laura Kasperzak’s inversion workshop on Saturday or learn Thai Massage. Decisions decisions. I happily hammered out my schedule and before I knew it, the weekend was here. My anticipation was sky high.
I woke up super early Saturday morning, leaving my house at 5am to make the 3 hour drive into Sedona. As I hit Sedona’s famous red rocks, the sun was just rising as the waning moon was fading. If you have never been to Sedona, it is a must. There couldn’t be a more visually and spiritually rich location to hold a yoga festival.
I arrived at the Creative Life Center, headquarters for the SYF. It really was just as warm and inviting as I had always imagined. There were happy faces everywhere – rocking yoga pants, warm scarves, and finishing their morning teas. A friendly booth of volunteers helped me get registered. Armed with my mat, a shiny new weekend pass bracelet, and with my map and schedule in hand, I was ready for a weekend of rejuvenation.
I had just been driving for 3 hours and had gotten up at the ass crack of dawn so I decided that I wanted to start out with some deep relaxation. I decided to make my first class Yoga Nidra. This type of yoga guides you into a yogic sleep – a deep restful state of consciousness. The teacher lead us from basic stretches into pure bliss. I came out of that class ready to take on the day.
Next on the schedule was my herb walk. A trip to Sedona would not be complete without some kind of earthly outing. This was my first introduction to the flora and fauna of Sedona. Our guide Illyup, the creator of Kejiwa kombucha and essential oils, is so in tune with the environment that you can see it written on his face. He walks through the world as if he is walking on a cloud. For him, every inch of the natural world is another chance for nourishment. You can tell all his needs in life are met by the land and what it has to offer. He had no plan for our class. It was organic. Any plant we came upon had some kind of nutritional or medicinal benefit. We identified different species and discussed everything from the long and nimble Ephedra, a natural stimulant, to Pinion Pine for pine nuts and aromatherapy, to harvesting prickly pear for a sweet healthy dose of minerals. I learned about 23 different plants and how I could incorporate them into my daily life.
At the end of our hike, we found ourselves at the base of the Amitabha Stupa. This is a must visit for spiritual seekers all over the world. Perched below hundreds of prayer flags, this 36 foot stupa is visited by dozens of tourists every day for healing, meditation, and the experience of peace among the red rocks. A stupa is meant to represent the living presence of Buddha and it’s architecture dates back 2600 years. This stupa in particular is supposed to represent compassion and to bring benefit to all living things. We all shared Illyup’s delicious essential oils which smelled of the pinion and juniper pines around us. We also stood around a rock prayer wheel and shared a tincture of different cleansing herbs while listening to Illyup play the flute. He successfully lead us right into the midst of his beautiful simple world, where all you need is right in front of you and all other thoughts, worries, and material needs fade away.
After the herb walk, I decided to meet a new yogi friend at my favorite organic vegan restaurant for lunch – Chocola Tree. There is literally nowhere else in the world like this place. Complete with its own chocolate factory and a hammock studded patio, it is hard not to relax at this healthy eatery. I had the delicious Sunshine salad, house kombucha, and a chocolate coconut Buddha for desert. SYF also partnered with Chocola Tree so they had a booth at the Creative Life Center as well. I got to eat this deliciousness for every meal!
Trouble in Paradise
After lunch, I was more than a little excited for my photo shoot with Robert Sturman. I had been following Robert for some time and when I found out he was going to be providing two workshops and a photo shoot at SYF, I jumped on the opportunity. His images bring you into the heart of a yogi. He has a knack for capturing the power and poetry of the human body, in all spans of it’s potential. His images include every shape and size, from simple downward dogs to Laura Kasperzak’s gravity defying head stands. I was ready for my shoot. I drove back to the Creative Life Center and to my dismay, the plans for the photo shoot had changed. Robert and a group of 15 girls had left 15 minutes before I arrived and I never got the memo!
The volunteers at the front desk felt bad and gave me the directions to the trailhead Robert had planned to shoot at. With renewed hope I drove to the site. I got out and eagerly searched around for a group of girls and a photographer. And…nothing. I couldn’t find them anywhere. I proceeded to hike around for 30 minutes and still nothing. I must have passed this old man on the trail 6 times. The last time I passed him, I could tell the look on his face meant it was time to let it go. I was stubborn. I got in my car and drove around for another half hour, back and forth, desperately trying to find the coveted photographer and our crew. Still nothing. I finally parked and grabbed my own camera. I tried to tell myself to be grateful for all the other amazing experiences but in truth, my heart was broken. Taking some pictures of the last beautiful light of the day, I watched the sun dip below the hills as the clock turned 6.
Healthy Happy Hour
I decided to make my way back to the Creative Life Center to see where the rest of the night would take me. While it was hard to shake off my lost photographer, I thoroughly enjoyed the festivities back at base. From acro yoga shows, to yoga on stilts, to dance performances, the talent was inspiring.
My first Kirtan
Last class of the night! I was a little intimidated to go to my first Kirtan. The idea of chanting Sanskrit mantras seems so foreign and awkward. When I think of yoga, I think of release: release in terms of controlled and intentional asana. The Kirtan was a whole new release. Steve Ross, a renowned LA yogi, was our guide for the night. Not only does he have history as a traveling rock musician, playing with bands including the Beach Boys and Stevie Nicks, he also spent time training as a monk in an Ashram in India for four years. Needless to say, he has some stories to tell. His modernization of pairing yoga with rock music has angered purist yogis the world over, but he doesn’t care. He believes music makes people happy, and I agree. He helped guide us through the class, explaining the meaning of each mantra we sang and making it fun. My spirits were lifted as I headed off to bed.
Bed happened to be at the Manzanita campsite north of Sedona along Oak Creek Canyon. Since I was flying solo, I decided to skip the tent set up and create a comfy car camp. I put down the seats in the back of my Xterra, stacked yoga mats, brought two down blankets, and piled plenty of pillows to create a perfect little nest for the night. After a long day of yoga, hiking, and singing, I slept well. I even slept in, waking up in a rush about 15 minutes before my first class.
Upside Down Fun!
My first class Sunday morning was the one yoga class I was looking forward to the most. Instagram headstand queen Laura Kasperzak (Laura Sykora) has one of the strongest inversion practices in the Yoga community. Her core work is absolutely inspirational. What surprised me even more was what a good teacher she is. She was patient and her class was able to be fun and helpful regardless of your level.
Mastering the Art of Yoga Photography
I was nervous for my second class of the day, the workshop with Robert Sturman. Do I tell him how bummed I was to miss the photo shoot? Do I play it cool? Do I gravel with him to get a second chance!? The class was held in a lovely art studio. As I was walking in I saw Robert walking up. I wanted to tell him everything. I caught him and started to explain what had happened the night before. He apologized and I abashedly conceded. Once in class, we made introductions with the rest of class and quickly jumped into shooting. Members of the class would take turns modeling as Robert instructed how to get the best out of each pose. His advise was valuable and our photographs improved with each frame. At the end of the workshop, I got my nerves up to tell Robert how much I admired his work and how much I had looked forward to joining his shoot the previous day. He hesitated for a minute, as if deciding whether to give me an in. After a moment he said, “I might be shooting tonight. Email me and if we go out, Ill let you know and maybe you can jump in.” With some renewed hope I quickly sent him an email with my phone number and information.
The last yoga class of the day was Acro Yoga with Whitney Zama. I have done Acro Yoga classes in the past and they are always rewarding. Yoga is typically an individual practice, but with Acro you get to share your body’s abilities with a partner and vice verse. This creates a dynamic that is all about relationship building and trust. We all have different strengths and you must find a balance between yours and your partners to have success in the postures. My favorite part of this class was coming together in the beginning and listening to Whitney testify to her love of this practice. By the end of her testimony, she had genuine tears in her eyes. Seeing someone successfully turn what they are passionate about into their life’s work is always inspirational. Our class proceeded with trust exercises and transgressed into acro yoga fundamentals. Before I knew it, we were flying.
During my Acro Yoga class I received a phone call from a 310 number. Being from LA I knew it was an area code from good ol’ Southern California. I realized quickly that it must be Robert who is based in LA. I ran outside and answered the call. Sure enough, Robert was on the other end. He told me he planned to do a shoot and said that if I could find it, I was welcome to come join in for a few frames. I was ecstatic. I got a second chance. He emailed me hand written directions and I was off on another adventure. Driving my Xterra through back dirt roads, I eventually spotted his car. Then the thought dawned on me, where in the world am I? I got out and started to make my way up the long trail, following the rock piles as advised. After about a mile, the trail started to climb. Now I could see why he would have come this far. Robert had picked a plateau overlooking the massive and majestic Cathedral rock. At the top I could see Robert photographing a figure posed above a calm reflection pool. He was shooting the beautiful Ashika Gogna, another inspiring yogi. The golden light that only a Sedona sunset could produce was perfect. In the end, it all worked out for the best. I got a private shoot with Robert and Ashika and a stunning sunset to boot.
I was buzzing, almost skipping, as I hiked back down. I decided to celebrate and end my weekend with a bang by attending the closing Kirtan lead by Saul David Ray. Just yesterday I had never experienced a Kirtan and now I was dancing and singing at the top of my lungs.
Before coming to this festival, I would tell you yoga is an individual practice first and foremost. While I still hold this to be true, there is something bigger here. I have felt it before in my classes and I definitely felt it in the experiences I had his weekend. All the hype around Namaste is defined by this collective consciousness, this shared appreciation and acknowledgement of one another. It is a tangible and resounding energy of peace and acceptance. And believe me, it is addicting.
I hope to see all you yogis out there at the next Sedona Yoga Festival. March 2016!