Memoirs of a yoga festival virgin

Photo: Darrin Harris Frisby

I guess you could call me yoga festival virgin. I came to the first-annual Hanuman Festival feeling a mix of youthful giddiness and quiet ambivalence. While excited for the opportunity to connect with old friends and support two amazing yogis in bringing their inspired vision into reality as a member of the media team, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. To be honest, the very notion of a yoga festival brought up questions in my mind about the intentions behind such gatherings and the meaning of community.

What am I getting myself into?, I wondered. Beneath all my excited anticipation was an internal skeptic that had kicked into high gear, wondering if I really wanted “in” on this at all. What if these yoga festivals were just a big, expensive excuse to party — a bunch of yogis getting together to let loose under the guise of spiritual and professional development? Why was I coming all the way across the nation to do yoga and listen to music? Did I not value the teachers and artists in my local community enough to do something like this in the less glamorous arena of my own backyard?

Photo: Carl Kerridge

I was a little afraid to utter these questions aloud at first. You see, I’ve always been an avid questioner, and sometimes my fiery curiosity gets me into trouble. I don’t ask questions to challenge or criticize, but sometimes I think people read it that way, and the very act of my questioning comes off as an an attack. Fortunately, when I did have the courage to express what was on my mind, I discovered a gathering of souls who were not only open to inquiry, but excited to engage in dialogue themselves.

Thanks to the diverse amalgam of people who attend these types of festivals — from asana-junkies, to Buddhist meditators, to conscious entrepreneurs, to artists and musicians — there was an open space for conversation, an invitation for people of all walks of life to share in their experience. “Who are you?” “What brings you here?” “What lights you up in life?” When you begin a conversation with questions like that, it doesn’t matter how different two people are. You’re speaking from the heart, and from that place we’re all the same.

Photo: Darrin Harris Frisby

What I discovered at Hanuman was a palpable energy, a vibration if you will, that expanded my own beliefs about what it means to be in community. To share a bit of my own personal process, I’ve spent the past few years of my life grappling with this terrible feeling of being an outsider in my own skin. I’ve found myself wandering from place to place, knocking on the doors of overflowing inns like Mary and Joseph, asking the same question over and over again: Is there room for me here? Do I belong?

When I do find an open door, I’ve noticed that I often can’t bring myself to completely root down into the community that’s welcomed me in. That’s put me in an interesting position of now having my feet planted in many different communities — I’ve practiced at yoga studios all over town, I juggle a bunch of different jobs, I often spend every holiday with a different family. I’ve wondered whether my tendency to shift from place to place reflects a sort of flightiness on my part — whether there’s something going on within that makes it difficult for me to ground down, settle, and really grow into intimacy with one single community.

Photo: Doug Ellis

But at the same time, it’s after experiences like the one I had at Hanuman Festival that I begin to wonder whether its the very definition of community I’ve been taught that’s the problem. Especially when we have modern technologies like Skype and Facebook to forge and maintain relationships with people all over the world, why is our sense of community limited to a specific geographic area or place of employment or cultural background or style of yoga? This assumption — that we need to support and cultivate community only with the people near and like us — ultimately only creates more division in the broader human family we’re all a part of. And it’s at an event like a yoga festival that you realize that all those barriers are really meaningless in the presence of pure and unconditional Love.

What I found at the Hanuman Festival is a sense of belonging that transcends all the boundaries we’ve created to divide and subjugate ourselves from one another.

I sunk into the warm embrace of friends who had previously only existed to me in two dimensions. I danced in pure ecstasy with people I never could have imagined sharing that space with, tapping into a powerful, unifying rhythm that still pulses in the walls of my heart. I gazed into the eyes of people I’d only known a few hours and saw my own light reflected back. Essentially, I realized that the longing to belong that’s torn at my heart for years now was rooted in a misconstrued sense of what it means to be in community in the first place.

Suzanne Sterling leading closing ceremony

Photo: Darrin Harris Frisby

If I belong anywhere, it’s in my own skin. The community I’m a part of is not defined by blood ties, yoga styles, or what I do for a living… it’s a global, universal, paradoxically internal and macrocosmic community that includes all living beings on this earth. When I feel rejected, lonely, unsure of who I am and where I belong, all I have to do is turn my gaze inside. I have a mini Waylon Lewis in my own heart. I carry the mother I often long for in my capacity to love and nurture myself. I maintain my connection to the people who have broken my heart, to the communities I no longer play an active role in when I draw from the lessons they taught me — the good and “funky” ones alike.

At Hanuman, I realized I belong because I am. And I am because we are. Jai Hanuman.

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- who has written 43 posts on Yoga Modern.

Chelsea Roff is a writer by day and yoga teacher by night, a weaver of words as well as of asanas. She is Managing Editor at YogaModern.com, and her writing has been featured by Yoga Journal, Elephant Journal, Wanderlust Festival and the Hanuman Festival. Chelsea is passionate about using online media to inspire action that serves a greater cause -- whether it be the expansion of knowledge, support of our global community, or improvement of planetary and personal health. She travels the country teaching yoga in the most non-traditional of spaces, from cocktail parties to public protests to centers for at-risk youth. In Dallas, Chelsea helped start a yoga service organization that brings yoga classes to people in homeless shelters, juvenile detention centers, and prisons. Chelsea currently lives in Santa Monica, CA, where she can be found cartwheeling across the beach, hiking in the mountains, and practicing yoga poses on her little pink scooter.

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