I was thrilled to attend Optimum Health’s first Yoga festival on Sunday, September 10th in the Knocknacarra Community Centre on the edge of Galway, near sea and woods. The beauty of these and the other elements – wind, sun and sudden rain – was a wonderful tapestry woven into the background of our experience as we gathered to begin the day of practice which took place from 10 am to 6pm, covering a huge range of practices, from Astanga, through Yin, Kundalini, and Partner Yoga. Eleven classes were on offer, running concurrently in two rooms. In the great hall, there was a sense of space and light. The air vents rattled like enthusiastic applause each time a strong gust blew outside, sometimes almost drowning out the voice of the instructor. The other room was like a womb, by comparison, windows covered with cotton wraps, salt lamps lending a gentle glow, and the sounds from outside muffled almost to silence.
I drove three hours from Enniskerry to get there, leaving it until the last minute because I’d had a late shift the night before and needed, above all, to rest. So by 10am, I decided a strong, physical practice would best suit my needs. Marese Cregg’s Astanga class fitted the bill perfectly. I rarely give myself the opportunity to practice the complete, or even most of, the primary series, but Marese’s metronomic timing and occasional compassionate hands-on guidance ensured that we put in maximum effort, and reaped the full benefits of this demanding flow sequence. My circulation restored, and any niggling stagnation thoroughly sluiced by breath and effort, I was ready for one of the calming practices. I chose the Kundalini class, mostly because I was curious (and also because I’ve got a huge amount of respect for Yoga traditions that rely on more than the physical practice). The instructor, Linda Martin, an ethereally beautiful woman, guided us through a warm-up and Kriya with lightness and wisdom. Her voice was sometimes lost in the roar of the applauding vents, but she demonstrated each movement with aplomb, making each move look deceptively easy, and urging us on for ‘just another few seconds’ so that we really worked ourselves into the moment. I needed to slow the flow after raising my energy with two strong classes, so I headed for the second room, to a Yin class with Katrina Hardimann. I teach Yin-style yoga practices myself sometimes, and I love the paradox of what always looks like an easy way out, but confronts us with the challenge of staying in the moment, and the movement within stillness. The only difficulty I had with this class was that the room was a little too cool for my liking. I feel the cold very quickly and I was slightly uncomfortable by the end of this practice. Nevertheless, there is a great deal to be learnt from practicing in discomfort and when I passed the desk, with almost psychic insight, Aisling remarked, you were cold, weren’t you? To which I replied that I had been, and she responded that she would talk to someone about turning down the air conditioning.
I needed to contact friends and family, rest, and eat, and because I was temporarily cash-strapped, and needed to be on the phone, I had to forego the pleasure of The Secret Garden cafe upstairs and eat instead the quinoa, rice and avocado I’d brought as a packed lunch. I did go up at the end of the day and the food on offer looked beautiful, the two young Latvian women were generous and welcoming, and I have every reason to believe that it would have been a great place to hang out between sessions.
Slightly struggling to maintain balance after the conversations I’d had over the phone, I returned to find I’d misread the timing of the next class and had about 20 minutes before it began. I missed being able to participate in Kasia’s Gong Bath, but watched from the gallery and understood that the experience must have been profoundly moving. I’ve used Tibetan bowls in the past myself and I know the trance-like state it’s possible to access from there. The instruments themselves are beautiful and it was wonderful to see them in use.
As I waited for my last taught class, I chatted to some of the other participants. They were glowing with enthusiasm for what had been offered so far, and were as curious as I was about what might come next. Paul Hardimann’s Partner Yoga was far less well attended than it should have been, perhaps because others, like me, were concerned that, having come alone, we were not in a position to participate. A lovely woman (Hi, Deirdre!) with blue green eyes who happened to be on my right turned immediately towards me on being asked by Paul, Do you have a partner, smiled, and said, Yes. Paul is a Master Yoga teacher, carrying the precepts as lightly as light, but with a depth of understanding and learning that embodies the essence of Yoga. He teased us with knowledge, humour and wisdom, and with the gentleness that only a truly great teacher can bring, led us up and over the mountainous challenge of handstanding against someone’s back, lifting a fellow human on one’s feet, chakrasana-ing in mandala-like circuits over and under and around one another until the barriers between us began to melt and crumble and we breathed, and laughed, astounded at the intimacy and sensuality that surfaces through this beautiful practice. It left me wanting to learn more: I’m no acrobat, but this practice gave me a sense of levitating, while at the same time allowing me to embrace all that is fragile, weak and all-too-human in my limitations.
We ended with a Yoga Dance in the small room. I felt this should have taken place in the great hall, as a thunderous affirmation of all we had achieved together, and as a celebration of this wonderful day. Perhaps we need more practice at Yogic Dance: I certainly felt that the awkwardness I felt would only have been mitigated if there had been some dynamic musical brocade to weave myself into. I love dancing, and can whirl myself into a frenzy, given half a chance, but like many westerners, it can take some time to shake of the bonds of self-consciousness, and I was unable to let go as completely as I’d have liked to during this final session. Some good still came of my shyness, however: I managed to thank and chat briefly to Paul, which was a pleasure, and I managed to meet a physicist studying the impact of chemical retardants on systems which is fascinating, and links with my own research in environmental philosophy. Every coincidence contains potential, I’m beginning to see!
I wanted the opportunity to talk about my vision for an ecotherapeutic community, and the meeting Jarlath had hoped to arrange where I might have had a chance to do this did not, in the end, materialise (but if you want to know more, please feel free to contact me!). I think that people had put so much into the day they needed to recover, and the centre had to be vacated by six, and cleared of all the decorations and props, so the time for meeting came to an end sooner than expected. Nevertheless, I left the day with every sense fulfilled, each fibre of each muscle singing with gratitude for the effort put in by the teachers and by my mirroring of their work. I really hope this is the beginning of a long tradition of Yoga festivals in Galway, and indeed in Ireland generally. Thanks to all who made it happen, teachers, organisers, and participants. Om Shanti, Shanti. Shanti.