Photo credit: Gun Gun
She looked like a willow tree: the woman with braided, beaded hair who sat next to me on the bus to the Bali Spirit Festival grounds just south of the Eat, Pray, Love town, Ubud. When she laughed, her coif shook like wind passing through branches. Her spirit name escaped me as it floated away on a fluty tone. I must have missed it as I kept my fearful eyes fixated on the windshield, watching our Balinese driver cut around motorcyclists, honking as to say, "I will run you down." On the way to my first day at the five-day festival, I found this woman an anomaly, but when I entered the fete, I found her one among many.
A sea of leather, feathers, tie-dye, and spandex, the crowd slinked about like cats. Walking around, I overheard one man spout about his disbelief in politics as two people sat entwined on the ground massaging each others' necks meanwhile another woman on the opposite side of the grounds wrapped a snake around her neck as sacred music played.
One of the first classes I took was called Alchemy of Breath: a two-hour session dedicated to breathing techniques that access alternate states of consciousness to open up the place where deep, permanent healing occurs. I expected a gentle session to ease the windpipes in lotus position, but soon found myself lying on my back huffing, puffing, and hyperventilating until my body went numb and tingled so intensely I started to cry. Soon, I entered a state of complete hysteria where I laughed so hard I could no longer breath. People around me screamed at the top of their lungs, one person pounded the floor, another cackled. Just then, I became hyper aware of my emotional pain and transitioned from laughing to sobbing.
An angel came to my side and held my head, massaging my body. I slipped deeper into the altered state, discovering that my crying came from pent up anger and guilt related to my father's death two years ago. The angel stayed to help me through it. Then suddenly, the pain subsided and I felt my body turn to gel. The class ended in a circle with everyone holding hands.
The rest of the day, I felt like a Mylar balloon whose ribbon had been snipped from a chair. I danced then tried tripsichore yoga, but something was amiss, so I listened to my body and went home. I couldn't return to the festival for two days, feeling overwhelmed enough by my own feelings that surfaced that I couldn't deal with the intensity of the other beings at the festival and what they were going through.
Some time later, I put myself back together and attended a Kundalini class that completely rejuvenated my body and soul with refreshing rounds of breath of fire. I ended the festival with a oneness meditation and felt whole again.
Everyone means well at the festival. There's a palpable longing for optimism, love, and personal growth. If you are considering going to either the popular Bali Spirit Fest or another spiritual festival in countries like South Africa, Australia or the United States ask yourself before you go if you are ready to experience the unexpected and embrace intense transformation.
If so, here's some advice on how to survive a spirit fest:
1. Set an intention. Ask yourself, what about myself do I want to explore further or what am I looking to heal? How do I want to grow? When you enter into meditations or new practices this will help you stay focused even if other stuff comes up.
2. Come prepared. Bring a yoga mat and water or buy both in town, once you're at the festival things get pricey.
3. Be aware of your boundaries, then be willing to both stand up for them or push the limits. Remember, no one is asking you to stay in the classes. So, if you spend a couple minutes hula hooping or fire breathing but feel too uncomfortable you can walk away to either take a break or drop in on another class.
4. Let expectations go to welcome the experience. On this journey, the unexpected will occur. Likely, you've traveled a long way to a foreign country on your own, which creates its own level of discomfort at the get-go. From there, anything can happen... really. At some point during the festival, I was wading through mud after heavy rains, eating pad thai with ants in it, and sweating uncontrollably. Other times I was in a crystalline pool overlooking stunning rice paddies, having heart-felt conversations with warm people, and smiling from that radiant feeling of being alive. Any event has its positives and drawbacks, so it's hard to tell before you get there what it will be like. So, go into the event as a blank slate ready to embrace whatever happens.
5. Open your mind to new experiences and people. These events attract hundreds of people from all over the world, so not everyone there will have your opinions or cultural conditioning. You will feel uncomfortable at least once, but that does not mean giving up and going home. Roll with it because even those moments of friction can be blissful in retrospect. Also, it's likely you haven't sampled all the types of yoga and healing on the menu, so try something completely foreign to you just for fun.
6. Establish a support group either on-site or back home whom you can report back to about your feelings as you go along. During the course of the festival, I experienced the rainbow of human emotion: I was angry, I cried, I was sad, I felt confused and vulnerable. I felt blissful, revert, awakened and optimistic. Transformation is never like walking through a golden gate over a path of pillows whether you do it at a festival or through a life coach at home. Having support is paramount to your well being. This will also help you make better sense of what you are processing.
7. Make it a point to interact with non-spirit festival people. Every moment, there will be something interesting going on at the festival, but make sure to take a day off to refresh if you need it. Find a place where you can have a beer with backpackers who aren't trying to fix themselves. In Bali, I found the co-working space Hubud comforting because it attracts business-minded people who are very practical. After that breathing class unearthed some of my spiritual garbage, I went to the co-working space the next day to just talk with people my age about music and have a good laugh about how out there hippies can be.
8. Lay off the drugs. I understand some people go to festivals wanting to reach Nirvana and explore other states of consciousness, but in my opinion MDMA, mushrooms and ecstasy are a dangerous way of doing that. In fact, drugs in Bali are not a force to be reckoned with as they mean harsh punishments. Smuggling drugs into or out of the country can yield the death penalty while getting caught buying or selling drugs can lead to long jail sentences. Just don't do it.
9. Hydrate and eat well. In Bali, the heat in March can be stifling, with humidity levels hitting the 80-percent range on a daily basis. If you're on a spiritual journey you must facilitate it with appropriate nutrients or you might pass out or at the least deplete yourself too early in the day.
10. Reward yourself at the end. No matter what happens at the festival, arrange a couple dream activities when it's over to celebrate your boldness for making it through. In Ubud, massages go for as low as six dollars an hour for a full body treatment. There are also a plethora of beautiful, affordable restaurants to eat at like Clear Café and Sari Organik in the rice paddies. Also, Dragonfly Village hosts regular sauna parties alongside their salt-water pool.
Of course, the experience is always what you put into it. If you want less intensity opt to go to the music sessions in the evening and choose to attend the festival's daytime workshops for one day instead of all five. Before I began the breath work, I put my hand on my heart and chose a number to reflect the intensity level of my experience, 10 being the most and zero the least. I said seven, and that's what I got.