The streets of Mullumbimby are full of women walking around in yoga pants and bearded men who look like they just stepped off the set of The Vikings at the best of times. At the Byron Spirit Festival last month, Mullum was positively teeming with them.
BSF was a weekend long yoga festival with a lot more thrown in. Tons of workshops spread throughout venues around town to help the spiritual seeker find……whatever! Music stage, vegetarian food, healers, massage, yoga clothes stalls and yummy chai. All bases covered as far self-nurturing went.
Most workshops filled up quickly. Choosing only a few was difficult and the handful I could make it to were packed to the rafters. This is a popular festival. There are always plenty of gurus, shamans, healers, and other practitioners coming to our shores, claiming to have the ultimate wisdom, travelling the world to impart their ‘unique’ teachings. A festival such a BSF is a good place to get a taster of a number of teachings and modalities and decide for yourself what is wisdom and what is guru with over-inflated ego.
I chose to see Sonam Rigzin, the translator for the Gyoto Monks of Tibet first. As a spiritual tradition that is 2500 years old, Buddhism has a long lineage, and has developed different forms such as Vajrayana which is practiced in Tibetan culture. The Gyoto Monks are known for their guttural chanting and Mohawk-like headpieces. It is becoming increasingly difficult for the monks to travel from Dharamsala in India due to visa complications, so they were not able to be present. As translator, Sonam sees himself as a messenger and conduit for the monks. He was even able to give an oral transmission of the famous chant ‘Om Mani Padme Hum’ as he had received this blessing from the Dalai Lama himself.
However, Sonam’s translations themselves are interesting. ‘Om Mani Padme Hum’ is a mantra that embodies all the teachings of the Buddha. Sonam adds that it means ‘you are unique/special’ not in an egotistical sense, but that we are all different. He says the goal of Buddhism is to get back to our authentic self; a self beyond mind, speech and body. Tibetan practices such as daily prostrations and the Five Tibetan Rites help reach that primordial self.
Sonam sees the great, ancient yoga teacher Patanjali as a scientist, the Buddha as a psychologist, and Jesus as a mystic. He says that Patanjali, and later, Buddha, rejected the idea of a God that controls everything. Tibetans, who 2500 years ago were wealthy warlords with aggression issues, found some peace in Buddhism. He sees Australia as being like that now, and why so many people here are on a spiritual quest. It explains a lot about why a festival like BSF is so popular.
My next stop was Soul Vibing, a sound healing workshop with Matt Omo. Matt says he’s not aligned with any one particular tradition, and says soul vibing “brings us in alignment with our soul so we can perceive reality from a more expanded space”. I have no idea what that means but there was more talk of “letting go of negative energy, creating space and breathing into that space”. We all lie on the floor and call in the ancient one as Matt gongs, chants, gongs louder, whistles, plays a recording of a violin, some Buddha Bar-type beats, rattle, didgeridoo, and crystal singing bowls. The music reaches crescendo, dies down, reaches crescendo again and so forth. A young woman on the floor bursts into tears, and it reminds me of myself doing the same thing in a group meditation many years ago. I have to wonder if it was a spiritual awakening or simply the power of suggestion.
The next workshop was the packed Kundalini yoga session with Harjiwan. Kundalini refers to the coil at the base of the spine, or chakra, and yoga means union or ‘yoke’ of the individual with the Universal Self or consciousness. Awakening the serpent-like Kundalini at the base chakra so it travels to the top of your head, the highest chakra, helps create this union.
Harjiwan, aka Jacinta Csutoros, opened the first Kundalini yoga studio in Melbourne 20 years ago and is now based in Byron Bay. She studied in the US under Yogi Bhajan and her accent still has a discernable American twang. The session starts with chanting almost as guttural as the monk’s, then moves onto ‘Kriya’. Anyone who has read Autobiography of a Yogi would be familiar with the term Kriya, however this is not Yogananda’s Kriya yoga. These Kriyas are specific techniques to work on specific parts of the body, and today Harjiwan is focussing on the kidneys and adrenals. We sit cross legged and have to hold our breath while flexing the spine back and forth until we can’t hold our breath anymore. Then do it again. The whole room is a mass of writhing bodies rubbing their genitals on the floor! At the end, we have to press our tongues up to the roof of our mouths. This may well have been to prevent any over enthusiastic yoginis from crying out in ecstasy. All a bit much for me so I head to the chai stall for a cuppa and a sit down.
Before I head off, I remember Sonam’s definition of Karma. Rather than a doctrine to “keep poor people poor” by telling them if they doing anything remotely wrong then bad things will happen to them (read: fear mongering), he sees it as a science. It means “I will not accept the status quo.” The spiritual seekers keep seeking because something’s wrong with the status quo. I leave them to it. I’m happy with my authentic self.