Namaste! Everything You Need Know to Find Your Inner Peace at a Yoga Festival

For CheapOAir Miles Away. April 2017. 

I have been doing yoga off and on for my entire life, but I still didn’t know what to expect when I first arrived at the Sedona Yoga Festival. It was early March and I was slated to attend all three days of the self-described “consciousness evolution conference,” where participants gather in the iconic red sandstone desert of central Arizona every year to partake and celebrate yoga, music, and spirituality.

It was my first time at anything like that before and I was plagued with questions. How many hours in a day can I survive doing yoga? What if I can’t balance on my head and bend myself into a twist? Is it OK to drink alcohol when you are on a yoga retreat?

Thankfully, the theme for this year’s festival was “Get Out There” meaning let go of old behaviors, wake up to your intuitive guidance, and step into the power of a collective community.

So if you’re thinking of going to a yoga festival, as well (of which there are MANY around the world), here are a few things I learned at Sedona and you need to consider before your ultimate yoga getaway…

Pick a Good Location

Part of the attraction for me to sign up for this kind of trip was the location itself. Nestled among red and orange colored sandstones, Sedona is a picturesque town in northern Arizona. It is also known for its regenerative powers demonstrated by vortexes, or high energy points. It is the only place on Earth that has four vortex locations concentrated in a small area. Other such sacred sites around the world are at Great Pyramid in Egypt, Machu Picchu in Peru, Bali, Stonehenge, Bermuda Triangle, Tibet, and Ayers Rock in Australia, and also make for good yoga destinations. It is believed that doing yoga, meditation or any kind of spiritual introspection at such places is different because the energy is more intense and has special healing qualities. Just seeing the majestic red rocks and flawless sunny days is relaxing. Why not try yoga there as well?

Image via Sucheta Rawal/ goeatgive.com

Image via Sucheta Rawal/ goeatgive.com

Find the Right Community

A yoga festival is different from a yoga retreat. There are a lot more people. Over 1400 people attended the Sedona Yoga Festival (SYF) with me, and we were not hanging out together all of the time. There were a lot of solo travelers, groups of friends, and yoga instructors. There were social activities, like “health happy hours” and music and dance sessions, where you could interact with a broader fun loving community. I felt it was a great place to meet like-minded people, as everyone there had holistic views on treating the mind and body. It was easy to strike up a conversation and there were several occasions where I hugged a total stranger. But then, I also had time to focus on myself and retreat to my room whenever I needed to.

Image via Sucheta Rawal/ goeatgive.com

Image via Sucheta Rawal/ goeatgive.com

Don’t Worry About Poses

I confess, though I “can” do yoga, I have not even come close to mastering the art of bending my body into impossible angles, doing headstands or aerial splits. Seeing men and women who are in great shape and extremely flexible can be intimidating at first, but I had to remind myself that yoga takes patience and experience. “Stop looking at other people’s poses, their cute yoga outfits, or the colorful designs of their mats!” I heard one instructor remind us.

Just the fact that I was trying meant I wanted to do something good for myself.

Be Ready to Try New Things

During the festival, I learned a lot of new things that I am going to incorporate into my practice, like: Eat a piece of dark chocolate before starting your session to heighten your senses. If meditation music doesn’t inspire you, try reggae. Wake up early morning to watch the with sunrise and do sun salutations. Combine hiking with yoga.

There are also different forms of yoga — Kundalini, Hatha, Bikram, etc. And while you may not always have the time or money to try all of the different classes at home, yoga festivals give you basic exposure to them, so you can decide which one you want to stick with.

I also sat in many of the 200+ classes and workshops offered during the festival that had nothing to do with yoga, but catered to overall wellness. Attending such events means you can hear from experts on a variety of topics, such as eating superfoods, Ayurveda, meditation, building relationships and much more.

Image via Sucheta Rawal/ goeatgive.com

Image via Sucheta Rawal/ goeatgive.com

Hit a Spa Afterwords

One of the perks of yoga festivals is that they encourage spa treatments as well. On the premise, there were free massages, relaxation chairs, sound and light treatments. Down the street were several smaller spas, holistic treatment centers, and energy readers. I finished my trip with a Full Circle massage at the 25,000 square-feet Eforea Spa at the Hilton Sedona Resort at Bell Rock, where the festival took place. There is nothing better after a weekend of yoga than to soak in a jacuzzi and take a steam shower.

Written for CheapOAir Miles Away. April 2017. 

Re-energize Your Mind, Body and Spirit in Arizona

For Cuisine Noir magazine. March 2017. 

Arizona is known to be one of the best spa destinations in the world. There’s no doubt that its native plants and herbs discovered by Native American healers have many spiritual and physical medicinal properties. Arizona’s dry climate, ample sunshine and warm temperatures make it a good place to visit any time of the year and get a boost in vitamin D. From Phoenix’s upscale spas to Sedona’s concentrated vortexes (or high energy points), Arizona has serene landscapes, natural resources, historic traditions and a variety of techniques that makes it popular as a place for wellbeing. The state also attracts alternative healing practitioners so you know the therapists are not only well trained, but passionate about what they do.

Sheraton Grand At Wild Horse Pass, Phoenix

The Sheraton Grand at Wild Horse Pass (www.wildhorsepassresort.com) is one of the few resorts in the area that is operated entirely in partnership with the Native-American community. Located on the Gila River Indian Community, the décor of the property, guestrooms, cuisine and surroundings reflect the traditions of the Pima and Maricopa people.

Take a stroll through the contemplative trail that runs past a river, golf course and dirt path where you can hear birds sing and read about the local flora. Check in to Aji, Arizona’s only Native American-owned spa for Thoachta traditional healing offered by native Belen Stoneman. She uses techniques that she learned from her ancestors at the reservation which include tapping into the energy of the spirits while she massages, and communicating those messages through a brief consultation. It is a unique experience that makes one feel grounded, relaxed, and ready to live one’s potential.

The spa also offers nourishing white clay body masks, healing agave wraps, and a relaxing watsu pool in a serene setting of desert architecture, gardens and trails.

Boulders Resort & Spa, Carefree 

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Boulders Resort & Spa (www.theboulders.com) is named for the 12-million-year-old granite boulders that dot the landscape. The resort’s 33,000 square foot facility incorporates the elements of feng shui through natural rocks, water features, sand gardens, flower beds, a labyrinth, and a Tipi built by the local Native American community for guided meditation. There is also an organic garden which supplies to the Spa Café and hosts cooking classes.

Get a well-deserved deep tissue massage using a potent sage and arnica infused oil that helps reduce discomfort and inflammation, and speeds recovery. Then, sit at the open-air patio, sip a strawberry-mint smoothie, snack on a hummus plate, and watch the Black Mountain in the distance. The resort also has private casitas and villas that are surrounded by nature and good place to get away from it all.

 

Sedona Yoga Festival

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Drive an hour and a half north to the magical city of Sedona for the Sedona Yoga Festival (SYF) that takes place in early spring each year. The four-day consciousness evolution conference attracts over 1400 attendees who come to work on their physical, emotional and spiritual growth. The workshops, guided meditations, yoga classes and hikes led by over 100 instructors are meant to inspire, heal and renew in a sacred environment.

The festival days involve early morning yoga to the tunes of reggae on the deck while watching a beautiful sunrise, a stroll through the marketplace where you can buy trendy clothing, jewelry made of alleviating gemstones, and healthy snacks including vegan chocolates, followed by choices of numerous workshops. Learn to tap into your intuition, communicate with loved ones, eat superfoods and find alternative medicinal treatments like Ayurveda and light therapy. Session on music and dance stress how vibrations of gong, chimes, Tibetan bowls and other relaxing instruments open the flow of energy and create body-mind state changes for healing. 

Each night, there are satsangs (communal gathering), healthy happy hours and dance parties. And if you need a break, go down the street for psychic readers, crystal shops, art galleries and a variety of fine dining restaurants.

Hilton Sedona Resort at Bell Rock, Sedona

Nestled along the Red Rock Scenic Byway, Hilton Sedona Resort at Bell Rock (www.hiltonsedonaresort.com) is the only resort in Sedona that offers a full-service spa along with a golf course, with spectacular views of the red rocks.

Book yourself a Signature Full Circle Message, a 90-minute service inspired by the metaphysical properties of Sedona. The experience includes aromatherapy, meditation to discover intuition, massage, energy balancing and visualization, and is delivered by one of the spa’s therapists that are certified to practice “energy medicine.” After some pampering, relax in one of the spa’s pools, Jacuzzi, sauna or steam. Allow yourself to renew with the energy of Sedona’s vortexes.

Photo credit: Sucheta Rawal

~ Written for Cuisine Noir magazine. March 2017. 

The Many Faces of Sustainable Tourism – My Week in Bali

huffpost-travel

October 2015

Do you know the difference between ecotourism, sustainable travel, responsible travel and volunteer vacationing? While there is a lot of overlap with each of these terms, they all have one common theme – that is to improve lives through travel and tourism.

On a recent Yoga Retreat in Bali, Indonesia through international nonprofit, Go Eat Give, I experienced an all encompassing meaningful holiday where we actually supported the community we visited in many different ways, perhaps without even realizing it.

Ecotourism – “Responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people.” (TIES, 1990)

Most visitors to Bali either head to the beach resorts of Kuta, or the hippie city center of Ubud. Our accommodations were at Puri Gangga Resort and Spa, a 4-star 20-bedroom property located in the highland village of Sebatu (about 30 minutes from downtown Ubud) in East Bali. Enclosed by rice paddies and forests, the resort was a peaceful oasis overlooking Gunung Kawi Sebatu, a tranquil temple with gardens, and ponds full of blooming lotuses and enormous carps.

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The resort was small, yet charming. It blended well with the peaceful environment and embodied nature into everyday living. From the fishpond at the reception, the stone pathways leading to the rooms, to the open-air restaurant, I always felt the presence of life surrounding me. Even my luxurious villa had thatched roofs that naturally repelled mosquitos and furniture made of Indonesian teak wood. My bathroom was huge, boasting great views of the surrounding paddies, and had a partially open roof in the shower. When it rained, the water just drained off into the rocks and plants around my toilet. I felt I had the luxury of indoor plumbing, set in an all-natural ambiance.

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Each morning I woke up at the crack of dawn to the sounds of birds chirping and roosters crowing. I walked along the infinity pool in the morning mist of the forest, to attend my yoga class. At 7am, a few early risers gathered in a spacious room with open windows facing east on one side, and west on the other. This week, we practiced meditation and graceful poses, using The Warrior of Light by Paulo Coelho as a spiritual guide.

Sustainable Dining – Food which is healthier for people and the planet.” (SustainableFood.com)

A relaxed yoga session was followed by breakfast at the resort’s restaurant, Kailasha, with a bird’s eye view of the temple below. The 3-course breakfast service included a plate of fresh cut tropical fruits, Indonesian coffee or tea, and tropical juices squeezed to order. A woven basket full of assorted baked breads arrived with pineapple and strawberry jams made on premise. Options for Western and Balinese style breakfasts were presented – coconut pisang rai (steamed bananas), Martabak sayur (savory stuffed pancake), Nasi Goreng (fried rice), Dadar Gulung (sweet coconut pancake), or eggs and toast. Like most Balinese families, the restaurant bought all the ingredients very early in the morning, many of which were picked from the adjacent farms.

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I returned to Kailasha restaurant for dinner a few times, and enjoyed healthy, fresh and delicious local flavors. Baby spinach dressed with sunflower sprout and tossed in virgin coconut oil was the perfect Nature Healing Salad, while the main course, Balinese Tipat Cantok – rice cakes with steamed beans, carrots, bean sprouts and peanut sauce, made for the most scrumptious vegetarian treat.

Cultural Tourism – A discerning type of tourism that takes account of other people’s cultures. (UNESCO)

My intention of living in the village was not only to decompress, but also experience the authentic life in Bali. At the resort I stayed, there were activities designed to do just that. Puri Gangga offers a “Living in Culture” package that includes accommodations with daily yoga, afternoon tea, massages, and several cultural activities.

Some of the evenings, young Balinese dancers and Gamelan players would be invited from the village to perform for the guests at the resort. Watching talented girls of 8-10 years of age up close, dressed in their colorful costumes, and synchronizing their eyeballs with the music, was simply mesmerizing. I looked around and noticed the reaction of all the other spectators – fixated on their camera lenses, wanting to capture every single moment of this special treat.

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I learned to make Balinese Canang Sari, an offering where we weaved palm leaves and decorate the square shaped plate with bowls. It took me almost an hour to make one, and every Hindu household on the island makes 20-50 of these each day! While walking around the streets, you will see these offerings left at the doorsteps of businesses and homes after being blessed at the temples.

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During the village tour, I visited the workshops and homes of local artists. Everyone I came across was busy working on some craft they had honed – be it sculpting stone statues, decorating wooden carvings, painting wicker boxes, or weaving baskets. Many of the products looked familiar, as I had seen them in the markets. It’s hard to conceptualize the time and labor behind the knick-knacks we pick up as souvenirs, and understand that someone’s livelihood may be entirely dependent on our purchase.

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Sustainable Tourism – Travel that attempts to minimize its impact on the environment and local culture so that it will be available for future generations, while contributing to generate income, employment, and the conservation of local ecosystems. (World Tourism Organization)

Everyone who worked at this resort was a member of Sebatu village, so my dollars spent remained mostly in the area. I visited the homes of a hotel’s staff – a petite girl in her early 20’s who taught yoga, led people on tours and conducted cultural lessons. She she lived with 50 of her family members in a compound where she had a little house of two rooms. Her parents slept in the kitchen, while she had a tiny windowless room to herself. When one of my friends gave her a generous tip of $100, she was super excited and narrated how she would purchase books for her younger sister, give some money to her mother, put some aside, as well as help with the temple maintenance. Imagine what a 21-year old in the western world would do with $100 in cash!

I also signed up for a Balinese cooking class at Paon Bali Cooking School, where aunty Puspa and her husband, Wayan run an enterprise out of their home in another nearby village. He picks up the guests, shows them around the rice paddies and brings them to their home, where Puspa teaches visitors how to cook 10 Balinese dishes in one session! Over the years, through the growth of their business, they have been able to employ many of their relatives and neighbors, who would otherwise be selling art on the streets for pennies. Here they get to walk to work, eat whatever they want, and have fun teaching tourists about their native cuisine.

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Batik is an ancient art form made with wax resistant dye on fabrics. Batik in Indonesia is perhaps the best known and an important part of their heritage. I decided to take a lesson in Batik at the home studio of a local artist, Widya where I spent about 5-6 hours learning the art from start to finish. I started with a blank piece of white cloth, stenciled a design with a pencil, and then drew it out with wax using a spouted tool called a canting. I wax stamped the borders of the cloth, while one of Widya’s many assistants, who are also excellent artists, help me correct my errors. They showed me my selection of all-natural colors to fill in between the wax. The cloth is then dried in the sun, boiled in hot water to remove the wax, and air-dried again. While I worked diligently to create a masterpiece, Widya’s wife took my lunch order and ran off to the kitchen to cook Gado-Gado (a traditional dish of cabbage, green beans and peanut sauce) and served it with fresh watermelon juice. It takes a lot of patience, good vision and a steady hand to create these pieces, and I was nowhere close to being able to fetch a price for my work! Widya sells his work to shops and galleries around the world. It can take him a week or a month to make a single wall hanging, depending on the intricacy of its design. Like Puspa, he has created a small business at his home to sustain other artists who don’t always get the fame they deserve.

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Volunteer Tourism – “A form of tourism in which travelers participate in voluntary work, typically for a charity: at the core of voluntourism is the desire to help others.” Oxford Dictionary 

Lastly, I spent some time learning about the poverty in Bali’s villages and how it has impacted the children. I met with the staff of Bali Children’s Project (BCP) and learned that many of the families are so poor, that the parents unable to sustain, end up committing suicide. Young kids are left to fend for themselves and end up working on the streets selling cheap souvenirs. I also saw some of their living conditions where a family of 4-5 would sleep in one dingy dark room on a torn mattress with dirty coverings. BCP has enrolled 300 kids to attend school through a sponsorship program, but that is only a fraction of the kids in Bali who need help.

I visited some of the schools where BCP sponsored kids are studying. We spend time doing arts and crafts with third graders. They took to me instantly, calling my name and teaching me words in Balinese. They were eager to show me their work and surrounded me when it came to picture taking time. Despite their circumstances, these kids were very outgoing – smiling, laughing and eager to know me.

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In my short time there, I couldn’t do much except donate some money to purchase beddings and commit to sponsoring two kids till the age of 18. It costs only $40/ month per child, a small sum in comparison to the big difference it can make in the life of a child. By receiving an education, these kids have some chance to break out of the cycle of poverty.

When I think about all the lives that were impacted directly and indirectly because of my 10-day visit to Bali, I am pleased. I feel I was a sustainable traveler, leaving a positive impact on the environment, society and economy.