The first people I encountered immediately upon arrival at Unifier Transformational Healing and Expressive Arts Festival were Soledad Gonzalez and her daughter Coeli Marsh, who fortuitously for me parked right next to me in the off-site grassy field parking lot on Saturday morning of the festival. We instantly became acquainted during our short bus ride to Camp Laurel, the Girl Scout camp in Lebanon, Connecticut where Unifier was held. Soledad, whose name means solitude in Spanish, is a native of Chile, and has been living on and off for many years at Gampo Abbey on Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia, Canada, the western Buddhist monastery and retreat center founded by Chogyam Trungpa and current residence of prolific writer, speaker and western Buddhist nun Pema Chodron. Gonzalez was at one time Chodron’s assistant, then became a nun herself, and after falling in love with a monk decided to take a few years away from the abbey. As I met her, she was preparing to return to continue to study, practice and be the kitchen director, preparing meals for Chodron and the retreat center. While Gonzalez has had many diverse experiences in her life, she had never yet been to a festival like Unifier, nor had her daughter, a seasoned Boston yoga teacher who had been invited to come to the gathering and teach.
As they walked onto the festival grounds, they were at first greeted by mostly young people, which prompted Gonzalez to wonder to her daughter, “I think I’m going to be too old…” Yet that was the only time she mentioned anything of the sort. Marsh had to be back in Boston to teach in the evening, but by the end of their time at Unifier, Gonzalez wished they could stay and wanted to spend the night.
“That says a lot,” remarked Marsh. “My mom has been around, she has hung around a lot of people. It could have been like a middle school experience, like where do we sit for lunch, where do we fit in. Yet everyone was so welcoming. It was a really sweet experience. It felt like people were individuals, and also part of the group. We could just drop in and connect with people.”
Marsh, who along with her own teaching schedule assists Bo Forbes in The New England School of Integrative Yoga Therapeutics Teacher Training Programs, has consciously chosen not to teach at festivals, conferences and more mainstream events so far in her career, preferring to stay more under the radar and be known through her reputation spread by word of mouth by her students. She had an intuition to come to Unifier after speaking to Jason Cohen, founder the festival, and hearing his vision for the gathering. Although the two had never met, she decided that this time, she would come.
“My intention with Unifier is to bring a lot of different circles of people together, to bring down the walls that separate,” Cohen articulates. “To create a space of expansion to turn people on to ideas of ways to relax and be creative and be included, to inspire people to their highest potential, so people can start expanding and connecting, not only with each other but with parts of themselves that they don’t normally get in touch with because we are so busy just trying to survive as a human being. Through building community, not just for the weekend, but as people go back home inspired by this expansion and these connections, to continue to build this community over a long period of years, and to eventually bring people together to build a retreat center that would be owned by the community and governed by a council of people.”
This intention, and the name Unifier, was in part inspired by the words of Ac Tah, known as The Walking Shaman, who visited the The heARTbeat House, the hub of The heARTbeat Collective in the Jamaica Plain area of Boston where Cohen is the director, to build a labyrinth and offer his teachings. Cohen paraphrased, “The power from human beings comes from unifying. You can unify for bad things or for good things. I’m not going to tell you how to unify, or what to do when you unify. But consider how you unify, and how you come together.”
“One Tribe, One Hip, One Mind, One Heart
One Tree, many lines back from the start
One Trunk, many roots, many limbs, many leaves
Share these burdens, these fruits, these seeds
Unify, Unify for what, Unify, we decide. Decide”.
~ lyrics from the unreleased song “Unify” by Jason Cohen & Incus
performed at Unifier, available later this year
Cohen brings over a decade of experience in curating and organizing gatherings that emphasize community building and collective ceremony and ritual – as the director of The heARTbeat Collective and through its projects Forestdance and SWID – Sacred World Interdependence Day, and through his involvement with Envision Festival in Costa Rica, where he created the all night fire circle space and facilitated the all night ritual for the last two years. Forestdances, which have been held in seven US states and six times in Costa Rica, are powerful transformational ritual gatherings of three or four nights of all night fire ceremony from midnight till dawn, that are, in Cohen’s words, “about complete shedding in a safe space to explore a powerful connection to the possibilities of what we are as human beings”. SWID was a gateway experience to ceremonial gathering, perhaps accessible to a greater audience than Forestdance, combining one or two nights of fire ceremony, live music, belly dance performances, fire spinning, vending, children’s activities, and workshops. Unifier is born of Forestdance and SWID, the idea being to have what was SWID evolve into what is Unifier.
This intention is held even in the name ~ Unifier Transformational Healing and Expressive Arts Festival. While many festivals, including transformational festivals, are starting to add healing, visual and expressive arts into the pre-existing music festival culture, Unifier begins in its first year as a balanced combination of a variety of complementary communities, with as much emphasis on workshops, ceremony, visual and performance art as on music. The music itself included a variety of styles beyond the current rotating transformational festival palette AND had some high quality heavy-hitters from the yoga womp and sacred bass worlds too. The wizard behind the Shpongletron, Zebbler of Zebbler Studios, lit up the forest surrounding the mainstage with enchanting visuals while Evan Antal illuminated the acts performing inside, and Matty Green, Logan Cole Will and Ivy Ross of Magnetic Melt Productions manifested their ever-evolving incandescent stage sculpture as the Luna Fire Stage with the help of Brendan Connors on sound. The convergence of these various groups drew a varied, intergenerational, cross-cultural crowd who showed up and fully participated in what was being offered to us at Unifier. We came as we were, and were given the space to discover some of who we can be. Together.
As Marsh observed, “It felt very anonymous. I think this is relevant when you are in groups of people, for people to feel really safe, so if they want to take steps in whatever direction and be whoever they want to be. It’s nice to be able to have choices like that. It was this beautiful combination of being anonymous, and also being accepted. And really seen.”
Something that impressed me about this gathering was the degree of reverence each presenter exhibited in their art; their practices arising from their passion and their teaching flowing from that experiential wisdom. Cohen’s eye for authenticity, expertise and artistic style was evident in the quality of offerings at Unifier, an aesthetic that also reflected the cross-pollination between Unifier and Envision Festival, including one of Envision’s founding producers, Matt Siegel. Tawhida Tanya Evanson’s whirling with Nyaz and Azam Ali, the intimacy of presence of the bellydancer review choreographed by Deb Rubin and including the breathtakingly pregnant Bevin Victoria of Urban Nomad as well as the majestic counterbalance of the highly skilled male dancer Sasha Katarpal-Vasser, the entrancing fire spinning performance of Enchanted, all visual displays of what I experienced in the individual workshops – a natural, deep and intentional love and devotion to their practices that made these presenters and performers seemingly effortless masters of their art. It was truly inspiring to witness, and then to have the opportunity to practice with these down to earth, friendly comfortable teachers in more or less small groups, to get to speak with them and feel their devotion, to receive direct transmission of both their art and their presence.
It was a first year festival; it had its mishaps no doubt. Yet Unifier holds in its subtle essence a simple beauty that is much more difficult to distill than it is to refine through time, practice and an experienced staff the myriad of organizational intricacies that present themselves in an event of this potential size and caliber. As I heard someone suggest, “People with financial backing, business acumen and advertising savvy need to connect with the likes of Jason Cohen. They will help his vision be sustainable, and he will keep integrity.”
“There is an alchemical principle for finding space for subtlety, separating the subtle from the gross. We work so hard to work through our lead and get to a place where we can honor the subtle,” reminds Cohen.
For often the subtle is the most profound.
~ The Experience ~
“Authentic world beat with a full ensemble of percussionists, including Berry’s own family members, made this performance an unexpected highlight of the festival. Incantations to evoke various spirit gods arose from his vocals with the entire crowd following in response for a truly powerful experience in co-creation. The loosely structured compositions incorporated a great deal of improvisation but remained directed in start and finish by Chris Berry’s leadership. The drums had tremendous soul and hips were shaking all around in front of the stage. I hope to see this act at other festivals in the future!” – Frank Heiss
“I had never heard the music of Sorne before, and to say their performance was epic would be an understatement. It was as if the vibrations of a tribal ritual to honor life itself, the good times and the bad, suddenly poured down from the heavens amidst rolling thunder to offer meaning from experience. The drums were pounding and the atmosphere was dramatic without being overly so. For a minute I thought I was watching Iron Maiden after someone had put molly in their beer – it was incredible. Look out for this Austin-based group and catch a show, I’m ready for another.” – Frank Heiss
“Rain Phutureprimitive needs little introduction and the booming system paid off for his set – the sound was really good and the production was flawless as if we expected any less? Hearing his Human Experience remix live was also a treat and, in sonic frequency, he successfully drove home his mantra that music has the power to heal – everybody was dancing with a smile from the moment his beats dropped. Phutureprimitive continues onward and upward.” – Frank Heiss
Many of the presenters at Unifier including Marsh, although seasoned professionals in their own circles, had never offered their teachings in a festival setting before. In Marsh’s case the teaching itself was a transformational experience. She is dyslexic, which can be an interesting challenge as a yoga teacher continuously directing the polarities of left and right. Someone had once suggested she teach in a circle, which she had never done before, but since it seemed people were already forming into a circle, she decided to give it a try. It was beautiful.
“While no class is ever the same,” she expressed, “that class had a very special sense to it. It was an interesting group that converged, many different ages and everyone was in really different places, and I loved how easily everyone came together. I think some people had been up all night, some had had really deep experiences in various circles, and some had just come in with us on the bus. I think yoga helped people integrate together. And I’m sure it’s that way with the music too. Whether you are doing art or movement or music, it is a way for people to connect and find union. We all just dropped in together, so that sense of being alone together really shown through.”
“You know when you water a plant, and it really needs water?,” Marsh described, “And the transformation happens so fast? It seems like this is what bodies do. Whenever I see crocuses in the spring, I always feel like it’s a little miracle that they came up, and I feel this way whenever I see that effect in the yoga room, when people go from wilted to turgid. No matter how many times a day or in this life I’ve done it, it’s always so amazing when you see it.”
Jamie Janover – Unified Field Theory
“For once, it was not a musical act that sparked the most interest for me at a festival. It was Jamie Janover’s aptly titled discussion, ‘Unified Field Theory’. Not only was I excited to actually attend a scholarly lecture with subject matter that touched on realms such as quantum physics, cosmology and sacred geometry, but I could not wait to spend over an hour with Janover. I look up to the leaders in our community like Janover, who have managed to sustain their lives doing what they love in the name of something they believe in.
It would be the only event of the weekend that I would attend at Chapel Point, home to one of the most gorgeous views I’ve ever seen on this coast. Jamie walked around a dormant fire pit and spoke with the lake, clouds and sun shining behind him, as we sat on wooden benches arranged in a half circle. He wore a shirt with the metatron cube image printed across the front and an impressive 3d-printed gold necklace of a sixty-four tetrahedron grid, or as he described it, “Two octaves of perfect geometry. Infinite Energy. Fewest number you need to see infinity.”
It is hard for me to attempt to regurgitate the spectrum of information he was able to describe so elegantly during this talk. From the minute (“You could take the DNA of your body and put it end to end and go from the sun to pluto to the sun to pluto to the sun to pluto to the sun… Flower of life is female. Tetrahedron is male.”), to the immensely macro (“Basically the galaxy is of space time dynamic… Stars have a life cycle just like people.”) I was excited as he urged us to push the boundaries of our own humanity, saying that ‘You can change the way your genetic structure works with your consciousness.” He delved deep into research of Nassim Haramein and his version of Unified Field Theory, which describes a specific geometric array that he found to be fundamental to creation. Janover works with Haramein on his non-profit which looks to put theory into action, The Resonance Project, and Jamie actually operates its Facebook page. Listening to Jamie describe the information and history behind the innovations in thought today was inspiring, “At least I am an infinite being in an infinite universe. I don’t just have to have faith, I have physical proof. I want to be a new age hippy guy AND I want the facts.” It was like music to my ears, very much so how I have been feeling.
It was really cool to listen to him describe what he called “the pan hippy west coast tribal graduation” when he and many of the community’s leaders held ceremony at the Pyramids of Giza. Apparently the Egyptian authorities wouldn’t let them do it on 12.21.12. so they had to settle for 12.22.12., and that was after a $2500 an hour bribe. Then after talking about all the amazing events and festivals he has been a part of out West and around the world, it was really great to hear him speak with genuine excitement about Unifier Festival, ‘When I saw that this event was in Connecticut, I was like, “What?! Sick!.” “This is my woods here, my home turf and this is one of the better festival sites I’ve ever been to.” He encouraged us to continue to gather in this way and to support these events and the forming of “the neosphere,” where we are all collectively pointing out intentions in the way that we want to go. “We’re about to transform our society, because it’s the artists, the musicians and the people who throw festivals in the middle of the woods, those are the people who are gonna save the day. Artists know how to collaborate.”
The talk ran a little longer than scheduled, and after we all chatted with and thanked Jamie – I felt mentally and emotionally revived. I could use a pep talk like that at every event, luckily more and more our culture’s festivals are including just that. – Ranchsauce
Deb Rubin of San Francisco has been sharing her teachings on the festival circuit for awhile, including Envision, Sonic Bloom, Symbiosis, Beloved and Earthdance, has offered a yoga and belly dance collaboration with Shiva Rea at Yoga Journal Conferences and teaches all over the globe in the professional dance world. Her workshop Artistry in Motion: Cultivating Performance Quality and Dynamic Dancing was on the surface a class to build confidence and effectiveness as a performer, yet in experience was also a group exercise in grounded, sustained interpersonal intimacy, applicable in every encounter we find ourselves. We practiced holding our gaze and our presence – with our bodies and our eyes – as we projected movement, and this presence, outward toward an imagined crowd, toward Deb and toward each other, and then back into ourselves, the push-pull expansion contraction of the breath, of the tides, of connecting to each other and staying centered in ourselves. This tension of all polar opposites finding counterbalance by encompassing both extremes.
After standing in two lines facing each other, holding eye contact with the person in front of us – feeling the back and forth of me, then you, then me, then you and then those moment of stillness, of both, of us – Deb said, “This is the yoga of dance.” My eye partner and I said simultaneously, “It is tantra,” and then made eye contact again. The tantra, the ability to be centered in ourselves and intentionally and respectfully interconnect with each other. The experience of the trika philosophy of Kashmir Shaivism, of bheda-abedha – awareness of unity consciousness even in the experience of duality. All of us parts of the same whole. When we recognize and truly tap into this, it is not so scary to look each other in the eye. Deb teaches dance in the manner of the sahaja – the purely spontaneous being who has trained her body and her mind in attention and in her art, and then can step out of the way and allow the flow to move through her. And right through us.
Starhawk Permaculture Spiral Garden Workshop
& Nature Dreamweaver’s Nest
The workshops at Unifier were in two tiers; some were included in the price of a ticket and some were an extra fee. One that was extra that looked enticing was a two day permaculture workshop with the legendary Starhawk who wrote the iconic The Spiral Dance: A Rebirth of the Ancient Religion of the Great Goddess and is a renowned leader of ritual for decades as well as a prominent voice for earth-based spirituality. I had not paid for the workshop yet. I wanted to just walk by and witness what was happening and from what I could tell anyone could join in. People were pouring wood chips, stamping down twigs and covering them with fresh dirt in two beautiful spiral gardens bordered by stones. They were planted with donated herbs as a way of taking the idea of leave no trace a step farther by leaving a legacy on the land that would live on beyond the time of the festival itself. Nature Dreamweaver (Nate Hogen), the artist behind so many incredible natural art installation sanctuaries across not only the transformational scene but the art world as well, was present and building one of his human sized nests as a part of the garden. Everyone worked together cooperatively like the spokes of a wheel, and the garden nest gradually manifested seemingly right out the earth in front of us. It wasn’t so much that we built it, it seemed more like we just helped it become.
AcroYoga with Brian Lam & Izzy VanHall
As I like to teach partner and group yoga classes at festivals, I knew I wanted to attend Brian Lam’s AcroYoga class to experience what he would do with the crowd. I was pleased to see Izzy VanHall arrive with him to help teach. I have taken several classes with her in Boston and love her playful, easy teaching style and comfortable expertise. She makes things look accessible, and she and Brain together teach them in a way that they become so, especially with the Unifier crowd, many of whom had prior experience with AcroYoga. There was one mishap in the beginning where someone fell and upset themselves, although I don’t think was really hurt. This is a big concern for me in sharing yoga, especially acrobatic yoga, in a festival setting. People are in all kinds of states – of health, of ability, of consciousness – that I often err on the side of caution. Izzy and Brian dealt with it calmly and kept going, breaking down the steps of each posture methodically and recommending that people to go slowly to keep anything else from going awry.
They taught some more difficult postures to those of us who hung out for the full session, which was about 2 ½ hours! I learned a lot from practicing with them and watching them teach, for their method as well as my own confidence. And as always it was ridiculously fun. I loved that SriKalogy was playing during the bulk our session, bookended by The Mast and DJ Mantra on the Luna Fire Stage. However Izzy, who travels the world to teach AcroYoga as well as locally in Boston, found it difficult to be heard, which is a valid point. Especially because she was losing her voice by the end of our session from trying to project over the music. At most of the festivals where I have taught we are in range of the music, so I work with it, and yet as she said, it can be helpful to place the yoga away from the sound. Or at least, it creates a different atmosphere. At some events we have purposely placed the yoga near the stage to visually draw people and keep the yoga and the music inclusive. It all depends on what you are going for, both ways have their merits.
Bisko & Kidimandi
Kabisko (Bisko) Kaba taught a powerful and animated dance class accompanied by the drumming troupe Kidimandi that was fascinating to watch and invigorating to practice with, although by this point I needed some down time and mostly watched. Many people joined in, creating an infectious spectacle spreading across the Luna Fire common that had everyone smiling and grooving even if they were doing their own dance. Bisko taught with a fast paced exuberance that convinced his student dancers they could do it too, and they did, flush faced and joyous, as drummers and dancers moved together, carried by the ancient beat passed down from dancers and drummers through time, many parts of the same whole.
Along the path in the woods between the stages one of the girl scout camping cabins was transformed into the mythical Sound Sanctuary. I kept hearing about it, everyone wanted to get in, but you had to time it just right, as each healing was of limited capacity and they only allowed people to join at the beginning. Organized by Kelli Joy Kirk and Jeff Nickell of Hartford CT, the Sound Sanctuary offered sound healings in the form of gong concerts, water ceremonies – water being the most efficient conduit for sound and energy, crystal bowls, drumming, and crystal pyramids hanging on strings that spun when chimed, creating a vortex of sound and energy. Out front with a massage table under an easy-up Aaron Weston and Melina Mon offered bodywork and energy healing to those who didn’t “make it into the cabin” and to “reground people who were coming out,” said Weston with a knowing smile. Over the course of the festival Weston offered at least 20 sessions, which he was able to sustain with a sense of ease, as he explained, “I know how to not exert all of my energy, and I also know how to not take on other people’s energy, so I don’t feel energized either.”
I kept trying to get into the sound healings but my timing was never quite right. Yet as I stopped by just before sunset on my way to the cacao ceremony on the main field, I was right on time to have Weston help being me back into balance in the space between the activity of the day and the night moving toward us.
Aaron combines a variety of modalities, including yoga, qi gong, tai chi, massage, sound and energy work including reiki into that he calls Sacred Rhythms Healing – “I believe in an energy system that has sort of a PH, where we can find a homeostasis, so I’m helping bring people back into harmony when they are out of balance.”
He also led a couple Shamanic journeys in the cabin, the first one so popular he offered a second. While both were potent, in the second he had some people that he sensed were not in the “clearest state of mind, so I had to shift the energy because it is dangerous to enter your subconscious in an altered state of mind. I kept it friendly and fun, and I had feedback form the other participants that they had profound experiences, which I was glad. Shamanic journeying can be pretty open ended, but with “alchemical” journeys we have to have specific intention and do specific things. It made me decide not to offer more journeys on the later days of the festival as more people in that mindset were showing up. This is my first festival, I’m not used to this kind of lifestyle. Seeing as there was no alcohol permitted, the energy was amazing. I went to another festival two weeks later where there was alcohol allowed and the energy was totally different. I offered tai chi there, tai chi isn’t going to hurt anybody,” he smiled again.
Wise words for us in Transformational culture to contemplate ~ the nuances of timing and place in ceremony.
Incus & The Cacao Ceremony under the Big Tree with Moses of Heartblood Cacao
I arrived at the Big Tree on the Unifier Field as Incus was beginning their set. The sun was going down, and the cacao ceremony was underway – an auspicious convergence of sound, ceremony and nature that held the essence of the intention of Unifier. Moses was teaching the large group about cacao as others were brewing a second batch of the traditional drink of pure ground cacao and water, for so many had come to the ceremony that there was not enough cacao to go around. People who had received the first round contributed some of their drink into communal cups as we awaited the next serving, sharing so that everyone could partake. The cups were individually peppered with cayenne to help with assimilation, spiced with cinnamon and sweetened with agave or honey to taste. As the second wave arrived and Incus was singing “Unify,” Moses led a meditation to bring us all together, suggesting to “feel a smile in your heart” as the warmth of the cacao began to permeate us. So we did. And the smile was spreading.
“Cacao is an enhancer that can add to any setting, ceremonial or otherwise,” says Moses. “In the festival setting, I think it offers the opportunity for a group of people who may not know each other to open their hearts to each other more than they might otherwise. It can help people experience more closeness and connection, which can be powerful in a large group.”
As in all collective ritual, there is the group experience, and also the internal.
“Cacao creates a spaciousness around experience, it has this gentle way of helping us get perspective on ourselves,” elucidates Moses. “It helps us see our feelings and thoughts with less of a sense of being tied to them. We can then simply experience them without getting lost in them. It’s like being able to re-evaluate a thought or feeling without the long history of associations and conclusions we have, so that there is room for growth and new perspective. The more spaciousness, the more there is a sense of flowing with life, instead of against it. Cacao is like other practices in this regard, with the main difference being that it comes easily with the plant’s assistance, particularly for folks who are new to this kind of thing.”
And so the day, and we, softened into the night.
“Quite possibly the most moving and electrifying set of Unifier was electro-acoustic Middle Eastern band, Niyaz. Before I even glanced at the stage and the band, I was moved by the beautiful and fresh sounds emanating from it. Both modern in the way it bumped, with subtle electronic production, and antiquated by means of the sounds coming from the tabla, kanun, kaval, oud and electric oud. If you do not know what these instruments are, I encourage you to look them up on Youtube. The band’s set was filled with a variety of sounds inspired by the traditional music of Turkey, Pakistan, India, Kurdistan, Afghanistan, Palestine, Arabian Gulf and in particular, the folk and sufi music from Iran.
Azam Ali, group founder/composer and the voice behind Niyaz, is like a character in a movie who has is actually immortal and has lived for thousands of years only to sing for us on the Unifier stage. Her garb, presence, and musicality made it easy to believe this to be true. Her husband, Loga Ramin Torkian, was mesmerizing to watch play the electric oud, much like a cellist would. The crowd cheered loudest when Tawhida Tanya Evanson, dressed in traditional sufi clothing, danced ecstatically in the style of the whirling dervishes. It was one of those moments when you see another person doing something with such grace and skill that you know you could not possibly imagine doing yourself.
If you look Niyaz up online, you will find that they have fans in countries all across the globe, and are able to ignite the curiosity and craving of people in a way that is distinctively human. It is not everyday that we have the opportunity to experience such authentically exotic sounds in Western society, especially in a festival setting. It was like raging at a chamber music concert at the Museum of Fine Arts, and how refreshing and exciting it was!”– Ranchsauce
“I am always so excited to get a chance to chat for a few minutes with Ott. He was in good spirits as he watched Janover’s set and prepared his set up atop the really cool handmade table the festival had been constructing that day. If you ever get a chance, ask him about his daughter Daisy and how far along she is in her modular synthesis studies.
This was in many ways the high point of the festival. The headliner had moved onto the stage, everyone had just had the most delicious and communal dinner at the Unifier Cafe, and the main stage sounded top notch. I charged my battery at the media station at the top of the hill as cheers rose up and Ott.’s familiar voice said, ‘I’m gonna start with a nine hour medley of Leonard Cohen songs.’ What we got was a raucous and lengthy set which seemed to include every song he’s ever produced, most notably ‘Billy the Kid Strikes Back’,’Squirrel and Biscuits’, and ‘Rouge Bagel.’” I even decided to hop up there with him and hit the crowd – Ranchsauce
Halfway through Ott.’s set laden with dancers from the audience holding the stage alongside the man himself, just after that glorious moment when Ranch and Matt Carey flanked the stage with their superflyhomeboydancesquad collaboration, my fatigue started to set in.
I wandered up to the crest of the hill where there was a small “media lounge” geodesic dome set up with two mattress, crawled onto one and covered myself with my myriad of scarves and curled into my own internal warmth to brave the deepening cold. I slipped into the liminal space between wake and sleep and floated here in a lucid dreamscape through Kaminanda’s gorgeous set, bathed by the sound and the light from Zebbler’s mind blowing video mapped treescape canvas light show.
Unifier Festival tree mapping by Zebbler Studios from Zebbler Studios on Vimeo.
As Eartha Harris as began her set, the sun was just beginning to steep through the canopy above the stage and dapple early morning sunlight across the backs of my eyelids. Her words were the narration of my dream, like a yoga nidra, where the body and mind are at rest, almost like sleep, and yet conscious. In this open state her words bypassed the filters of my critical mind and became me, although I no longer remember exactly what she said, something to the tune of “I am the star and so are you,” quoting Rob Brezsney…
The sounds of flutes interlacing with the cacophony of birdsong celebrating the ecstasy of the coming dawn waved through me and began to pull me from the dreaminess of my slumber toward resonant awakeness. I laid in this place for awhile, basking in the sound and my own aliveness pulsing through my body, rejuvenating me in a way pure sleep alone can rarely access.
The Human Experience
From the depths of my waking dreamstate, as the first notes of the collaborative track “Swoon” from The Human Experience and Rising Appalachia reached the incus bone of my middle ear, the vibrations David Block was sending from the stage translated into pure sound bliss in my being. I love love love this song, in its every incarnation.
~ I don’t know what it is about me, I just know that I love this sound ~
I leaped from the mattress right onto my feet and dance/roll/poured down the hill past my core LostinSound and Magnetic Melt crew who were still up and holding things down and was joined by Olivier Berthelot of Tribe Culture Magazine and the lovely Plum goddess for euphoric freeform spontaneous danceyoga that brought me back to center and set me up for the day that was becoming. Someone even spoonfed mango to me as I rested at the end in savasana, completely satiated.
~ Once you come around my kitchen baby, Ain’t nothing going to be the same ~
Sunrise is often my favorite time at these gatherings. No matter how tired I was just before the dawn, my thousandth wind of prana/chi/lifeforce gathers me in its wave and carries me. I become as joyous and vibrant as the birds heralding the coming of the new day. Sunday morning rapture, this time The Human Experience-style. Recharged and grateful I headed to the yoga tent to practice with Daniel Max of JP Yoga… And from there the day unfolded…
Daniel Max’s efficient precise alignment cues and clean organized sequencing calmed and steadied my mind, and his choices of deep hip opening postures were the perfect antidote for the long night of dancing and sleeping huddled into myself on the mattress on the ground – and of course, yesterday’s yoga. Daniel is the owner of JP Yoga and as a veteran of Burning Man’s past has experience in both the yoga and festival culture. Coming into Unifier he wasn’t sure what he would do with the class, not knowing what the crowd would be like. He quickly recognized that these early morning attendees were already familiar with yoga and could go right into the practice. Some of that was that early morning yoga potentially draws a more dedicated crowd, and some of that was Unifier. Many people, like myself, came for the workshops as much as the music, and that created a slightly more seasoned and intentional vibe to the classes.
As we neared savasana, the rest of the festival was just beginning to awaken. While we drifted between wake and sleep, and as those just waking up were meeting us here in the liminal space coming from the other direction, a magical sound permeated the Luna Fire common. It sounded to me like it was being channelled from another world. Daniel lay us to rest and quietly requested that Su Eaton of Sunsu Creations upcycled eco-clothing, who was singing from her booth across the common, join us and bathe us in her song. The volume deepened as she came closer, the words incomprehensible to me at that time, like an etheric undulation sung in the universal language of the fey, sounds that bypassed my ability to translate into words to soak right into my being. Only speaking to Su later did I realize she was singing a Rumi poem in English. By the time we sat up from savasana – the first of many short savasana naps I took that day – she was gone. It was almost as if we had all simultaneously dreamed her.
Cacao at Chapel Point
Refreshed, my intention was then to head down the wooded path to Tawhida Tanya Evanson’s Whirling Workshop, a plan I had set before arriving at the festival which was cemented by watching her performance with Nyaz the night before. Still, there are the plans we make and then what comes up along the path. In this case it was Moses of Heartblood Cacao carrying a pot of elixir for another more personal and in depth cacao ceremony. I stepped in with him and followed him out to Chapel Point, where I took a luxurious swim in the remarkably warm-for-early-June water as people began to gather for the ceremony. We drank the cacao together and then sat in eye-to-eye communion taking turns telling each other first – “If I show you my love…” and then stream of consciousness what came up, and then – “If I show you my fear…, and then discussed our experiences with each. We were all wide open and receptive. As Moses had suggested the night before, cacao brings the sensation of a smile to the heart, which for me helps facilitate a comfortable intimacy. We smiled into this space together.
It was a hard call, should I stay or should I go, yet I wanted to experience the whirling too. So I left before the ceremony was over, which is a choice you often face at a festival like this with so many amazing offerings happening simultaneously. I participated in various workshops, and because of my curiosity, I did a lot of partial workshops. A festival can be a sampler platter, introducing many possibilities to delve into at a later time. Yet by tasting so many in such a short time, you sometimes miss some of the depths of each individual one…
Tawhida Tanya Evanson:
Under the Influence – A Whirling Workshop
In this case I am grateful to have experienced some of both. As I stood at the threshold, in the doorway between the greater festival bumping outside and the indoor wood floor serene art gallery where the whirling workshop was held, filled with the visionary art of the likes of Martin Bridge and Autumn Skye, I was drawn into a room full of spinners learning the practice of “sema,” the dance of the whirling dirvish, a practice Tawhida says is “best explored in an experiential context rather than an intellectual one.”
To try and inspire it in words, she describes it well on her website: “Sema is an active meditation, a prayer during which a dervish’s body can open to channel divine invisible energy. ‘Dervish’ literally means ‘doorway’ and is thought to be an entrance from the material world to the spiritual world. In order to open, the dervish attempts to be empty of ego or sense of self. Whirling in place with one symbolic palm extended upward to receive and one extended downward to give, the dervish does not attempt to hold onto energy but to be a vessel for it to pass into the hearts of others. Sema is an open secret – the Whirling Dervish tries to get out of the way to reveal it, but as in any type of meditation, it is a struggle.”
She offered an introduction to the Turkish Sufi Mevlevi whirling ritual originating with the Persian mystic philosopher and poet Mevlana Jalal ad-Din Rumi (1207-1273), who is said to have begun “whirling out of ecstasy after his beloved and teacher Shams disappeared”. Tawhida’s focus and reverence in performance translated into an engaging, relaxed teaching style that felt more like sharing than instruction, interspersing experiential practice with stories and bibliomancy from “The Essential Rumi” translated by Coleman Barks – opening the book at random and reading whatever poem was on the page. This book is one of my favorites for divinine inspiration too.
At the end someone asked her how she started whirling, and she answered, “I met a whirling dervish who left me, so I had to become one myself.” As she explained to me, “It is the same story as that of Rumi and Shams, played out in another time and place.”
To each of us who dances with her, she passes this lineage on.
I caught the end of Daniel Orlansky’s yoga class, a taste of the sampler that I will definitely want to try again. He integrates slow flow vinyasa with chi gung, kundalini yoga and meditation into a practice that activates, channels and balances, to, in his words, “melt tension and remove blocks in the mind/body, so we can become whole. Then we ‘flow’ and the life energy of Prana flows through us.” Which is a pretty adequate description of how I felt after the brief part of his class that I experienced. I then dropped into a rejuvenating savasana that helped integrate the energy we stirred up in the kundalini practices. Although I had not slept much and been going for two full days of workshops and music, I felt grounded, aware, energized, and ready for what was next.
This turned out to be even more potent than I was expecting. I had heard that the sweat lodges were powerful from people who had gone to the two smaller intimate gatherings on previous nights. As I ascended to the top of the hill, the yard around the lodge was already filled with people – word had gotten out and this was the final lodge. There was somewhere around 50 people in the large lodge, in three rows around the center pit of stones, and we had to turn some people away. It was at times overwhelming and continuously amazing. And so very very hot. All of our bodies and spirits that had been taking in all the energies of the festival for several days now converged here in the dark of the womb of the lodge. We became one in song through the sound vibrations that attune us to each other and allow the heat to pass right through our bodies more easily. We toned in tune with songs to the creator that the lodge elders sang, and songs of many traditions we spontaneously sang out between rounds.
As we left the lodge, we sat in a circle and prayed into the pipe as the leader of the lodge and a younger male family member smoked it for us, sending our prayers through the smoke to the creator. It was beautiful to witness this layer of initiation of the younger man as he was given this honor from his elder. Then we all hugged each other in a receiving line style circle, blending our sweat and our selves once more and sealing the ceremony in each of us.
Bajrang Tea House
By this time I had hit my saturation point. I meandered to the kitchen to eat and caught some of the music on the main stage, but I really needed to lie down and let it all soak in. I found my way back up to the magnificent Magnetic Melt Luna Fire Stage as she was awakening into her full luminous chakra glory while the sun went down, and melted myself into the cushioned parlor of the Bajrang Tea House. My cup was continuously filled as Adam Barnard and Michael Crigler and the others pouring for them attentively served tulsi (sacred basil), mint, ginger, nettle and mineral blend (nettles, oat tops, red clover, horsetail, parsley, alfalfa, oatstraw and rose hips) teas to the steady stream of people who poured in and out of the teahouse.
Adam and Michael kept the whole festival level throughout the weekend with the organic blends that they grow themselves, ethically wildcraft or fairly source. They are hoping to buy more land to be able to grow more of their own herbs and continue to grow Bajrang Tea. Having them there was such a blessing, over and over again.
Luna Fire Stage Allstar Review & Campfire Jam
Although for the most part I missed the Sunday evening acts on the main stage, I was able to experience the exquisite All-Star performance on the Luna Stage with Peia Luzzi of Peia, Deepak Ramapriyan and Brandon Fox from Deepak and the Breath of Life Tribe, Morgan Sorne, Bright Hawk and Jason Cohen himself, which felt like they were playing right to us in the teahouse. They then shifted to a collaborative open jam around the campfire joined by the whole community, the sounds of which were my lullaby as I released myself into deep sleep, a final savasana to begin to integrate all that I had experienced on these amazingly full and fertile days.
While I love to sleep to the sounds of drums and singing and effulgent joy from those gathered around the campfire, not everyone in the town of Lebanon was so pleased. On Sunday night after the organizers went to bed and there was no one around to regulate, the sound escalated long past midnight once again. Noise complaints from every night of the festival jeopardize the ability of Unifier to return to Camp Laurel next year. Sleep deprived residents who aren’t used to all of our drums and bass clamored to the local authorities and on Facebook, one person claiming, “You ruined my entire life. For the weekend.” Which, when sleep depraved, may have been true.
For Cohen, a visionary, artist and curator at heart, all this organization is a lot to orchestrate. Yet he is learning the steps of the dance as he goes and adapting along the way while doing it with respect. He was slated to hold a Forestdance at this site later this year, but plans to forgo that and hold Forestdance in another location in hopes of being able to work with the town to offer another Unifier on this land.
“I’ve learned the importance of no-matter-what knocking on every single door, everywhere, up and down every street, of putting the flyers in all the mailboxes” says Cohen. “We invited everybody who had an issue before we got there to come and check it out, to see that were really not trying to disturb the people, we’re trying to do really good work. So we’re still in the process of working with the town of Lebanon and working with people. Unfortunately the abutters are not making money, but we did bring $35,000 into local Lebanon businesses, we supported local as much as we could. It could be good for everybody, certainly the local farmers. That’s our intention, and to bring art and culture and beauty to the people there too.”
Wherever he ends up, I look forward to experiencing how Cohen’s vision continues to manifest.
For Unifier saved my entire life. For the weekend. And the seeds that were planted here continue to grow.