Portugal Spirit Festival: Love, healing, connection – On the unifying effect of yoga, deep breathing and tears

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The Portugal Spirit Festival that took place in mid-September in Cascais near Lisbon, was the first European edition of the well-established Bali Spirit Festival, which is attracting fans of yoga, dance and music with a spiritual approach from all over the world since 2008 already. And now Portugal. I had the chance to be invited as a blogger and participant and am truly happy and grateful for this wonderful experience.

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The PSF Team with „birthday girl“ Filipa Veiga

The festival was a beautiful „safe space“, in which everybody was allowed to be themselves and in which no sharing was too personal. It was not only about the great classes, but also a lot about interaction, the shared experience and community. Really: I’ve rarely seen so many happy, „heartopen“ and inspiring people in one place!

The effort and love the organisers put into it were palpable in every detail, the teachers were highly professional and very devoted, just as were the participants, a very international crowd. I met people from Portugal, Spain, France, the UK, the US, Canada, Brasil, Norway, Sweden, the Netherlands, Israel, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Australia, Bermudas, Malaysia, Indonesia and of course from Bali.

The festival venue was the Casa de Santa Maria, a gorgeous 19th century villa located right across the city’s marina. The music stages were set up in the adjacent Parque. A spectacular scenery, which made it all even more special.

Casa de Santa Maria, Cascais
Stairway at the Casa
Dreamcatcher at the Casa garden

In two days I managed to attend ten classes of which some really blew my mind, inspired me and left a lasting impression on me. I also cried on both days of the festival, each time completely unexpectedly. You might be familiar with this: When tears are just breaking their way while you have no idea where they came from in that specific moment. Tears that feel so wholesome and relieving. No wonder I felt so nourished, grounded and revitalized when I got back home to Berlin. Despite my sore muscles …

Follow your heart

For me the festival started with the VIP opening party on Friday night, where I met Filipa Veiga, probably Portugal’s most famous yoga blogger and teacher, who moved to Bali with her two young daughters and is one of the driving forces behind the Bali Spirit Festival as well as behind its first European edition, the Portugal Spirit Festival. Filipa is an impressive little bundle of energy, who radiates a lot of grace but also a gentle power, sovereignty and love. Unfortunately I could not attend her Morning Astanga Flow at the Sky Room the next day, because my whole body and soul were yearning to start the day with a class in the open air.

So I went to the River Porch stage instead to join the „Mandala Vinyasa Class“ with Jessica Winderl. Yes, such are the pitfalls of a festival: There are always at least two classes happening at the same time while you can only be in one place at a time … But yoga and mindfulness is also about self-care. And to take care of yourself, it is always good to listen to your guts and to do what your soul is longing for. Even in the most trivial details.

„Yoga is all about the process, not the progress.“ – Jessica Winderl

Jessica is originally from the US, but has moved to Norway a while ago. She teaches yoga all over the world and runs Norway’s first yoga and meditation podcast „One sacred pause“.

Jessica Winderl and Marthe Wiik from Norway

Before we started, we sat on the border of the terrace, facing the water, closed our eyes, listened to the waves sloshing against the shore and enjoyed some deep breaths and the sun on our skin for a few moments. It was then that I knew that this was the right spot for me to be in that moment.

The class was the perfect start for the day: Fluid and dynamic, challenging but never too much, and aiming to harmonise all the different polarities we carry within us.

„No mud, no lotus. The lotus’ symbolism reminds us that even when things are difficult and life gets tough, there is always space for beauty.“ – Jessica Winderl 

Mandala Vinyasa with Jessica Winderl

Balance is everything

The balance of the polarities was by the way a recurring topic throughout the festival …  Especially in the kundalini classes.

”Kundalini yoga is all about assuming and balancing your polarities.“ – Hari Rai Singh

Kundalini yoga is a form of yoga which is still pretty new to me. As the name says, kundalini yoga is all about the kundalini – „a dormant cosmic energy in our spine“ – and about its ascent through the chakras up to the highest chakra, the crown chakra, through which enlightenment can be attained.

„Kundalini is a dormant energy in our spine which we awake to consciousness and awareness through Kundalini yoga.“ – Hari Rai Singh

Now I am not primarily on a quest for enlightenment, but I am curious about this spiritual approach, which only plays a minor role in the Bikram and Vinyasa classes I usually go to. So I attended both kundalini classes on offer at the festival: The first was a class by Hari Rai Singh, a very sympathetic young teacher from nearby Sintra. He wore a white turban and emanated a peaceful and gentle but also canny energy, and was spreading very sweet vibrations into the room.

Hari Rai Singh

The other one was with Surpreet Adi Kaur, a very charismatic French woman, who is constantly travelling the world as a yoga teacher with a penchant for Guatemala, but who was also at the festival to document it on film.

Surpreet Adi Kaur

Kundalini yoga is amongst others characterised by the chanting of mantras, meaning the singing of old holy Sanskrit verses. While the actual meaning of the mantra is less important here, it is more about shutting your mind down for a while and about creating vibrations. Our body is made of more than 70% water, which of course begins to vibrate when we sing. Also, we stimulate the vagus nerve through certain positions of the tongue.

At the beginning of a kundalini class, you usually sing the mantra „Ong namo guru dev namo“ which can be translated as „I bow to the All-That-Is. I bow to the Divine Wisdom within myself.“ Each class ends with singing „Sat Nam“, meaning „truth is my identity“.

Both classes were to some extent sweaty and challenging, but also very grounding, due to the chanting, the concentration on your own breath and the practice with closed eyes. This too, makes kundalini yoga different from other styles: While practicing the Bikram series you have to keep your eyes open at all times in order to stay focussed and everybody in the room tries to move at the same rhythm. With kundalini yoga you can close your eyes as much as you want, in order to „stay focussed on yourself, and thus to connect yourself with the earth and the sky and to awaken your kundalini.“ This awakening of the kundalini can be supported by the practice of „mula bandha“, where you squeeze all the muscles around your perineum, your sexual organs and your navel. This way, you try to pull your prana (life force) up through the chakras and to open our sushumna for the kundalini to flow through.

The style of Hari Rai can be described as energetic and fun-driven. I left the room 90 minutes later with a huge smile on my face and the wonderful feeling of being completely connected with my center.

What I liked a lot in Supreet Adi Kaur’s style of teaching was that she explained the historic and symbolic background of kundalini yoga (it was once the yoga of the high priest kaste) before beginning with the asanas. I also liked her wise comments, masked as instructions, which helped me understand the real meaning of the poses even better.

„If you feel a limitation: observe and go beyond, but be present. Tune into your body and be gentle with it.“ – Surpreet Adi Kaur

When for example you don’t manage to do a pose right away, it helps to visualise yourself in that position, instead of complaining and worrying because you’re not there yet. Through visualising and believing in it, you will manage some day. Wherever your mind goes, your body follows …

„We are all students. But we are all masters already.“ – Surpreet Adi Kaur

This way, yoga can help to make life easier. It can for example help us to deal with stress and unpleasant situations:

„Sometimes, life puts us into strange positions. Yoga teaches us that we can learn to relax into them.“ – Surpreet Adi Kaur

And so, Surpreet’s class was far more than „just another yoga class“, but a lesson for life, which transmitted a beautiful spiritual earnestness as well as a vitalising lust for life.

„Dance for yourself, dance for your spine, dance for your kundalini!“   – Surpreet Adi Kaur

Good vibes only

Another very vibrant „class“ I took was the „Gong Bath“ with Sofia – which is literally a bath in the sound of gongs. The room was crowded with people, closely lying down on the floor with closed eyes, while Sofia – a beautiful tall woman with short hair, big earrings and a turban and a wise, calm and powerful aura – was playing her gongs and other percussion instruments like a goddess.

Sofia on the gongs

Kula, her partner, sang along to accompany her music. Behind my closed eyes I could see fluid round circles in black and beige forming and decomposing continuously and I felt the sound of the gong vibrating through my whole body. It was a mind-blowing journey through music, space and time, during which I wasn’t even totally aware of how spaced out I was! I only realised it after class, when I was temporarily not able to lead a decent conversation.

Sofia and Kula

As Sofia stressed, the effect of a gong bath can sometimes be felt quite a while after the experience. It is thus very important to listen carefully to your body, to observe what you need, to be very gentle with yourself and to drink a lot of water.

After I had my share of water and organic pink beetroot lemonade I ventured to the park to join the „Taketina“ with Kula, Sofia’s partner. A Taketina is a form of dance or dynamic meditation in which you sing, clap and stomp, and all in different layers of rhythm.

„I experienced a very joyful being in the now. I felt completely in my body, completely in the now.“ – Participant

Sooner or later you will probably lose track and mix everything up. Don’t be frustrated if this happens! This effect is intended, as the whole process is actually all about bringing yourself into the now through music and action. To switch off the brain for once and create a „creative vacuum of thoughts“. A vacuum which is, however, not empty at all, but contains everything. We definitely had a lot of fun and came out of the head into our bodies. 

Taketina with Kula
Taketina in the garden

Coming together as sisters

If you wonder, which classes made me cry, you don’t have to wait any longer. Here they come: The first was scheduled under the title „Self-care for women“ by Emily Kuser, a really beautiful luminous woman, who radiates an incredible embodied self-confidence, a natural sexiness and a cheeky humour.

Self-care for women with Emily Kuser

After realizing some years ago, that the whole issue of femininity was far too important for her not to be taken it into account in her teachings – from yoga to meditation, to tantra – she now puts a great focus on it in all aspects of her work. Too often, teachers and yogis alike – male and female – ignore the fact that women have a womb, breasts and a vagina, that women menstruate and have a cycle in which they go through different stages with different energy levels and different needs. It is Emily’s personal concern to help women heal, to empower them and support the creation of a sisterly solidarity, stronger than the catfights and competition so often promoted by the media and society.  

„I want us all to trust ourselves more!“

– Emily Kuser

Her class was very hands-on with practical exercises for three important areas of femininity (and humanity?): spirituality, sexuality and psychology.
The spiritual exercise was a flowing dynamic meditation including three mudras, during which I felt that the room was already charging up with more female energy. I experienced the practice as very powerful and grounding, and I believe, that most of my fellow sisters in the room felt more or less the same.

For the following breath exercise (sexual realm) we lay on the ground, placed one hand on the heart and one on our lower belly and breathed deep into the womb space.

Self-care for women

This exercise provoked very different reactions: One participant shared that she had never before felt so connected to her inner femininity, her body, her womb area and was noticeably grateful, while another woman admitted that she had experienced great difficulties to connect with her inner femininity which she usually represses – not only in the exercise but more generally in life – and then burst into tears.

And that’s exactly what happened to me only shortly after, during the third exercise called „the three ages“, which is for the psychological. In this exercise you connect with your own self in different phases of your life. The first three minutes you talk to yourself as a newborn baby, while holding your arms in front of your body as if you were really cradling a baby in your arms. The next three minutes you talk to your teenager self and the last three minutes to the self that you are now. In this practice – a practice of self-love –  it is important to speak everything out loud, as this is more powerful than just thinking to yourself.

The tears came in the very first second and only seized when the class was over. But I didn’t feel exposed or vulnerable: I felt good and safe, as the whole room was weeping. It was impressively emotional!

„Crying amongst women is the most natural … “

– Emily Kuser

Now I am usually a pretty self-loving being and I don’t have too many critical voices in my head. But this simple exercise showed me once more what a miracle each one of us is. What a loveable creature I am. From the first moment of my existence until my last breath. How far I’ve come, what I achieved, how proud I can be of myself. But also that none of this really matters and that I would still be a loveable miracle if I hadn’t achieved anything at all. A truth that is valid for all of us.

If you don’t believe me, try it! I will only take you ten minutes, but it can change your life. Ooouh, now that gives me goosebumps again … !

When strangers become friends

Another experience which was kind of lifechanging was the class „Breath by Breath“ with L. Farrah Furtado and DJ Loose Lion. It was my first ever experience with breath work, and it was – in the truest sense of the word – breathgiving not -taking. Such an incredible energy!

In retrospect I find it hard to describe what we actually did, as it was more about the intense energy in the room, also fuelled by the great live music from DJ Loose Lion. You can find the 90 minutes music mix here. 

What I do remember: When it comes to breath work, you can forget everything you know from yoga, meaning that you are allowed to let your jaws fall open and to breathe deeply into the lungs through your open mouth. This alone feels wonderful already. Now imagine you do that in a room with many different people you don’t know. Strangers, basically. Now imagine, you look deep into the eyes of these strangers while you all breathe deeply and heavily through your open mouths. Pure and instant intimacy. You see no reason why you shouldn’t reveal to these people, what you’re missing in your life. And you have no inhibition to hold one „stranger‘s“ hand, look them deep into the eyes and say to their face:

  • I’m sorry.
  • Please forgive me.
  • I love you.
  • Thank you.
  • And now I’m letting you go …

You can probably imagine that you will let go of that person’s hand with the feeling of saying goodbye to a friend, not a stranger. It’s as easy as that.  

And this is how I would sum up this wonderful festival: As a meeting of people, merging to become friends.

Friendship

It all ended, very suitably, with a hatha yoga class called „Love Explosion“ with the wonderful Silvia Stojanovic, a German yoga teacher with Greek and Yugoslavian roots, living in Portugal and working all over the world. After an hour of heart-opening asanas and deep conscious breaths – „Are you breathing? Are you ready to become a mindful breather?“ – I shed the last tears of this weekend. Tears of joy, of love, of fullfilment of gratitude.  

Thank you all for everything and see you next year! Namasté!

***

Some final remarks on the music program at the Parque. On both days and nights there were concerts, amongst others with Danny Paradise and Nadia Deleyle, a kakao ceremony, an Ecstatic Dance session with Walker Barnard and a final Kirtan, to end the festival.

I especially remember the almost magical kakao ceremony with the fabulous Maria Terra and band. Maria Terra appeared on stage like a priestess and held a flaming, half-spoken half-sung speech stressing our connection to nature and our responsibility to protect the environment, which cannot be neglected but has to be part of our personal and the earth’s healing process!

Do you remember your dreams? Why are you here, familia? Why do you wake up every morning? Where are you going? Where do you come from? Can you remember? From our hearts we understand that we are sons and daughters of the earth. Never forget this connection, familia. We are nature. And we are here to protect nature. We are here to be guided by nature, to learn from nature, master teacher. You just need to stop, breathe, connect. And nature will teach you.

– Maria Terra

Kakao ceremony with Maria Terra

***

Classes I took:

 

See the whole schedule and what I missed: Portugal Spirit Festival Schedule.

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