Attracted by yoga for its physical benefits, Wendy Watta was less convinced of its mental powers. But in Lamu, she found herself drawn into the annual yoga festival, and changed in ways she would never have expected.
I first heard about the Lamu Yoga Festival at a moon party complete with Shela drummers and acrobats at Forodhani House. When I returned to the island for the umpteenth time after that, however, it wasn’t with the intention of attending. I had indeed taken several classes around the island and already realised that practising on this idyllic archipelago was certainly different from anywhere else around the country.
For instance, I had been to classes at Banana House with a beautiful Sudanese instructor called Paska, and I had also taken classes at The Majlis with an equally attractive local instructor called Awham who had to come to Ras Kitau from Shela by speedboat. Such is life in Lamu.
Before my brush with the festival – which I have since learned is considered on a par with similar retreats in India, Thailand and Bali – I had been living in the Lamu archipelago for about a month. Most of that time had been spent on Kiwayu island, where I spent my days snorkelling, deep sea fishing, running, doing sunrise yoga on the beach and living on a diet of fish, salad and fresh fruit. I was at optimum physical fitness, but by the time I was leaving this glorious place, I wanted nothing more than to spend a couple of days drinking cocktails at Peponi Hotel before reluctantly heading back to Nairobi. Nothing was going to deter me from my mission to become a beach bum and enjoy the blissful pleasure of doing absolutely nothing on a beautiful beach.
It is surprising, however, how yoga always has a way of finding you. I was pretending to pore over the cocktail menu (both the waiter and I already knew my order), mentally calculating where my spending budget currently stood, when I was invited to classes by some patrons who had been tucking into dinner at a nearby table. While I am no stranger to yoga, which I mostly practise for its physical benefits, I found myself drawn to the conversation around meditation. “People just don’t listen to their bodies until they feel really sick and need to go see a doctor,” said one girl. “Meditation is the foundation of everything we do and I like that today’s class finally helped me switch off my mind, stay present and listen to myself.”
Admittedly, this sounds like just the kind of spiritual mumbo jumbo that yogis always say, but I had first come to Lamu on my own journey to find overall wellness, happiness and some balance. The idea that meditation could help me overcome things like the rut I had been in or unlock my creativity by getting me out of my writer’s block was too seductive to turn down. “There goes my mission to become a ‘holiday alcoholic,’” I muttered over my perfectly-salted rim of my glass.
My very first session was the 6 am power yoga class by the beach. While I had become used to practising alone in the past month, I enjoyed being surrounded by people dedicated to the practice and their enthusiasm was infectious. I felt like I had found my spiritual tribe and as we flowed from downward facing dog into a lunge culminating with warrior pose, it was like there was a collective energy flowing from the sun to the sea and through each of us collectively. If you have been struggling to stay disciplined in your practice, consider attending a yoga festival as this can help you shift your mindset, allowing you to feed off the energy of others and get out of your bad habits.
The annual yoga fest is the brainchild of Monika Fauth, who I once bumped into on a flight from Lamu to Nairobi. She first came to the island about 20 years ago on a backpacking trip to visit her sister who was a doctor. Back home in Holland, she was a commercial fashion buyer, but she fell in love with Lamu and later with a man nicknamed Banana, and was persuaded to uproot her life and set up a small guest house in Shela. Monika did the hosting and Banana focused on the menu. They had two kids and decided to expand the business by setting up Banana House & Wellness Center. With Monika’s interest and training in yoga, the idea for the festival soon followed and Lamu was the perfect setting.
With about 350 students, 152 classes and workshops spread throughout the island as well as 26 teachers from all over the world, this festival is a great way to get out of your comfort zone. I have been guilty of sticking to the same classes and routines. Every teacher has a different philosophy and this can be a great way to explore new territory.
From Acroyoga with Cheloti to Stand Up Paddle yoga with Alexandra or Laugh yoga (hasyayoga), which is exactly what the name suggests, with Monika, you can get your groove back. With so many options, however, a tip is to create a schedule with your favourite class or teacher and then pick an adventurous alternative. Alternate your Asana classes with physically less demanding options so you don’t burn out fast.
Best of all, you’ll leave with not only physical and mental benefits but also lifelong friends. Yogis are generally positive people wired to want to connect to others and it can be a great space to talk or just listen to someone. You will sweat, laugh, cry, dance and possibly even explore the island together. In the evenings, we would go out on a dhow for a sunset sail, a great way to bond. There was also a communal Swahili dinner where everyone sat cross-legged on the floor, washed their hands in a simple basin then dined communally from a metal sinia (tray), before dancing and singing along to drums and Swahili songs.
On Lamu, I discovered that happiness is in the present and you cannot wait to achieve it once you buy a car, build a house, get a better job, get married, lose weight or have a child. Most of all, I fell in love with life all over again. At this year’s festival, I hope to finally be able to do inversions like a pro.
The fifth edition of the Lamu Yoga Festival will take place from 14th to 18th March this year. Visit www.lamuyoga.com for more information.