From an interview by Manish Vyas with Ram and Sonali Banerjee.
You can listen the interview in our Podcast
Manish: This time, I am on the other side of the microphone where I will be asking some questions to our guests for today’s podcast, who are Ram and Sonali Banerjee from UK. A little brief about them: Ram and Sonali are originally from India living in UK, since the last many years they have been organizing a wonderful Yoga Festival in the UK, called the World Yoga Festival, which by now it is getting immensely good response from many people within Europe and outside. We’ve known each other since five years now, it’s been a wonderful connection; since then, I have been fortunate to be part of their festival presenting some of the authentic mantra-kirtan and fusion music as a concert. Since I really love their vision of this Yoga Festivals, I wanted to share their vision with you and maybe that will inspire you to connect with their vision.
The sparkle and birth of the World Yoga Festival.
Manish: Lovely to have you, and a pleasure and honor to welcome you on this podcast. How and when did World Yoga Festival start and what was the sparkle of its creation, what was the main vision?
Ram: Really, the sparkle started in 2015 when we had a visit from the Pujya Swami Dayanandji’s Ashram – a senior Swami came to visit us and give a course in our own home. While driving, he looked around England, and said, “What England needs is an authentic Yoga Festival,” and that was it, that was the spark that started it. Little did we know that Pujya Swami Dayananda also had such a vision, and he was merely portraying that vision. And then Sonali and I came home…
Sonali: Yes, I was a bit… “no, it’s a very big project…” What do you want to do?
Ram: But I said, yes, let’s do it. The problem was that neither of us knew how to organize a festival; indeed neither of us had never been to a festival in our lives and so saying yes to this was from complete ignorance, and completely from the heart… it was not an intellectual decision at all. We decided that yes, the UK needed an authentic yoga festival, and if we were not going to do it, then who was. So that was the spark that started it. And we started it for the first time therefore in 2016, in the summer.
Sonali: I think the idea came sort of summer 2015 and for the next summer… so to find the land, the venue where we can do the festival and find all the teachers; and the logistics, we just didn’t have any idea how we will do…
Ram: So trying to bring hundreds of people together in a green field site, you have to set up a whole infrastructure, starting from where we are going to have the talks in the tents and then, are people going to stay overnight? Yes, so then they need a camping area, what do campers need, they’ll need toilets and they’ll need showers; these are going to be yogis and they are going to do asana and pranayama and all the other aspects of yoga, so they’ll need showers… And then a sound system, a light system, and power… once we got into it, we realized we were very, very deep… too late to go back (laughs) we’d announced it and we just had to, and fortunately we managed to keep our heads above the water and here we are today, about to run out sixth yoga festival. So the sixth yoga festival is going to be run this year in the summer.
Manish: It’s amazing, for the listeners I just want them to know that first of all, Ram and Sonali are in their face of life where generally people enjoy a retirement time, quiet peace… and here there are these two people out there promoting a huge, huge festival. This is not one of these festivals which happen in a concrete room where everything is taken care of, this is a festival which happens on a big ground by a river and the main tent where the main event and concerts happen can easily accommodate I think two to three thousand people! And that is only one tent I am talking about, there are many tents of smaller sizes where different things are happening; and then the food also. It’s a wonderful atmosphere and if you haven’t checked it out, it is highly recommended.
My second question to you Ram and Sonali, is what would you like to be the message for all those teachings and participants in the festival. Meaning, what is the main significance that you would like to be conveyed?
Keeping the True Nature of Yoga, the Main Vision.
Ram: I think the main word, and it comes back also from our audiences, is “authenticity.” What we wanted to bring to the festival was really a glimpse of the authentic nature of Yoga. And as you know, Yoga in the west is considered to be just people in tight attires stretching and exercising. But Yoga means a great deal more than that, so we took our vision from the eight limbs of Yoga, so we wanted to do all aspects of Yoga, right from correct living at one end, right through to self realization. So, show all of those aspects.
And really, to the teachers, we always say: “Maintain that authenticity. Yoga has been around for thousands of years – maintain it. Teach what you were taught by your guru. Keep that lineage true. Don’t try to say, I am going to modernize it; because it has been tried and tested by lots of people who are far greater than all of us and it’s time-tested. So as a result, try to maintain that, show that to this group of people who see all varieties of things, but show that original nature.”
And when they do, the response is just wonderful. We had responses from people saying, “I’ve been doing pranayam for fifteen years and in the first fifteen minutes I learnt more from pranayam than I’d learned to date.” We get statements like that. Other people say, “This has changed my life.” Now, this seems a very odd statement to make and people don’t make it so readily, but they say it…
Sonali: Yes, the outlook changes, when they really know the authenticity and know behind what is Yoga, so that really changes your outlook. The outer world will be the same, but how you look at the world, it changes.
Ram: So, it’s very important for us for instance to run separate streams in separate marquees, so once you go through the door, you may well have come because your favorite teacher or your favorite style of asana was being practiced there at the festival. But you have the opportunity to go and sneak into another tent and look at the brochure and say, “I wonder what this is about” or “I’ve heard about this but I don’t know much about it.” And so such people break into the back of the tent and listen and gradually by the third day realize that they are pretty much towards the front, because they found something really interesting in another topic and something for them to then carry on in their own practice for the rest of the year. So, that introduction to some of the best, that is the total Yoga, that is what we want to bring.
Sonali: Yes, that’s what I always say, it feels like a platter of food, you give lots of plates, and then you eat all of them and then you choose one that you really like.
Ram: Authentic dishes, that’s what we guarantee. The platter is full of authentic dishes and it may be a taste that you hadn’t had, right? It may be a taste that you’re frightened of, but have a go, we can tell you it’s safe.
So have a taste and see if you like it, because this is an opportunity for you, in one area, over the three or four days, to sample practically all aspects of the eight limbs of Yoga.
Manish: It’s wonderful, because would you say that in that way you are creating an opportunity for people here in Europe who can not necessarily travel and find authentic sources of our ancient wisdom. You’re giving them an opportunity within these three or four days to come in contact with them and then decide, “Ok, which path is right for me, which works for me, which doesn’t work for me.”
Ram: Yes, indeed. And you know, many people do get to travel to India and they land in this vast country and they say, “Now what, where do I find a guru?” Even I know, you go to Rishikesh or somewhere like that and there will be two thousand Yoga schools all over the place… Who do you go to? Where do you go to learn the teachings, the wisdom of the Upanishads, of the Vedas? Where do you go for authentic Ayurveda, if you’re interested in the medicinal aspect of Yoga? So, it’s just that instead of just dumping you in India, we’re bringing various aspects not only of India – obviously a lot of our good teachers come from there – but there’s good teachers from Europe, there’s good teachers from America… we select; we try to select the finest in order to bring them.
Sonali: That’s the hard bit.
Ram: That’s the hard bit, yes. And give people the exposure to such people; that’s the way really.
Sonali: Lots of people say that it is a ‘mini-Rishikesh.’
Ram: Yes, people say it’s a ‘mini-Rishikesh,’ because of the four or five tents, all of these people, eating outside, it’s like this… it’s a mini-Rishikesh, we just don’t have the cows (laughs) but we could bring the cows, the cows are on the next field, but we just don’t have the cows.
Manish: Wonderful! Best of this is that, from my own experience since living here for about five years and having been part of various Yoga festivals in Europe and they do a decent job, but we, specially coming from India, knowing this authenticity flavor, people like us do miss the flavor of that originality in these festivals and in that way, as much as I’ve been part in these festivals, you are the only festival that I know who are maintaining this standard of original content and authenticity of the teachings provided by different people that you invite and make part of. So that is why to the listeners I say again that, yes, it would be definitely worth visiting this festival at least once, to get the flavor of this amazing tradition coming from these wonderful teachers and masters from India.
Authenticity has Been Very Important to Us.
Ram: Thank you. Yes, we realized just how different it is, because obviously from the covid year, we could not run the festival and the following year the restrictions for travel were very hard, so it was very difficult to bring these Swamis, the original Swamis; and we had comments from the would-be attendees saying, “This year, are we going to get the orange-robes walking around on the fields?” You know, we realized that they really loved the fact that these people, these very knowledgeable people are coming over and providing their life-long wisdom to us and they are mixing amongst us: they get their food, they sit down at the table, and you can actually go to them and have a conversation – they are genuine, normal people, they are not separated or elevated somewhere… they will just talk to you, you can have a coffee with them, have a laugh with them and also go in and hear the wonderful teachings that come from them. So that bit of authenticity has been very important to us.
We realize that there are a lot of Yoga festivals. Maybe we are a niche, but what we are finding is that the niche is getting wider.
Manish: Yes, right now that’s very important because the interest in the Indian sciences and traditions are growing here and sometimes I also through my work find people who are genuinely looking for these sources but they are lacking a little bit here; and then sometimes they end up with some unauthentic or not-so-knowledgeable source and then things are presented or learned or taught a little distorted. So, it’s not the student who is at fault, but somebody who is responsible: there is a certain responsibility of passing on an authentic tradition to somebody else. This is why I think through your festival people can really access that.
Ram: Yes, and sometimes finding these teachers, persuading them to come… Because we are a charity, we do this as a not-for-profit. That appeals to a lot of people, to say, “Yes, come along, please teach here, we haven’t got a lot of money, but we can give you an audience that are really quite genuine and want to learn.” And sometimes Sonali and I have debates during the night, whether we should bring something, would it be too severe, like “Should we have this chanting,” and we think, “Oh well that’s in Sanskrit, should we have classes in Sanskrit, how many people would be interested?” And then we had a Sanskrit teacher and the tent was full! If you provide the environment, then some of these people will come.
Manish: There is a demand, but the supply has to be appropriate: right supply. Then the purpose is served and the authenticity is maintained.
Ram: Yes, and we learn every year. So after the festival, we always have a feedback and we have very good feedback from people: What did you enjoy, what is it that we can improve, apart from all the infrastructure and the logistics, they also have comments about the teachers and the teachings, what they liked and disliked and over the last few years that’s allowed us to cut down what is really appealing and what is missed by our audience on a day to day basis, and that has really helped.
Manish: I simply admire that you are doing this at this stage of the life!
Ram: We are both in our early sixties and our children thought we were mad. They said, “You’ve never done a festival… absolutely barking mad!” and they said that it would kill us to try to put up a festival. But you know, you get an inner strength; when something is right it’s not just a mental activity, it’s not the intellect saying, “Do it, do it, do it.” You get an inner strength and you draw up on that; and that inner strength for us comes from the lineage. We follow the lineage of Pujya Swami Dayanandji, the Saraswati lineage that dates right back to Adi Shankaracharya. We try to stay true to that, his teachings and the senior teachers that he had; and we keep to that lineage. Advait Vedanta, very rare in this country, but we have classes after classes on them, and there’s people in the tent avidly looking, writing notes, and we continue with the classes afterwards throughout the year, we do online classes on it – and there’s a genuine interest in wanting to learn.
Sonali: That’s the ultimate, the true nature of our Self. You know you’ve got Yoga, asana, the pranayam – they are all sort of lying up to come to the main part of who you are, “self-realization.”
Ram: And the success of this is that the people are taking these ideas that the find at the festival and then applying them in their lives throughout the year. If the find a particularly good subject, then they often come to us and say, “Is there such a teacher in Europe that I can follow?” or “Are you doing classes in this area?” They continue. The fact that somebody spends their free time to do something driven by their self will, you know that you’re getting through to people.
Manish: Also, I think there must be a certain kind of nourishment that you as the visionaries behind this project feel. Somewhere you are connecting the people to the right source.
Ram: Yes, absolutely, and we get some wonderful feedback and emails back from people… “You don’t know me but I just wanted to say this.” These are heart warming statements that are coming through from people, without any encouragement for them to write but they say, “This is the first time I’ve come, I am going to bring more…” Our growth has been entirely by word of mouth: people recommending it to others: organic growth, which is the best growth. If you enjoyed it, then your friends are likely to be of the similar nature and they’ll probably enjoy it too.
Another area of our growth which is quite amusing is that initially we didn’t have a lot of Indians, because Indians who would have come, say, you know, “Oh, we know it all, this is our culture, you can’t teach us about Vedanta, you can’t teach us about these things, we’ve been brought up with it,” and they largely didn’t come – the people who came are the first generation 30 – 40 years-old who were born in the west. They came because they had an interest in Yoga; and they came and they said, “Wow! We didn’t realize it was so big, our parents never told us this – next year, I am going to bring my parents.” And they do come! They are dragging their parents to the festival on subsequent years, so our Indian community has grown as a result of children bringing their parents, which is lovely.
The Importance of the Guru’s Grace.
Manish: As you mentioned, Swami Dayanand, there is a Guru behind this project. How important is this for the energy and strength given to such a big undertaking?
Ram: I think it’s very, very important. Right from day one he is ‘sitting there’ behind me on the shelf next to Saraswati Thakur, so this is very important to us, and on stage we always put a picture of him and a few lamps around him, we inaugurate the festival on his name and continue it. We only realized but two years after starting the festival that in fact it was his wish that there should be an authentic festival in the west, and he’d said it to this Swami who said it to us. We didn’t know that when we started it. He felt that it was an excellent way of introducing the wisdom of the Vedas, the Vedanta, the Upanishads… to people who already had an interest on this area – done a lot of Yoga, asana, pranayam, meditation and were looking for ‘what next.’ They are already down the path, they’re preparing themselves for this wisdom; what they need is an introduction to it, an environment that will introduce them to the wisdom. It felt it was a very good way of bringing this wisdom to a culture that largely hasn’t had it in the west, because people are experimenting with this, they’ve done Yoga, asana, they can do Yoga for as far as their body will go, they’ve done pranayam, meditation, “dhyan,” which now is getting stronger and stronger… no what? And we provide the “now what” for them to progress.
Wherever somebody is along their journey, they can progress, and Pujya Swami Dayanandji was our driving force and he remains the strength by which we have the capacity to put this on. Sometimes we do get a little bit down, “Oh, things are so bad, especially during the ‘pandemic,’ people were saying, “Oh, I’ve bought my ticket, now I can’t come, I want my money back,” and this and that… Other people saying, “We’re gonna trust you, we’ll keep our ticket, we’ll roll it over to when you’re back because we don’t want to lose this.” And so, it’s this strength that keeps us going, and I think it’s important to have that depth, because we, as individuals, don’t have that energy level individually; you have to rely on that entire depth for that energy to come through.
Manish: Yes, Guru’s blessings is always the best support in a project like this, because I am sure you are not doing this to make money or to get famous, this is purely about connecting people to the authenticity of this tradition.
Ram: Yes, indeed. In fact, people told us, it will take five years before any festival settles down in the groove and starts to breakeven. We understood that and so we’ve made that investment – personal investment in our time, resources, everything, in order to give that stability and we’re just at that level where this is breaking even. It doesn’t need to make money, but it needs to break even for it to have a future, so that we can take it forward. We’re training a lot of people, because you know, we’ll get didery, you know, we’ll sit in the corner and dribble soon enough (laughs) so it’s important for other people to pick this up, get that ethos, the ethos to say, well, “How would Ram and Sonali have done this, let’s continue in the same way.”
And we seem to feedback to a lot of people, you know people who do the volunteer, people who run the children’s area… because we run it in the summer, it’s very child friendly because we realized that the yogis are in the 30s and 40s are going to have children and they’ll need to bring their children because it’s the summer holidays and the children will need to be entertained and we are not going to give the Yoga morning, noon and night but there has to be an element of it. We introduce the youngsters who find it difficult to engage, like teenagers, we brought them drumming to get the rhythm and the sound going through them, and then it was like a type of meditation and that was incredibly successful. People and parents have said to us, “We brought our thirteen-year-olds kicking and dragging to this festival and they didn’t want to leave and they’re definitely coming back next year…” We bet for everything really, we have to cater for people at all levels.
Sonali: Yes, I saw a teenager sitting in a Vedanta class and writing notes.
Ram: Yes, and explaining to their mothers what it is that the teacher has just said and the significance of it. And one of them went back and said, “Oh, this is very serious, mom can I do this a little bit later and have some fun now?” (laughs)
A Healthy and Safe Atmosphere for all the Family.
Manish: I think also it is nice that children are there in this campus, and one of the reasons is that children are just being themselves all the time, they don’t follow the code, conducts and rules. Sometimes I’ve been in this incident in which somebody is meditating, let’s say there was a kid in the room or even outside, doing their things and maybe made some noise, and they start going, “shhh, shhh” so here is where I tell these people, “Look, here is your test of meditation, anything happening outside, does it still distract you? That means your meditation is not working yet! You need to work, don’t blame that child, he’s being himself or herself. Also this where everything is accepted, nothing discarded, like, “ok only this but not that.”
Ram: You’re absolutely right and yes, if you can’t meditate with noise, as you say, then you are not meditating properly; if you need a perfect environment and the perfect time, then you will never get it. This is life.
By making the whole festival non-alcoholic, we’ve made it very safe. The security guards actually they vibe with one another who is going to be the security at the festival, because they say, this is the most chilled out festival we’ve ever come to, there’s no fights and arguments, we don’t have to push anybody out… They often just help out, moving stuff and playing with the children and things like this because they’ve got nothing else to do. But the children understand that, and by being vegetarian also, we’re allowing the mind and body to for a few days just to settle down, to see where it can be. This does affect the way people behave and they take more of it in as a result.
Keep the Authenticity and Everything Will be Fine.
Manish: (joking) So you’re saying there’s no ‘beer Yoga’ in your classes?
Ram: (laughs) There’s no ‘beer Yoga,’ there’s no ‘goat Yoga,’ none of those modern things. Yes, balance is important; you can teach balance through any form of Yoga, even the original martial arts from India taught balance to people. When balance in the body comes, then balance in the mind follows. And so, then there’s all these things to do, but then you don’t need to re-invent a lot, you just need to maintain it, continue it, keep the authenticity and everything will be fine.
Manish: In that context, we all can agree on this, that already this science which has been existing since thousands of years, one lifetime is not enough to go in the depth of it and the understanding, so there is no need of all these new inventions just to make it more accessible and more popular. The ancient sciences have had it all, if we just sincerely commit to a higher source of wisdom it is wonderful and it will enrich the life. Not all these modernizations… there’s practically one new “yoga” being born every day…
Ram: Yes, and since they have no testing time, there’s no idea of what the consequences of that will be and it will lead people down the wrong road.
You don’t worry about people not understanding something, you worry about people misunderstanding something, because when they do that, they will pass the misunderstanding on to the next generation and that’s what we’re trying to avoid.
But one thing now we’re starting to see, is people who’ve taken ten, fifteen years of study in a particular area, for instance, let’s say Ayurvedic studies and they’ve learned that, but they are a modern western-trained pharmacist – we’ve got somebody called Bobby Sira coming over this year and they are western-trained pharmacists for twenty years and they work in oncology, I mean, the most critical of care. And then, how do we integrate, how do we take the best of that world and try to introduce it without people screaming for the doors and getting away from this mentality that, “There’s a pill for that.” Right? We need to get away from that mentality, “Oh there’s a pill for that.” It’s like, “There’s an App for that.” The western world seems to be, “There’s a pill that will take this worry away.” And that integration of the east and west – bringing the good aspects of it – is an area that we are experimenting with now and I think that’s got a great deal of future and acceptance by western audience.
We Look at the Lineage of the Teachers.
Manish: How do we try to keep Yoga and all its paths as authentic as possible here in the west where mostly Yoga is related to exercise?
Ram: Yes, that’s the difficult one to do, because as the festival becomes more well-known as more people come, so more teachers come to us to say, “I’ve done this, I think it will be really useful for me to pass this on to,” and we have to sometimes politely say yes or politely say no to these people. We rely on the choice of teachers, because we never dictate what they teach. What we do is, we look at the teachers and their lineage or what they’ve been taught and just accept that what they teach will be the right teaching. Because we don’t know all of these aspects of Yoga, all we are doing is creating the environment for them to teach and we’re relying on Pujya Swamiji’s blessing that if we bring that authenticity, audience will come.
Manish: Yes, which is happening…
Thank you for Coming!
Ram: Which is happening and that’s why we get the organic growth, and that’s why we got to the breakeven and that’s happened… and we just kept it even during the bleekiest… the second and third year were really bleek, we didn’t have many, many people and still we were flying people in from abroad, from India, from Europe, from the US – the very best teachers – and they were teaching away to half empty classes. It’s just keeping the faith that they will come and they did. People love us for that. You know, it’s very difficult for Sonali and I to walk across the field between the tents because every ten yards or ten meters we meet somebody else who wants to say, “I know you don’t know me but I wanted to say how much I’m enjoying this and I’m definitely coming back next year,” and we get a hug and we say, “Thank you for coming” and then we move on. It’s wonderful.
When You are Into Real Yoga.
Sonali: Specially 2020-21 we had a storm moving in at that time, full of rain…
Ram: Yes, it was a named storm and the place was flooded, I mean, it was an incredible rain storm and people were walking through the rain, they had a smile on their face. They said, “I have to tell you, you can’t do anything about the rain, but this is the best festival I’ve been to. And you still did it, despite the rain!” And I thought, “Yes, now you are into Yoga, because despite your environment, you are accepting and enjoying what you are doing because you know that to be the right thing, you are into real Yoga.”
Sonali: That’s the mentality of Yoga, isn’t it? Because you can’t change the situation, you’ve just got to accept with a smile.
Manish: That is also one of the main cores of wisdom from India, the acceptance, the tolerance. Specially your trust and patience over all these years have been paying off now seeing the growth and response from people, which is wonderful and I really hope that more and more people connect to this wonderful happening on this planet, specially here in Europe.
Ram: Well, thank you very much indeed. This year it’s going to be in Henley-on-Thames, which is a beautiful area… and we’re going to have you there, you’ll love the area.
It’s between the 28th of July and the 31st of July (2022) in England. It’s a three-and-a-half-day festival: Thursday through Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Friday evening is going to be your concert – we are really looking forward to that and the workshop on Saturday.
It will be lovely to have people. We aren’t enormous in terms of size, so that everybody gets to listen to everything that is being said, you know, none of the tents are so small that you can’t get in, nor are they too big that it feels empty, so anybody can choose what it is that they listen to.
Manish: I think there are too many good dishes out there on the plate. People will have a hard time to choose where they go. I’ve been there two times now, and it’s always a wonderful pleasure being “in the Rishikesh of UK,” (laughs) with a lovely atmosphere outside and even within the tents.
At the conclusion of this wonderful dialogue, any last message for those who are interested around the world?
Ram: Just to say that if you’ve never been to a festival, don’t worry, this is NOT, ‘dance till two in the morning, drugs or alcohol, things like that’… it’s completely different, it’s a retreat with some of the best teachers from around the world.
If you have an interest in any aspect of Yoga, wherever you are in your path, your spiritual path, there will be something for that and the next step beyond.
So if you haven’t given us a try, please do and I think you won’t be disappointed; it will be lovely to have you there. And if you see us on the fields, come over and say hello and we’ll give you a hug also.
That comes for free, it’s part of the deal. (laughs)
Manish: From the deepest core of our hearts, we wish you all the best and we wish that this wonderful phenomenon grows so that more and more people can access it, connect with it and that the blessings of our Gurus may continue to guide us in the right direction, as we always say:
asato ma sadgamaya | tamaso ma jyotirgamaya |mrtyorma amrtam gamaya
ॐ असतो मा सद्गमय ।
तमसो मा ज्योतिर्गमय ।
मृत्योर्मा अमृतं गमय ।
ॐ शान्तिः शान्तिः शान्तिः ॥
World Yoga Festival link
Listen to the interview in Manish Vyas Podcast
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