As I am driving up a mountain, the fog gets denser, the road starts spiraling more, and my heart constricts inside my chest. I am supposedly almost there, but I remember seeing somewhere on a website that if a GPS leads you up the mountain, then you are going the wrong way. But which way am I supposed to go? I can't call my husband because there is no cell phone reception in this area. I drive up, then back down, and then after connecting with my husband (and common sense inside me), crying a little bit to release the tension, I drive up again and finally find it, Abrams Creek Campground, where the East Coast Tantra Festival would unfold for the following five days.
When I first learned about the Tantra Festival from a newsletter by our local tantra healer Lourdes Starshower, it piqued my interest and I told my husband, "There is a festival in West Virginia for four days..." Before I could even finish the sentence, he said, "Go. I will take care of them." Leaving my two toddlers at home, my two sweet little babies, for five days would be the longest I have ever been away from them. Focusing on the opportunity to photograph in such a beautiful nature setting, I didn't even think about what an impact this event would have on my life.
"Where am I? How weird are these people? That guys is coughing like a crazy maniac, am I going to be sick from him? How strangely that guy dances... And that bold guy with long hair looks like a weirdo. I can't believe that girl is just dancing around nude. I am just going to pretend to dance right here and see what everyone else does. If it doesn't get better, I will just go back home tomorrow." were my thoughts on the first evening of the festival.
And then when the opening ceremony starts and Eugene guides us through some breathing and grounding exercises, and somehow magically I relax and settle into myself. And then by the next morning I feel like such a huge wave of love washes over me and I find myself in love with everyone. I take this photo below and then come over to this guy and say, "Would you like to share a hug?" And he accepts with a beaming smile. "I am not the same person I was 24 hours ago", says another man, who asked to be excluded from being photographed, and it on point explains exactly how I feel about being here.
And as I get to know these people over a few days of the festival, the nude girl turns out to be an artist who shared with me that being nude really allows her to connect to the creative source and to be authentically herself. The guy who had a coughing fit is an energy-sensitive man who starts coughing when he takes on other people’s energy. The strange looking man turned out to be a simple sweet man who shared with me that he feels not lovable. And the dancing Japanese man told me how he beat cancer and how dancing was part of his healing journey. I got to know these and other beautiful people and their stories and just hearing those stories changed me.
I experienced so much love and learned so much during those five days in the woods in the mountains. Please note that few of my revelations below are my impressions about the experience as a whole, but there were so many revelations in each of the individual workshops of the festival. The struggle every day was to decide which workshops to attend as there usually were two workshops happening at the same time.
I learned to really ponder the question "How are you?"
I observed how a young girl with piercing blue eyes, luminescent white skin, and striking red hair was asked a simple question that we hear dozens of times every day, "How are you doing?" She paused, fixated her eyes on something, and then, as if looking within, slowly started answering that question, as if answering it for herself. "I worked all morning, I was giving, now I am ready to receive." It was remarkable that she connected with her body to see how she really felt, and it was not an answer that she had already prepared in her mind in response to a potential question like that, the typical "I am tired". Neither did she blurt out "I am fine", as we often do and thus don't give this simple yet profound question the thought it deserves, the thought YOU deserve.
How am I doing?
How am I feeling?
What might my body need today?
How can I take care of myself today?
Maybe your body needs a nice stretch, or it is craving fruit, or maybe you want to go for a walk. If we listen, our bodies give us clues, and we make conscious choices of what we truly desire...
When I asked myself that question at one of the workshops at the East Coast Tantra Festival, my body told me that it was craving fruit. Such a small request for fresh fruit, and you can imagine how delicious it was when I satisfied that craving. The food at the festival was very natural and healthy with no refined sugars, and I guess I was just craving something sweet.
I discovered the power of a hug.
I am walking on a woody path back to our cabin from the big Shakti dome, where workshops are held. on my path I meet a slender young man with long curly blond hair. "My name is Francesca", I say, to which he replies, "My name is Dan. Would you like to share a hug?"
Americans don't hug "properly". They don't even kiss. They reach their arms wide to embrace you and then when you think they are going to kiss you on the cheek because they are reaching over close to your ear, they barely touch your cheek with theirs and then they move back to the initial starting position, leaving me in a perplexed "was it a hug or was it a kiss", "what the fuck was that?" state. It usually throws me off for the first few minutes of the interaction that follows (because I usually accidentally kiss them on an ear or neck expecting a kiss and the weird "hug me but don't touch me" is disturbing), and thus not only does it not connect, but its fakeness just throws me off and I might have been better off with a handshake or nothing at all, Russian style.
So when I heard " Would you like to share a hug?", I had never heard anyone ask me that question before. And when I heard that question, every particle in my body wanted that hug and it was with great satisfaction that I shared it. It was beautiful. How it was asked and the real-ness of it, and you can imagine how connecting it was.
I learned that "No" is a full sentence.
Having to say "no" had been an uncomfortable thing for me.
"No, I don't want to buy this product."
"No, I don't have time for this."
"No, I don't want the third serving of your delicious Turkish food."
I used to see "no" as rejection when it was said to me, and when I was saying "no" to others, I felt like I was depriving them of something. No wonder when it was time to say it or hear it, it just created a swarm of uncomfortable and unpleasant emotions.
When I saw a Cuddle Party on the schedule of the East Coast Tantra Festival, I panicked. "Maybe I just won't go", I thought. "And I can drive back to the airport tomorrow morning". Then it was explained to me that with all of the workshops at the festival, I don't need to participate in them, and I can just watch, I felt like a weight of giant mountain fell off my shoulders and I went to the Cuddle Party, as curiosity washed over me.
"Let's get the hardest thing out of the way first", Monique Darling, the workshop presenter says, "You are going to turn to your partner right now, and ask "Can I kiss you?" and the other person will say "No", to which you will respond "Thank you for taking care of yourself."
You see, when people say "no" to you, they are not rejecting you, they are taking care of themselves."
And we practiced that.
And then we practiced "Will you kiss me?" - "No" - "Thank you for taking care of yourself."
And having practiced that, those words really sank in. And the way I started seeing the whole thing changed from rejection and having to deprive someone of something to empowerment and celebration. How beautiful it is that I when I say "No", I am actually choosing what is good for me, choosing what I want, and how empowering it feels. And what a celebration it is when I see that someone else does the same for themselves, and instead of a "awww, how come you said no?" I congratulate them by saying "thank you for taking care of yourself."
That night we also talked about consent. About consent to be touched. "Is it ok if I touch your hand?" Is it ok if I run my hand up your arm and touch your shoulder?" Who talks like that, right? How often do we touch other people during a conversation as a way to connect with them? And then I thought about my daughters, whose Turkish relatives insist on grabbing them by the cheek at any moment, grabbing them and forcing them into a hug or kiss. "Alsu, go kiss your uncle hello. Lila, give so-and-so a hug."
"When you touch someone without their permission, you are taking away their voice" explained Monique. Tears started pouring down my cheeks...
I ask my daughter if I can kiss her. Sometimes she says no, and since she is only three and a half now, at those moments I feel like the time I have left to kiss and hug her is running out, because she is going to grow up so fast, and then forget about it. But I must respect her. And now, instead of ordering them to go kiss or hug someone, I ask "Do you want to kiss your uncle hello?" It usually is a yes. But at least it is their choice, their will.
"No" is a complete sentence.
How empowering is that?
No, I cannot help you right now because I am taking care of myself. And you don't even need to explain that, because you know. It eliminates the need to say sorry twenty five times or apologize every time you say "no", and THAT makes you more powerful. I feel like every time you say "sorry" you are apologizing for your existence, and diminishes your worth, your being, your presence (not to be confused with a sincere apology where necessary, you see my point, right?)
I learned to really give people a chance before jumping to conclusions
This one requires ongoing practice, but the lesson of it that I had at the East Coast Tantra Festival was so powerful, that I speak about it all the time and really take it to heart.
When the festival started, there was a group of people that was already there and then new groups of people arrived every day and especially when the weekend started. I was photographing one of the workshops, which meant that I could hide behind the camera and observe but not really dive in and be a part of it. I see this man in his late forties-early fifties, he has white hair and he is wearing a muscle tee, and he has kind of a goofy smile and his spine has this arch in his lower back which gives him a straight posture but makes his butt stick out a little. "Redneck", I think to myself. "How can I think things like that when I am filled with love?" I quickly judge myself and re-focus my attention on something else in order to avoid the guilt and shame that would follow.
And when that same man opens his mouth to do a share after an exercise, I cannot take my eyes off him, because I am hypnotized by how beautifully and eloquently he speaks. I love books and I love to write and I admire people who have a way with words and I admire that man! As a matter of fact, I want to be like him! "Gosh, if I could speak like that, I would move mountains!" And after that we connect again during dinner and my whole perception of him different. His name is Doug, and not only is there no longer a wall of judgment between us, but only love for him, when I see his beautiful warm, sincere smile.
I learned how liberating it really is to be nude in the nature.
Frankly, I had not been around nudists and naturists prior to attending the festival, so at first, seeing women topless or completely nude as well as nude men was a bit shocking. Curiously, after a short period of time, I stopped noticing their nudity. In addition to a sense of shock and curiosity, I felt jealousy for those people. They looked free. It wasn't something that I assigned to them, that sense of freedom really came from inside them. I admired them.
And as a photographer who decided to make fine art nude photography one of my specialties, I was in nude model paradise. There were so many people who were willing to pose nude for me - I felt elated!
One morning, woken up by sounds of a small creature walking on the roof of our cabin I decided to just stay awake. I went to the kitchen where a giant beautiful man named Apollo made coffee for me from his personal coffee press that he brings with him everywhere he travels, I shared a hug with him and went to explore the campground, which I hadn't really had a chance to do, even though it was day three of the festival. I listened to the power of the creek, which was carrying sediment and water from days worth of rain, sounds of birds and whisper of giant trees. I touched bright green velvety moss that covered tree trunks and giant boulders as big as my rental car. I smelled the forest, the humidity of the air and soil. I saw and smelled mushrooms growing like a skirt around a trunk of a tree five times thicker than me. I took hundreds of photos of reflections in a puddle of mud on a dirt road and then, naturally, stepped into that puddle getting my sneakers wet, but it was totally worth it. I hugged trees and climbed large rocks near the creek. I was high on nature and on caffeine. I walked everywhere and wanted to notice every detail. Every leaf, every drop of water was such an inspiration to me. And at that moment I realized that I, too, am a part of this forest. I, too, am wild and a work of art. I, too, am to be reveled and marveled at and at that point I felt that wearing all these clothes on me was unnecessary. I wanted to disrobe and get nude and stand in the middle of that creek and make a loud noise to tell nature that I am there, that I, too, am a part of it.
On the last day of the festival, right before lunch, I knew I had to cease this new found freedom in me and do it. I asked Edyta to photograph me.
It was raining. Edyta was holding my camera wrapped in my sweater so it wouldn't get wet in one hand, and holding her umbrella in the other, trying to balance on slippery from moss and water rocks, followed me to the spot where I wanted to be photographed. It was a perfect spot right behind our cabin that I had scouted out earlier. One of the disadvantages of being nude is that you get cold, especially if it rains. (But it made my nipples look good so I didn't mind :)) My heart was racing, I felt a rush, I felt brave, I felt like I honored myself, but honestly, I am going to have to do it again, because with all due respect and gratitude for Edyta's photography skills (and also perhaps I am too critical of myself) the photos did not turn out to my liking... Well, at least I have the memory of what it felt like.
And I also want to do it again so that I can learn to appreciate, love and admire my body more, and to experience again that breathtaking freedom that comes from not hiding behind anything and truly being one with nature.
I felt that I had to have that experience in order to really understand what people who come to me with their bare souls and allow me to photograph them nude. Since many of those people are not nudists, the high and liberation I experienced getting nude in nature must be similar to what they feel when I photograph them.
There were a lot of other miracles of synchronicity and small revelations at the festival. There was a beautiful concert by Fia, a Swedish singer who writes heart opening songs, during whose entire concert I cried (while taking photos and video nevertheless!) There were a lot of tears, a lot of healing, a lot of heart opening and being able to see beauty in others. I felt that I dissolved into all those people who were there and fell in love with each and every one of them. It was ecstatic. And I will cherish that experience forever and will seek it out again, this time bringing my husband with me.
Did you like my story? Please leave me a comment, I would love to hear from you!