A Day at Mind Body Spirit Festival 2018 | London
As soon as I heard about the existence of a festival focused on spirituality and well-being PLUS vegan food.... well I'm sure you can picture my reaction!
I was lucky enough to be invited along to this festival in London a couple of days ago and the first thing I noticed was the atmosphere. Full of friendly people, some incredible brands (for a variety of different reasons), a whole lot of glitter, dancing and meditation and inspiring talks going on throughout the day.
There were so many brands that I'd never heard of, which meant that there was a lot of exploring and discovering to be done (woop woop!). Some of my favourites were the stalls selling jewellery, essential oils, white sage, palo santo wood, vegan food and drinks, and the charities.
There were multiple opportunities to join in with yoga, meditation, silent discos, panels, talks, dancing and so on, some bookable in advance and others free to join on the day which I thought was brilliant. I've never seen so many smiles in one room!
I attended a talk on 'Creating Your Own Reality' with David Hamilton - an incredibly inspiring man who mixes science with spirituality to discover and explain many philosophical thoughts, particularly around the subject of consciousness, the human brain, meditation, and the whole of existence itself (sounds huge I know, but that's how I'd describe it). I found it fascinating to listen to as it's a subject I love, and he taught the group a couple of meditations during the talk that I found really helpful. If you're into talking and hearing about the perception of reality, the human brain, consciousness and so on, I'd recommend going to another of David Hamilton's talks or workshops.
For lunch, my boyfriend Jordan and I headed upstairs to Inspiral to find the most delicious and flavoursome lunch I genuinely think I've ever had. Seriously, I'm going to have to try and recreate it myself. My lunch is pictured below; hummus, pesto, sun-dried tomatoes, black olives, rocket and edible flowers on toast, followed by a peanut butter cup (of course).
To end the day I carried out an interview with the charity Ashok Tree Foundation, which I was introduced to by the Chair of MBS Festival, Melvyn Carlile, who also works as a chairman and trustee of the charity. They are doing some incredible work here in the UK and over in India, and the interview with the project manager and trustee Michele Carvalho can be found below. If you'd like to find out more about who they are and what they do, you can find the information here on their website.
Ally: "How did the charity start?"
Michele: "Yogi Ashokananda is the founder, he is Indian, lives part-time in the UK and in India, and he had a charity already established in India. That charity was focused on providing help for a school in North India at its inception, and due to some challenges with local organisations our teachers were getting threatened so he decided that this isn't going to work anymore, there wasn't a tollerance for educating everybody so decided to move to the south. So, in 2013 he found the place in the south and the charity virtually relocated to be able to help an equally needy village. I met Yogi in 2014 and he wanted to do more here [in the UK], so we basically spent the next year getting the charity established here in the UK, with a view to be able to primarily make yoga and meditation available to more people who otherwise wouldn't have access to it - especially in London because it can be super expensive!"
Ally: "I definitely don't have the money to attend ordinary yoga classes in London!"
Michele: "You have to earn a lot of money actually to be able to take part, and it's really not fair is it? That's how it started from a UK-delivery perspective. We also found that people in the UK were quite willing to share and they also wanted to help with the India-based projects. So, the charity that was established here supports the charity in India, and also supports the needs of the community here in the UK which is really nice. We have a partnership with that Indian charity, where we issue grants and provide funding and people - volunteers and resources - to be able to actually deliver against our objects and aims."
Ally: "So it's two separate charities, the one here in the UK and the one in India?"
Michele: "They are, they are two separate charities. It's two very different needs when you look at what's happening in India and what's happening in the UK; in the UK it's very affluent but there's still a lot of poverty in the UK. Or, there's stigma around things like yoga and meditation. You can't really reach the right people who need it the most. We've been teaching in a school in the UK trying to help students prepare for their A-Levels, they're like SO stressed out and I feel so bad for them so it's working with one of the teachers in the school who have identified the ones who are the most anxious. They're super bright, but really anxious, and just over like three to four weeks, one session a week, they're already starting to develop the tools and techniques that they need to be able to face the exams calmly, and then if something happens during the exam they know what they need to do. They're learning really quickly. The teachers are doing it with them as well which is really nice, because the teachers are also stressed which then projects onto the students."
Ally: "I remember feeling that when I was studying for my A-Levels, it was just stress-central! It had an impact too on how I felt about the exams."
Michele: "Yeah, it does have an impact! And the students, they tell us things like 'well I don't really have time', and it's like I know you don't because you're so busy studying and revising all of the time. But there's only so much the brain can take in, you need a break. Why not have a healthy break instead of being on your phone and just going to social media..."
Ally: "I think, for me at least, it was always more of a distraction than a break."
Michele: "It is a distraction. Yeah. I say to them 'for thirty minutes, give it to meditation and see what the difference is'. And they're doing it, they're trying it. There's people like that and there's also a community that pays for it that it's helping - there's about 30 people attending two different classes every week so we're easily reaching 60 people in Hayes, and they're all ages. They'll be aged 20 to 80, and some of them that are in their sixties had lost their jobs, but through yoga and meditation they found the strength both emotionally as well as physically to return to work. One gentleman shared his story with me; he's 73, he's no longer working by choice, he got a group of them together to retrain as reflexologists because he wanted to do something more now. He had been depressed, he had diabetes for almost 20 years, he had heart problems, and he told Yogi and I back in June that his diabetes no longer existed. No longer taking any medicine - it's amazing. And that's just from a regular practice of yoga and meditation, and eating properly as well. You can't just have yoga and meditation and go to the drive through an McDonald's and think 'I'm going to be healthy'.
Ally: [Laughs] "That wouldn't exactly add up!"
Michele: "But, the combination of those three things... and they're beautiful, that community, they're like a proper community, they all support each other, help each other, they're really committed to their health, they try to keep it going later in life."
Ally: "That sounds amazing, and beautiful to see happening. A quick question about the charity in India - do you know many families in India the charity has helped?"
Michele: "Oh yeah, definitely. The charity, as it exists today in the south of India is between two villages. Each village has about 2500 people. In our school we have up to 175 children which covers seven grades. We have a policy of taking only one child per family. So, that's how many families will be impacted just from the school."
Ally: "Why is it that you only take on one child from a family?"
Michele: "We want to be able to impact more families. So, with one child taking that message home, that family will then be able to benefit from it. If we took two or more children from one family, then it's just that one house that would be impacted and not the opportunity for another house to be impacted."
Ally: "And can you see that working well?"
Michele: "Yep, because we sit down with the parents quite a bit and talk to them, we sit with the teachers regularly and we also interview the children. The thing we didn't realise is that the little children, aged 4-10, were taking home the practices that they were learning from yoga and tried to teach their siblings and their parents. And we were like 'yeah!' - without us saying to do it, they just went and shared it, as part of what they were doing in the school day. The other aspect is that the things we teach in our school aren't taught in the local government school like things about hygiene, and hygiene's a huge problem because they don't have running water in the homes. They all go to a town well and pump the water, put it in buckets... so they're going to conserve the water obviously, but they didn't understand things like washing your hands before you prepare food. They all know about washing their hands after using the toilet, which they do in a field, but they don't know about washing your hands before you eat and prepare food. They basically believe that the left hand is for cleaning yourself and the right hand is for eating, and if you do that then 'you're fine'... and well, children are obviously playing and so on. And they also didn't have any routines of oral hygiene. So there was no cleaning of the teeth. So we give them tooth brushes, and that's part of what the generous people here in the UK are constantly providing which we then take out with us. We're able to give it to the children in their school but also to the adults in the community so they can start. But yeah they all have the brightest, whitest teeth and it's like nature has a way of like taking care of these things - they use things like sticks, they chew on it and that helps to clean the teeth in a different way."
Ally: "So is it through donations in the UK that these kinds of things are provided?"
Michele: "Yeah, so there are financial donations and product-based donations that we receive, and the funding goes either to keeping the school running - the only people in both charities that get paid are the teachers in the school, no body else is paid, everybody else in a volunteer. So the money that we raise goes to keep the school running and we have a relationship with the owners where we only pay £10 per month for rent for 99 years so we don't have any burden of land cost, and the donations have also gone towards funding the construction of the school. After five years, we've just now fitted the whole school with seven classrooms, there's an office, there are toilet facilities for boys and girls which they don't even have at home, and there's a beautiful playground with all kinds of playground equipment... They come for five and a half days a week, Saturday's a half day, and in the beginning they used to show up on Sunday morning as well because they didn't understand 'no school on Sunday' - kinda breaks your heart! And yoga and meditation are crucial to the curriculum and to their development, which is the first and second class of each school day for the whole school. There's a beautiful hall, like a general assembly hall - no walls but luckily there are no weather problems there - and the whole school goes into the hall for yoga and meditation practice. They also use the hall for lunch, and we also use the hall as a community hall so it's also used by the greater community, for cultural events, for meetings, for fun activities as well for the adults.
Ally: "So is this school instead of a school that they'd otherwise go to in one of the villages nearby?"
Michele: "If their families could afford it - because they still have a small fee to pay to go to the government school - they would go there. Mostly the girls would not; the girls would stay with their mothers who work in the fields. Some girls do go to the government school, with no problems, families find the money to be able to send them there but in the cases of the children that we've selected to come to our school, the majority of them may not have been able to go to school if they're girls. We also take boys; we want to educate both, to be able to change the mentality. It's quite common for a girl to be given away at the age of fifteen to be married, and we need boys to understand that there are other ways, and that there are other options of life. The parents of these children often don't have an education themselves and if they do it may only be to the fifth grade, to year five, so until the age of 10. So, these children will go beyond their parents, actually, in their education."
Ally: "It's good to see that change over generations."
Michele: "Yeah exactly, and Yogi's got an amazing vision. He also says though that it'll take probably another generation for the impact to be really felt, so the grandchildren of these children will probably be the ones that actually, more largely, will benefit. But there will be still a couple in this group that benefit, and at the end of the day if they end up having a happy childhood, that's really what we want for them."
Ally: "What's the biggest change that you've seen in any child, or children, over the time that they've been in the school? Mentally, physically, emotionally?"
Michele: "The biggest change is in their behaviour. They are much calmer and relaxed. They used to be like bouncing energy, really erratic, and now they're very calm which means they can sit and learn and focus and concentrate, and they can use left brain and right brain, and be able to actually make something for themselves. So their behaviour has changed dramatically. The bad behaviour that I witnessed when I first met the oldest kids in the school, was down to no structure, and malnutrition. So by being able to actually help them have a healthy body, they can have a healthy mind."
Ally: "Yeah and getting a hot meal every day must make a huge difference."
Michele: "A huge difference definitely. The charity, beyond the school, also has health programs. So, there are over 400 adults in the community being affected every year right now, and growing, in our health programs. They'll come to be able to get natural treatments, they'll come to be able to talk about women's wellness which they've never had, and because the doctor's quite consistent to them, women have found ways to be able to talk about more serious issues that they're having in their homes, because they have been able to gain her [the doctors'] trust."
Ally: "So they've been able to build relationship with her"
Michele: "Exactly. And I have gone with the doctor to visit some of those women, and it's pretty heart-breaking, some of the things that they have to endure in the home at the hands of other women because it's usually their mother-in-laws who are ruling the house and treating the daughter and mum like slaves. And then the generation repeats and it's unbelievable. But now, they're starting to realise that that's not the way of the world, that there are other options even for them, but they have to be careful and find their way, in the right time, to be able to ask for help. Fortunately we have a female doctor on site and she's there for them. And there's also a high alcohol rate which is really hard to believe - they're so poor, and so what the men drink is something that's like pure alcohol, that fries their brain, and this is in an community where they don't have a lot. Like we have lots of access to things, to be entertained, to meet with friends, to meet with family, in a healthy environment... they don't really have anything. They work, they sleep, they work, they sleep. And the work will be out in the fields."
Ally: "So is the alcohol almost like their distraction from that, or the only thing they really have for 'downtime'?"
Michele: "It's their entertainment. And then that fuels other problems, their anger..."
Ally: "I can imagine, that must be an unsafe environment to be in."
Michele: "Yeah. And this community hall becomes a centre point for us to be able to have other things. We're planning to start a cinema night. So the day that they like to drink, which is Sunday, will be the day we want them to come together and watch a film, or listen to some music, or dance, or play dominos, or cards, play the games that kids are playing, anything to give them an option, something else to do besides having a drink. The women don't do it, actually, it's the men."
Ally: "The drinking?"
Michele: "Yeah, the women are hard-working. If you give the women the money, they make sure it goes to the family. If you give the man the money, he drinks it. So these are things that we're trying to change, the behaviour in the adults, and we're doing it through education of the adults as well as the children, so that the children will see it as not acceptable, but we have to be careful to find a balance. We work with the local community very much, because we're here to run a charity. We're not here to actually evoke the program because we're not there. We don't live what they live. So we have to be respectful of the community and of their social structure. Social structure there is governed by cast - whatever cast you're in determines your level in society. The two villages we serve are the two lowest casts, and yet, when we opened the school, the one cast that was slightly above and higher than the other didn't want their children going to school with the other village, with the other cast. And we said OK no school. Because you don't segregate based on cast or religion, or a financial status or colour. You don't discriminate. You have to treat everybody equally. That was a strong ethos of the charity and so when we brought that to the village, which is what caused the problems in the north actually, they didn't want to mix, so we said here from the get-go 'no school, if you're going to segregate. We're not taking just one over the other'."
Ally: "So they chose the school over the discrimination and segregation?"
Michele: "They chose the school. I think that other charities must have been involved in the past because they were suspicious of us. They were thinking, because we provide the education for free, that either we would come in and use it to our advantage and then shove off when we got what we wanted, or that we would eventually start charging them. And neither of those things have occurred. Now we're going to be starting the fifth school year, and they're wanting to know how they can get more involved, and how they can send more kids, and what are we going to do when the kids that are there at the top of the grade level need to go to the next level of education."
Ally: "So do you have any ideas about that?"
Michele: "Yeah, secondary school is definitely in our business plan. We will go about it in the same way we went about it for the primary school. We have to have more land, because there is a requirement that for a secondary school you have to have three acres of land and we don't have enough to be able to allocate to the school in the way they need it, so we have to acquire land. And then we will build one classroom at a time, just like we did the primary school, so that over the next period we will be able to have it. Failing that, if we don't have the funding that we need by this time next year, then we'll make sure that those kids get a secondary education through scholarship. But, our desire is to build a secondary school, because what we teach in our school with yoga and meditation and with golden hour - where they have one hour, they can work across all the grades, it doesn't matter what level they're at, they can do something creative and fun."
Ally: "Everything the charity is doing there sounds brilliant, and so beneficial. So, for us here in the UK, what is it that we can do today to help? Can we donate online for example?"
Michele: "Yeah anyone can donate online. Paypaldonations@atcharity.org is our PayPal account. They can donate one-off, they can set up a monthly payment, or direct debit, that sort of thing whatever they want. That's a really simple, easy way to do it online to be able to help, because at the end of the day we obviously need funding to be able to do this. We also look for volunteers, so all the teachers volunteer their time to be able to hold weekly classes here in the UK, we work with yoga studies who allocate space to us for free to be able to hold sessions, so, if somebody has a skill or access to a property or something where they can provide a resource to the charity, that's another way to be able to help. One of the big projects here is to be able to find our own location now, because we want to be able to have our own place where people can come to us."
Ally: "So it's been in different locations, across London, so far?"
Michele: "It has been, yeah. It's been very mobile, and remote, wherever our teachers are they will set something up, which we'll continue. But, we also want to be able to have something that we can rent, to be able to offer a space where people can come and practice, and also provide some guidance and support for them to be able to get back into the workplace if they're out of work, or helping students outside of their peer group come in to meditate, to be able to figure out how to face things and the challenges of being a teenager - all of those sorts of things. The last way that people can help is in the office behind the scenes. You know, we are running like a business, and we know that we need to be more active in the digital world and online. We just need hands and fingers on keyboards helping us with our website. It helps to create awareness. And we feel that if we have this centre, this location, that will naturally be developed. It won't just be coming to a yoga class - it'll be coming to a yoga class, hanging out, spending time with people and building a community."
Ally: "That's great, thank you. And thank you so much for your time today this has been so insightful and I'm sure it will be to many others, too."
Michele: "Thank you, thank you for stopping by, I really appreciate it!"
That's all for now on Mind Body Spirit Festival - I hope to see some of you there next year! A huge thank you to Whole Influence for the opportunity to attend this incredible day, and to Equinox Kombucha and Melvyn Carlile for the little collection of goodies. (This post is not sponsored - just a whole lot of lovely people coming together to do wonderful things).
Love, Ally x