I went to a music festival for the first time, at 31-years-old. Here’s what I learned.
You know that one friend who’s a vegetarian, refers to their Chihuahua as a child, believes in magic (with a K) and talks about living off the grid in a tiny home?
Well, that’s me. I know...so original. 🤷
And naturally, you wouldn’t be surprised if you saw that friend posting photos from their road-trip to some hippie music festival like Afropunk, right?
Unless, again, that friend is me.
In my defense, it wasn’t for lack of trying. My financial stars just never aligned in Afropunk's favor. Thank you Sallie Mae!
Fast-forward past my twenties, to 2018, and somehow I'm walking through the pearly gates of Okeechobee Music & Arts Festival. It's more Coachella than Afropunk but Khalid and Sylvan Esso were on the bill, so I was all in!
Reflecting back on the festival, I wasn’t surprised at the constant smoke of marijuana in the air, security chasing a naked girl into a port-a-potty or even the handful of toddlers sporting oversized noise-canceling headphones.
Do those things even work?
What did surprise me was that after four days of roaming around 800+ acres of festival madness, under a grueling Florida Sun; I learned a thing or two.
1. PLANS ARE FOR AMATEURS
In full-planning mode and a bit anxious, I made a schedule filled with a little of everything. I had musical acts Snoop Dogg & Chaka Khan written down and annotations next to "can't miss" workshops like Astral Travel and The Power of Ritual and Astronomical Tunings for Healing & Transformation. I also had an eye out for The Lost Village: a place where hammocks canvassed a mini forest and a man typed-out poems in a tiny wooden shed that he barely fit in.
Of the twenty-something experiences on my list, I made it to five.
What I didn’t know then but soon realized was that when you’re at Okee, as it’s so affectionately called by festivalgoers, there is no plan. You just go with the flow.
And go with the flow I did – back to the same spot. Repeatedly. A huge outdoor tent dubbed Yogachobee that was dedicated to yoga, holistic healing, metaphysical teachings and transformation. It’s where the magic happened. ✨✨✨
On the first night of the festival, I dropped in on a laughter yoga workshop happening under the Yogachobee tent. And I can tell you that I wasn’t ready for it. I laughed at the absurdity of forced laughter and the cliché of it happening at a “hipster” music festival. (Are the kids even saying hipster now-a-days?)
I tried to laugh and it felt really awkward, but I kept on laughing – knowing for sure at any moment I'd start to buy into it all.
As the class came to an end, we all laid in savasana on the chilly grass that shook from the bass of the concert happening about 100 feet away. The vibrations shook our bodies, yet it seemed to bother no one.
As I laid there trying not to think of anything, I overheard a couple, a few feet away from me, talking about some pretty esoteric stuff. Curious to hear more, I slid my way toward them and introduced myself.
Catrice Helen, a 29-year-old from Arizona, was in a one-piece, cut-out on the sides, metallic bikini with half-up, half-down grey ombre pigtails. Carson Koenig, 27, from North Carolina and half of the rap duo Kick and Casonka, was laid out beside Catrice on the floor, shirtless. I would discover later that they had only known each other for ten minutes before I slid into the picture. And yet, there was a familiarity between them that mimicked a tested and true friendship.
I didn't intend on taking that laughter yoga class and they didn't know each other 10 minutes prior and yet there we were, three strangers on a blanket looking at each other and smiling.
2. SOMETIMES YOU’RE ON A SELF-JOURNEY, AND SOMETIMES YOUR INCOME-TAX CHECK COMES THROUGH FOR THE WIN
I asked them why they came to the festival.
Catrice looked me straight in the eye, and without hesitation proceeded to tell me: “The self-journey through Okeechobee that everyone experiences… but they’re so vulnerable with everybody else. They’re willing to share that experience with you and help you grow as a person. Like literally, they just step out on a limb and they don’t know you. They don’t know you and they’re building you up. Like, they’re building up your self-image and they don’t even realize. They’re just like existing as like awesome human beings.”
Carson looks at Catrice, just as intrigued as I was, and asks if she’s been here before. She says no, that her throat chakra is open and double active.
Carson’s reason for coming, like many others I spoke to, was simpler.
“Well, I got my tax refund so I could afford the ticket.”
We laughed and I probed him a little more. I wondered what he hoped to achieve in coming to the festival.
He told me he wanted to go to a Festival “with a lot of trees. Even when big artists are performing I go chill by the trees. I like to have that option,” he said.
Sometimes it’s just about opportunity and the weighing the pros and cons. It was simple math for Carson. He had the money and Okeechobee Music & Arts festival had the scenery he craved.
In listening to their answers, I started to questioned my motive for being there. Yeah, sure I got press passes to take pictures and make cool Instagram Stories, but I too wanted to lose myself in the unknown and connect – with something…anything. I had one foot in Catrice’s boat and another in Carson’s.
3. VULNERABILITY CAN BE CATHARTIC
The next day during Brooke Rosen’s Stillness Meditation workshop, an emotional young lady expressed her frustrations with having to restrict her lively personality to fit the ideal of what a yogi should be. Another young lady urged us to be mindful of our use of plastic to protect the oceans. A man just wanted to thank Brooke and the community for providing space for him to be still, something he hadn’t done in a while and needed. Toward the end, a young lady confessed to not being happy with who she is and not knowing what to do about it. Brooke advised her to drop into her feelings and to be present with her emotions, instead of trying to work through it mentally. To be uncomfortable with those feelings, and with time she would move passed and grow from it.
After the workshop that young lady was flanked by other young women giving her hugs and words of encouragement. I was drawn to her as well - grabbing her hand and telling her to give herself some love and benefit of the doubt.
Tears came to her eyes – prompting mines to swell.
Again, I did not know her. None of us did. And there under that magical tent, we provided space for her to be vulnerable and to start healing. That hour of active feeling and intentional listening allowed me to let my guard down and be present in that moment with everyone. And to provide hugs and smiles to those who were unpacking some serious baggage.
Yogachobee was starting to chip away at those tightly cemented bricks in that 10-foot wall I dragged along with me.
4. YOU CAN’T LET FEAR DICTATE YOUR LIFE
An hour earlier, Daniel Iglesias, 23, a part-time teacher at Mathnasium from Lake Worth set out from camp with plans to check out some of the musical acts, but somehow ended up learning how to make pine needle baskets under the Yogachobee tent. He was nervous to come to Okee, his first festival, but he came anyway – car camping by himself with just a tent.
“It’s worked out really well. I’ve made a lot of friends here. Everybody’s really friendly,” he said.
He surprised himself, by sitting in one place, focusing all his attention on basket weaving: something he had never done prior to that day.
On the opposite side of the experience was Kayla West, 22, from North Carolina who came with a large group of people with about 13 cars among them. Out of those 30 people, she only knew one.
She cheerfully tells me that arts and crafts is her thing and that the lilac top she is wearing, with swirls of what looked to be roses, was something she’d made herself. Her basket weaving was impeccable. She could’ve told me that she did this for a living and I would’ve believed her.
She’s grown since her last music festival, exploring and discovering the independent side of herself.
“I’ve left the campsite by myself multiple times and I’ve done this by myself. I did acro-yoga by myself yesterday too, met random people and hung out last night too,” she said.
Daniel and Kayla made me smile, because I left that conversation feeling proud of them. Proud that they had, in their own ways, conquered fear and uncertainty. Daniel, only 21, and full of anxiety – packed his car and drove the, give or take, 70 miles from Lake Worth to Okeechobee by himself. Kayla drove over 700 miles south from North Carolina - only knowing 1 of the 30 people she came with.
That’s badass if you ask me.
I was like a proud big sister, wanting to give them a big hug and life advice. I wondered, was it Yogachobee’s magical effect or was it the raging hormones of being in my thirties and all sudden wanting to be everyone’s momma? Seriously, what’s up with that?
5. YOU GET WHAT YOU GIVE - TEN-FOLD
By the last day, I was waving and putting names to the faces I had met days before, dishing out compliments left and right, sharing food with strangers and dancing whenever the opportunity presented itself – which at Okee – is always.
I wrapped up my Yogachobee experience with a lesson in the Alchemy of Love & Relationships: The Kabalistic Approach by Eugene Gant.
And this time I was ready for it.
Eugene, a charismatic yoga and meditation instructor who doesn’t believe in soulmates, guided us through the intricacies of love using movement, mantras, astrology and a little magick.
“Aren’t words fucking awesome? That’s why I practice Naamm yoga. Naam means the divine word. Literally I practice yoga because sound is everything party people,” he says.
I giggled as I chanted, raised my hands above my head, to my waist, to my toes, then out to the right and the left. We shook our bodies, walked around and laid on our backs while we kicked our hands and feet feverishly in the air. This movement mixed with a mudrā was meant to activate the nervous system in our body. Once activated, we would receive and store the information he gave us.
“Everybody that’s ready to learn some love ninja Jedi tricks put your arms and hands in the air!” he yells out to us.
And the crowd went wild.
That’s how it was for the next hour and a half — a mix of metaphoric lessons and infectious charm that had the woman next to me saying R-rated things I cannot repeat. Sorry, folks.
One minute he was explaining how love is like having expectations of others by digging for oil in their backyard, when it’s been in yours the whole time. The next, he was singing, “What is love?” by Haddaway.
According to his seven-day love method, born on a Wednesday and ruled by Mercury I’m an expert communicator, super funny, great in business, marketing and apparently, a big liar. I laughed, because when I considered these qualities comprehensively, as he suggests, they are true with two tiny edits. Communication is the one thing I struggle with and meditate on a lot. I sometimes feel like people don’t understand my style of communicating. I don’t relate to the lying part because I’m not big on lying to others, but I do abhor when others lie to me.
We closed out the workshop with a group meditation exercise where we stood in a circle and used our hands to physically push the energy of love toward people in the center who needed healing. Sort of like going to the altar in church and praying over those who are giving themselves to Christ.
In that circle, we pushed our hands outward to the people in the middle while chanting “only love” repeatedly. As we chanted, Eugene snuck away to his lap-top and pressed play on a song of him, singing the same song. We quickly merged into a devotional choir. We were all in the church of love, right under that tent.
And as we’re all singing and loving all over one another, he tells us to reach our hands toward the skies, and breathe deep.
There’s silence as he turns down the music.
Then out of nowhere, he busted into laughter. Caught off guard and truly pickled – we all laughed with him.
At that moment, I came full circle. From the awkward, forced laughter of the first day to genuine cackling, from silently judging others to giving my love away for free, from walking into spaces of healing feeling guarded to crying with strangers, from showing up with a bag full of plans and expectations to unpacking it all and walking away a lighter and more carefree version of myself.