Need a digital detox? Restival is a radical new mindfulness festival that may change your life

 
Laura Ivill

Most travellers arriving in Flagstaff, Arizona, come to explore the Grand Canyon, but not me. My destination was the high plains of the Painted Desert, a dry and barren landscape on the edge of the Navajo Nation Reservation. I would leave a different person.

I’d come for Restival, a mind, body and spirit festival taking place over five nights in the wilderness. Fewer than 100 people were in attendance, mostly thirty-something women. I’d packed for the heat of the day, the cold of the night and the dry desert winds, and most importantly I’d brought a curious mind, open to new experiences.

First, a confession. I’m averse to the thousands-strong music festival. I went to Glastonbury once and our tent blew down in a thunderstorm. But Restival is a different beast entirely. The “rest” half of the portmanteau refers to a respite from technology, a digital detox and a break from the dopamine pings of the smartphone. With the looming threat of no wifi and an emergency-only phone, I’d scrambled to get all my work commitments done before I left, setting up my first-ever out-of-office email. There was also a Restival photographer on hand, so I didn’t even have to carry my phone for pictures. It was liberating. Nobody could bury their head in their screens, instead they turned their focus outwards.

I didn’t miss the phone at all (except as a watch), and I felt my shoulders soften and relax after being hunched over a keyboard for so many hours a day for so many years.

It is this modern addiction that inspired Restival founder Caroline Jones to create the festival. “I was on the tube in 2014 surrounded by City workers trying to get a signal underground,” she says. “I recognised that we were becoming addicted to technology.” Building on her 15 years’ experience in the music industry, Caroline set out to work with local people to organise leave-no-trace, eco-luxe retreats that would “help reconnect us with ourselves”. The inaugural Restival in 2015 was in the Sahara with the Berber people. The 2016 and 2017 events were here at Gateway Ranch with the Navajo.

Accommodation – in teepees and tents – is either shared or private. Next to my own spacious tent was another huge one: my private washroom with porcelain loo, basin and hot shower. No traipsing across the camp in the middle of the night. However, as it turned out, my VIP facilities didn’t go unnoticed. A fellow camper sussed my daily routine of leaving for 6:45am yoga, and I returned one morning to find that this mystery guest had used not only my sink, my shower and my soap, but left a huge blockage in my loo.

But that first night, as I stepped into the desert, the only smells were the earth: dark, gritty and charred. They call it cinder, a soft ground-up mixture of sandstone and volcanic lava, whipped together over millennia by winds into a powder that blows across featureless scrub, unfenced and untroubled by a single tree. Above me the Milky Way blazed.

The next morning, unzipping my tent at dawn, the dial had turned, the stars had gone, and the scene had transformed into a cloudless sky turning from pre-dawn blue to morning gold. I was in the swing of it, getting back to nature.

Each day there were timetabled workshops and activities. Jones has a little black book of international teachers, healers, practitioners, therapists and coaches, whose free classes, workshops and taster sessions took place from morning till night. Alongside this was the spa, where guests could, for a fee, indulge in age-old and cutting-edge treatments and therapies, from traditional Navajo healing, to sound therapy, acupuncture, Thai massage, crystal healing, career and life-planning, etcetera, etcetera.

There’s too much to do in one visit. I couldn’t fit in the Navajo horse whisperer, the meditation course, the creative writing and story-telling workshops, or the mural painting afternoons with local artists. However, I listened to the Navajo statesman, Thomas Walker, talk about the art of peacemaking and I took the trip to his home on the Reservation. I joined the seminar led by the women’s executive coach Anne Loyd from Putney on love and relationships, something I would usually steer clear of, but in this “safe space” I felt brave enough to dive in. I found her to be sympathetic and knowledgeable, so I booked a one-to-one.

For our session, we sat in one of the isolated sculptures on the ranch (some had come from Burning Man), and talked about the breakdown of family communications, about finding the “authentic self” and how I can speak from the heart rather than saying what I think people want to hear. I can get inexplicably tearful, so I sometimes clam up. I wanted to find tools to break this pattern, and, in an isolated steel pod in the Arizona desert, I feel like I made some progress.

Communication thereafter took centre stage. I reflected on how I’d chosen the Thai massage taster as my first workshop, and that perhaps the awkwardness of touching a stranger, and another woman at that, had actually been the first steps towards freeing social constraints and opening myself up to new horizons.

I didn’t miss the phone at all (except as a watch), and I felt my shoulders soften and relax after being hunched over a keyboard for so many hours a day for so many years.

I filled my time with wellness sessions, and quickly came to realise what a uniquely curated group of practitioners were here. Jeneda Benally is one of only a handful of practitioners skilled in traditional Navajo bodywork (a combination of osteo/chiro/energy practices). She gave me a hands-on, full-body tune-up, smoothing out my knots, kinks and niggles from head to toe, hitting every stubborn spot.

She recommended seeing Karin Pine for my chronic neck tension and a recent lower-back injury. Karin, who practices at Tecopa Hot Springs on the outskirts of the Mojave desert, has pioneered a form of fascial release called UnDoing Bodywork, which helped me to soften and reset.

The early morning kundalini yoga with Amar Atma from Reno was also a joy. What a wonderful way to start the day: in a small group on top of a hill in the groovy Temple of Life, wrapped against the desert cold in a poncho, blanket and hat, singing and chanting together in excruciating yet uplifting mind-over-matter yoga sets, all guided by Amar’s kundalini wisdom.

Our last morning of yoga was themed around “polarity”, and in our 90-minute practice we experienced being both soft and strong, emotional and steely. New thoughts tumbled forward, and in that moment, the idea of engaging with the strength and sensitivity found in all of us, which Thomas Walker had expressed as the heart of peacemaking, made complete sense.

Ready to leave, Walker thanked us all for spending time with his tribe in their homeland. “Where you walk, the earth does not forget you,” he said.

Restival takes place in the UK in 2018, on Osea private island, Essex, between 23-26 March.

Doubles start from from £1,187 per person.

The festival will then take place at Joshua Tree National Park, California, in May 2018.

To find out more visit restivalglobal.com

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