‘When I was 19 my life changed forever after meeting Dr Ivor Browne’

An unexpected encounter led to a lifelong passion for yoga – and a new festival

When I was 19, my life simply but abruptly changed forever. It was at this time that I met a family friend whose words and guidance changed the course of my life. I knew Dr Ivor Browne was a psychiatrist but he seemed to have no interest in my long and exhaustive list of teenage complaints. Instead, his question took me off guard: "Would you like to learn to meditate?"

I agreed and we spent the next eight weeks meeting in his garden where he taught me meditation. That’s all we talked of. Meditation. It was this unexpected encounter that sparked in me a lifelong passion for yoga.

Shortly afterwards, I was inspired to go to India to travel further along this intriguing path, which I knew nearly nothing about. More than 25 years later I continue to travel, learn and explore. I continually recognise that I was fortunate as a teenager to have met a wise man who taught me about the workings of the mind from both a scientific and spiritual perspective.

I continued to travel throughout my 20s where another unexpected encounter changed my life again. I discovered a beautiful island in Thailand that is now famous for its full moon parties. After a disappointing experience at one of these parties, I took a hike through dense jungle and found myself on an isolated paradise beach. This beach was to become my second home in the world and remains so today.

Everyone that I met in this exceptional place shared a deep appreciation for the beauty of the natural world, and they lived a life of freedom where dancing all night under the stars was as much a part of life as eating and sleeping. The focus of this community was the (now world-famous) Sanctuary Resort, founded by people who wanted to live a life of healthy spiritual living mixed with the joy of dance and parties. In the garden of the Sanctuary I met Randall O’Leary, an American, who was living there and working in the garden. He mentioned there was morning yoga classes.

When I arrived at the class the next day, it was Randall who was teaching it. In those morning yoga sessions, I learned that yoga was not just unusual movements done in a class but a holistic lifestyle that supports and guides a person every step along life’s pathways. Absorbing these lessons, my life began to find a healthy and satisfying groove and has never been the same since. Randall has since become a dear and lifelong friend and now collaborator on my project The Celtic Woodland Yoga Festival.

Unique and magical

Over the years, the Sanctuary in Thailand has become a global hub of healers, yogis, filmmakers (of which I am one), entrepreneurs, artists, musicians, scientist and wanderers alike. Many of us who started our journey at the Sanctuary years ago have since become teachers there, leading classes and retreats of all kinds, including yoga and meditation.

Meanwhile, the island of Bali has gradually established itself on the world map as a place to go to study and experience yoga and spiritual practice. In recent years, I have become a presenter at the Bali Spirit Festival, a unique and magical gathering.

The Bali Spirit Festival became the inspiration for the Celtic Woodland Yoga Festival. The festival creators became my friends and encouraged me to create a festival in my home country, to bring yoga and healthy living to Ireland. While people carrying yoga mats are a delightfully common sight in this country, I decided it was time that we embraced yoga even further with a dedicated festival.

Our hope is to create an intimate event that is close to nature. After a visit to Townley Hall in Louth last year with a friend (the owner of Little Bird Yoga Studio in Dublin), I knew this was the place I had to gather talented yoga teachers, and along the way create something powerful and unique. The area has such a rich history and is a perfect place to explore not just yoga but celtic culture.

Yoga is a practice for all. It is not a religion. It is food for the soul, concerned not just with the physical expression of postures and breath, but with the cultivation of awareness through individual consciousness.

Group consciousness

After years of practice it often becomes less about the individual and more about the group consciousness. For this reason, I felt it was time for us to get together in Ireland and share wisdom, laughs and community with other environmentally conscious people. Thankfully with years behind me in film production I have a lot of training in how to put together big productions and that has been very useful. The Celtic Woodlands Yoga Festival will be a gathering of 25 senior international and Irish teachers and healers, bringing the wisdom teachings of yoga to suit all levels of practice. We hope it will be a time to gather in nature to connect, play and learn.

A big part of our small and intimate festival is immersion and connection with nature. Nature is the teacher within – in our own body rhythms and feelings – as well as the teacher without, in the cycles of nature, the sun and the moon.

Deforestation in Ireland and across the planet has become a huge factor in the climate emergency that we are all now facing. If we can collectively plant a trillion trees in the next 10 years, it can create sweeping change and help rebalance our carbon emissions and the health of the planet.

With this in mind, for every person who attends the festival we will plant an indigenous tree. Matthew Jebb, the director of the National Botanic Gardens, has been our adviser on this element of the festival. Our hosts at Townley Hall, the School of Philosophy, are also supporting this initiative. We plan to grow this reforestation part of the festival over the coming years.

Recently a journalist asked me if Ireland is ready for an event like this. My answer? If our head of state, the President Michael D Higgins is openly a yoga enthusiast, then surely as a nation we should follow his lead. So yes, I think Ireland is ready. And we will have a presidential yoga mat rolled out for the Higgins, should he accept this invitation to become guest of honour at our festival.

The Celtic Woodland Yoga Festival takes place on July 19-22at Townley Hall, Ardagh, Co Louth. See yogadeep.com for more details