Yoga everywhere: Finding your zen at a lifestyle festival

Carla Carlson of Santa Cruz participates in an aerial yoga class at the Wanderlust camp earlier this month at Squaw Valley. Participants pay about $500 for the lifestyle festival.
Carla Carlson of Santa Cruz participates in an aerial yoga class at the Wanderlust camp earlier this month at Squaw Valley. Participants pay about $500 for the lifestyle festival.

In a massive tent on the grounds of Lake Tahoe’s Squaw Valley ski resort, a woman in a white turban sat cross-legged on a small stage, looking out calmly at her hundred or so students before mouthing one sacred word: “shake.”

“We shake to get healthy,” her voice boomed throughout the tent. “We shake to get happy. We shake to get holy.”

And they did. For 24 minutes, members of the Kundalini yoga class closed their eyes, threw their heads back in exaltation and shook with such vigor that droplets of sweat sprung from their skin into the cool mountain air. They waved their arms, jangled their legs and shimmied their shoulders as if possessed by some primal force, bending and flailing as the drums continued to pound.

The students had only been at the Wanderlust yoga and lifestyle festival for a few short hours, and already they seemed transformed by the divine tone – and ultra-healthy focus.

While not exactly religious, Wanderlust, like the other lifestyle festivals popping up around the globe, emphasizes a sense of balance and presence that’s increasingly in scarce supply in our digital age. For about $500, attendees take yoga classes, listen to live music, meditate, attend health lectures and purchase all the organic food and clothing needed to find their true paths in life.

Centered around yoga and health, lifestyle festivals such as Wanderlust, the Telluride Yoga Festival and Bhakti Fest have gained momentum in recent years. Wanderlust gives the eco-obsessed Whole Foods crowd a chance to return to nature (and Tweet about it), while also drawing a contingent of devout yoga practitioners, or “yogis,” who wander the grounds in a sort of spiritual trance, drawing earth mandalas in the dirt and showing off their dreadlocks.

Sean Hoess, who co-founded Wanderlust in 2009, compares the mostly outdoor event to a “music festival for grown-ups.” The Squaw festival, the flagship Wanderlust event and the biggest of all its festivals around the globe, draws about 5,000 revelers on its biggest days.

“It’s got that summer camp element where you’re participating in these activities and there’s music, but we shed some of the less savory elements of music festivals,” he said, referring to binge drinking and heavy drug use. “We’re trying to celebrate something else ... We’re hoping to bring together a group of people who see yoga as a centerpiece for finding the balance in their lives.”

We’re hoping to bring together a group of people who see yoga as a centerpiece for finding the balance in their lives

Sean Hoess, Wanderlust Festival co-founder

The Bee spent a day at Wanderlust Squaw Valley in mid-July, and though we may not have found our higher purpose, we did pick up a few tips for anyone planning to attend the next Wanderlust in British Columbia concluding Aug. 1 or Bhakti Fest West in Joshua Tree National Park this September.

Be open

The best advice that Wanderlust veterans offered for festival newcomers was to be ready for new experiences. After just a few minutes at the venue, you’ll be bombarded with hugs from strangers, free bottles of kombucha and unsolicited advice about how to get in touch with your chakras – the seven energy centers of the body, according to Hindu teachings. You don’t have to drink all of the GMO-free Kool-Aid, but if you go in with a cynical attitude, you’ll quickly be left out of the circle of good vibes.

Hoess recommends turning off the cellphone to encourage human interaction with other attendees. But even participants who Instagram every downward-facing dog are likely to shed some stress and make a few friends, he said.

“You get into the mindset here whether you want to or not,” he said. “You’re going through something when you’re on the mat or the cushion, and when you do that in the presence of others who are in that mindset, it does not take long for you to open up and enter a state which is less guarded than what we generally go through life with.”

Kathy Ellis, 58, said she’s been to Wanderlust at Squaw six times and keeps returning because of the kinship she finds at the festival.

On a group hike led by one of the festival performers, Ellis followed about 30 others into a shaded spot near a woodsy creek, where the intimate group sat in a circle and chatted about what it means to “be present.” Guitarist Elijah Ray played melodies he said were inspired by the sounds of water and wind. Group members danced, held one another, or howled with improvised vocal riffs.

“There’s a bigger picture in this world, and if you let yourself go, you will feel it,” said Ellis, of San Diego. “This is my tribe. There’s really nothing like it.”

Find your outfit

Similar to all-out musical festivals such as Coachella and Outside Lands, having the proper wardrobe at a lifestyle festival is essential. But don’t expect to see denim cutoffs and flower crowns here, as this more enlightened event requires a higher level of fashion.

Many women at Wanderlust donned yoga leggings paired with a sports bra and tank top for an athletic look that was both trendy and functional. Most men showed up in gym shorts with T-shirts or bare chests. Fashionable visitors topped off their outfits with fedoras, canvas backpacks and other chic but down-to-earth accessories.

Some Wanderlust attendees took a more spiritual approach, showing up in free-flowing pants, tunics, head wraps and beaded jewelry that seemed to transcend gender.

Can’t find something to wear? Don’t fret. The festival’s main promenade was host to dozens of vendors selling clothing in both styles.

Learn the greeting

There are no handshakes at Wanderlust festival.

Most attendees greet each other with smiles and hugs, or a zealous high-five if the energy is right.

Some of the more experienced yogis jump straight into a partner yoga pose upon meeting. It can be as simple as a seated leg wrap or as complicated as lifting someone into a vertical handstand, where the top partner balances precariously on the bottom partner’s hands to form a sort of human sculpture.

Mark Stewart, a 23-year-old yoga professional who describes his residence as “nomadic,” said hand-based poses are actually the greetings of choice for acro yogis, or people who practice acrobatic yoga, and slackers, who do yoga on slack lines.

“I climb on everyone – it’s sort of my mission,” he said. “I know my abilities and their abilities and then we do it by feel. It’s such a deeper, more technical skill.”

Sample everything

As any serious yogi will tell you, yoga isn’t just an exercise, it’s a lifestyle.

That was evident at the Kula Market, the bustling heart of the festival where local and corporate vendors peddled eco-friendly clothing, aromatic incense and other health supplies necessary for those who live “the balanced life.”

One booth sold ancient-India-inspired “guru” flip-flops while another offered artisan jewelry designed to “protect, uplift and regenerate its wearer.” A drum circle, sponsored by Kashi granola bars, promised musical bliss and free samples to spare, while a volunteer at a beauty booth offered lotion samples and free haiku poems to anyone willing to step up to her typewriter.

In between sips of kombucha, kefir and tumeric tea, concertgoers could attend a “tribal session” in a shaded tent. There, artists asked their subjects to close their eyes as they brushed a water-based clay all over their arms, face and chest, drawing symbols inspired by Sanskrit, Hebrew and Arabic.

Get your yoga on

No matter what you do at a lifestyle festival, you can’t avoid the yoga.

At Wanderlust, the offerings were as plentiful as the wisdom espoused by the teachers. Traditionalists can say their “oms” and hit their heart poses in the Kundalini class, while more adventurous yogis try something quirkier, such as yoga on a stand-up paddle board or Aireal Yoga, which uses a suspended hammock for optimal stretch.

Even outside of classes, people burst with movement on every corner. Yogis formed human pyramids on the grass, or lumbered across a slack line with acrobatic swagger. As one group enjoyed the mountain sunshine in between sessions, people took turns balancing their bodies on one hand while lauding one another for every hold.

In the square, as a soul-pop musician strummed and beat-boxed, yogis from all corners found partners and launched them toward the sky in impressive contortions. Some grabbed hands and then arms to spin in wild circles while others carefully balanced atop one other like planks of wood. One couple lost themselves in the music entirely, lunging and reaching in an animal-like dance that was part yoga, part Cirque du Soleil.

April La Torre, a yoga instructor from Sacramento who taught at this year’s Wanderlust, called the event a “big playground for yogis.”

“Everyone’s happy,” she said. “There are so many options, you can show up and find whatever you’re looking for.”

Sammy Caiola: 916-321-1636, @SammyCaiola