Note: A shorter version of this story ran in the Los Angeles Times.
On a crisp summer night, beneath a bright half-moon that illuminates the cliffs of Squaw Valley’s dramatic “Tram face,” MC Yogi, a yoga teacher and DJ from San Francisco exhorts a crowd of several thousand to “Take a deep breath and let it all out.” Then, “Say namaste!” he shouts into his microphone. The crowd, which had been doing both all day long, does them again anyway. But this time they also raise a collective glass, and call out with enthusiasm not usually displayed by a bunch of lithe-bodied Lululemon-clad yoginis.
Welcome to the Wanderlust Festival.
This four-day yoga-retreat-by-day, dance-party-by-night is the sort of event that could only happen if a pair of indie rock producers shared office space with an internationally renowned yoga teacher. Which is exactly how Wanderlust was born.
About five years ago, “We realized that there is a crowd that likes to dance and drink, but they are also serious about their yoga,” says co-founder Jeff Krasno, who conceived of the festival with his yoga-instructor wife Schuyler Grant, and college band-mate and business partner Sean Hoess.
That first event, held in Lake Tahoe, featured mostly traditional yoga classes and lectures during the day and music at night. Four years later, Wanderlust is taking on a life of its own, say the founders. “Each year more artists show up — they create temporary art installations around the grounds — and we’ve added some alternative yoga offerings. Classes like slack-line yoga and hoops yoga (a combination of yoga, hula hooping and dancing) are packed. “We throw in things you can’t do at your local studio,” says Hoess. Stand-up paddle board yoga, anyone?
This year’s Wanderlust line-up featured hundreds of yoga classes, lectures on topics such as “Living Truth,” and “Writing for My Life,” meditation hikes, music workshops, and special events such as river rafting. Many of the instructors are stars of the western yoga world — e.g., Shiva Rae, Seane Corn, Baron Baptiste, and Jonny Kest — who pack as many as 600 people onto mats under huge tents that shield the high-altitude sun. (Most classes have many fewer participants.)
Wanderlust has been more successful than Krasno, Hoess, and Grant could have imagined. Today there are multi-day festivals in Lake Tahoe, Vermont, Colorado and British Columbia, plus one-day events in Santa Monica (September 9), San Francisco and the founders’ hometown, New York City. This year, the four-day Tahoe event saw some 14,000 people attend yoga and meditation classes, listen to music, and wander among the temporary boutiques set up in the ski resort’s village, which is usually very quiet during the summer months.
“Wanderlust brings a super colorful crowd to Tahoe and the event is an eclectic jumble of art, music, food and culture,” says Alex Cox, owner of 22 Bistro, a restaurant at the entrance to the village. Cox says the weekend is his busiest of the entire summer. “Whether you want to party and dance into the wee hours or do yoga at the crack of dawn, it’s all here,” he says.
“Wanderlust is so much more than just yoga,” agrees Patti Battram, a travel agent who traveled from Raleigh, North Carolina to attend. Battram sat soaking in a hot tub, having taken three classes earlier in the day, and told a reporter that she was looking forward to attending a sunset meditation hike, accompanied by composer and bassist Garth Stevenson. Battram also plans to attend Wanderlust Whistler, later this month.
“I like the part of the Wanderlust message that you can practice yoga and still enjoy life,” says Sara Ivanhoe, a first-time Wanderlust instructor who does most of her teaching at YogaWorks’ Santa Monica locations. “In our culture we have lost sight of the fact that the practice of yoga is meant to serve us and make us feel better, spiritually and physically,” she says. “Yoga shouldn’t be punishment, it shouldn’t be about whether you are doing it ‘correctly,’” she says. “I’ll definitely be back next year.”
There are critics of the Wanderlust ethos, but at least one changed his mind after he experienced the event. “When I first heard about the concept, I was not disappointed that I wasn’t invited to teach,” says Rod Stryker, an Aspen, Colo.-based yoga and meditation instructor. Stryker had reservations because “It was hard to tell what Wanderlust was, and I wondered how much yoga would there really be.”
But when a few friends, and teachers whom he respects told him that he ‘had’ to go, he decided to participate. “I was more than pleasantly surprised,” he says. Stryker notes that “modern yoga is very hard and at Wanderlust people can work a little less hard and experience something different, something festive.” This was his second time at Wanderlust Lake Tahoe and he also plans to return in 2013.
Plus, Stryker adds, “If we opened yoga to only people with no vices, no one would do yoga.”
After MC Yogi has left the stage, Ziggy Marley walks out with his band and plumes of marijuana smoke rise like steam from one of the nearby hot tubs. Everyone breathes in, once more, with feeling. Tonight they might let loose, but tomorrow they’ll be lined up before 8:00 a.m., ready for another dose of downward facing dog.