A hundred of us lie on our backs on the floor of an outdoor auditorium, feet and hands waving in the air like overturned bugs. The breathtaking cliffs surrounding Squaw Valley’s Tram Face tower above. A slender, ethereal-looking woman in a white kurta and headwrap sits cross-legged on the low platform stage, instructing the crowd.
“You’ll be here for the next five minutes,” she calls out matter-of-factly before raising her gentle voice in a mock threat. “Don’t bend your knees. I can see you.” Then she shares the mantra we will chant for the duration, accompanied by a drummer and a harmonium player.
Five minutes turns out to be a surprisingly long time.
As the seconds pass, every one of my muscles starts to shake, the shade from the tent ceiling disappears as the hot sun moves west and the words of the chant start to garble in my mouth. Still, I grin. I am not exactly enjoying myself, but there is something magnificent about the collective trust on display in this California ski valley. And the if-my-friends-could-see-me-now of it all trumps my aching neck.
I am at the Wanderlust Festival in North Lake Tahoe, an annual, multiday summer event that combines daytime yoga workshops with late-night music.
Other Wanderlust events take place throughout the summer at ski villages in Colorado, Vermont and Whistler, BC.
My teacher at the moment is Gurmukh Kaur Khalsa, one of the most renowned U.S. instructors of the kundalini tradition, a physically intensive yoga practice designed to increase spiritual strength by “awakening the kundalini” — or the energy at the base of the spine. Today’s class is called “Clean Sweep Your Mind,” and our collective goal is to unshackle ourselves from worry, self-doubt and toxic thoughts.
It’s a lot to ask of a workshop at a recreational event. In many ways, though, this is exactly what we humans have historically expected from carnivals and festivals: that they will free us from our quotidian selves, if only for a short time.
And as it turns out, a few days of practicing yoga and enjoying live music with an arena-concert-size crowd is a great way to get out of your head.
After dark, the streets of the ski village at Squaw Valley take on a slightly medieval feel, with fires burning in pits and people in flowing clothing drifting about with beers in their hands. Small artists camps have sprung up around the perimeter, several constructed like Bedouin tents with elaborate rugs and pillows and tea urns, selling essential oils and plant remedies.
The party at each nighttime main-stage music event gets pretty wild, with freely imbibing attendees performing acrobatic feats on the dance floor. Even the performers who are self-identified yogis occasionally sing paeans to a certain magical herb.
Still, whatever the evening’s antics, the narrow streets are overtaken by bright-eyed yoga practitioners and baby strollers the following morning. Vendors hawk coconut water and charms of Indian deities. One Japanese car company has erected a “tranquility tent” in the center of the festival marketplace, offering free tea, hair-braiding and mix-your-own yoga-mat spray in exchange for an email address.
A distinct, everyone-is-welcome vibe permeates the air, extending to dreadlocked devotees of Burning Man and middle-age minivan drivers alike.
“We are trying to create a new kind of festival,” explains Jeff Krasno, an indie rock-music producer who cofounded the festival in 2009 with his wife, yoga teacher Schuyler Grant, and business partner, Sean Hoess. “One that’s participatory — where people aren’t just staring at a stage but actively involved in the fabric of what’s going on.”
A four-day Wanderlust pass, which costs $475, gives an attendee access to all the nighttime music events (there were 23 performers at Squaw Valley last year, including Ziggy Marley and Krishna Das) and guarantees three two-hour classes or activities each day. These include yoga seminars with an impressive selection of well-known senior teachers (Seane Corn, Jonny Kest, Rod Stryker) and fledgling prodigies, selected on the basis of a video they sent to the founders to show their chops. Live music or DJs accompany many of the larger classes.
Other activities include group meditations, hikes and playful circus classes that combine yoga with Hula-Hooping and slacklining (similar to tightrope walking). There are also “speakeasies” on topics ranging from homebirth to food politics, as well as educational films shown in the early evening, before the music starts.
“I’ve been looking forward to this for a full year,” says Jennifer D., a 30-year-old from Reno who works in an environmental science lab. At five months pregnant, she is gamely participating in classes to the extent that her belly allows. “I’m here for the experience,” she explains, noting that staying awake for the music is easy now that she’s in her second trimester.
Others have come strictly for the yoga. Christine McManus, an admissions representative at Le Cordon Bleu in Las Vegas and a first-year yoga student, was excited at the chance for extended practice and relieved to find that it wasn’t just experienced students in the workshops. “Nobody knows everything,” she explains, and most teachers offered modifications to accommodate beginners.
Seasoned yoga students also seem to appreciate the chance for retreat-style practice in a lively festival environment. Samantha Fried, a 44-year-old personal chef from Lake Tahoe, has been practicing yoga for 20 years and attending Wanderlust since its inception.
“The landscape, the backdrop are invigorating and calming,” she says of the breathtaking Sierra Nevada.
Fried also values the fact that she can comfortably attend with her 2-year-old daughter. She arrived with her sister and a friend — also mothers — and two of them take a class while the third watches the children. “I’ve been to a lot of festivals,” she says, “and I like that this one is so family oriented.”
More than 15,000 people have crowded into this sleepy midsummer ski village, though there seems to be room for all of us. Nearby tent campgrounds are plentiful, with burbling streams and groves of sweet scented pine trees.
Camping affords a deeper connection to the mountains and a chance to develop friendships around the campfire with other Wanderlusters. It’s also relatively cheap.
Nonetheless, I elected to stay in one of the village hotels and nearly wept with gratitude at the sight of the pillowy mattress each night. A gas fireplace and a good book turned out to be a fine stand-in for a campfire. Having electric appliances to make tea before a chilly outdoor 8 a.m. class didn’t hurt either.
For some attendees, though, the more commercial aspects of the homespun event are off-putting, especially on the festival grounds. Classes take place in tents and buildings surrounding the Kula Market, where Etsy-based T-shirt designers sit side by side with corporate booths sampling veggie burgers and almond milk. At midday, it’s as bustling and loud as any souk in Marrakesh, and passing through it after a class is inevitable.
“I like the teachers and the learning, but there was a disconnect,” reflected my travel companion, Rachel Huntzicker, a 28-year-old executive assistant who also works for Experience Life. She found it unsettling to come out of a class feeling internal and thoughtful, only to immediately encounter a carnival barker trying to press a veggie burger sample into her hand.
Others are inclined to accept sponsorship as a fact of life, even at festivals promoting the nonmaterialistic values of yoga. “You can’t get away from commercialism; it’s just going to be there,” reasons Fried. “I just don’t buy anything.”
Whether or not the commercial elements of Wanderlust suit one’s tastes, part of the festival’s stated mission is to foster mindful living. For me, navigating the contradiction between commerce and yoga’s philosophical underpinnings provided one more opportunity for thoughtful reflection.
Ultimately, the days spent doing asanas, singing kirtan and spinning around in classes like Gurmukh’s made me largely indifferent to whether or not car dealers belonged at a yoga festival. A taste of a free mind, it seems, is a taste of a free mind.
This alone was enough to make Wanderlust worth the trip.
Courtney Helgoe is an Experience Life senior editor.