As I unroll my yoga mat to claim a patch of grass, I count the royal palms lining the Hillsborough River behind the festival stage. Palm trees always seem like transplants to me, even in places where they’re native — as though they’ve been uprooted from a postcard and grafted into the real world. I feel a little edgy, like I’ve had an extra shot of espresso. Or like I’m a little out of my depth.
If I were the woman I am in my head, I’d feel perfectly at home here, awaiting the start of Wanderlust’s “mindful triathlon.” I’d long-stride my way effortlessly through the 5K, flow through 75 minutes of yoga postures with ease, and sit perfectly still through a 30-minute guided meditation.
But, like most people, I struggle to live up to the idealized version of myself. Even though I’m an editor at a health-and-fitness magazine and am well versed in the myriad benefits of meditation, I’m not calm enough to practice regularly. People consistently tell me that I “seem like a yogi,” but I’m about to partake in my first yoga flow since 2012, after a fainting spell during a vinyasa class left me too humiliated to return to my mat.
I trained hard for my first traditional tri in 2015 and improved my running, but I didn’t enjoy it. This summer, I’d been intending to head out for a jog to get my legs ready for today’s run, but somehow never made it happen. On the Wanderlust website, the team punctuates the 5K with a “+/-,” as if to say, “It could be less; it could be more! Either way, no worries, ’cause we’re chill. Are you chill?”
I am not chill. It’s barely 8 a.m. and I’ve already sweated through my sunscreen. The air is so humid I feel as if I could take a bite of it. Somehow, I’m really not prepared for any of this.
Yet, in typical fashion, I arrive at the registration tent nearly an hour before the warm-up is scheduled to begin. A volunteer greets me with a wide smile. After pressing my race bib into my palm, she brings her hands to her heart center and bows toward the park, where a dozen other early birds are already unfurling their mats like bright flags on the dewy grass.
I’ve come to Tampa, Fla., where nearly 2,000 other participants have gathered for Wanderlust 108, a day of running, yoga, and meditation. Unlike a traditional tri, “108” is not a competition; it’s a celebration of mindful movement, named for the number of beads in a prayer mala and the number of sun salutations that many yogis do to celebrate the spring equinox.
The original Wanderlust festival, held in 2009, was a four-day retreat in California’s Squaw Valley that attracted folks eager to nourish their minds and bodies with yoga, meditation, live music, and nutritious local food. (For more on the Wanderlust festival, go to “Indulge Your Wanderlust“).
The tri-inspired series debuted in 2014 in an effort to make that mindful adventure more accessible. The organization offers these one-day events from April to December in more than 60 cities around the world, a convenient option for those who can’t commit to an extended weekend away.
The price tag is more tenable, too — I paid $60 for my ticket and a picnic lunch, which I’ve been instructed to pick up once I’ve finished the three legs. The day is billed as part workout, part dance party. Like the Coachella of yoga retreats, I muse as I amble through the Kula Marketplace, where vendors are slinging açaí bowls and ergonomic flip-flops.
As it turns out, Wanderlust’s “5K your way” is an apt description. Some of my fellow triathletes walk from the starting line, tilting their faces toward the sun, dancing to a playlist blaring from someone’s iPhone. The runners pull out in front.
I run, too, because I feel like that’s what I came to do, but it’s more of a jog. In the first few minutes, I pass a little girl and her mother in matching purple tutus, skipping with every other stride. Signs bearing inspirational messages greet us every half mile along the route: We’re reminded to “run your run” and “breathe in, breathe out” by the time we hit the mile mark. It’s almost impossible to feel self-conscious. Yet part of me does, thanks to the power of that perfect woman who I am in my head.
When I competed in the run portion of my first tri, I just wanted to keep moving. But there are no split times here, no ankle-bracelet trackers. Today, I pause on a bridge overlooking the river — a little over a mile in, my legs guess. I’ve worn my most yogi-looking tights, which are made from recycled water bottles and seem to hold in the heat. I’m struggling, but I’m running my run and finding my breath.
I close my eyes and can almost feel the bass beating from the speakers back at the starting line. I think maybe this is why I really came: to capture a moment of stillness, some respite from my anxious mind. Maybe that’s the whole point of retreating in the first place.
By the time I make it back to the park, about a quarter of the crowd has finished its run. Hip yogis in clutches of five or six amble through the marketplace wearing leggings in implausibly bold patterns and tank tops that read “Namaslay” or “Love Every Damn Day” or — a favorite in the early fall of 2016 — “Gandhi for President.” In one tent near the stage, a woman with navy dreadlocks offers body painting. By the end of the day, a thousand yogis will find these tribal markings running down their arms in rivulets of sweat.
Dance and Flow
Up on the stage, a man in a black tee is spinning tunes. “My name is MC Yogi,” he yells into his headset mic. “Get your hands up!” All around me, people start springing up and down on their mats, peace fingers in the air, bouncing their heads to the beat. When yogis begin to crowd the stage in what may be the world’s gentlest mosh pit, I’m reminded of the punk-rock shows of my youth. We’re drinking kombucha in bare feet instead of foamy beer in checkered Vans, but the energy is the same; we’ve come for the good vibes.
I’m bouncing, too, still a little high on my first run in months, when I see yoga teacher Rina Jakubowicz making her way to the center of the stage. I feel strangely calm.
In the past year, many more times than I sat to meditate or planned a run, I tried to return to yoga. I chatted with my coworkers about their favorite studios, researched instructors, and even put a few classes on my calendar — but I always stopped just short of making it to my mat. It had been a long time, and I felt uneasy about this thing I once loved. I wasn’t sure I could do it anymore.
Now, in a prime spot in the center of the green, I’m surrounded by sun salutations and don’t have time to second-guess myself. The music is pulsing beneath Rina’s cues, and we’re all trying and failing to move on the beat, sliding sweatily from one pose to the next.
Rina tells us to pause in downward-facing dog, so we look like 2,000 upside-down Vs, palms and feet flush to our mats. “Inhale and lift your right foot for one-legged down dog,” she cues, “then place your ankle on your neighbor’s lower back.” A collective chuckle ripples through the crowd. We’re packed on the grass in rows of 60 or more, a one-legged many-legged dog with ankles glued to sacrums. Some of us slip a little; it doesn’t matter. The laughter nearly drowns out the melody. We lean in to one another.
Settling in for the meditation is like awakening to a gentle breeze after our morning of nonstop movement. Yogis lie back on their mats, towels and T-shirts draped over their faces as shields from the afternoon sun.
Buddhist teacher Noah Levine sits cross-legged at the center of the stage, gently reminding us to acknowledge our present moment. Maybe we’re tired. Maybe we’re exhilarated. Maybe we’re hot or uncomfortable. Right now, this is the way it is: Notice it, he advises, and then focus on your breath. That’s what meditation is all about.
In my own practice at home, this is the moment when I open my eyes and reach for a book or start checking my email, having convinced myself that I don’t have the strength to sit still — or that my to-do list is too long to include the luxury of meditation.
You can change your relationship with your mind by turning your attention to it, Noah explains, to see what you aren’t. “We aren’t these thoughts. We aren’t this judgment, fear, or anxiety.” I rock back in my seated position, as though a light wind has breezed through the park.
Quieting the inner noise of one’s mind is perhaps the quintessential task of meditation, and it’s the piece I’ve always struggled with most. But if I’m not my thoughts, it suddenly seems a lot easier to just let them go.
This originally appeared as “On Your Mark, Get Set, Let Go!” in the November 2017 print issue of Experience Life.