Go to a yoga festival this year, and you might find yourself trying to hold a wobbly Tree Pose on a slackline strung between two trees. Maybe you’ll cross paths with clowns on stilts, juggling torches. You might go for a rigorous morning Ashtanga practice followed by a soothing vipassana meditation, or run from a rock ‘n’ roll vinyasa flow to a meditative Yin Yoga session—all before lunch. A Trance Dance could be in the offing, or your post-yoga glow could be enhanced by an outdoor concert. You might find yourself swaying and chanting kirtan in the desert, taking a ski gondola 8,000 feet up a mountain to do asana with the best view ever, or locking arms with a stranger for support in an eyes-closed balancing pose. No matter where you live or where you’re planning to travel, a sweet yoga circus is probably nearby. The era of the yoga festival has arrived.
Across the country, in venues small and large, people are gathering to practice. The festivals are as varied as the styles of yoga practiced, but they collectively cement yoga’s reputation as a permanent American cultural force. "Yoga festivals are really great for people who are newer to yoga or who want to try different kinds of styles," says Jenny Sauer-Klein, co-founder of AcroYoga.
Yoga, for the most part, is a serious, personal, introspective activity, a centering oasis of sanity amid the chaos of life. But, says Sauer-Klein, "Festivals give you more of a chance to play outdoors in the sunshine—and celebrate and enjoy and have a more ecstatic experience. There’s more freedom and spontaneity."
Festivals allow you to put aside your reflective practice for a few days and enjoy your yoga like a party. You hang out with like-minded people, listen to music, make new friends, and share dinner and laughter after a day of hard-core asana. Often you’re learning something new in a low-stress atmosphere, and sometimes you’re giggling on your mat—amazed by the communal vibe, the rocking music, the great instructors, and an awesome view.
Kristine Pauls of Austin, Texas, went to her first yoga festival last year—Wanderlust, in Lake Tahoe, California. "There were types of yoga I’d never experienced," she says. "Unless you live in California, you get your hatha and your Bikram, but you don’t get other creative forms from people who are energizing the yoga culture." She found herself inspired by San Francisco teacher Rusty Wells. "Even though he did ridiculous chanting, I was like, ‘All right, I’m for it.’ I chanted, and I don’t chant. If you can do yoga to Led Zeppelin, then I’m for you."
The inner quiet of daily practice is replaced at festivals with a community buzz. "You know how, after a yoga class, you feel that yoga high, that yoga bliss? Well, you spend a whole weekend feeling that way," says Ashley Lowe, who’s been going to the Ojai Yoga Crib festival for several years. At festivals, yoga practice becomes a social experience, with limitless possibilities for good conversation and fun. "Everyone’s energy resonates. It’s easier to connect with people," adds Lowe. "You don’t feel anxiety. You just feel more full. I remember laughing really hard with friends after it was all over. We got a burrito, and things were just funny."
Sing Out Loud: Bhakti fest
The deserts of California echoed with kirtan for 58 consecutive hours during the first Bhakti Fest, held in September 2009 on the grounds of the Joshua Tree Retreat Center in Joshua Tree National Park. The main organizer, Sridhar Silberfein (who says he arranged for Swami Satchidananda to give the invocation at Woodstock), booked dozens of kirtan musicians such as Wade Morissette, Dave Stringer and Jai Uttal as well as yoga teachers like Sara Ivanhoe, Saul David Raye, Shiva Rea, and more. Neither in 100-degree noontime heat, nor at 3a.m., did the chanting stop for a moment. Yoga classes, in a variety of styles, went on from dawn to dusk in a separate tent.
The inaugral Bhakti Fest drew 2,500 people, most of whom camped in the desert. The festival offered inexpensive packages starting at $100 for the whole weekend, and then donated half the proceeds to charities such as Embracing the World, Oxfam, the Seva Foundation, and the Love Serve Remember Foundation (run by Ram Dass). "The driving force of the festival is dedication, service, and helping people out," Silberfein says. "Certainly not money. That’s way down the list."
"These festivals are really introducing people to that creative conscious energy that we try to home in on when we teach yoga classes," says Kasey Luber, director of yogamates.com and teacher of Kundalini Yoga classes at the festival. "When we can get that many people together for yoga, then we’re doing good. It was really amazing to have that many people chanting and doing yoga. People were up all night; it was beautiful," she says.
Yoga Rocks: Evolve
Yoga festivals can happen anywhere and don’t need to be pegged to "rock star" instruction. Inspired by a small yoga class that he’d taken in the early-morning mud at the Bonnaroo Music Festival in Tennessee, Dave Bryson, a yoga teacher in New Jersey, started the Evolve Music & Yoga Festival in 2007, with the goal of raising $5,000 for a local rural organization called Kids Camp, which provides environmental education and free health screening for low-income kids. The first Evolve event featured 30 bands from the Northeast jam-band and bar circuit. Bryson also scheduled a few yoga classes, but much to his surprise, nearly a thousand people showed up who were just as interested in doing asana as rocking out. A full-on yoga festival broke out.
"People were doing partner yoga out in the fields," he says. "There were people meditating and doing yoga on the docks."
In 2009, the festival’s third year, Bryson said the music and the yoga were equally important. He booked 70 bands and 16 yoga instructors, and says it all worked together brilliantly. "The festival’s focus is on self-improvement and health, as opposed to other music festivals, where the focus is on partying and getting wasted," he says. "But I also had some good hard-rockin’ bands, with a real focus on bringing music that’s danceable. I want to encourage yoga people to come out and lighten up and loosen up and dance."
Cradle of Love: The crib
Kira Ryder, who runs a yoga studio in Ojai, California, was several years ahead of the spinal curve. In 2003 she started a festival called the Ojai Yoga Crib, and seven years later, it’s still running. "When your livelihood is yoga," she says, "it becomes a really neat practice to invite a few hundred of your best friends to come to town and relax. It’s something that we were unexplainably compelled to do."
Ryder had been to several yoga conferences and had always had a good time, but she sometimes felt as though they were an impersonal grab bag of experiences. She had the "crazy idea" to start a more intimate alternative. Rather than have attendees choose classes from a menu, Ryder asked them to trust Yoga Crib to put their personal schedules together for them. "I said to my husband, ‘This is going to be a lot of work.’ And he said, ‘Well, what else are we going to do?’"
Her festival, she decided, would be based on trust and love. It would be called something comfortable and soothing, hence the name "Yoga Crib." And it would feature her main teacher, Erich Schiffmann (the author of Yoga: the Spirit and Practice of Moving into Stillness), whom she describes as a "great big Chewbacca of love." The aim would be to encourage a deep personal self-investigation of love.
Ryder charges $400 for her Ojai festival, excluding food and lodging, and in 2009, for the first time, she let people pay for their tickets on a layaway plan. "Some people stay at the spa," she says, "some camp, some work out payment plans, some work on the crew, some become guests because it’s their year to be there for free." In yoga land, she says, everything has a way of aligning.
"The first year, I didn’t know if anybody was having a good time, because I was worrying if we were out of toilet paper," Ryder says. "But you develop real experience. You really start to see that everything handles itself."
High Life: Telluride
Starting a yoga festival can be a logistical nightmare, but it actually follows a fairly simple formula: Take a place of stunning natural beauty and add a strong, overarching theme. It also helps to have a big-name teacher around who can peg your event and draw other popular teachers.
Aubrey Hackman of Telluride, Colorado, followed the formula perfectly. In 2007 Hackman returned home from her Jivamukti Yoga teacher training with a desire to do good works, but also with a serious wrist injury that curtailed her personal practice. She turned her attention to starting the Telluride Yoga Festival. Fortunately, one of her loyal students, Elaine Demas, was a professional event organizer. Hackman wanted to create the most environmentally friendly conference imaginable. "After going to another yoga conference, I was bummed out at the wastefulness of the event—all the plastic water bottles in the trash," Hackman says. "There needed to be an event that really tied in the theory of yoga."
In order to offset the carbon footprint for attendees getting to the festival, Hackman asked each one to donate $10 to the New Community Coalition, a Telluride group that does sustainable-living projects like retrofitting the local high school for solar power. In return, the NCC helped set up guidelines for making the festival zero waste. Hackman also decided to donate 25 percent of the net proceeds to a different local environmental organization each year. By the second year, she and Demas were attracting high-level teachers like Sarah Powers and Richard Freeman, and featuring styles across the yoga gamut, from Ashtanga intensives to Tibetan Heart Yoga.
Last June, Telluride resident Lorrie Denesik went to a daylong intensive workshop given by Scott Blossom and Chandra Easton that combined his teachings on shadow yoga with her Buddhist background. "It’s really special to have those two amazing people together in one room, for a whole day," she says. "At festivals, these top instructors are asked to be at their best, and they’re trying to deliver the root of their experience. It’s not their daily practice or their daily class. Everything is heightened." In Telluride, attendees do yoga at the base of the mountains, then can go hiking between sessions. Denesik says that something transcendent emerges. "There’s this vortex of energy here already in Telluride," she says. "We can be inside and outside and experience the oneness that we’re all trying to achieve when we practice yoga. I’ve been to yoga events all over the world, and it’s one of the best experiences I’ve ever had."
Come Together: Wanderlust
The Wanderlust Festival, which was held last July in Squaw Valley, California, mixed the holistic healing vibes of a yoga conference with the hedonism of Lollapalooza. Music acts such as Common, Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, and Spoon shared billing with yoga teachers John Friend, Shiva Rea, Duncan Wong, and others. The yoga and music came together nicely. MC Yogi, DJ Drez, Sianna Sherman, and Kenny Graham all taught and played together in one room, inspiring smiling yogis with a funky mix of handstands, hip-hop, and hugs.
"Like many practitioners, we’re not ascetic," says Schuyler Grant, owner of the Kula Yoga Project in New York, who, along with her husband, music promoter Jeff Krasno, founded Wanderlust. "We have our yoga lives, and then we go dancing and have a beer or whatever. It’s fractured. How great to go to one event and have both. How great to dance until 2a.m., get what you get from a live-music event, but at the same time, feel good. It’s integrated." Krasno agrees: "It’s a music festival, but we’re trying to create a transformative experience. I want people to feel good. When you’re done at other events, you might have had a good time, but you probably feel like crap."
Transformation is a hard thing to quantify, but the hundreds of people who took yoga classes with John Friend at 8,000 feet and the large number of blissed-out-looking folks dancing around with hula hoops definitely had a good time. A Saturday late-night Girl Talk concert seemed like a rave, with glow sticks and a shirtless DJ who combined gangsta rap and ’70s pop into a wild party mix. A girl jumped up and down ecstatically and shouted, to no one in particular, "Man, sometimes you know you’ve ended up in the right place!"