Something was amiss at Snowmass Village on a Thursday in July. Wildflowers freckled the meadows and aspens quivered with dollar-size leaves the way they always do. But the heat of summer had also brought an unusual new crowd to this tony Colorado ski resort: fit women in colorful spandex ensembles; dreadlocked dudes with tattoos and swami pants; and hippies wrapped in batik, sipping kombucha.
“Kashi bars! High fives! Hugs!” hollered one mop-headed young man in front of a Kashi booth, where his pink-cheeked colleagues doled out free granola bars and tubs of cereal. Nearby, women hawked samples of cold-pressed juices and Resource bottled water, which, infused with natural salts, promised drinkers “Electrolytenment.” Beneath white tents, vendors sold bowls of raw veggie pulp and dandelion chicory chai drinks, figurines of Indian goddesses, organic-cotton dresses in an array of earthy hues, and books on color therapy and living by the light of the moon. The scent of burning sage and incense wafted through the air.
This was the Wanderlust Festival, a four-day celebration of music, health, yoga and New Age spiritualism of various stripes that calls itself an “adventure of mind, body and soul.” The brainchild of a yoga teacher and a couple of music managers, Wanderlust started as a one-off event in Squaw Valley in 2009. It quickly grew to a nationwide series of festivals and events and is now a veritable phenomenon, particularly among the young, urban, well-educated women who are its primary adherents.
This year, seven festivals and six one-day urban events dot the United States and Canada, and the series is launching new festivals in Australia and New Zealand. In September, the company will introduce Wanderlust 108, the first “mindful triathlon,” which includes a 5K run, guided meditation and a 15,000-student yoga class with hip-hop music spun by a DJ named MC Yogi. Although Wanderlust’s events are still centered on yoga, the festival has expanded to new activities, including meditation hikes, rafting, mountain biking, classes in parkour, hula-hooping and ChiRunning.
I’ve practiced yoga for more than a decade and have reaped tremendous benefits, both mental and physical, but I’m more of an occasional fan than an unswerving disciple. Still, something — simple curiosity, perhaps — spurred me to sign up for the new Wanderlust Festival at Aspen Snowmass in early July. I didn’t expect transformation — Wanderlust’s tag line is “Find Your True North” — but I was hoping for a little fun.
My first class was capoeira, with a teacher named Alfred Kendrick. I pictured a pale, doughy Brit, but Alfred turned out to be an energetic 6-foot-2 dreadlocked African American man from Los Angeles with the body of an underwear model. (“He’s like a wedge,” said one awed student.) On a lawn facing verdant ski slopes, at 8 in the morning, Alfred explained that capoeira, a dancelike martial art, developed in Brazil as a way for African slaves to covertly practice self-defense.
“Sometimes you’re like a cat, sometimes a snake, sometimes a flower,” he said as he contorted his giant frame into graceful kicks, blocks and handstands. “It’s about finding balance within movement.”
None of the 22 students looked like cats or flowers — nor as elegant as Alfred — but in minutes he persuaded us to try lunges and squats and blocks. Mostly, we were just rolling around on the grass. I may have looked ridiculous, but I felt pretty good. I wondered whether the popular appeal of Wanderlust was really due to the simple fun of moving an office-worn body in strange new ways.
I know that my personality tends toward the cynical, so to coax myself out of my reserved nature, I decided to try everything on offer. First, this meant food. Samples were flying, so I tried a So Delicious coconut-milk ice cream sandwich, a Kashi chocolate-chip chia-seed granola bar and a pear-flavored frozen kefir bar. I sipped multicolored probiotic drinks from tiny plastic sample cups and slathered on organic sunscreen. I made a mandala by gluing grains and nuts onto paper and affixed a free “Exhale Your Love” temporary tattoo to my arm. I said yes to so many things that I found myself late to my hula-hooping class.
When I arrived, Shakti Sunfire, a lithe young woman in a midriff-baring sunflower sport top, cut-out green spandex and aviator sunglasses, was telling her 50 or so female students to “connect with the Earth!”
“Even in utero, there’s rhythm!” she cooed into her microphone over the din of dance music thumping in the nearby “D’Om,” a round tent stocked with Lululemon tights, tops, and trucker hats. “The intelligence of our body knows rhythm, we just want to remember what we already know!”
I picked up a hula hoop and tried bouncing my hips, absurdly, like the rest of the class. Shakti told us that it’s all about “attunement,” and that most of the time, if you can’t keep the hoop on your hips, you’re trying too hard. Call me an overthinker — I was absolutely terrible at hula-hooping. But that didn’t stop me from trying for more than an hour, during which I nailed myself in the head about 12 times. By the time Shakti was talking about psycho-spiritual states and neural pathways and the mind-body connection, I was tuning out, because I could finally keep the hoop on my hips for more than four seconds.
Later, I wandered over to a tantra yoga class at a studio called The Greatest Place, which turned out to be a large carpeted conference room in the Westin Hotel. Round stickers on the floor indicated where I should place my mat. They said things like “This is your life,” “Unfold and Fly,” and “Create awareness.” The teacher, Rod Stryker, stood on a stage framed by a giant lotus flower and launched into an introductory talk.
“Is God Shiva or is God Shakti? That’s been debated a long time,” he said as some 200 people sat on the floor listening. “You are the universe and the universe is you.” My woo-woo detectors blared, but I gleaned that the theme was finding balance — literally and metaphorically — between stillness and movement. I followed the class through a series of downward-facing dogs and twists and chaturangas — yogi push-ups — while chanting “Om.”
“When you leave, life will be a little brighter,” Rod said. “You’ll love everyone a little more than when you came in.” When I exited, the world wasn’t brighter. It was cloudy. But I did feel, if a little confused, nicely loose and relaxed.
That night, I attended the Wanderlust Spectacular at a stage set up on a ski run. A DJ spun tunes as the emcee, a beautiful dark-haired lady in a short gold dress and a top hat, walked onto the stage in a mist. “Raise your hand if you want a spectacular life!” she roared to a screaming crowd of several thousand. “There’s only one thing in the way — fear!”
Over the next hour, a very buff man in small white underpants performed acrobatic yoga poses. A striking longhaired redhead played electric violin. A woman walked along on a tightrope, and another balanced precariously on a man’s feet while performing bendy postures. Finally, the crowd joined the cast in a guided Bollywood-style group dance, and performers in black ninja suits twirled about with glow-in-the-dark hula hoops.
“Do you feel fully expressed in the world?” boomed the emcee. “Yes to self-expression! Yes to speaking your truth! Yes to life!”
“Yes! Yes! Yes!” chanted the audience. I felt a little bewildered by all this aggressive positivity, and it was admittedly tempting to poke fun at the self-help platitudes. But I know from experience that it’s easy to miss opportunities to learn when you are too cool to be open-minded. I couldn’t begrudge participants their own experience, and everyone, including the performers, was having such a genuinely good time. “This is just pure awesomeness,” I overheard one woman say.
Over the weekend, I realized, despite my skepticism, that the vibe wasn’t pretentious or dogmatic but almost radically inclusive. “Wanderlusters” ranging from an investment banker and civil engineer from Denver to yoga instructors from northern Alberta were happy to strike up conversations with me. Some people glimmered with transformation, but most simply seemed content to try new things, listen to good music, and have a nice time in the mountains.
If you were going to pick a place to be transformed, however, this would be a pleasant one. In Aspen and Snowmass in midsummer, everything living is glowing green, wildflowers dot the slopes, and rows of violet mountains fade in the distance come dusk. Many of Wanderlust’s yoga classrooms are open-air with gorgeous views of the Rockies, and everywhere, people partake in wholesome activities like hiking and biking.
The next day, I continued to try everything. I took a class called “Quest for Truth” in which the teacher, Ashley Turner, a muscular woman with a blonde mane and striking light eyes, instructed us to wrap our tails around a seven-mile-wide crystal deep in the earth. I attended TED-like talks in the Speakeasy, a small theater where a naturopathic doctor extolled the health benefits of connecting to nature and a campaign strategist expounded on political organizing. I wobbled on a paddleboard in an alpine lake ensconced in spruce and blue wildflowers, and I practiced flow yoga in a room throbbing with black lights and hip-hop music.
My favorite part arrived in the early evening, at a photography workshop led by Ali Kaukas, a peaceful Vermonter with big feathery earrings and an earthy, Peruvian-looking top. Ali didn’t really want to teach anything; she just wanted to set us loose in a grove of aspens, which suited me just fine. I was paired with a 9-year-old named Phoebe, who happened to be one of the founders’ daughters. We tromped through waist-high grasses taking pictures of each other as the late-afternoon sun slanted through priest-white trees. My body felt loose and pleasantly tired, my mind clear and peaceful.
“Strike a pose!” Phoebe said. I acted like a model and made funny faces. She climbed a tree and swung from the branches. Perhaps, I thought, what Wanderlust is really about is this right here: play.
I may not have figured out how to massage my kidneys or connect with the sands of eternity, as some instructor suggested, but that’s okay. I suspect that what I came here to do was, in the end, something I forgot long ago and something Phoebe does instinctually. I came to take myself just a little less seriously.
Siber is a freelance writer and a correspondent for Outside magazine, based in Durango, Colo. Her Web site is www.katesiber.com.