Rocking The Yoga Up In Tahoe

July 28, 2009

New York Times


LAKE TAHOE, Calif. — Beneath a starry sky here on Friday, on a stage underneath a ski lift, Sharon Jones, the powerhouse singer of the funk-soul band the Dap-Kings, was nearly ready to perform. “What I need to do now,” she told the audience, “is loosen my body up, get the blood flowing.”

She had come to the right place. The next afternoon the same stage — and the same quest — was taken up by Shiva Rea, a powerhouse yoga teacher. Accompanied by a live band, she led a class in flowing poses, encouraging many of the same people who had danced along with Ms. Jones to open their heart center and breathe.

The lithe-bodied audience had gathered here for Wanderlust, a new festival that blends indie rock and yoga. From Friday to Sunday, visitors could study self-massage and meditation early each morning and hear groups like Broken Social Scene, Girl Talk and Spoon at night.

The setting — the verdant hills of Squaw Valley, a ski resort, usually empty off-season — provided an almost surreally beautiful natural backdrop. All of the concerts and many of the yoga classes were held outdoors; the main stage for music was 8,200 feet up a mountain, reachable only by gondola. When they weren’t practicing vinyasa poses or singing along to Gillian Welch, festivalgoers in stretchy outfits could shop for recycled clothing or snack on organic melon in a village-style marketplace.

“We want people to leave feeling better than they did when they came, transformed in some positive way,” said Jeff Krasno, a music executive who created the festival with his wife, Schuyler Grant, a yoga teacher. She said their vision was “to incorporate the exuberance and the joy and the fun of a music festival, and the deeper experience of a yoga retreat,” adding: “To go to a three-day fairly hedonistic experience where you’re going to be drinking, probably, and smoking a joint, maybe, and dancing all night, and then do yoga and walk away feeling good, how cool would that be?”

The couple, who live in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, programmed the festival to their taste. That meant consciously avoiding spiritual, chanting acts in favor of indie pillars like Andrew Bird and Jenny Lewis. On the yoga side, they booked teachers whom Ms. Grant called “rock stars,” like Ms. Rea, from California, and John Friend, from Texas, who tour regularly. They received headliner billing alongside the bands, and drew just as many attendees.

Mr. Krasno, 38, and Ms. Grant, 39, also envisioned Wanderlust as a way to capitalize on movements that started as subcultures and have now become mainstays, from yoga to indie rock to environmentalism. “Balance” was the weekend’s mantra.

It seems to have worked: more than 4,000 people showed up, Mr. Krasno said, most from the Southwest and California, paying $25 to $165 for tickets to the music or the yoga. About 1,500 of those bought $170 passes that entitled them to experience both: manna to cool-seeking sponsors like Target.

Though it wasn’t quite enough to break even, Mr. Krasno said his partners, which include the companies behind established festivals like Bonnaroo in Tennessee and Austin City Limits in Texas, are already considering expanding Wanderlust next year, to three events on three mountaintops.

Gary Bongiovanni, the editor of the concert industry magazine Pollstar, said the festival organizers had “a great potential for success if they are able to endure the first few years of getting established.”

But let’s pause for a cleansing breath here: can you really party all night and downward dog all day?

“Frankly, when I heard about it,” said Mr. Bird, the singer and multi-instrumentalist who was a headliner on Sunday, “my first reaction was, is that going to work, because some of the bands don’t exactly spell inner peace, musically — nor do I, lyrically.”

He was persuaded to join not because he’s a yoga fanatic (“most of the moves hurt”) but because the festival’s setting provided a distinctive experience, even for a tour veteran. And he figured the audience would be receptive to the show he wanted to play. “It’s a little more ambient, let it wash over you,” he said.

He was right. His set, played on borrowed instruments after his didn’t arrive, got the crowd to hush and listen, even amid the distractions: a lake to skinny-dip in, Frisbee games to join and Hula-Hoops to twirl and twirl.

But the festival was not without some drama. On Friday Michael Franti, the leader of the activist Bay Area band Spearhead, canceled his Saturday headlining slot because of appendicitis. (The organizers put up several banner-size “get well” cards for people to sign. “Michael Franti is ill — not in a good way,” one read.)

The rapper Common was a last-minute replacement; he drew locals but turned off some of the yogis. “He’s hitting on the girls in the front row in the middle of the concert!” one man said on his way out.

And some of the artists didn’t know what to make of the vibe.

“I’m not going to do the hippie dance,” said Kaki King, the Brooklyn-based guitarist and singer who performed early on Saturday on the mountaintop stage. “I’m going to put shoes on and I’m not going to drink any mold” (a reference to kombucha, a fermented tea). And, she continued, “I’m not going to do any yoga.”

Meanwhile, on the stage at the foot of the mountain, Ms. Rea was instructing her students to point their legs aloft and roll their ankles open, “as if you can drink the sky from the souls of your feet.”

There was nothing incongruous about this scene, she said afterward, as she posed for photos with fans. “Polarity is interesting,” she said. “I love to expand the environment of yoga to as many different people as possible, and also get out of the studio.”

Festivalgoers like Genevieve Griesau, 35, a yoga teacher in training who came from Oakland, Calif., agreed. “I like crazy hardcore industrial music and punk rock and kundalini yoga — for a long time, those forces were fighting inside of me,” said Ms. Griesau, who wore a pink Go-Go’s T-shirt and polka-dot leggings. As she grew up, though, she found the common ground; she came to Wanderlust for “Girl Talk and yoga,” she said, and managed to stay up dancing until 2 a.m. and still make an early Ashtanga class.

Gregg Gillis, the mash-up artist who performs as Girl Talk, and whose shows resemble a raunchy spring break party, is about as far removed from peacefulness as possible. But many festivalgoers said they got the same rejuvenating charge from raucous dancing as from mindful breathing.

“These are audiences with open minds,” Mr. Gillis said. “Even if they’re not into it, they’re not there to critique it. And if they like it, they’re not embarrassed to get into it.”

A common reference point for attendees was the Burning Man festival in Nevada. Like it, Wanderlust had fire twirlers, stilt-walkers, costumed circus performers and late-night welding; the after-parties were not as much of a draw as offbeat events like midnight yoga Twister, Mr. Krasno’s pet project. (Ms. Grant, who is five months pregnant with the couple’s third child, won the first round.)

“Can we please never ever go home?” said Megan Miller, 28, a field representative for Senator Barbara Boxer, Democrat of California, who drove up — in a fuel-efficient car — with two friends from San Francisco. She practiced her handstand during Mr. Bird’s set and was moved to tears by Mr. Friend’s class.

Perhaps no performer embodied the Wanderlust ethos more than MC Yogi, a San Franciscan who practiced yoga in Adidas shell toes, which didn’t stop him from putting his leg over his shoulder. He beatboxed over the om chant, and with the help of some stilt-walkers, led a parade from an arm-balancing class on Sunday to the stage underneath the gondolas, where he did a yogacentric hip-hop show.

“Say namaste!” he shouted into the mike. “How many of you think Ganesh is fresh?” Lined up on their yoga mats, the members of his audience threw their hands in the air. “We’re going to go old school — 4,000 years back,” MC Yogi promised, with intention. “Y’all ready to shake your asana?”


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