The Strange Paradox of Rock Festivals for Yogis

The Wanderlust gatherings combine two seemingly competing philosophies and represent a big change since the days of Woodstock.

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A Facebook friend of mine saw some pictures I had posted from last month's Wanderlust Festival in Copper Mountain, Colorado, and wanted to know whether this coming weekend's edition of the event in Whistler, British Columbia would be worth the trip from LA.

"It's been a while since we've been to a good music festival," he said. "Is it a fun one?"

The question stumped me. That's because the answer depends wholly on your definition of fun. Or, for that matter, on your definition of a festival.

Wanderlust really isn't a music festival. Yes, the events—which are also held in Squaw Valley, California and Bondville, Vermont—feature multiple performers on multiple stages over a long weekend. Headliners at Wanderlust this year have included Ani DiFranco and Ziggy Marley, with Michael Franti and Spearhead topping the Whistler bill. Wanderlust, though, is also a hybrid, combining elements of a music festival with a big, upscale yoga retreat, and so is emblematic not only of the ongoing boom in the sheer number of festivals being staged, but also their dramatic evolution.

Josh Baron, editor-in-chief of Relix magazine, is the author of "Ticket Masters: The Rise of the Concert Industry and How the Public Got Scalped." He says the boom in festivals "is happening across all different genres of music. And not just domestically, but on an international level, too." Depending on your perspective—on how you define fun—the evolution exemplified by Wanderlust is terrible or fabulous. It's either the long-awaited fulfillment of the festival ideal or a complete corruption of it.

That ideal, with apologies to the folk and jazz fans of Newport, is a child of rock. Conceived at Monterrey, born 42 years ago last week at Woodstock, the music festival became a sociological experiment in building a temporary community—one based on the values of a newly emergent counterculture.

But there's usually been a giant gap between the values expressed by festival promoters, performers, and fans and the realities on the ground. The violence at Altamont, for instance, shattered the illusion of an inherently peaceful counterculture. The corporate takeover of the music industry, much as it's described in Baron's book, belied any notion of rock and roll as a threat to consumer capitalism. Environmentalism has always been a favorite cause of festival lovers, despite the glaringly obvious fact that big, multi-day concerts inevitably have huge carbon footprints—even when taking into account the solar-powered stage at Outside Lands or the conscientious cleaning services of a company like Clean Vibes. That's doubly true when the events are held in remote areas, leading to the irony of the upcoming Green Mountain EcoFest, when thousands of people will schlep tons of equipment and supplies into the rural Missouri woods for "a celebration of sustainability,"

Wanderlust co-founder Jeff Krasno is aware that any large-scale gathering of humans uses a lot of energy. But he has still fretted endlessly over making his events greener. For instance, the festivals not only have specially segmented receptacles to ensure trash can be properly separated for recycling, but also have volunteers hover to ensure patrons properly dispose of every scrap.

After working in the music industry—three years for RCA, then co-founding his own label—Krasno saw how the spontaneous communities around festivals can promote progressive values.

"Look at something like recycling, he said. "It was considered fairly out there years ago, when you first saw it at live events. But today it's completely mainstream."

One of the main ideas behind Wanderlust, he said, was "to create an event where people could take what happened at festivals, and incorporate those values and practices into everyday life."

The cleanliness is dazzling. In Colorado, even after Beats Antique played late into the night, the space in front of the stage barely had a speck of trash. At Wanderlust, it seems, there is no such thing as a ground score.

But that spotlessness, however admirable, is also an indicator of a much broader culture clash: the fundamental conflict between the rock-inspired ethos of festivals and the values espoused by yoga-philes that keeps Wanderlust from feeling like a music fest in the traditional sense.

Superficially, rock and yoga don't seem too much at odds. A speaker at Wanderlust Colorado, Dr. Ron Alexander, gave a talk on festival history, "Woodstock to Wanderlust: Festivals and Cultural Shifts of Consciousness." He noted that yoga first came to mass consciousness in the West because of rock music—after the Beatles took a well-publicized trip to India. A yogi, Sri Swami Satchidananda, even gave an invocation at the very first Woodstock.

Nevertheless, when Jeff says Wanderlust aims to "create a community around mindful living" that will ultimately "help people live saner, healthier lives" the conflict becomes clear. Rock, and the culture of excess around it, are direct descendants of the Romantic tradition, born of Shelley, Blake, Keats and Byron, of a life dedicated to creative self-destruction as a form of rebellion against rationality. That's about as far from "mindful" as it gets.

Rock's culture of hedonism certainly has big drawbacks. There's a lot human wreckage at a traditional festival. People get too drunk, too high, or both. They lose their dignity or much worse. Not at Wanderlust. "People don't drive home Monday morning with a raging hangover" Jeff said. "Our festival is the only one people leave feeling better than when they arrived." True enough, but if the healthful, moderate approach eliminates the possibility of bad craziness at Wanderlust, there's also less chance of good craziness too.

The crowds are mostly sober, often vegetarian, unfailingly polite, and reek with the expensive simplicity of privilege. Music is decidedly secondary. A headline act on the main stage will get courteous attention. An artist playing a midday slot on a smaller stage—even a fine one like Julia Easterlin—might be totally ignored. No matter who is performing, the fans are subdued: less interested in staying up all night to party than getting up for a yoga class at dawn.

Most vitally, they do all that sleeping in beds, with walls and a roof around them. There is no on-site camping at Wanderlust. Most guests stay at the resorts where the events are staged. That's a problem for anybody who thinks one of the best reasons for going to a festival is, as Joni Mitchell put it in "Woodstock," "to camp out on the land and try to get my soul free."

Roughing it, even a little, matters a lot. Not merely for the sake of reconnecting with the natural world, but because camping at festivals forces people to interact with their fellow human beings. It's the difference between sharing a wall or sharing a campfire.

Baron compared Wanderlust's setup to another live-music trend—the "festival" held on a cruise ship. Jam Cruise is entering its 11th year, and Coachella recently announced it would launch an on-sea version of its long-running desert festival.

"Providing that kind of luxury for guests can be great," he said, "but you can also lose a lot of the communal feeling that makes being at a festival so fun."

Maybe. It all depends on your definition of "fun."