Can Doing Yoga at Music Festivals Change How We Think About Partying?

From hippie havens like Burning Man to deep-house pumping nightclubs in Brooklyn, downward dogs have opened up a whole new era of the dancefloor.

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Sep 29 2016, 8:00pm

Photo courtesy of Wanderlust

It's nearing sunset on a May evening in the jungle of Uvita, Costa Rica, and I'm exhausted, having spent the last five hours interviewing hippies about happiness and partying till sunrise at this year's Envision Festival. Resisting the urge to nap in a nearby hammock, I force myself into a large tent structure the festival calls a "temple" to attend a yoga class with about 40 other festival attendees. Our instructor, who hails from Trinidad, cheekily warns us that many of postures we'll assume will be "extremely inconvenient." When I finally emerge from the tent at the end of the session—a grueling 90-minutes of intense body twisting, soundtracked by calming trip-hop—the sky has darkened into night, and I feel rejuvenated, limber, and totally energized.

The thought of a sweaty, kale-chomping bohemian busting a downward dog while some dreadlocked DJ drops a Thievery Corporation track is enough to trigger most people's gag reflexes. But at hippie havens like Burning Man, Brooklyn nightclubs, and festivals like Detroit's Movement and Tennessee's Bonnaroo, yoga and rave culture seem to be converging, and they're changing the way people think about partying.

Over the last few years, both the yoga and music festival scenes have been growing in numbers, particularly amongst younger crowds. According to Forbes, the number of people who practice yoga in the US went from 20.4 million to 36.7 million in 2016; per a similar study from the Huffington post, 40 percent of yoga practitioners are under the age of 34. Meanwhile, a 2015 Billboard report found that a whopping 32 million people now go to at least one US music festival every year, up 44 percent from 2014, including 14.7 million millennials.

Envision festival. Photo by Jack Pasco Photography.

Amidst rampant headlines about drug-related deaths at electronic music festivals, the appearance of yoga classes at these events may offer a welcome new spin on dance music's public image. For many of the yoga instructors, DJs, and promoters leading this growing movement, lacing your downward dogs with heady electronic bleeps is bound to make you become a safer raver, or at the very least, encourage you to embrace a more health-conscious lifestyle

"I think [music] is a perfectly good way to introduce yoga to folks who might not otherwise have found it, because they'll be [practicing yoga] within the context of their favorite DJ," says Elena Brower, a yoga teacher who taught a class at Burning Man last year, soundtracked by trance legends Above and Beyond.

Kevin Courtney teaching at Bonnaroo in 2013.

Kevin Courtney, who has worked as a lead yoga instructor at Bonnaroo since 2012, recognizes that many of the festival-goers who participate in his sessions do so between nights of heavy partying; in fact, he designs his classes with people's comedowns in mind. "I don't teach the same class that I teach in downtown TriBeCa to a group of high-strung New Yorkers," says Courtney, who was an instructor at that city's popular Kula studio and produces electronic music in his spare time. "By teaching yoga at a festival, I've already signed on to the fact that 90 percent of the people are up from last night or on a substance."

Envision co-founder Sofiah Thom, a Costa Rica-based yoga instructor and dancer who regularly teaches classes at the event, believes that doing yoga at a music festival can change the way people party for the better—specifically, by teaching them how to practice moderation in a space associated with hedonism and excess. "It's about just knowing how to say no," she says. "I teach people how to listen to their bodies, and about what is really going to feed them so they can enjoy the next day."

On the flip side, yoga is also opening up rave culture to people outside of the club scene. "I think the old model of dance music, where the headliner comes on at 2AM and you're getting fucked up, excludes 98 percent of people who have to get up in the morning and who don't want to feel like crap," says Tasha Blank, a New York-based dancer-turned DJ who frequently spins music at popular morning raves like Daybreaker.

"It's a lifestyle that's not conducive to being healthy, even though I think dancing is the healthiest thing you can do," she says of rave culture.

Deep House Yoga. Photo courtesy of Tasha Blank.

Blank began throwing a yoga-dance party in 2009, in a SoHo studio that catered to what she calls "the wellness community." Every event started with 30 minutes of yoga, followed by dancing, and then more yoga to cool off. Blank later created a similarly yoga-enhanced dance party with herself as the resident DJ at Cielo, and often spins Deep House Yoga parties at festivals, clubs, and even wellness conferences.

While yoga instructors often make custom playlists for their classes, a self-described "yoga festival" called Wanderlust is bringing the concept of pairing music and yoga to the next level. Founded by husband and wife Jeff Krasno and Schyler Grant in 2002 in Squaw Valley, California, the festival has featured musical performances from artists like Common and Bassnectar, and currently holds editions all over the world.

Elena Brower teaching at Wanderlust festival in 2014.

"We learned that instead of running two separate events, with yoga over here and music over there, we could integrate them more," says Krasno. "We started to pair yoga with DJs and live musicians—inside of the classes—and created big venues with high levels of production."

While refining the concept, Krasno and Grant worked with LA-based DJs like Jesse Blake and Taz Rashid and transformational festival scene staple DJ Drez to devise a way to score the yoga classes in a manner that matched musical BPMs to breath rates. They also amplified the music and the instructors' voices so that both could be heard across a large space. "We'd create this road map of musical cues and tempos that match people's breathing," Krasno explains. "So if you were in a closed pose, the music might get quieter, and if you were in a more demanding post, it might crescendo. It was a sort of tempo-based choreography."

Photo courtesy of Wanderlust Festival.

The underlying idea, says Krasno, was that the experience of everyone moving and breathing together would lead to a kind of collective euphoria—something not far off from the vibe of a great dance party. "When everyone's lunging, and their right foot lands on the downbeat, and then they breathe, it's fucking incredible," he says.

Of course, spinning beats while people are stretching necessitates an approach that is different from playing at a club during a normal night out, says DJ Drez. "When playing with a yoga class, I mostly follow the teacher and students, listening for vocal cues and observing body language," he told THUMP over email.

As for yoga's potential to change misconceptions about partying and festival culture, DJ Drez believes the practice can help ravers cast aside their inhibitions—sans substances. "Yoga is like a gateway drug to moving in interesting ways and using one's voice in public," he says. "It often seems that people are looking for permission to dance and be free. A substance can make you say, 'Fuck it, I don't care, I'm gonna dance,' while a practice like yoga can truly free yourself of mental slavery. Some of the craziest dancefloors I've played were at yoga events."

DJ Soul Rising at Wanderlust. Photo by Julianne Lesinski for Wanderlust Festival.

"I think yoga is a vehicle to gain receptivity," says Bonnaroo instructor Kevin Courtney."If someone is thoughtful and sensitive, [doing yoga at] a festival can give them a profound experience. You become more perceptive to your mind, body, breath, and energy over time."

With its emphasis on self-study and understanding one's limits, yoga may also be useful to partiers struggling with addiction. Elena Brower is a top instructor who was once both a global yoga ambassador and sponsored athlete for Adidas. Now two years sober, she cites yoga-centric music events like Wanderlust as being instrumental in helping people find self-control in a different context than they're used to. "Yoga nourishes in what happens in the aftermath of a club night," she says. "I can only speak for my own experience, but my practice really helped me find my way back home to myself every time."

It's possible that doing yoga at music festivals and clubs is just a passing lifestyle fad that will be soon tossed aside like a ratty pair of Lululemon pants. DJ Tasha Blank even lamented the absurdity of people trying to trademark the concept of deep house yoga. But even if this is just a trend, it's one that's disrupting the way that ravers and live music spaces coexist, offering a new way to experience dance music. A great DJ set can remain stuck in your brain for days—even months or years—but it's no rival for the one that soundtracks your first flawless headstand.

David Garber is accepting headstand challenges on Twitter.

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