At Hawaii Resort, Yoga by Day, Party by Night

At Hawaii Resort, Yoga by Day, Party by Night

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It may have been the most beautiful setting for a yoga class anyone ever imagined, the view out the plate glass window framing a dream-perfect slice of Oahu’s North Shore: elegantly arching palm trees, the fabled surf crashing against the rocky shoreline, a set of wispy clouds floating across an azure sky. The teacher of the class, the impossibly named Noelani Love, strummed a ukulele while the class sang a mantra, eyes closed, and she said we sounded like angels.

When the song was over, everyone’s eyes flipped open and the view out the window revealed a tanned 20-something guy in board shorts teetering along a tightrope slung between two palm trees. He wavered, tried a few surfing moves to stay aloft, and tumbled from view.

It provided an instant reminder — not that any was necessary for those attending Wanderlust at Turtle Bay Resort — that while the yoga part of this festival can be meditative and inward-seeking, it comes wrapped in something more like the yogic version of Cirque du Soleil.

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Suzanne Johnson demonstrates aerial yoga at the Wanderlust festival at the Turtle Bay Resort in Hawaii.

Credit
Hugh E. Gentry for The New York Times

The tightrope walker fit in swimmingly with the impromptu human pyramids or the people hand-walking on stilts, the laughing circles of people bruising their hips in hula hoop yoga or splashing into the water trying to do Warrior 1 on a stand-up paddleboard. There is yoga with dancing, D.J.s spinning tunes to the downward dogs. There are the fabric hammocks hanging from trees for something called aerial yoga. At regular intervals, you could find someone shinnying up a 30-foot coconut tree. Just because it was there.

And then there was the music, the other raison d’être of Wanderlust, which is delivered in marijuana-scented concerts on an oceanfront stage, the crowd trading their stretchy yoga clothing for something more hip as they rock to an indie beat.

The festival’s two sides did not seem so incongruous as it was happening, although when the rains came in big soaking gusts befitting the North Shore’s rainy season, it did suddenly seem as if the whole thing had morphed into a modern-day mash-up of Woodstock and a Lululemon corporate retreat.

“When we first came up with the idea of a festival, people said, ‘No one is going to want to do yoga all day and party all night,’ except we knew that’s exactly what they would do,” said Sean Hoess, who founded Wanderlust with Jeff Krasno and Mr. Krasno’s wife, Schuyler Grant. “We would go to these yoga retreats, and that’s exactly what they were already doing.”

Mr. Hoess and Mr. Krasno, who owned a small record label in the same building as Ms. Grant’s Kula Yoga studio in New York City, had begun to attend yoga retreats where Ms. Grant was teaching. There, they watched the yoga-and-party scene and seized on what turned out to be a magic formula. They held the first Wanderlust in 2009 in Squaw Valley, Calif.; it has since multiplied to include dozens of festivals across the world throughout the year.

“Our timing was just really, really good,” Ms. Grant said. “Just as the music industry was starting to nose-dive, the wellness industry was starting to catch its wings. There is such a broad interest in wellness, and there are so many different ways and different depths of how to practice that. It is starting to approach its mass appeal moment.”

“Wellness,” as it turns out, can be a rather fungible idea, stretched to include eating poke bowls and kale salads by day and enjoying inebriating substances while the music pulsates late into the night. The wellness part of that being that, well, people were enjoying themselves.

The Turtle Bay Resort has taken this all on with gusto, hosting this main festival for the past three years in late February (tickets for the 2016 event will be sold beginning Oct. 6). There are more festivals, stretching from New Zealand to Snowshoe, W.Va., to Quebec, with the last full festival of this year coming in October to Queensland, Australia.

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A guest enjoys the view.

Credit
Hugh E. Gentry for The New York Times

Last year Wanderlust 108 made its debut: a one-day “mindfulness triathlon” combining a 5k run, a yoga class and a guided meditation. After two successful editions of that last year, it will reach 15 cities in 2015. That includes one in Brooklyn — Wanderlust’s headquarters — on Sept. 13 and one in Washington on Sept. 20.

“Those are just a taste of Wanderlust,” Ms. Grant said. “Some people can’t afford to do a three- or four-day festival. These are more of a community event. It’s a happening.”

The big events, though, are the ones that show off Wanderlust’s full color. They take over large resorts in lovely parts of the world and become the epicenter of the young and bendy. They are the places to see and be seen in a kaleidoscope of yoga wear, to clamor after classes by celebrity teachers, to dance in the sand and leave the serious world behind.

The North Shore, with its inherent laid-back vibe and overflow of surfer dudes and yoga studios, seems like Wanderlust’s perfect home.

“Go ahead, check each other out,” urged one of this festival’s celebrity teachers, Eoin Finn, the founder of Blissology Yoga, during a class. This was, perhaps, the most unnecessary statement of the whole event. “We’re human. We all do it. Do it with the spirit of acceptance.”

Mr. Finn’s classes, like many of the festival’s classes, mix music and yoga and he takes it one step further by having his students dance together and hug one another before the yoga part of his classes begin. It’s silly, and completely unexpected, especially first thing in the morning before the coffee has even kicked in; and yet, everyone in the class does it with gusto.

Like wellness, yoga can be stretched to encompass a wide spectrum beyond traditional postures and breathing exercises. An open mind is the only requirement to take it all in.

Not much of this scene targets someone like me, or my husband, despite our yoga practices. I am a Bikram yoga teacher, but I came to it way beyond my “check each other out” years. I have never been on a paddleboard or hand-walking stilts and to me the aerial yoga hammocks look mostly like an excellent way to dislocate a limb.

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Handmade jewelry for sale.

Credit
Hugh E. Gentry for The New York Times

Still, this little slice of yoga paradise/circus attracted an array of people with its many varieties of yoga and offshoot activities. Mr. Hoess said the 6,000 tickets sold for all the events over five days were evenly split between residents of Hawaii and visitors. My husband and I met people from nearly everywhere between yoga sessions, or on the van ride to the surfing-and-snorkeling beach, or standing in line to pay for granola-yogurt parfaits. In my first class, I met three women who were old college friends and who get together for a trip each year, old enough to share a laugh about the tragic fashion trends of the ’80s. There was a couple in their 70s, whom people kept thanking for being there. And there were a few men who did not look as if they had just hopped off a surfboard.

But clearly, they were the exceptions that proved the rule.

Buried deep in Wanderlust is an inherent clash between a modern hippie gathering and the first-class resort that hosts it. Turtle Bay normally woos its guests with an Arnold Palmer-designed golf course. For those who cannot afford the rooms ($269 before taxes and resort fees, which are steep) in addition to the tickets ($440 for a four-day pass) — which seems like pretty much everyone under the age of 30, or 80 percent of the attendees — the other choice of accommodations is the Wanderlands campground for $150 for five nights.

A pair of 20-something friends from Montana shared our ride to the bay for snorkeling and described their campsite made soggy by the persistent rains. “We are not complaining,” one of the women said. “It’s like minus-4 degrees back home.”

That Turtle Bay allowed the festival to use the campgrounds was a big reason Wanderlust settled there, Ms. Grant said.

“It’s awesome and they are so cool about it,” she said. “We were surprised they would go for it. They won our hearts over with that. We want to offer an affordable option.”

This is a bit of the push and pull of yoga everywhere, the incongruence of an ancient practice that teaches nonattachment that somehow spawned a culture comfortable with $98 capris. You can camp at Wanderlust — where guests are encouraged to bring their own utensils — and you can also drop $108 a person on the signature sea-to-table dinner.

Somehow, the festival makes it all seem as if everyone is enjoying the same party. The yoga is earnest, the sand is there for dancing.

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Noelani Love, left, a yoga instructor, and Tiare Thomas in the spirit of the yoga-and-music event.

Credit
Hugh E. Gentry for The New York Times

The fact that Ms. Grant is the yoga mastermind behind all this strikes even her as funny because she calls herself a bit of a yoga purist. The classes she teaches at Wanderlust hew to the more traditional variety, including a Yin, Breathe, Chillax class that spends 20 minutes just on breathing.

She yields the larger stages to teachers like Mr. Finn and Shiva Rea, who seems to channel a ’60s vibe with her music-infused, move-with-the-groove style classes. Their classes seem more like a warm-up for the concerts that take over the stages at night.

The headlining acts would not headline much anywhere else. Nahko and Medicine for the People were the liveliest of the groups, after a stirring performance from a local artist, Ron Artis II, that nature tried to sidetrack with a dramatic squall.

Fortunately for the noncampers, half of the hotel rooms overlook the seaside stage, making attendance almost automatic, and very convenient in bad weather. The final night’s main act, Brett Dennen, was then unfortunately unavoidable, and as his rather monotonous concert wore on, the marijuana smell approached searing levels.

The concerts stateside, however, can attract some bigger names. Moby was the headliner for a weekend festival in Aspen-Snowmass, Colo., in July.

No one at Wanderlust-Turtle Bay seemed put off by the musical selections, as the concert overflowed with attendees braving the prospect of rain and staying long afterward to dance on the beach.

The final morning of the festival dawned with the worst of the rains, which squelched my last chance to try the pièce de résistance of Wanderlust: stand-up paddleboard yoga. SUP, Mr. Hoess said, is the most popular activity offered at any of the festivals. The paddleboards are anchored in a relatively calm bay near the resort and yogis practice poses that occasionally end with a splash. All of the sessions were sold out well in advance, except for the last one, at 7 a.m. on Sunday, which ended up coinciding with a sideways rainstorm.

As a decidedly more peaceful alternative, I opted for one final Yin Yoga class. The music was low and soothing and a local teacher named Sara Phelan led the class with the kind of voice that could talk a kindergarten class down from a sugar rush. Yin is by definition a quiet class, the postures designed to be held for a very long time as muscles relax and open.

Beyond Ms. Phelan’s voice was a backdrop of listening to your heartbeat and the rain pelting the windows and the waves crashing against the rocks.

Ms. Phelan told the class that Yin is her favorite yoga because it involves the willingness to look within.

“All the answers are there,” she said. “The past is just a memory, and the future just a thought. There is only now.”

In that minute, everything seemed to make sense: the circuslike atmosphere, the party-till-dawn vibe, the stretch-and-be-seen scene, the idea that people traveled thousands of miles, or just a few dozen, to discover the one thing that is true everywhere. It is always now.

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