I’ve been an admirer from afar of the Wanderlust yoga festivals for many years, but I’ve never managed to go to one. As a UK-based yogi, they’re usually on the wrong side of the pond to me. So, when I heard that Wanderlust 108 was coming to London, with its promise of a “mindful triathlon” of running, yoga and meditation, I put my name down for tickets quicker than you could say “downward-facing dog.” I imagined a lovely day, doing three of my favorite things. How challenging could that be?
(Sounds like the perfect day, but here's How to Make Every Day Your 'Perfect Day' With This Mindfulness Practice.)
I arrived on the day to find a park full of legging-clad yogis, carrying yoga mats, sipping matcha lattes and adorned with the trademark teal Wanderlust bandanas. I’d love to tell you that I was immediately filled with a tribal joy at being united with all these wonderful fellow yoga-lovers, but I’ll confess I wasn’t. I was too busy wondering whether it was OK to save a place with my yoga mat in front of the stage while I went off to find the shortest queue for coffee. So far, so un-yogic.
The “mindful triathlon” event around which the festival was structured began with a 5K run around the beautiful Victoria Park; and as we stood at the start line, my un-yogic vibes kicked in once again. I felt irritated by elbows jostling for space and I wondered exactly how seriously those around me were taking the whole “not a race” thing.
My anxiety increased as we got going. Running in a crowd is unfamiliar territory for me. I almost always run alone and I like it that way. I like setting my own pace and thinking my own thoughts. It’s an exercise in mindfulness: I rarely even listen to music when I run, I just enjoy being outside and connecting with nature. I struggled to find the same simplicity in a group, and as the run went on, I felt distracted and uncoordinated. My pace seemed wrong, and having to negotiate hoards of runners going at different speeds made it difficult to hit a rhythm.
It wasn’t until the last kilometer that I snapped out of it. I was silently berating myself for my poor pace and form, when I realized how ridiculous that was. Literally no one cared. It wasn’t a race or a performance. There was no one there judging me, except myself. So, for the last tiny bit of the run, I made the conscious choice to relax. I settled into a pace, running behind a man who seemed far more collected than me, and I enjoyed the smiles and cheers of those around. I realized that there was a different kind of mindfulness I could tune into - being present with a group of people, rather than focusing on myself, and it felt freeing and good.
(Get more insight on this important achievement in The Freedom in Letting Go.)
It was in this state of enlightened bliss that I made it over to my yoga mat for the “DJ-powered yoga class.” We warmed up with a few delicious vinyasa flows, and for a few reassuring minutes, I was firmly back in my comfort zone, on my mat, doing my yoga.
However, the day still had much to teach me it seemed, as the ebullient yoga teacher told us all to clasp our neighbors’ hips as we moved into a forward fold. It’s worth saying at this point that although I am more used to practicing yoga in a group than I am running, I’m far from comfortable with Partner yoga, Group yoga or even moving very far off my mat. (As an aside, I still have nightmares about a yoga class where the teacher made us “bear walk” around the room from downward-facing dog, growling at anyone whenever we came near them. I think it was meant to be liberating. I found it mortifying.)
Maybe it’s because I’m British or because I’m an introvert, or maybe it’s just my own special kind of crazy, but I go out of my way to avoid Partner yoga, unless I have arranged in advance to go to the class with a friend. Even then I’ll make them solemnly swear not to abandon me the second the teacher announces, “Everyone find a partner." But, determined not to be as detached as I had been on the run, I decided to just go for it. I calmed down my inner cringing and refused to let myself think of this as any different to practicing yoga alone. And to my great surprise, it was actually really, really fun. No, it wasn’t the deepest, most strengthening or intense yoga class I’ve ever done, but when I turned around to see an ocean of people, all holding onto each other for balance, it was a poignant sight.
(Learn how identifying all these anxieties is the first step to overcoming discomfort in Exploring Aversion.)
Lying in the sunshine in savasana at the end of the class, I encouraged myself to stay present with the people around me, rather than withdrawing into myself as I usually do. It surprised me how different this felt. I once heard someone say that one of the greatest challenges in life is how to be with everyone around you, and be with yourself at the same time. The truth of those words came back to me at this point.
The final chapter of the mindful triathlon was meditation. By this stage, I was unsurprised when we were instructed to leave our mats and huddle close to the stage to meditate together. I did as I was told and barely even flinched when the teacher told us to make sure we were in contact with someone else. “This event is about community,” he told us. And in that instant, it all clicked into place. My takeaway from Wanderlust wasn’t about practicing with rockstar yoga teachers, riding an endorphin high of running and yoga in a beautiful place, or buying all the branded gear as souvenirs -- although I did enjoy all of that. For me it was a lesson in community, something I didn’t even know was missing from my life until I was forced to run around a park with a group of strangers, hold their arms in Warrior III and sit beside them in meditation.
I’m not saying I’ll be getting my yoga students to bear walk around the yoga studio just yet, but my experience at Wanderlust has changed the way I see yoga. I will always value the introspection and inner space that yoga opens up for me. But I’ll also remember the value of connecting with what’s outside, too.