The first thing I learned about yoga at Burning Man, the infamous annual music and arts festival in the Nevada desert, is that yoga clothes are not required.
This is a good thing, because between the faux fur coats, boots, ski goggles, capes, tutus, and feathers in your luggage, you probably won’t have room for them.
The dozens of people in my classes were wearing an eclectic assortment of gear: neon onesies, bustiers, lacey bras, underwear, tube tops, skirts, dresses, teddies, and hot pants. It looked as though everyone had played a game where they closed their eyes, stuck one hand in their suitcase, pulled out whatever their fingers closed around, and put it on without checking a mirror. I hadn’t got the memo on that.
In fact, I hadn’t gotten the memo on a lot of things, it being my first Burning Man. Here are some of them, which having observed them first hand, I thought you’d really want to know. Read on… —Alden Wicker
(All photos: Alden Wicker for Well+Good)
I showed up for my first yoga class five minutes early—the polite thing to do, of course, and found the Earth Guardians tent almost empty. “We’re not sure where our instructor is,” one of the volunteers told me. “We run on Playa time, you know.” (The Playa is what they called the giant, harsh, dried-up lake bed where Burning Man is held.) “Help yourself to some water and learn about Playa ecology.” While I read up on geological history, some more burner yogis showed up and, disappointed, left. When I was about to do the same the instructor hustled in. She had overslept. So it was just me and one other dude for some quick and dirty asanas as the sun seared my back.
After that, it was stressful to decide which of the 25-plus classes per day I should go to. Pants-less yoga, blacklight yoga, Kundalini yoga, sunrise salutions, or just a gentle flow? I added all of them to my overstuffed Google calendar. Maybe, I figured, I’ll just go with the one that lets me sleep in the longest.
Day 2: Lingerie, loincloths, and spiritual energy
For my second class, I chose a late-morning flow at the theme camp ShangriLa, which also provided bike repair, wine tasting, and Pilates. This time, the tent was overflowing with practitioners, and yet I was the only one in yoga pants. It looked as though the guy in front of me had borrowed lingerie from his wife. There were a few topless women. One man was wearing a loincloth. At the front, a DJ reclined in a beanbag chair, choosing beats from his iPhone. The class was gentle and restorative, and with the temperature climbing into the 100s and a full night of dancing and climbing on sculptures behind me, that was exactly what I needed. Everyone else, too, apparently.
“Our first two classes were 45 people,” Liz, an instructor from Evergreen, Colorado, told me. “It was overflowing. You can feel that spiritual energy from people. They crave yoga. People here are looking for more than just a workout.”
Read on for Day 3: Circus pants and deeper realizations…
(YogaWorks instructor Julia, teaching in the Earth Guardians tent. Photo: Alden Wicker for Well+Good)
The next day, as I walked to my third class, I noticed a class wrapping up at the Rollerskate Disco. “We just finished,” a woman in a hot pink bra exclaimed. “We just did some AcroYoga, stretching, and partner massage. And an Acro Pyramid!”
I was headed to Red Lightning, a gorgeous red-and-orange teepee used for yoga, where the class I was looking for, “Yoga for a Hot Body and Sexy Soul,” had been crossed out and replaced with “Somatic Stretch.”
That’s the Playa for you. You can plan and plan, but you’ll always end up with something different than what you expected. It was starting to piss me off. I had been bickering with my boyfriend. Nothing started on time, or things were cancelled altogether. I often couldn’t find the event or tent or person I was looking for, and with no cell towers, I couldn’t rely on my phone to help me. I needed this yoga, and now I was getting Somatic Stretch. Great.
It was in this state of mind that I started following the instructions of a woman with dreads and striped circus pants. She explained to the 60 or more people crammed in every corner of the tent that Somatic Stretching helps your yoga practice by teaching you to release muscle tension. Because that hour had been double-booked, she was going to teach her portion for a half hour, then hand the class over to Gopi Kallayil, who teaches yoga at Google as a hobby. And she had some lovely items to share, like, “Imagine the crystal ball spinning in your core, just like the molten core of the earth.” She even paused at one point to tell her niece to record her from a different angle. Charmingly wacky, she was.
When Kallayil took over, he led us in some basic stretches. Then, as we set ourselves up for pigeon pose, he talked about the spiritual side. “We often come to yoga with expectations. We strain to fit ourselves into a pose in order to look a certain way. Instead, we should let go of expectations, and just be in the pose that works for you.”
At that moment, something clicked for me. I had come to Burning Man with expectations from the real world. Expectations of a certain level class that started at a certain time with a certain kind of instructor in a clean, air-conditioned studio where everyone was wearing yoga-appropriate outfits. But that’s not the way you do yoga—or anything—at Burning Man.
You have to drop your expectations and just do what feels right, whether it’s practicing pantless, or veering off your schedule to join your new friends at their camp, or jumping on an art car full of strangers on your way back from the bathroom, or missing your favorite DJ to dance to a completely unknown one.
After that, my experience turned a corner, and everything got better. And the Playa rewarded me with more amazing experiences than I could possibly record.
So I hope you’ll understand when I tell you that I didn’t make it to any more yoga classes—after all, how could I stick to my Google calendar when there was so much else interesting going on? But if I had, I probably would have gone topless.
(At top, Somatic Stretch; at bottom, Gopi Kallayil. Photos: Alden Wicker for Well+Good)