A Yogi Opens Up About Teaching at Burning Man

Are you headed to the playa next week? You won’t want to miss this teacher’s workshop.

As like-minded souls from all walks of life—yogis and ravers and hippies, oh my!—converge in Nevada for the 2015 Burning Man festival next week, we reached out to someone who’s embracing the Gifting Economy whole-heartedly by teaching on the playa. Rebekah Nagy is a Brooklyn-based yoga teacher whose methods embody the intersection of contemporary practice and ancient Vedic philosophy, what Mark Singleton calls “modern transnational anglophone yoga.”


Wanderlust (WL): How many years have you been to Burning Man? How many years have you taught on the playa?

Rebekah Nagy (RN): This will be my third year attending Burning Man, and my second year teaching yoga there. The first year I felt like I needed to spend some time in Black Rock City (BRC) before I’d know exactly how I could contribute to the culture, beyond the immediate and spontaneous contribution of being there. I needed to experience what yoga on playa is like. The second year I got organized so that I could share something very dear to me: teaching yoga.

WL: Why do you teach on the playa? How do you envision your offering helping or affecting people at the Burn?

RN: For those who haven’t been to Burning Man, it’s important to know that it is a gifting culture, not a bartering culture. Offering an item or service without expectation of a return, versus trading, gives us the opportunity to be much more generous and kind to one another than our current culture allows, wherein profitability is valued above all. It removes us, at least temporarily, from a paradigm that it can be tough to imagine living without. Yoga is still a luxury for most people, so when possible, I like to give it away. I’m of limited means, but something simple and free, like teaching a yoga class, I can easily give this to others. I know just how much better my own body feels after a yoga class, when I’ve been building shade structures by day and dancing all night. And in an intensely stimulating outer landscape like BRC, it’s important to give ourselves time to appreciate how our own inner landscapes respond to such input.

WL: A major principle of the Burning Man philosophy is radical self-reliance and independence. Does your teaching style fit within this principle? How or why?

RN: Yes. Emphasis on the individual underpins all the yogic and somatic training I’ve undergone in the Krishnamacharya lineage, as well as my post-500-hour studies in anatomy via a Body-Mind Centering lens. As a teacher it is not my job to tell students what kind of experience they are having or are supposed to have, but rather to hold safe space and offer useful parameters, a framework, wherein they can attend to their breath and the quality of experience they are having. This supports their ability to be present and meet whatever comes up in our shared space. In my personal yoga journey, and through meditation as well, I’ve learned the immensity of my own power to shape my experience in a given moment. It was revelatory for me when, after enough steady practice, I started to taste this truth firsthand. I started to learn what it feels like to be truly present. It’s kept me from falling into the non-participatory delusion of Default-world life [a Burning Man term for “the real world”]. There is a very rich life beyond the service economy to which we’ve all become accustomed. This is why I teach now: To offer others some of the practices that have engendered this strength in me.

Knowing I run the risk of sounding paradoxical, in becoming self-reliant and independent, we also have the opportunity to discover just how inextricably interconnected we actually are. Civic responsibility and participation are two Burning Man principles that balance radical self-reliance and independence. Many of our default world social structures drive wedges between us, and strip us of true participation and responsibility. It feels amazing and empowering and very quintessentially human to reclaim co-creation.

WL: What are some of your favorite moments teaching at Burning Man? Was there ever a moment someone made an amazing breakthrough on the playa at one of your classes?

RN: Oh wow. I wish I had a specific playa breakthrough story to offer! Reading the piece on Wanderlust about yoga at Burning Man in preparation for this interview was very powerful. I did teach a class at Kostume Kult last year at the burn, and my students were repping just about every playa costume archetype you could imagine. There were booty shorts, fairy wings, tutus, and even a lion onesie. That whimsically-clad class captured a particularly playafied moment. It was silly and wonderful.

WL: What were some of those moments in Default?

RN: I’ve certainly encountered teary students after classes, who were able to find space to have a much-needed release. Default world culture can color these experiences as “negative,” when in fact, they’re just what we need, an expression of deep feeling we’ve been denying expression. Most of society I’ve encountered doesn’t hold space for this. I’ve experienced similar releases too, many times, in my 14+ years of yoga practice. These experiences have made me more whole.

Because yoga is to some degree about recognizing and breaking patterns, I also try to keep my language fresh. I try to voice my alignment or breath instructions in new ways, so that my students have the opportunity to reconsider their movement choices, or the relationship between their bodies and breath and a given posture. There have also been times, while teaching, when I can feel something moving through me, the best description of which is inspiration, pun intended, and I’m able to convey, with the collective power of something bigger than myself, a deep kernel of meaning that feels like something I’ve only felt but never quite been able to articulate. I think Krishnamacharya said that the quality of the student determines the quality of the teacher, and this rings true in my experience. What a privilege! I feel such gratitude that this is what I get to do to earn a living, since we live in a world that demands we spend so much of our time working to earn a living. That’s another Burner value—blurring the line between work and play. I try to do it every day!

WL: You’ve taught/worked with people struggling with substance abuse. Most people’s stereotypes of Burning Man involve copious amounts of libation and intoxication. Does your particular experience have significant impact possibilities at Burning Man?

RN: Well, as you said, these are people’s stereotypes. I’ve had some of the most transcendental and gorgeous experiences of my life on and off playa, with no help from exogenous substances, while dancing, or watching a sunrise, or having a simple interaction in a new or profound or particularly connected way. When we turn to anything compulsively, it is because we seek a deeper connection than we think we are capable of experiencing in everyday life. Yoga philosophy teaches us that anything can become an addiction, and that our habitual way of meeting the world, the part of us that thinks it has a specific identity, is a complex accretion of deeply ingrained conditioning.

Not all medicines are created equal, however, and I think sometimes we have to lose ourselves to find ourselves. So I can’t compare the gamut of substances used and abused in Default world or on-playa, really. Humans embody a capacity for over-use of anything, anywhere. I work with clients who are recovering from addiction to a wide variety of substances, and years of abuse of drugs with a heavy body load—like alcohol or amphetamines or heroin—simply isn’t comparable to the healing power of judicious entheogen use. Learning to maintain steadiness in a destabilizing situation is part of yoga practice. The line feels very grey: We tend to impose similar moral bias in our society, regardless of the substance, since they are treated similarly in our legal system. But this is wrong.

WL: You’re not only teaching yoga on the playa—you’re also doing some workshops. What is primal screaming? Why is it important? How does it deepen our yoga practice or our experience with ourselves?

RN: Honestly, I couldn’t think of a better name than ‘primal screaming’ for an improvisational sound-making session. If we’re called to move or dance or beat rhythms into the dust too, so be it. We’ll be setting aside time to gather together and scream and moan and writhe and dance, and in my experience, this spontaneous, creative, and cathartic practice is super fun and really healing. We rarely allow ourselves to be so free, and I never realize just how much I’ve needed it until I do it. Some of the workshops my campmates and I are offering are activities I’d like to do anyway, but struggle to find the space for in Default world. (You know … The neighbors would complain!) As Eckhart Tolle says, “Body awareness not only anchors you in the present moment, it is a doorway out of the prison that is the ego.”

WL: In the same vein, why is sound-making important? What do you mean by this? Is it more than just our breathing?

RN: Just our breathing? Even that is so huge! Making sound tends to lengthen your breath, which tends to make you feel more relaxed. Making loud, crazy, violent, terrible, or extremely enthusiastic and joyful sound helps you release super deep stuff. It feels great. From a Vedic perspective, as if I’m at all qualified to begin a sentence this way, but I’ll do the best I can as a Westerner to describe what I think a Vedic perspective is, sound is everything. It is manifold creation, shabda brahman. I know that therapeutically, connecting with the resonance of soundmaking has a way of going in the back door, of getting us out of our heads. It’s like postural yoga, where we work with our bodies to get into deeper parts of ourselves with less resistance from our egos.

WL: How does Burning Man fit into a yogi lifestyle? What are the similarities in the communities? Do they share some of the same principles?

RN: They support one another immensely. In different ways, they’ve both helped me to better connect to myself, so that I may better connect to others. They’ve helped me to know my own strength and power, and to understand the arbitrary nature of many societal boundaries, so that I can create the kind of world and relationships I want to have, rather than blindly accepting the status quo. They’ve taught me steadiness and playfulness in unsteady and challenging situations. They’ve taught me presence.

If you’re going to be at the 2015 Burning Man festival, don’t miss Rebekah Nagy’s workshop on Tuesday, 10:30am–12pm Yoga at Amberland, followed by a 12pm primal scream session.

Rebekah NagyRebekah Nagy has been practicing yogāsana since 2001 and teaching since 2011. Currently a student of kinesiology, Vedic and sutra chanting, and the Sanskrit language, Rebekah also engages in many creative endeavors ranging from performance, dance, and painting to analog film and installation/costume/ritual art. She practices Haitian Vodou drumming and dance, loves to cook, and commutes by bike. In growing season she can be found in her roof garden, either working hard or sitting still. For more information check out rebekahnagy.com and follow her on Facebook.