Learning to Glow: Yoga at Burning Man

Burning Man is more than raves and dust—and yoga is one of its beating hearts.

Love it or hate it, Burning Man is on its way to becoming a household term. Old-schoolers who “were there then” bemoan the establishment’s takeover of the once renegade art festival—often in well-established publications. The first Man burned back in 1986, before some of the festival’s most reverent devotees were breathing air, let alone flames. Since then it’s steadily grown to be one of the largest curated outdoor festivals in the world. References in popular culture have started popping up in sitcoms, in literature—even the New York Times has its say—and there are rumors that some of Silicon Valley’s slickest tech deals are made behind closed tent flaps over a joint or two. Stereotypes abound of festival attendees strung out on a libation of choice, losing their minds in all night raves, running naked through the dusty desert by day. And let’s be honest: That’s real. It’s there. But there’s more to Burning Man than beats and booze and drugs and dust. And one of Burning Man’s beating hearts belongs to yoga.

I first attended the festival in 2009, and had been seriously practicing yoga since 2006. I’d dutifully gone through my vinyasas and felt the burn in my asanas and meditated in my savasanas. I’d tried hatha and ashtanga and Iynegar and kundalini; I’d made the decision never to go back to Bikram. I identified as a yogi: It was a huge part of my weekly routine and my lifestyle. I thought I knew what yoga was all about—until I did yoga on the playa.

That night I left camp just as the sun was beginning to cool, finally giving us all a brief reprieve from her glare before abandoning us for the cold desert night. I strapped my mat to my bike and pedaled out, Ali Baba pants flapping in the wind. I was headed toward sunset practice at the Temple, a hand-carved masterpiece of spirituality, collectively released in flames at the end of every Burn while attendees watch in silence. As I approached, I could feel the echoes of the Oms reverberating in my pedals. More than 50 people had gathered, facing the sun, smiling and chanting and feeling.

As I unrolled my mat it immediately soaked up the Earth it touched (the severely alkaline dust at Burning Man never really disappears from anything), and I caught myself cursing my stupidity for bringing my “good mat” to the playa.

Just as I caught myself starting to feel angry, the woman sitting next to me introduced herself with a hug. She told me that the way the sun reflected off my mat was making me glow, and she asked if I had been gifted a name yet. Glow is my playa name to this day … but it was more than a name. Her simple interruption of my misplaced frustration gave me the wisdom to look past the material and truly see the moment instead. There’s no point in beating yourself up over something that ultimately doesn’t matter—like dust on mat.

There were old people, young people, large people, tiny people, dark-skinned people, light-skinned people, frail people, sturdy people, flexible people, and people who had never tried to touch their toes. There were yoga teachers and beginners and practitioners and worshippers. Some people were in costumes, some people wore lululemon—others wore nothing at all.

It takes a bold person to bust out downward facing dog without panties on. But here, with the sun slipping behind mountains—its pink tendrils curling over crests and kissing me, my namesake neighbor, all the bodies and shapes and curves and crazy around us—it just wasn’t weird. There’s no shame in our bodies and our shapes and our curves and our crazy. We’re all in this together.

I moved through my vinyasa as I never had before. I wasn’t doing it for exercise. I wasn’t doing it because it was trendy. I wasn’t doing it because I had a class card that was going to expire at the end of this month and I still had credit for four more classes. It was just me and the dust and the sun and my filthy mat. I took my hair down and let it drag across the dirt. When I spread out my palms, I really felt—for the first time—the webbing between my fingers. I felt each vertebrae move independently as I rolled up to standing. I was more in touch and in tune with my body than I had ever been before. As I laid in my final savasana, something inside me snapped and I cried: big, full, unstoppable tears, laden with years of blockage I didn’t know I needed to release.

And yoga has never been the same.

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Lisette Cheresson is a writer, producer, and the Director of Content of Wanderlust Festival. She is an award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in New York Times reference books, Off Track Planet, Matador, and others, and has made short films with leaders such as Eddie Stern, Eoin Finn, and Chelsey Korus. Her first book, The Yoga Almanac, is slated for release by New Harbinger Publications in February, 2020. Lisette completed her 200-hour training in Brooklyn and her Reiki attunement in India; she also studied with Leslie Kaminoff of The Breathing Project, and attended a 3-day intensive discourse with the Dalai Lama. Follow her on Instagram @lisetteileen. www.lisetteileen.com