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7 Wildest Transformational Festivals

From Burning Man to Shambhala Gathering

7 Wildest Transformational Festivals

Photograph by Andrew Jorgensen

In 1990 the founders of Burning Man drew a line on the ground of Nevada's Black Rock Desert and told each other, "On the other side of this line, everything will be different." With its artful chaos and core principles of participation, civic responsibility, radical inclusion and self-reliance, Burning Man has not only lived up to its charter — it's inspired gatherings around the globe. In a 2010 TEDx talk in Vancouver, documentary filmmaker Jeet Kei Leung coined the term "Transformational Festival" to describe this "remarkable cultural phenomenon." These are destinations where anything goes, active participation is encouraged, the weird is wonderful and eye contact, ecstatic dance, long hugs, incense, sacred space and psychedelics permeate the scene. The events tend to take place in a natural setting over multiple days and, according to Leung, all share "the co-creation of an immersive, participant driven reality."

"We may never be able to define a set of characteristics that could guarantee a festival to be transformational," says Leung. "There's no doubt that many participants are having life-altering experiences at festivals and an increasingly coherent culture is emerging that fosters and supports these experiences."

Whether you’re a veteran Burner or a total newbie, here are the world's most exciting transformational festivals right now.

Burning Man

Burning Man 2015. Photo by Scott London.

Scott Lodnon

Burning Man

Where: Black Rock City, Nevada

When: August 28th to September 5th

Why go: The granddaddy of them all, Burning Man is the mecca and measuring stick for transformational festivals around the world. Somehow a San Francisco costume troop called Cacophony, along with various anti-establishment artists and miscreants, turned the idea of setting fire to a large wooden man in the middle of an inhospitable dried lakebed into a thriving cultural hot spot. Now run by a non-profit organization, 70,000 Burners from every walk of life converge on Black Rock Desert annually. Beer-drinking NASCAR fans party next to shirt-cockers on ecstasy. Body paint, titty-tassels and tutus are everywhere. Fire spitting, beat pumping party wagons lit up like Eighties arcade games prowl the playa. There are over 2,000 free classes, workshops and events. Theme camps offer instructional sex classes, free condoms, make-out parties and group showers. A solitary man in a Ferby costume serves cold pickles from a cooler attached to the back of his bike. Tibetan monks teach meditation workshops. Cirque du Soleil performers offer acrobatics classes. Internet billionaires run around naked. Thousands of women ride their bikes topless at the "Critical Tits" parade. The list goes on and on. If you can dream it, you can do it at Burning Man. Chances are someone will be there to do it with you or is already doing it and all you have to do is join in.

If you're a Burning Man virgin, which nearly a third of festival attendees tend to be, remember to bring something simple and small to share with people as part of Burning Man's unique gifting economy (tiny bottles of Siracha and hand sewn dust masks were some favorites last year). The only things for sale are coffee and bags of ice, so come prepared. Also, leave no trace: If you brought it in with you, take it out. The entirety of Black Rock City fades back into pristine desert after the weeklong festival.

Official website: burningman.org

7 Wildest Transformational Festivals

Sept. 22, 2013 - Oakdale, California, U.S. - San Francisco's Farley, spins lights around while dancing to the music from the Shake Shack during the closing nocturnal events of the 2013 Symbiosis Gathering held at Woodward Reservoir just north of Oakdale Sunday night (Credit Image: © Elias Funez/Modesto Bee/ZUMAPRESS.com)

Elias Funez/Efunez@Modbee.Com/ZumaPress

Symbiosis Gathering

Where: Woodward Reservoir Regional Park in Oakdale, California

When: September 22nd to September 25th

Why go: Often referred to as a "purer, more curated" version of Burning Man, Symbiosis has the feeling of being thrown by and for the volunteers and crew of other larger festivals. A heavy emphasis on earth-consciousness abounds, with a completely organic food market, large scale recycling program and inclusion of nearby Native America tribes. The well-equipped campgrounds at Woodward Reservoir Regional Park make the festival far more comfortable than the "out in the elements" style of Burning Man. And with just 7,000 attendees, it is also much more intimate. "Symbiosis is a wonderfully relaxed, easy-to-experience festival with many artistic delights," says Chip Conley, founder of the online festival guide, Fest300.com. "You'll find an increased sense of idealism and common intentionality among the big-hearted crowd." Water plays a big role here. There are various art-boats floating on the reservoir, where attendees can take a dip and cool off after dancing in the California heat. There are no brands, corporate sponsorships or any other type of for-profit commerce at Symbiosis. Instead, there's an alternative-marketplace that exists through sharing, cooperation and collaboration where everyone is welcome.

Most of the musical acts are less well known (and a good deal quirkier) than other larger festivals, although some well-known artists have launched their careers here, including Chief Golden Light Eagle, LYNX, Emancipator, Rupa and the April Fishes, Sphongle and Starhawk. 

Official website: symbiosisgathering.com

7 Wildest Transformational Festivals

Andrew Jorgensen


Where: Rancho la Merced, Costa Rica

When: February 23rd to 26th

Why go: Founded in 2011 with just 500 people on a small plot of land in the laid-back beach town of Dominical, Envision has grown steadily to its current size of around 5,000 attendees. The natural location helps limit the size and places important ecological demands on the gathering. There is no plastic of any form within the festival grounds and every attendee is encouraged to bring their own reusable plates, containers, cutlery and water bottles. All food and drinks on sale are organic and locally made, while workshops cover topics like permaculture, indigenous empowerment and plant healing. Well-known artists like Ant-Ten-Ea and Random Rab have performed in past years on one of the four stages. The crowd is a beautiful mix of surfers, yogis, Costa Rican locals and a wide array of travelers that come from near and far to take part. "I love Envision," says Chip Conley, "because it's small, well executed and so integrated with the natural environment. Transformational festivals use nature as their cathedral and Envision does this better than most."

Official website: envisionfestival.com

7 Wildest Transformational Festivals

Jakob Kolar /www.jakobkolar.com


Where: Idanha-a-Nova, Portugal

When: August 11th to August 18th

Why go: Held every two years since 1998, BOOM is a throwback to the bohemian and spiritual vibe of the 1960s, mixed with the phenomenal food, music and performance art of the Iberian Peninsula. The Liminal Village is the cultural hub of the festival with daily seminars in topics like mythology, activism, ecology and alternative science. The music on four stages at BOOM is decidedly mellower than many other music festivals, featuring laid-back trance, chill-out and other gentler electronic styles. Circus acts, street theater, jugglers, fire dancers, film screenings and a host of other talents bring the region's creative energy to the festival. And an award winning environmental program focuses on clean energy, sustainable and biodegradable products and other low-impact practices like compostable toilets, free water stations and group transportation to the festival site.

Official website: boomfestival.org/boom2016/home

7 Wildest Transformational Festivals

SAN MIGUEL, CA - MAY 23: The Lucent Dossier Experience performs during the 2015 Lightning In A Bottle Festival on May 23, 2015 in San Miguel, California. (Photo by C Flanigan/Getty Images)

C Flanigan/Getty

Lightning in a Bottle

Where: Bradley, California

When: May 25th to May 30th

Why go: Beginning in 2000 as a private birthday party outside of Santa Barbara, Lightning in a Bottle has grown into the second largest transformational festival in the world (with an annual attendance of close to 20,000). Produced by the Coachella mainstay, Do LaB, Lightning in a Bottle successfully offers traditional music in a transformational setting, creating the perfect introduction for first-timers. Three-dimensional art installations, daily yoga classes, meditation workshops, games, performances, live painting demonstrations and colorful costumes all add to the immersive experience. The multiple stages, designed to resemble flowers, trees and other natural edifices add depth to an eclectic selection of world and electronic music. Lightning in a Bottle provides free filtered water for reusable containers, runs mostly on biodiesel and solar power, and performs it's own annual green-energy audit to ensure continued improvement. (It has won the Outstanding Greener Festival Award for three years in a row.) Just note: Now located in Central California's San Antonio Reservoir and Recreation Area for 2016.

Official website: lightninginabottle.org


Jess StewartMaize


Where: Tidewater, Oregon

When: August 12th to August 15th

Why go: Held in a stunning coastal forest a few hours south of Portland, Beloved focuses on "presenting a highly curated combination of sacred music and a carefully chosen sequence of artists to tell a continuous story." All of the action takes place on one stage, so "when festival-goers want to jam out, they are all doing so in the same place at the same time, which creates a powerful, unifying force." Beloved's definition of sacred music represents a large swath of ancient, contemporary and futuristic sounds, joined by their ability to incite "deep joy and reverence." From Middle-Eastern chants and obscure instruments to thumping EDM, past lineups showcased artists as diverse as Krishna Daas and the Les Nubians with more traditional EDM DJs like Rob Garza and Cut Chemist. "Part spiritual awakening, part music festival, Beloved is a classic west coast transformational festival," says Chip Conley. "It's not Coachella. It's not superficial. You better be ready to eye-gaze with a few wide-eyed fellow attendees and if sacred ain't your thing, Beloved ain't your festival."

Official website: belovedfestival.com

7 Transformational Festivals

Amy pitner/Flickr

Shambhala Gathering

Where: Salmo, British Columbia, Canada

When: August 5th to August 8th

Why Go: Six stages, 10,000 attendees and 2,000 volunteers make Shambhala the largest EDM festival … in Western Canada. What makes it more than just another music festival, though, is the down-home atmosphere nurtured by the Bundschuh family, who's children founded the festival in 1998 and continue to host it on the family's 500 acre ranch. There's no corporate sponsorship and no booze or other illegal substances allowed on site. A sober transformational festival? "Yes, it exists with this well run, nurturing gathering," says Conley. "Less of the thump thump thump of a typical EDM festival, this event is more lyrical than driven, more dreamy than intense."

There are art installations, painted murals, yoga platforms, meditation nooks and ethical fair trade vendors spread throughout the venue. There's also an organic garden in the middle of the grounds. Shambhala’s trademark stage is Fractal Forest, where DJs play in burnt-out, old growth cedar stumps surrounded by fire breathers, hula-dancers, fairies, and other harder to categorize creatures. The Pagoda is Shambhala's main stage; part-temple, part spaceship, with insane visual effects, it attracts big name acts like Pretty Lights and Griz. This year's headliners include Questlove, Beats Antique, Cut Chemist, Felix da Housecat, Marshmello, Nightmares on Wax, Skratch Bastid, Grandtheft, The Upbeats, Z-Trip and hundreds more.

Official website: shambhalamusicfestival.com

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