Yoga, meditation and sober morning raves—as time goes on, healthy living becomes evermore present in club culture. Angus Finlayson considers the implications.
It's the lack of this tension that makes Intrinsic feel so different. The small groups lounging on the lawn of the Parc de Joséphine Baker seem almost serene, inasmuch as they can be picked out by the moonlight reflecting off the wide Dordogne river. At the bar, top-ups of wine and amber beer are poured into reusable wooden eco-cups. On the festival's nighttime stage, Nicolas Lutz sits at a floor-height booth framed with driftwood. He and Intrinsic resident E/Tape deliver a zone-out smorgasbord of '90s electronica and crackly synth obscurities, ebbing and flowing along with the visuals projection-mapped onto the building behind them. A dark shape wanders through the crowd of bodies spread out on sacks and colourful beanbags. There's something lit in their hand—at first glance it could be a spliff, but it turns out to be incense, leaving a fragrant haze in the cool summer air.
As you might've guessed, Intrinsic is not your usual electronic music weekender. Its lineup features respected DJs like Lutz, Praslea, Gwenan and Melina Serser, but they've swapped their dance collections for downtempo and ambient music, and share the schedule with activities including "Hatha and Vinyasa Flow yoga, healing arts and gong bath, voice and mantra workshops."
The event's organisers state that they "DO NOT" support a "sleepless policy." Intrinsic is not so much a festival as a celebration of "experimental sound, visuals and well-being," promising "a journey away from civilisation and city life" and "a chance to be immersed in nature." This is the first time that the irregular London event has decamped for a whole weekend. "The full moon, the stars, the meteors—it was really something unexpected," event founder Nathalia Petkova will later tell me. "Like the whole universe sits with us somehow."
Petkova's right: more and more of the universe seems to be falling in line with her way of thinking. Intrinsic's chosen term, "well-being," skirts carefully around the more common parlance. Coined by an American doctor in the '50s, "wellness" described a proactive, positive approach to health, as opposed to the negative disease-focus of traditional medicine. The idea seeded in new age enclaves on the West Coast before spreading into wider US culture. In the new century it describes a multi-billion dollar global industry, an amorphous supercontinent bordering on fitness culture, New Age spirituality, workaholic self-betterment and back-to-nature primitivism. From apps tracking the sleep patterns of the stressed to food bloggers promoting juice cleanses and gluten-free diets, from corporate mindfulness initiatives to the near-ubiquity of yoga, wellness, in some for or another, is a part of our daily lives.
Increasingly it's a part of dance music culture, too. Sober morning raves are booming worldwide, and yoga pops up at festivals, in clubs and on record sleeves. Clubs open gyms, and new festivals pair the usual dance music suspects with a focus on bodily health and/or spiritual enlightenment.
Of course, there have always been hippy slipstreams in the dance music current. The rave ethos takes on a new age slant at so-called "transformational festivals," which have flourished in the last decade. Lately, though, other sectors of the dance music world have begun paying new attention to their bodies and souls. One RA staffer was dismayed to note that yoga had "infiltrated" his favourite festival this year, and he's not alone in finding the whole thing disconcerting. Many consider the ideas and practices connected with wellness cheesy, laughable, or downright incompatible with dance music culture—even if they might not be able to articulate exactly why.
The critics may be in the minority, however. More and more people see raving and meditating as complementary, rather than mutually exclusive. And in exploring how they might be combined, they provoke questions about dance music's role in a changing world.
"It was a very difficult transition I would say, and very strange," says Petkova of her own wellness enlightenment. We're chatting via Skype a few weeks after the festival. Over one of her shoulders is a studio monitor, over the other a Buddha head perched on a windowsill. Once a busy techno DJ, she became increasingly dissatisfied with dance music culture. "I [had] been taking drugs and everything, and I'd been playing all the time. And at some point I just felt that something is not correct, something is missing."
At first her frustrations were musical, centred on the need to "please everybody, and to make everybody dance." Intrinsic, an irregular, invite-only event, gave her DJ friends a chance to rummage through their experimental collections. Through the event she met the Ibiza-based Slovenian DJ E/Tape, who became Intrinsic's resident. He introduced her to a world of ideas beyond the music.
"What I always try to find is this balance that can really uplift, somehow, your inner self. The well-being activities blend perfectly with this, because you have yoga, now we have the voice and mantra workshops, we will try to introduce even some plant medicines. The whole project, even with visuals and everything—what we try is to bring some awareness to people.
"My personal aim is to show people that there is another way that you can trip out far away. You can still have the same effect of taking drugs without harming yourself. I don't want to be a person who is going to put the limit on [people's] lives, but I know how much yoga, for example, is changing me, and it's helping me with my well-being, and how much I changed my diet, smoking cigarettes, all the habits that I've been doing unconsciously. And through the project, I changed myself as well."
When I meet E/Tape at a veggie Thai spot in Berlin, I can see how he might've turned Petkova into a convert. He has a guru's self-assuredness, borrowing freely from history and Eastern philosophy, and following up our chat with an email full of anon wisdom and PDF pamphlets on gong baths and Kundalini yoga.
"Bringing these elements to the festival, I think it's really positive," he says of Intrinsic's wellness program. "Especially in this period of existence. Through the people I know, everybody's struggling to find a way to balance their energies. And of course, if nobody passes you any information, the easiest fix is going to be in the pill or in the bottle. Everyone wants to get lifted, one way or another. Most people choose to get high in a way that is quickly passing, and it comes with a steep price. Yet the greatest high requires more commitment. And the best part is, it's a high that makes you more of who you are."
Like Petkova, E/Tape was once at the coalface of dance music. After moving to Ibiza in 2005 he worked as a tour manager for six years, forming close relationships with minimal figureheads like Nicolas Lutz and Binh. But five or so years ago he detached from the hedonistic lifestyle, something he compares to breaking up with a girlfriend "in a really nice, respectful way."
"Somehow through yoga, through meditation and certain experiences with different herbs and plants, it was just a natural course that I left everything. I managed to rediscover myself in such a natural, energetic way. [Now] I can go out for 30 hours on a few bottles of water."
In its pursuit of "a certain inner trip," E/Tape sees the two strands of Intrinsic's programming—music, "healing"—as sharing a single goal. "This is where the yoga and all the old eastern and [other] traditions come into the festival. They were the ones who did it early. Way, way ago."
You might've heard this one before: that dance music is just ancient ritual with a new skin, a manifestation of our age-old need to come together and be transported. "I always saw underground dance music culture as that," says Luca Mortellaro, the DJ and producer better known as Lucy. "That's what I think when I see a performer in charge of distributing energies in a certain way, and a group of people that [dance] to obsessive rhythms for hours and hours. I don't see that many differences, just maybe in the tools used."
Mortellaro's contact with wellness culture began when his DJ career took off. "The shock was so big. Everyone around me [was saying], 'Wow, this is a dream, you should be really happy.' And I wasn't at all, actually I was burning out quite fast."
He began to suffer from anxiety and panic attacks before discovering a form of Hatha yoga. Unlike with Petkova, though, Mortellaro's discovery didn't lead him to reject dance music.
"[Yoga] became like a daily ritual. Wherever I was, in Tokyo, New York, San Francisco, Rome, Berlin, something was always the same. And at some point it started to become a very synergic part of my music career. In the weekend I was putting all my energies into one direction, during the week I was putting them into another, through the yoga practice. I started feeling how that was helping a lot in fighting a certain kind of alienation."
Mortellaro isn't the only DJ in search of coping strategies. Roman Flügel has described his yoga practice as "a nice counterpoint to the usual weekend madness." Xosar, a licensed yoga instructor, recently told RA's Mark Smith how her musician students "have physical problems from making art all day... my job lately has been to help people heal their bodies and to get them more in harmony with their craft so that they're not abusing their bodies in their creative work." In an RA Exchange, Monika Kruse revealed that she takes two months each year for a traditional Indian form of body detoxification called Panchakarma treatment. It "gives me the power for the rest of the year," she said, noting that Sven Väth, Dubfire, Richie Hawtin and Magda have done something similar.
"You get up in the morning and you brush your teeth—it's like that for me," says Tony Child of his own yoga practice. As the DJ and producer Surgeon, he's had two decades to get to grips with the touring lifestyle. His relationship with Ashtanga yoga started about ten years ago, after a health checkup revealed a risk of back problems. At first he was skeptical. "I'm not really a sporty person, shall we say. But the first session I did, I was instantly really interested in it, because it did far more to me on a psychological level than just a physical level."
Child had had a "quite serious problem with insomnia," and ground his teeth so much that "my dentist warned me that they were probably going to fall out." Yoga quickly fixed both problems. "On a psychological level, I think it's made me much calmer. You can never remove stress and crazy situations from your life, but I think it's helped me to be able to deal with them better. And in terms of my gigs, it helps me to focus and concentrate for much longer periods of time than I ever could before. That's really helped me enjoy and improve, I think, my performance."
Yoga also helped him confront an ongoing drinking problem. "Doing what I do, there's all kinds of drugs and alcohol around all the time. There's nothing wrong with that, it's just when it goes out of balance and something has more negative than positive effects—then I see it as a problem. I've not drunk alcohol for seven years now, and I feel a lot better for it. I definitely attribute yoga as the thing that gave me the inner strength to be able to deal with that."
Child is hesitant to draw a direct line between yoga and his music, but Mortellaro has no such qualms. In 2014, alongside yoga teacher Amanda Morelli, he devised "a transcendent performance integrating traditional Eastern breathing techniques, field-recordings and the spatial dynamics of sound." For the past few years he's hosted a regular "sound bath meditation" session in Berlin.
I attend the first session after the summer break, at a community-supported yoga studio in a Neukölln apartment block. Shoes are taken off at the door, and regulars chat around the tea dispenser. The session, once it starts, is structured similarly to yoga classes I've attended. We get comfy on mats and cylindrical cushions, and begin and end with breathing exercises centring around "om." (At points the rooms sounds like it's full of angry insects.) Once we're suitably in the zone, the sound bath meditation starts. The roomful of stylish 20- and 30-somethings lie back under colourful blankets, and Mortellaro teases rich, sometimes deafening roars out of a pair of enormous standing gongs.
The experience is a lot like Intrinsic: the clientèle, the cushions and blankets, the meditative sound. Only the focus has shifted: the "healing" activities have become the main event. A description of the session claims that "Sound has been used as a healing implement for centuries… Synchronizing body vibrations and consequently brain waves to specific sound frequencies, it is possible to achieve profound states of relaxation to restore disharmonies. As illness could be regarded as a manifestation of disharmony in the body, rebalancing by bathing deeply in sound is the key to opening the deepest doors of our self-perception."
There's no denying that those involved in dance music are in need of healing. A 2016 British study found that musicians could be up to three times more likely than average to suffer from anxiety or depression. DJs, with their disrupted sleep patterns and constant exposure to alcohol and drugs, are surely high on the at-risk list, along with many other people involved in dance music culture.
Yoga and meditation are not quack cures, either. A survey in the Harvard Mental Health Letter found that they "can reduce the impact of exaggerated stress responses and may be helpful for both anxiety and depression." Yoga fits the DJ lifestyle, too. As Child says, "I just put a towel on the floor in the hotel room and I can do it."
But wellness culture often trades in blurry lines. It's a world where aesthetic and social preferences merge with the medical, the pseudo-medical and the mystical. How literal is Mortellaro being when, at the end of the session, he advises that we sleep with a pen and paper close by tonight, since the full moon means that our dreams may offer useful advice? And how seriously does E/Tape believe that the resonant frequency of the earth is relevant to humans' health? (This claim, regarding the "Schumann resonance," is popular in alternative medicine). Or that gong bath meditation works because the gong "has a certain vibration that goes really deep into your DNA memories" opening "a portal that links the finite and the infinite experience of the self" and has "a healing effect on the deepest level of your cells"?
In some instances, taking these sorts of ideas seriously may be the opposite of healthy, leading people to make ill-informed decisions, perhaps even to go against medical advice. At the very least, discussions around these issues often seem to lack a critical element. Western democracies—the cradles of dance music culture—have experienced a widespread collapse of trust in this century. A rejection of the authority of governments, the media and academia informs political and social movements across the spectrum. Wellness culture might be one facet of this search for a new truth, but it doesn't always look in the right places.
This hints at something: that wellness culture, like dance music, isn't just about how we relate to our bodies, but also about our relationship with the society around us.
"We had been a part of a scene with no barriers, where everyone danced together regardless of race or class, which was revolutionary at this time of deep rooted Thatcherism. And our experiences in the techno scene over nearly 30 years have shown us that just because you are in the scene doesn't necessarily mean that you think in an openminded way."
Debbie Griffith, AKA Pheen X, is more qualified than most to talk about dance music's social aspect. She is a founding member of Spiral Tribe, a British soundsystem at the forefront of '90s free party culture. The crew was present at the Castlemorton Common Festival, and was driven out of the UK by the subsequent Criminal Justice Act. They travelled Europe keeping the rave spirit alive, but things got harder as the years went by.
"At the beginning of the new century the traveling had become almost impossible due to stricter policing and many of us moved into more settled living situations. But then there was a massive feeling of dissatisfaction amongst many of us. We had been a part of so many fantastic adventures, now where was the mission?"
After dabbling in yoga, in 2002 Griffith went on a ten-day silent meditation retreat in the "Vipassana" Buddhist tradition. It was "the start of a massive shift deep down in my consciousness." But she soon found herself split between the hedonistic party scene and the ascetic world of silent retreats. So, alongside yoga instructor Denis Robberechts, she devised Dharma Techno.
A Trax feature recounted one of Dharma Techno's retreats: four nights of silent meditation in a remote villa in the south of France under the guidance of Robberechts, and in the middle a (sober) six-hour rave courtesy of Spiral Tribe artist 69db. It seems like a rejection of rave's usual values—sociality, substances. But Dharma techno's organisers see it as the opposite: a return to the essence of dance music culture.
"So many people, like myself, find themselves in a loop with the scene," says Griffith. An initial profound connection with the music weakens over the years, and growing quantities of drugs are needed to reestablish it. Dharma techno is about breaking that self-destructive spiral. (Though Griffith emphasises that the retreat isn't intended as rehab, Trax reports that some attendees used it to reexamine their relationship with substances.) "I totally reconnected with techno music at the first Dharma Techno retreat we did," she says. "I finally remembered why I had loved it so much for so many years."
Sebastian "69db" Vaughan agrees. "Dharma techno has definitely reinvigorated me. I really get the feeling of finding something that could help me and many others advance towards true freedom."
The free party scene isn't representative of the dance music world in its entirety. But Griffith and Vaughan's story echoes a broader one. Dance music is bigger than ever worldwide, but the rave dream, that initial burst of utopian energy that propelled it into the global consciousness, has been subsumed in a complex and money-driven industry.
"A few artists are definitely saying that the industry is getting too much," says Intrinsic's Nathalia Petkova. "Many people are bored and are finding something different. I don't have anything against the industry or against dance music, I just think that it's expanded to a point that it's overdone now, and most people don't do it for the right reasons."
Petkova's view is shared by several of the people I spoke to for this feature. Whether DJs jaded by the circuit or festivalgoers looking for a new rush, they're dance music lifers trying to rediscover something lost along the way. Wellness culture has helped them to reconnect.
Of course, there are also younger fans and artists, for whom dance music is still a fresh adventure. They, too, seem to have caught the wellness bug—perhaps even more so than their older peers. It's something that Anthony Child has noticed over the years. "I get this feeling that the people who were going out raving in the early '90s, there was a lot more of a headlong, kind of nihilistic attitude." The younger generation, on the other hand, can be surprisingly "sensible and sober."
His observation is backed up by the stats. A recent UK report by Eventbrite on "millennials"—those born between around 1980 and 2000—found that 42% of them say they're drinking less alcohol than three years ago, and that the typical millennial consumes well below the government recommended weekly limit of 14 units. The UK's overall spend on drink, drugs and cigarettes has dropped since the beginning of the century, and the use of class A drugs—traditionally a motor of dance music culture—has declined in both the US and the UK.
Some blame social media for this generational shift towards soberness. In a permanently networked world, we're scared of compromising photos besmirching our online brand. But there are other reasons why we can't let our guard down. In both the UK and the US, it looks like millennials will be the first post-war generation to be worse-off than their parents. We're entering a world of spiralling property prices, crumbling welfare systems and cutthroat job markets built around precarious short-term contracts.
Meanwhile, responsibility for our lives falls ever heavier on our own shoulders. If you're unhappy, society says, it's probably due to your laziness or ineptitude, rather than a system rigged against you. A recent Heineken-sponsored global study into why millennials are drinking less found that 88% of them "accept that they are responsible for how their life turns out" and 69% "feel they have to work harder for career success than their parents." No wonder we're looking for ways to rave that won't conflict with this crushing responsibility.
This thought accompanies me to the final—and strangest—destination in my whistlestop wellness tour. It's about 7 AM and I'm watching the sun rise over London from the 69th floor of The Shard. Bleary from my early start, I've ordered a "botanical cocktail" called "Home" from the booze-free bar—it was that or a Chakra shot (a "straight-up potent ayurvedic blend", a sign explains). The people around me, dressed in a combination of fancy dress and glitter-specked gym gear, don't look how I feel. Some wait for a free massage or "tantric tarot reading," others trickle upstairs for a yoga session on the astroturfed Skydeck. Most, though, head for the makeshift dance floor, where DJ Pedestrian is eliciting whoops and cheers with Fatboy Slim's "Praise You." There's an MC, too, shouting, "Who knew being sober could be so much fun?"
The event is Morning Gloryville, a sober dance party that takes place on occasional weekdays from 5 to 9 AM. Launched in London in 2013, it has since been franchised out to dozens of cities worldwide, and spawned imitation events across Europe and North America. The likes of Basement Jaxx, Carl Cox and Roger Sanchez have played (not to mention Fatboy Slim), and the press is obsessed: at current count, the Morning Gloryville website features more than two and a half thousand clippings.
It should be said that a lot of this coverage is delivered with a smirk, if not an outright sneer. Morning Gloryville is mocked by the dance underground too, and understandably so. If you were to distil some of the more skeptic-baiting aspects of "wellness culture" into one event, this would be it: cheesy costumes, cheery atmosphere, spiritual overtones. For all that, I'm enjoying myself. The cocktails are good, the view is gorgeous, the crowd is relaxed and their happiness infectious.
Like many of the events explored in this piece, Morning Gloryville was conceived by a reformed raver. Samantha Moyo had fallen into a "cycle of two/three day parties." She wanted to create "a space where we could have all the wildness and... the rave effect without the temptation." But the party's priorities are totally different to those of Intrinsic or Dharma Techno. There's dancing, but no spirit of musical adventure (unless wedding-grade bangers like Queen's "Don't Stop Me Now" and The Beatles' "With A Little Help From My Friends" constitute a new aesthetic frontier nobody told me about).
Instead, the party is about reshaping clubbing to fit a certain lifestyle. The crowd skews towards the older half of that "millennial" bracket and, given their ability to afford the £45 door price (non-Shard events are cheaper), they're likely straight off to work once the music stops. They will have had their moment of uninhibited fun and social togetherness, without any pesky hangovers impacting their productivity. It's the ideal rave for a generation conditioned to regard everything, even leisure time, as part of an endless project of self-improvement.
Moyo has since cashed in on this angle. This summer at Imagine, a three-night retreat on Dartmoor, she ran a workshop on her "8 C's," a method for "turning dormant dreams into reality... becoming a fire-starter and unleashing the potential in our lives." The "Cs" involved things like "consciousness" and "community and connection" alongside "commercialisation." The "dreams," it was suggested, could be "personal passions," but also—and one imagines these were the people paying the £350+ ticket price—business projects: "a new app, a social change project, a disruptive innovation." Moyo has since turned her 8 Cs into a six-week evening course with the subtitle "Empowering pioneers interested in community building and entrepreneurship."
If there's a problem with Morning Gloryville then this is it: the unsettling ease with which its ethos of love and togetherness (posters around the venue say things like "Find your tribe. Love them hard") lends itself to a kind of business coaching. There's nothing wrong with dancing in the morning, or with yoga, or with foregoing booze. But while the event's success lies in its ability to speak to our pressed, stressed generation, it doesn't offer a way out of the rat race—it just promises to make us faster runners.
My misgivings about wellness culture's love affair with dance music mostly boil down to this. You could call it the "Man In The Mirror" theory, after the 1988 single in which Michael Jackson, seeing starving kids in the street, decides to "make a change for once in my life." Rather than buying the kids a sandwich, though, he settles for a long, hard look in the mirror.
The song came out at the tail-end of the Thatcher / Reagan years, in which markets were deregulated, welfare states shrunk and society reimagined as a collection of individuals competing in self-interest. "Man In The Mirror" played into this narcissistic logic, suggesting that the answer to an atomised society is even more introspection. But a parallel pop phenomenon offered an alternative. The Second Summer Of Love was about togetherness. Rave culture helped break down the barriers between people. It never led to utopia—far from it—but the idea was at least radical enough for governments to legislate against it. Dance music has lost most of that anarchic energy now, and it's flawed in many ways. But it's still basically a social culture: a way for people to enjoy moments of community, and maybe a brief escape from the pressures of "real" life.
It feels like we're in another crisis era now, with the democratic societies that birthed dance music facing political strife and declining living conditions. The people I spoke to for this piece seemed to be grappling with this, however indirectly. Some of them have found different and compelling relationships with dance music, and there are many positive aspects to their ideas. It's great for people to take seriously their relationship with their bodies and the world, for instance, and to harbour no illusions about the costs of heavy drug use.
All the same, a future in which dance floors—places where people move, mingle and interact—are replaced by the slumbering crowds of a festival like Intrinsic doesn't seem particularly bright. I wonder if the main achievement of the new wellness wave is to redirect dance music's social energy inwards, encouraging us not to look at one another, but at that person in the mirror.
Or maybe I, an outsider whose Downward Facing Dog still needs considerable work, just don't get it. Dharma Techno's instructor, Denis Robberechts, offered the most convincing counter-argument. For him, what brings devotees of dance music and meditation together is a search for "freedom." The practices explored on his retreats could, he admitted, be used cynically, to help a population "deal with stress rather than to question the system that creates that stress." But their underlying goal is more radical. "We search for a source of joy that exists within ourselves, and that in itself is an antidote to the madness of the consumerist world. The one who finds a simple and stable joy within himself stops being the toy of that kind of system."