• Vt. festival aims to train the brain
     | June 23,2013
    Kevin O’Connor / Staff Photo

    Gabrielle Bernstein, Oprah Winfrey’s newly deemed “next generation thought leader,” leads a tent full of meditators at the Wanderlust Festival this weekend at Stratton Mountain Resort.

    U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan will appear in Vermont today to announce his two-pronged solution to the nation’s countless problems: Mindfulness and movement.

    One may wonder what a congressman knows about either. But the Ohio Democrat — not to be confused with Wisconsin colleague and Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan — will find himself in understanding company when he joins a four-day crowd of 5,000 fellow yoga and meditation devotees to cap the Wanderlust Festival at Stratton Mountain Resort.

    “There’s a national movement building of people who are interested in transforming the political system,” Ryan said by phone on his way from Washington, D.C. “One of those groups happen to be people who are practicing yoga and mindfulness and seeing its impact.”

    Ryan — who meditates a half-hour daily — cites studies proving how sitting in silence can help everyone from leaders to laborers, prisoners to hospital and hospice patients, students with attention deficit disorder to soldiers with post-traumatic stress.

    “I’m sick and tired of saying the default position is prescription drugs. Having personal experience with meditation, I realize what kind of transformation it could bring to the country.”

    That’s why the congressman is headlining a Wanderlust roster of 60 speakers that has featured Oprah Winfrey’s newly deemed “next generation thought leader” (Gabrielle Bernstein) and hip-hop pioneer Russell Simmons’ political director (Michael Skolnik).

    “The world has changed, and we’re feeling that tension,” Bernstein told this weekend’s crowd at Stratton. “We have to coexist with all the craziness. Tap into your inner guidance system, however you do it.”

    Stratton has a history of hosting summer spectacles, be it the Volvo International tennis tournament that lured the likes of Andre Agassi from 1985 to 1989 or the McCall’s LPGA Classic golf tournament that hooked Nancy Lopez and her peers from 1990 to 1995. When those sporting events moved to larger locations, the resort went looking for another annual warm-weather attraction.

    Enter the organizers of Austin City Limits, Bonnaroo and Lollapalooza, who launched Wanderlust Vermont in 2011. Since Thursday, the ski area that usually hosts SUV drivers toting boots and snowboards has welcomed hybrid car-poolers with bare feet and multicolored yoga mats, all exploring the connection between the body and mind.

    “This is about progress, not perfection,” Bernstein told the crowd. “A lot of people begin on a spiritual path and start to judge themselves. But it’s not about waking up for you, it’s about waking up for the times. This is not a time of ‘how can I get?’ it’s ‘how can I give, how can I serve?’ We have a much greater mission, purpose and power.”

    Ryan, for his part, is author of “A Mindful Nation: How a Simple Practice Can Help Us Reduce Stress, Improve Performance, and Recapture the American Spirit” — a book that spiritualist Deepak Chopra declares “has the potential to change our country — and the world — one person at a time.”

    Ryan may be able to arch his back with hands and feet on the floor, but he isn’t your typical yoga practitioner. The former high school quarterback grew up in what CBS News has called “a shot-and-a-beer district” that includes Rust Belt neighborhoods in Akron and Youngstown.

    Raised Catholic with a self-described “appreciation for the contemplative life,” the congressman felt everything change five years ago when he attended a silent retreat with stress reduction expert Jon Kabat-Zinn.

    “I realized you can train your mind to be in the present moment — that’s really where your life is.”

    Ryan, 39, also recognized the potential of mindfulness to improve mental and physical health and lower resulting costs. Co-chairman of the Congressional Addiction, Treatment and Recovery Caucus, he has initiated programs for students and soldiers through the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Education and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

    Asked why he wanted to speak at Wanderlust, Ryan noted its reach not only in the region but also through similar events in California, Colorado, Hawaii and the countries of Canada and Chile.

    “These festivals are a good opportunity — you get people from all over who can go back and promote this at the grass roots. I thought Vermont is closer to Ohio than the other sites. And I’m hooked on Green Mountain Coffee.”

    Ryan credits his wakefulness not to caffeine, however, but to contemplation. After his Stratton appearance at noon (more information is available on the website www.wanderlustfestival.com), he’ll depart for the Omega Institute in neighboring New York state for a program on “Teaching Yoga and Mindfulness to High-Risk Youth.”

    “I’ve seen how this is resonating with a lot of people. It’s not as out of the mainstream as some think.”


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