How Wanderlust became the Coachella for wellness seekers

The words "wellness festival" may set off alarm bells in your mind. Take one of the highest profile such events: Gwyneth Paltrow's Goop Health, the lavish summit that she took to London for one weekend last June.

With an agenda that included reiki, sound healing and mindful hydration, and a ticket price of up to US$5700, it's little surprise that some furious guests labelled Paltrow an "extortionist".

Closer to home, wellness festivals have over-promised and under-delivered. When the international yoga and lifestyle event Wanderlust first hit Australia, it ultimately collapsed in late 2017 owing local yogis tens of thousands of dollars.

But there's a positive turn to Wanderlust's story. The event was relaunched in Australia in 2018, under the new direction of former Swisse CEO Radek Sali — and the resurrection was so successful that it's soon to return for a second year under his watch, with three festivals in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane.

Sali believes his revitalised Wanderlust has succeeded because of its focus on the three simple "pillars" of wellness: "nutrition, mindfulness, movement".

The signature event on Wanderlust's program is the so-called mindful triathlon, which includes a 5km fun run (or walk, skip or stroll); a group yoga session, led in Sydney by "yogi rockstar" Eion Finn; and a group meditation, led in Sydney and Melbourne by spiritual teacher Biet Simkin.

"I love the community aspect where you're connected with other people and you're doing things that you otherwise wouldn't do together as a big group," says Sali. "A mass yoga class, is just amazing — the vibe, the energy. Mass meditation ... is just a magical feeling to be with thousands of people in silence, finding our centre, and being really present."

Wanderlust will also include a number of wellness-focused workshops that Sali says range from spiritual leaders talking about personal mindfulness, nutritionists on the "latest and greatest" food trends, to different types of exercise classes to try out.

Some of Sali's most anticipated guests at this year's Wanderlust festivals include Simkin, because of her "authentic" journey from rock'n'roll lifestyle to meditation expert; Donovan McGrath, who's bringing his "high energy, dance style of yoga" to Australia for the first time; and Lara Zilibowitz, who he deems "Australia's number one yoga teacher".

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Sali is a longtime wellness practitioner — he meditates for 20 minutes twice a day — and has applied those interests to his workplaces. As boss of supplements and personal care megabrand Swisse, he oversaw health programs that saw the company recognised as one of Australia's best places to work.

"If people ask me about meditation and why I do it, I ask them, 'Do you brush your teeth? Have a shower every day?'" he says. "They say, 'Yes', and I go, 'Well, you're taking the time to clean your body, or clean your teeth, but what are you doing for your mind?'"

He acknowledges that when people think businessman they don't typically think wellness, but credits his parents for teaching him that those three pillars can make day-to-day life more manageable: his mother is a medical scientist and his father a professor of surgery.

"My father was the first person in Australia, in conventional medical circles, to study the fact that diet could cause disease … [he] also did a whole lot of work on meditation in helping people with dealing with chronic disease," he says. "He was laughed at when he talked about these things in the '70s, and the '80s. It took a long time for it to be taken seriously."

Sali hopes Wanderlust will grow far beyond three festivals in three cities, to expand across Australia and its surrounding territories.

"I'd love to be doing a multi-day festival, somewhere aspirational, where thousands of people get together and camp, or stay in hotel facilities nearby, and put on an event with a number of really big names from around the world," he says. "All connecting over this wonderful thing, wellness."

That human connection is the key: Sali believes people share a hunger to come together at events that aren't underpinned by competitiveness or partying.

"I think that there's a huge movement towards these type of community gatherings, where people connect [and] it's not driven by alcohol, or becoming disconnected from your reality," he says. "It's about becoming more aware, and more conscious."

Sali plans to avoid the criticisms of Goop-style events by ensuring that Wanderlust in Australia recruits "credible leaders in the field", and making sure the festival offers "something for everyone", from beginners through to advanced practitioners.

"We're all unique and everyone has a different connection for what works for them," he says. "We hopefully offer enough diversity at our events to provide something for everyone, to sample something that they could potentially go deeper into."

For ticketing and dates, head to the Wanderlust website.