A-Fest Is The Otherworldly Union Of Festivals And Learning Conferences

Kersti Niglas

It was a balmy November morning in Montego Bay, Jamaica and I nervously awaited my turn to jump into an ice bath. I was taking this plunge under the guidance of Dutch daredevil Wim “Iceman” Hof. Arm-in-arm, a crowd of us gathered around the hot-tub-turned-ice-bath as Hof led us through a series of chants and breathing exercises, preparing our bodies and minds for the imminent trauma of being submerged in freezing water.

“Who’s in control?!” the Iceman bellows, to which we responded in unison with the bravado of warriors on the precipice of battle: “I am!

After a few cycles of this mantra, we leaped. Instantly, every muscle, appendage and orifice tensed as I followed Hof’s voice and practiced his breathing method. My senses were enlivened with the bitter sting of ice on skin—even my thoughts felt cold.

Time slowed down and our five-minute ice bath felt like it stretched into an hour. Finally, upon Hof’s command, I slithered out of the tub and made a frantic dash to the ocean, where I quickly defrosted in the warm, Caribbean sea.

This was my second, and most epic, encounter with the wild Wim Hof — who’s garnered acclaim for his ability to resist cold temperatures (most notably by climbing Mount Everest shirtless). I first met him on the day of my arrival, only four days prior to freezing my phalanges off in the ice bath. I was sitting in the sand with two other people—passing around a guitar and having a sing-along—when a commanding voice from behind me asked to join.

It was the inimitable Hof, who proceeded to play the guitar and serenade us, two skills I was unaware he possessed. In a nice twist of fate, it happened to be my birthday.

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Wim Hof serenading us.

The music bonded us and a friendship was forged. This catalytic moment sparked a long night — speckled with free wine and Hof’s eccentric antics. His boisterous demeanor, personal magnetism, and habit of dropping into the splits at any given moment made the evening feel like following a one-man parade.

Later in this same Jamaican weekend, I smoked sacred herbs and listened to live reggae at a Rastafarian village, attended a psychedelic costume party at an 18th-century jungle estate, snorkeled at sunset, drank until sunrise and sat in on lectures from some of humanity’s brightest minds. A global amalgamation of learning, experiencing, networking and partying, this alleged “work trip” was unlike any conference, summit, festival or retreat I’ve ever attended.

It’s in a category all its own but if I had to label it, I’d call it… a learning festival.

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The invite-only four-day event of which I write is the bi-annual A-Fest, organized by the progressive education collective, Mindvalley. Founded by Vishen Lakhiani, Mindvalley is attempting to change the educational paradigm for people of all ages by offering an alternative to the typical—and financially debilitating—university system. At A-Fest, I not only acquired new knowledge, but made deep connections with the mashup of creatives, iconoclasts, and geniuses in attendance.

“The ethos of A-Fest is that the greatest happiness we can have in life comes from experiences and connection with other human beings,” Lakhiani says. “At a certain point, there’s only so much that money or career accomplishments can get you. What truly creates happiness are your friendships, are your social connections, are the experiences you had in life.”

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I’ve attended various conferences throughout my career, and while innumerable connections were made, my general takeaway is boredom. Often taking place in the bellies of fancy hotels, these conferences always seem to leave me wandering between panels and keynote speakers and an exhibition floor bedecked with trade-show wares and services I have no interest in buying.

Yes, there is learning and swag and connections to be made, but there is also something lacking. Even the after-parties and mixers can feel a bit uninspiring—maybe because I’m spoiled by attending music festivals multiple times a month.

A-Fest takes the aesthetics and vibes of transformational music festivals—even borrowing a few bits from the Burning Man culture—and combines it with the education and connection that professional conferences provide. After long days of lectures from world-renowned speakers, the real party begins. And I don’t mean some awkward mixer that’s over before 10 o’clock.

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Mindvalley founder Vishen Lakhiani taking the A-Fest stage

I met a woman at A-Fest named Tanya Lopez who shares my high party standards. As the organizer and curator of the evening experiences, her eye and intuition for how to throw a memorable party did not go unnoticed. The lavish after-parties—which always featured live music, food, booze, dancing, and performance artists—were the perfect petri dish for attendees, speakers and the Mindvalley team to interact as equals. An inspiring speaker who you may have been too intimidated to approach earlier in the day might end up exchanging life stories with you over a joint later that same night.

“I think one of the most magical things about A-Fest is that it’s the catalyst for an almost infinite array of moments and connections,” says Lopez. “Most people who attend A-Fest meet people that become lifelong friends. Perhaps they connected deeply after having an intense discussion about one of the speaker presentations or they really bonded after staying up ‘til sunrise in their crazy costumes after a theme party.”

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With each A-Fest taking place in a different locale (past locations include Costa Rica, Mexico, Ibiza and Greece), the environment is a huge factor in the festival’s success. Each four-day event also offers a different theme, with the Montego Bay edition being “Enhanced States of Consciousness.” Influential consciousness experts—such as best-selling author Steven Kotler, celebrity memory coach Jim Kwik, former captain of the Jamaican bobsled team Devon Harris, and the aforementioned Wim Hof—showed us how to reach the pinnacles of our potential through neurological training exercises, altered states, meditative practices, and movement.

While in Jamaica, I learned a breathing technique to help me resist cold and disease. I learned the importance of persistence. I learned how squishy baby jellyfish are after swimming through a bloom of them. I learned how to better remember names and numbers. I learned to deconstruct my automatic negative thoughts and turn up the volume on my optimistic inner voice. I learned how to tap into the conscious phenomenon known as flow state to better serve my creativity. I learned that learning is infinite.

All of this knowledge and experience I acquired in just four days at A-Fest. Plus I had fun. Those are pretty simple ingredients, served in abundance.

“My personal ethos is to make the world a better place and do it by questioning everything,” says Lakhiani. “I believe that the modern idea of success needs to be updated so that it’s not just about your career or the amount of money you make but the legacy that you leave with the planet.”

Not a bad philosophy — for a learning festival or for an awesome party.

All of A-Fest’s lectures can be seen for free on YouTube. There is an upcoming Mindvalley meetup—a smaller, more intimate gathering—scheduled Feb. 24-25 in San Diego and A-Fest Europe 2018 will take place in Sardinia, Italy, May 31-June 3.

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