January 28, 2011

Rock & Roll Yoga

Note: An earlier version of this post was published on Think Body Electric.

If you’re up for it, please click on the Velvet Underground link below and listen while you read.


I was in some store the other day and this old Velvet Underground song came on the radio:

Jeannie said when she was just five years old

There was nothing happening at all

Every time she puts on the radio

there was nothing going down at all

not at all

Then one fine morning she puts on a New York station

You know she don’t believe what she heard at all

She started shaking to that fine fine music

You know her life was saved by rock & roll

Despite all the amputations

you know you could just go out and dance

to the rock & roll station

And it was all right

The lyrics are sooo innocuous; and 40 years later, almost embarrassingly so. But when Lou Reed sings in that gravelly NYC been-around-the-block-to-places-you-are-too-straight-to-even-dream-of voice it lifts the whole thing up (at least for me) into the realm of pop culture poetry. An early ‘70s post-modern shaman channeling the history of this strange magic that broke us – us being body-repressed white youth, I guess – out of our amputation to dance into – into what?

Aha, well, yes. There’s the rub. Because the liberation rock and roll offered was always double-edged at best. The vision of freedom was unbounded, intoxicating but not infrequently deadly. Certainly the Velvet Underground was hip to the dark sex-drugs-and-death dimensions of that scene; that was their whole thing, they celebrated it.

I was still very very young when this song came out, but I’m old enough to get a sense of the historical moment that it references, when hearing a rock & roll song transmitted from New York to whatever boondocks you were in could break you free and change your life.

And while that world has been completely swept away, I think that with all of the pressures to conform and compete today, all of the eclipse of nature and big box generic dominance of the human landscape, it still speaks to the desire to break out, to dance, to connect viscerally to the body, to experience freedom.

Shot of Prana

I’ve felt this deep connection between yoga and rock & roll for awhile now.

It took some years for it to develop. Certainly, I had no sense of it back when I started my first yoga class, which I vaguely imagined as a nice way of adding some stretching to my “real” workout. But with time – and particularly after studying with some of the more rocked out and/or shamanistic teachers like Ana Forrest, Julian Walker, and Shiva Rea – it’s become a feeling that I’ve re-experienced regularly.

The connection between yoga and rock & roll is that jolt of prana that comes from feeling fully embodied; from experiencing the deep pleasure that comes from moving, loosening, and maybe sometimes even breaking the bonds that keep us feeling small, restricted, repressed.

Freedom to Dance

Back when I was in elementary school, I used to watch the Black girls in my grade go out on the playground and practice their dance routines; synchronized, polished, super-cool. I wasn’t growing up feeling any of that dance energy in my household, which embodied a typically white, WASP-y, striving to be upper-middle-class sense of physical repression (except when we periodically blew up from overloads of stress and anger).

At the time, I couldn’t do what those girls were doing, but it was easy for me to see that there was something important, something valuable going on there.

It wasn’t until I was in high school that I finally said, fuck it, I’m not going to stay locked in these boundaries any more. I discovered Patti Smith and saw a female rock & roll model that embodied art, poetry, freedom. I started going to rock & roll shows.

And in deliberate defiance of the boxes being imposed on me, I started to dance. Determined. To find some freedom.

Although that first shift to a sense of physical liberation occurred decades ago, I still remember it clearly. It was important.

And I see other people still needing the same thing. Just last year, I was at a yoga retreat that went beyond asana to include free movement and ecstatic dance. I talked to several participants who had never moved so freely before in their lives.

When I said that it brought me back to high school, they looked at me incredulously. They hadn’t been post-hippie rock & roll chicks (or dudes), they had never known how transformative it is to move freely. Asana put them on a path where they finally felt free enough to dance, for the first time in their lives.

For many people in this culture, experiencing such a sense of embodied freedom remains a revelation. As Lou Reed testified, oh so way back in the day now: “Her life was saved by rock & roll.”

The Paradox of Workable Freedom: Boundaries, Discipline, Practice

But the freedom of rock & roll is unrooted. Even if it doesn’t embrace nihilism (which of course much of it does), it slides easily into dissolution (think of all those nice happy Deadheads burning their brains out on acid).

Yoga offers the experience of embodied freedom in a way that leads to health and wholeness, rather than dissolution, fragmentation, and, at worst, the kind of death that’s full of waste and tragedy. (RIP, Kurt Cobain.)

It’s not that I no longer love rock & roll; I still do. But I have come to believe that it’s a truism that without any boundaries, any center, anything to root and ground us, freedom becomes a destructive energy, spiraling out of control.

Paradoxically, the discipline of asana – postures, alignment, the marriage of movement, focus, and breath – enables a deeper and infinitely more sustainable sense of embodied freedom than the unboundedness of rock & roll. And when asana is embedded in a full life practice that includes ethics and spirituality, yoga becomes a path to true freedom, loosening the bonds of ignorance, fear, and negative emotion that keep us from living a liberated life.

Syncretism and the Evolutionary Zeitgeist

Still, in the best of our crazy North American yoga culture, I believe that we can experience a marriage of the energies of yoga and rock & roll in a way that enhances both.

Rock & roll is one of the vital energies of our time. Historically, it’s very much embedded in the long-standing Western project of tearing down social, cultural, and material barriers to individual freedom. Coming out of the mixing of European and African music and culture, it’s also a product of the radical syncretism of modern/post-modern life.

John Lennon & Chuck Berry

Yoga is in many ways the same. An ancient Indian practice, a modern 20th century re-invention (read Mark Singleton), a contemporary North American phenom – yoga is nothing if not multicultural, and at its best, magically syncretic.

Putting the two together – whether literally by combining asana and dance, or abstractly, by connecting those energetic experiences in our lives – the relationship between yoga and rock & roll is part of the spirit of the time; a Zeitgeist to further explore and develop.

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