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 couldn’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, they seem 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, semi-ironically, semi-sincerely 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, with the generic corporate dominance of the human landscape and the concomitant eclipse of nature, it still speaks to the desire to break out of the box, 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; I started to dance.
Although that first shift to a sense of physical freedom 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 went to a yoga retreat at Esalen that went beyond asana to include free movement and ecstatic dance. I talked to several workshop 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, 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. “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.
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 thought and emotion that keep us from living an increasingly 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. Conceptualizing it more broadly, it’s very much embedded in the long-standing Western project of tearing down the 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 and Chuck Berry|
Yoga is in many ways the same. An ancient Indian practice, a modern 20th century re-invention (read Mark Singleton, more on that later), 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 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.