Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Rock & Roll Yoga

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.


  1. I was on a yoga retreat a while ago with a teacher who, a couple of times, encouraged everyone to simply dance around the room for a while in class. A number of people spoke admiringly of my utterly graceless mode of dancing, specifically telling me how free and natural it seemed to them. I told them I learned everything I know about dance at Grateful Dead shows in the 80's...which was, of course, absolutely true. No question, like Lou Reed (who's said that the "Jeannie" was based on himself), I don't know how I would've gotten through adolescence alive without the Grateful Dead, Bowie, the Who, the Clash, or the Velvet Underground. And, no question, drugs were a part of that (and a part of what kept me alive...as I wrote about in an old Yoga for Cynics/recent Elephant post)...but, it also led to a lot of disillusionment, as well as problems with substance abuse.

    I found it interesting, too, to find a kind of unspoken divide among the serious yogis I've known--basically between those who've been generally very straight, athletic, and generally un-rock n' roll all their lives, and those like me who've come to it by the road of excess ("the road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom" William Blake)...

  2. This blog Rocks! I guess I was lucky that I was not suppressed as a child and my parents took me to dance class at age 5 and rock concerts very early too. I've been moving freely and rocking out ever since.

    I love doing yoga to rock music and am currently working on a killer yoga music playlist for when I finish my YTT. I'd like my classes to be like you said - a marriage of the energies of rock and roll and yoga!

  3. yes! I always crank-up the iPod on the way to yoga class, arrive buzzing and then feel somewhat deflated by the yoga mood music that seems to be omnipresent ... then one day somebody (not me I hasten to add) played a spot of Michael Jackson and the whole energy in the room changed. People were smiling, talking and positively ready to begin.

  4. Wonderful blog. Before I forget, be sure to see YogaforCynic's widely-read-but-insufficiently-commnented-on blog Sober Reflections on Getting High.

    I have so much to say about this topic that I feel speechless. So for now I'll just say I had the fortune of growing up in the sixties and personally witnessing the whole rock and roll phenomenon. I was a folk singer in high school, one those who was furious with Bob Dylan for going electric. Then I was in college in San Francisco '67-'71, the absolute heyday of San Francisco rock and the Beatles embrace of Yoga and their trips to India. I saw Santana at Stanford when he was just about 20 and just getting started, and Eric Clapton and Cream at the Fillmore.

    So I was a close witness to all this, but I didn't really dive into it myself, because by that time I was already deeply immersed in my own music--flamenco guitar. I was more interested in rock for its musical qualities than its cultural ones.

    For me, literature and latin culture were far more influential to me personally than the rock and roll drug culture. But I was there and I couldn't help experience it. I'm still a big fan of music from the late sixties and early seventies--I own about 200 LP's, mostly from that period.

    Now I'm stuck. I don't know where I'm going with all this, probably nowhere. Just reminiscing, I guess.

    Really enjoyed your blog, though. Perhaps I'll have something more profound to say later.

    Bob Weisenberg

  5. My own personal private practice is very free and flowing, I guess like how "yoga trance dance" is from what I've heard (I came out of the womb moving like that.)

    But I have found when I've tried to incorporate that in public classes -- maybe it's to whom I am teaching -- I find that many people are stuck to a 2X2 spot on their mats. always interesting to me.

  6. Carol, reading your wonderful post, I can only say that the thing that rock 'n roll and yoga had/have in common for me is their counter-cultural possibilities. Of course, most rock -- as also most 'yoga' -- has become completely co-opted and commodified; there's nothing threatening about either. But back then, the Velvets truly WERE 'dangerous.' I discovered them when I was about 11 years old (the same year I discovered Balinese Gamelan, Captain Beefheart and John Cage), and got to see them when I was 14 years old. Lou Reed even gave me some pop corn!

    And when I first heard Pati Smith at CBGB's, her opening to "Gloria" was yet another of those clarion calls to step out from the false security of commercialized pop and mainstream culture: "Jesus died for somebody's sins but not mine!" Damn fucking right! And then the DIY attitude of that first real punk explosion was another kick against the pricks.

    Alas, the octopus-arms of the marketplace worked their way in, finding its way to subvert the subverters, and punk became just another style among the post-modern world. But just today, walking along the street, a smell in the brisk October air here in Montreal sparked a memory of the band Magazine: "A Song From Under The Floorboards," "Permafrost," and "Give Me Everything" and somehow I began to feel the blood flowing in my veins, my breath deep and full. Yes, indeed, it's only rock and roll, but I like it!

  7. See also the highly relevant, wonderful, and mysteriously under-clicked Neil Young singing "Forever Young", which just reminded me of something more profound to say--for some of us the dancing was all internal. Same impact as what you describe above, and equally significant, but an emotion rather than an emotional motion, if you get my drift. I never cared about the dancing, and the freedom and release I got from the Allman Brothers was identical to the freedom and release I got from Mozart, even back then in the middle of it all.

    Bob W.

  8. Hi y'all,

    I don't know yet how yoga fits in this picture - you guys are so much more experienced (not necessarily stoned, but... beautiful) - but for me, rock'n'roll is related to freedom as one of the strongest symbol of modernity, and I'm afraid I don't understand at all why the "corporate marketplace" can be anything but part and parcel of this just as well.

    Is it even possible that the very idea of counter-culture or rock'n'roll could have emerged at all if it hadn't been for the liberating power of the market? How could any of the strict social norms of those olden days, before the "eclipse of nature" ever happened, have been broken the way rock'n'roll broke them, if nobody had been turning a profit selling it all over? No clue.

    Heck, I probably don't know anything anyway. I should just shut up and... dance? get in down dog? There's probably an idea here...

    Peace and love!

  9. @Frank Jude: OMG. someone else who knows who Capt. Beefheart is.....

  10. My older sister was a huge Capt. Beefheart fan, so I grew up with "Trout Mask Replica" as background music. But does anybody remember Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, "We're Only in It for the Money"? (A Sgt. Pepper satire, hilarious.) But I digress.

  11. I remember tut-tut, I remember tut-tut, I remember tut-tut,
    They had a swimming pool...

    (That's on "Freak out!" actually, unless I'm mistaken, from a couple years before.)

  12. "But does anybody remember Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention"

    used to go see Frank and the Mothers twice a year at the Auditorium Theater when he would play around Mother's Day and Halloween in the '70s. a genius. fave album: Hot Rats.

  13. Dweezil and a lot of the people who played with Frank did a tour a year or two ago, and played a small theater near me--seated about 250 people. SO much fun!!

    I completely disagree that the freedom of rock and roll is unrooted. I've seen way too much live music, and way too many incredibly talented performers, not to recognize that music, like asana, is a practice, and a discipline. And a lot of rock and roll is not about embracing nihilism--quite the opposite; it is often a searching for expression, for freedom from something oppressive, not a descent into nothingness.

  14. We're Only In It For the Money is a masterpiece.

  15. Carol,
    I love your blog, insight, experience and knowledge. It's refreshing. I don't have more to add, except YES, YES, YES. I love it!
    p.s. my husband and I saw a Zappa tribute show in a small theatre a few years ago too. He's a huge fan and has turned me into one. Obscure and offbeat settles well with me. ;-)

  16. Years ago at a yoga retreat a yogi taugh tus 5 wave rythms and I bounced from the yoga world deeply into free style, wave and soul dance and then to African! WOOhOO! An 8 yrs of glory jumping and dancing in soul commune with many. My knees heralded an ending to this epoch and now in yoga, of course Shiva Rea devotee, I still wiggle and writhe. The 2 must blend.