Sunday, September 12, 2010

Brooklyn's Body Actualized Control: Building a New Yoga Tribe from the Rooftop of the Market Hotel

Among the instructions on the website of Brooklyn based lifestyle community, Body Actualized Control, is a list of what to bring to a B.A.C yoga party. It reads:

 BRING YOUR! singing bowls, gongs, prayer flags, harmonium, drums, candles, antlers, bear fang, crystals, kale, hummus, quinoa, poetry, tarot, sculpture, spirit books, spiritual devices, new age technology, archetypal objects from the forgotten works, incense, love, positive vibe, compassion etc.
For Body Actualized Control, offering up the yoga-party is an essential in the yoga community toolbox. Along with weekly classes, this tribal gathering of Brooklyn's young subculture,  influenced by post-rock, the new age movement and the good vibes of DIY happenings, puts on numerous artistic, literary and yoga events at its proudly independent hub, the Market Hotel. In this truly tripped-out, yoga cosmos, there  are no justifications of BAC's yoga existence through direct or indirect inheritance of any specific yoga tradition, or lineage. And, to anyone noticing, there are no references to India, the Yoga Sutras, or anything ordinarily deemed "traditional" about yoga. In short, BAC's philosophy is very "here-and-now" driven, and very American in character.

Somewhere in its chaotic explorations of yoga libations under their "healthy hedonism" section of the site, are visions left by the 60's musical "Hair", art pieces made by friends and community members, (my personal favorite is the creep-eyed, zany fox covered with plastic flowers, chomping on wild bark), and youtube posts of Thich Nhat Hanh. To be sure, it's a wild collage of age-of-aquarius dreamstates in hyper-saturated technicolor, driven home with snippets of Robert Anton Wilson, mindfulness meditation, and casual mentions of Heidegger. And, of course, for pure, weird-on factor, there's a blog post on horseback yoga, or "Equiyoga/Cowgirl yoga", as it's variously called.

But wait, there are no mentions of Patanjali??! Or Hatha Yoga Pradipika?

In my interview with BAC staff member and yoga instructor, Austin Samsel, we discuss why BAC overlooks any overt mentions of Patanjali, and opts instead to "taking on reality" in New York City.  We chat about how BAC likes its collisions with its environment, and uses yoga to confront the vital signs, sounds, and energy of the city, by practicing yoga on the rooftop at Brooklyn's Market Hotel. We chat about BAC's existence as an artist-run, not-for-profit, community organization, that combines various forms of artistic output in awareness of health, spirituality, and social responsibility; and whose past events range from late night dance parties, various literary gatherings, and everyday yoga classes. We even talk about a poster on their site for a past yoga party entitled, "EVIL Yoga"...

I think when you come here you end up being friends with us, and it's a relationship. I'm not trying to get anything out of you. We just want to see people having fun, and people coming into their better selves.  

 - Austin Samsel, Yoga Instructor & member of Body Actualized Control

•     •     •     •     •

PT: Hi Austin, so where are you now?

AS: "I'm on the roof where we normally do yoga."

PT: It sounds windy up there! Are you good to answer a whole slew of questions?

AS: "Sure, of course."

PT: Ok, how and when did you begin your own yoga practice? Why did you start Body Actualized Control? Talk to me about the choice of the name "Body Actualized Control".

AS: "OK Body Actualized Control is kind of like a generic overhead organization for a lot of different endeavours; and Cosmic yoga is a program of yoga classes in it. Oh wait, let me know if i'm breaking up at all here, because we do have a train coming see this is one of the main aspects of cosmic yoga which i'll get to in a second..."

[train passes. sounds like the building's cracking. several seconds of silence ensue.]

PT: Austin, you there?

AS: "Yeah sorry about that.."

PT: Wow, that's loud! Well, you said Cosmic Yoga has to do with this train passing through, so that's probably a good place to start! 

AS: "Right, well, one of the things is that where we are in Brooklyn is one of the most intense, and commercialized areas in North Brooklyn. And, we're right on Broadway, at the intersection between Bushwick and Bed Stuy. There's a lot of activity, a lot of foot traffic, and on top of that, you have the train running through.. This is one of the hearts of New York City. So you're really confronted with all these sounds, smells...and then there's that train... And so what we do is really about being able to integrate within that level of activity, and be able to maintain a meditative state of order to counter it..."

PT: Are you saying that the noise is not avoidable? Or that there's no point avoiding it?

AS: "Right, you kind of have to accept what's around you. Otherwise, you're just running...just running from it"

PT: When did you come to practicing yoga?

AS: "I started practicing yoga about three or four years ago. Essentially,  for me, it was a way of working on my body so that I could sit comfortably and meditate more easily. So essentially I used it as body work - I wanted to be more comfortable as I sat. I wanted to be more comfortable just for my day to day life. And I think yoga helps with that. It wasn't myself that started BAC; it was actually a couple of the people that I'm currently living with. The name Body Actualized Control grew out of a pretty common idea in yoga practice; which is the idea of integrating the body and the mind... We decided to add the word control because we felt it was really relevant, especially here in New York, to the idea of having control over your life; instead of letting the subtle forces, or the unconscious forces take control of you. So it's really about claiming responsibility; and, i think once you can do that, then you can actually work with an intent to be a better person...make the world better."

PT: As I understand you would call BAC a lifestyle organization, right? Do you want to speak to that umbrella of "lifestyle"?

AS: "Yeah, we use the word 'lifestyle' because of the different facets of what we do. I mean we do the yoga, but we've also done a lot of dance parties, and other events. And they're all coherent, to a certain terms of being about our own way of doing things."

PT: Do you think BAC is doing something completely new in terms of offering up a yoga party? Or do you think the idea of the party has deeper roots?

AS: "Well I think to a certain extent, kirtan (Indian tradition of call and response chanting) does the same kind of thing. Kirtan is similar to the yoga party in that it brings people together in a call and response kind of way. I just think it's becoming more common that yoga students are seeing the benefit in trying to draw people together for a yoga-inspired kind of party."

PT: What's the intention behind the idea of the party?

AS: I think it's wanting to extend that feeling of connectedness that's so common to everyone that has done yoga in a class and really enjoyed it. It's that experience after class is over, after corpse pose, where you're just feeling that breakdown of inhibition, where you feel you're more connected. To me it's the greatest thing after a class, if you see that everyone just starts talking and introducing themselves to each other. And so it's wanting to develop that. And we're collaborating with all of our friends to throw the party. Because our friends are musicians, they're really into making this a great live performance, with very chilled out music, and getting into the new age thing. And I think the party is also about calming people down. Ultimately, it's stress that keeps people separated.

PT: What happens at the party?

AS: "The basic way that our parties have been working is that we'll have people come over, and the we'll start some music, we'll do a yoga session with the music, and then we'll have music afterwards as well. And then after the live bands are done, we'll do some kind of DJing and whatnot. But it's always very, very, chilled out."

PT: So do you think that BAC offers something in terms of a lifestyle that is missing out there? Is BAC filling a gap?

AS: "I think the way we go about it is very organic. We're not another entity or business model that is trying to draw you in; we find that kind of model can be manipulative. I think when you come here you end up being friends with us, and it's a relationship. I'm not trying to get anything out of you. We just want to see people having fun, and people coming into their better selves."

PT: So would you say it was much more of a community than it is a business?

AS: "Definitely."

PT: How many of you are behind BAC?

AS: "It's hard to give a number. It's not a big crowd..."

PT: So is it a loose collective of sorts?

AS: "I would say so; and in that sense we're always trying to be inclusive."

PT: What is your business structure; or do you have one?

AS: "Right now, we're a not-for-profit. We have a donations jar at the door. For yoga classes it's a suggested $10 donation. But, it's really free you know...That's kind of the way we've been working. The nature of it is that we live and we work out of what's called the Market Hotel, which is kind of a legendary DIY space. So by paying our rent, we're paying for the space. So it's kind of a blessing to be able to do this. We're just in a really good place with it."

PT: How do you feel about commercial yoga studios?

AS: "It's hard to generalize. There are some I really love. I love going to classes, because you know, if you have your own practice, there are days you maybe slack a little, or you don't try out as many new things. And so, when I go to the classes at those commercial studios, there's always something i can bring back here when i'm teaching."

PT: BAC is actively engaged in presenting a way of life as pertains to its demographic. As such, you are not shy about throwing around ideas of "hedonism" or getting involved in "enjoyment" as an aspect of lifestyle. Can you speak to that?

AS: "I think the idea is about enjoying life. I think there's a certain mentality, especially with yoga, where you are guided to shun off certain experiences that you can enjoy. It can be this austere, ascetic practice. And I think that, in itself, can create stress. And anything that's going to create stress is unhealthy. Yeah, so while I think there's something really beautiful about when people can do the raw diet, and they can be vegan and they can go really far out in terms of taking in things that are very pure for their bodies, you still have to be aware of easily one can do that...and whether it causes additional stress....or if you're worrying about it. I basically think it's about balance. That's what we hope to offer or exemplify in ourselves."

PT: Do you think the components of balance are different for New Yorkers than say, they would be for Torontonians? As in do you think balance is specific and dependent on where you are, or who you are... Because that would mean that there are different prescriptions for yoga, depending on who you are, and where you are, and what your lifestyle is..

AS: "Yeah i think so. I think we all have to just seek balance in context of what's around us. New York City is definitely unique in terms of what I would call it's overspending, or its consumer culture. For me, I try and find my balance in shying away from that a little, but also embracing it a little as well. Because you don't want to be going completely against the stream. You want to...stay in the middle."

PT: So again, does that overlap with the idea of the party? Is the yoga party playing that "middle"?

AS: "I think the way we offer the party is a different kind of package than the kind of partying you'll see elsewhere, say, in comparison to bars and clubs."

PT: Do you want to describe the difference?

AS: "I mean sure, it's on our roof here, the main piece of the puzzle is the open-ness of it...being open to the sounds of the city, the sky above...and as I've said before, it's creating a new aesthetic with the new age music that's very relaxing, but also joyous."

PT: How many people do you get at these parties? Is it a growing phenomenon?

AS: "It depends. We've had anywhere between 30 to 60 or 70 something like that, i'm not sure. I mean we get more people when we do a BAC party that's strictly a dance-party, and that's definitely a different aesthetic."

PT: But you're likely tapping into the same people right?

AS: "Yeah there's definite overlap. You know, we try and reach everyone by trying to move yoga away from this "workout" thing that you see in Manhattan, you know where you're just doing it for your body...for it to look good. And we also try and move it away from this cultish, eastern practice, that no one can really be a part of because we're not really from India. So we're trying to bring it down to everybody; and making it comfortable for people to try it out, because it can be really, really intimidating. People are very, very self-conscious of their bodies and how they look; and they don't want to look bad when they do things."

PT: Ok, I want to ask you about reaching new audiences through "Evil Yoga" ...It's daring to take on words like "Evil"... Are you being provocative? 

AS: (laughing) "oh yeah. ok it was a way for us to confront aspects of the individual psyche, which, to me is also the global psyche. It was a way to address the dark side...things like depression, mental illness, and then how those things play out on a global level. And it went along with what we're already working with here in terms of integrating the sounds of the city into a coherent whole. I mean, despite all this friction in the world, confrontation and fighting, in the bigger picture, you can still find peace. There's still peace in the middle of all that. And it's about being able to bring that peace into yourself, and not look at it like there's somewhere else where things are better."

PT: So basically you're using "Evil Yoga" as a way of looking understand "evil". Is that right?

AS: "Yeah and also, I'm not sure how well this came across to anybody that wasn't there when we were doing it,  but we had live music, but we also had a live narration going along with the yoga session, which comprised the "evil" aspect. And it wasn't this dark and depressing event; you know, it ended up moving towards a sort of light and humorous take on things. We tend to joke about things and find the lightness in them...I mean, I think if you're not laughing, you're kind of missing the big picture. You don't want to be taking things too seriously. "

PT: Have you seen any pitfalls of the "party" as pertains to yoga practice?

AS: "I think it could definitely be misconstrued or misused. It's really up to people and how they want to approach it. But for us, the party is essentially about improving relationships with other people. It's a community thing."

PT: Right. Now I'm curious, you don't address the lineage of the studio, maybe because you're not a studio, you're a community...But do you make any reference to a yoga lineage? I mean, I don't even know why I'm asking this, cos I'm pretty much sure that the answer is no!

AS: (laughing) "I mean, for me, as a yogi, I feel a certain lineage. And I think all of our teachers have their own lineages. And I could name their names, or name books that I think are important. But I think the reason that I've never put the idea of lineage forward, is because i feel that the source is inside all of us. So that you are your own guru; and you are your own god, you are everything that you are open to in this life. So I think it's good to get into the history of yoga, read books, and study, and just see what messages make sense for you. But ultimately, it's yourself that decides."

PT: Do you think the sensibility of yoga needs to consciously shift to meet the needs of newer and/or younger practitioners? Or do you just do what you enjoy?

AS: "I think if you think about it too much, then it's not going to be authentic. I think people should be practicing what they love, and teaching what they love. Otherwise, they're making a product; or it's a gimmick of some kind. So I think if everyone is just working towards creating something honest, and something that they love, then i think it's going to reach everybody no matter what."

PT: So was BAC an idea that happened because a few of you sat around one night and said, hey let's just start doing this yoga thing? I mean, how did that happen exactly? Was it that simple?

AS: "I think it's hard for me to say, because I wasn't here in the beginning, and when that was happening. But I think it was just about creating a bigger community, and bringing more people together, based on things people have in common. Everyone at BAC is very much into the New Age aesthetic, and we wanted to make that scene grow a little bigger in New York."

PT: Your sense of what that New Age aesthetic is, in terms of how it appears on your site, is quite something's really, really tripped-out.

AS: (laughing)

PT: So I know you have a mandate outside the Market Hotel; I think you mentioned something about developing communities. Do you do work outside the Market Hotel?

AS: "We've done a couple of events away from Market, but ultimately, Market is our home. I mean many of the people who come to Market are local, or at least the people who are coming out to the regular classes. We do get a few people from Manhattan that come over, as well as other areas in Brooklyn. But I feel like you have to have a home, and so, Market is that to us."

PT: I'm very interested in the fact that your website tracks the developments and trends that redefine yoga continually. Some of them skim the surface of the bizarre...So...horseback yoga? So, how exactly do you feel about horseback yoga?

AS: (laughing) Well, I think if we can get some horses up onto our roof, uhm, we might do it...Otherwise, I think it's great that other people want to explore new ways of doing yoga. Uhm, it's fine. (laughing)

PT: Well I'm going to be in NYC for CMJ in October. If I wanted to drop in on a class, what do I do?

AS: "yeah, just drop by anytime!"

•     •      •      •      •
There is no shortage of evidence that yoga is in an era of collision and cross-pollination. And what's most interesting about these collisions is that they are largely unregulated; more mitigated by concerns of cultural vitality than profit. If the yoga-party, the dance-party and the artistic community's happenings are the new rituals by which people have come to trust yoga, then the networks and channels of distribution of this practice are changing rapidly.

In this case, Body Actualized Control is fiercely intermingled with Brooklyn's Market Hotel Project; which, in its very existence, is a statement about a community's desire for a not-for-profit, independently-curated space for music and art, open seven nights a week, to all ages, in the hipster heart of Brooklyn. That yoga sits at the heart of this sparkling, creative community is indication that the subculture is talking back to yoga's larger marketplace; and that it has something important to say about offering a sustainable wellness practice to its young demographic. That Body Actualized Control can run its operations on a shoestring, and offer yoga classes or events most days of the week, is testament to their committment to run their business on their own terms.

Sure, the practice and its ideals may be morphing. And maybe you don't want to wear antlers to a rooftop yoga-party. But for those that do, BAC typifies its demographic's light-handed irreverence, and humorous skepticism about the underpinnings that inform yoga practice in North America. BAC also seems to display a suspicion that the social rituals, the verbiage of practice, and yoga's traditional canon need to be widened to include thoughts from the margins and newer fringes. Because of this, practices are changing; and yoga collisions are happening everywhere. And, they are happening quickly enough that BAC may, in fact, be teaching Trikonasana on horseback by the time I next visit the rooftop of Brooklyn's Market Hotel.
Well, here's to loving where we come from, and still going where we choose.


  1. this looks like an awesome group of people doing really neat things, thanks for sharing.

  2. Nice posting. Do you know about this edition of the Pradipika?

  3. no i don't. have been meaning to make my way to pradipika again. have you read this one?