Friday, March 25, 2011

Wishing Your Way out of Deadsville: Yoga, SXSW and that Geldof Thing


(null8's photostream, flickr)
W e must be pretty high up there, stratospheric... I thought. The air looked vaporous and thin, and there were strange droplets of cloud slipping onto my wool jacket from inside the oval window of the jet plane. On the advice of one of the flight attendants, I had switched seats with a minor who was too young fly alongside the drippy emergency exit. And I couldn't help but wonder if Air Canada itself was melting, drop by drop, out of the perpetual sky like some Dali-esque portent, as the conversation that foreshadowed my week at SXSW in Austin wafted in and out from two seats behind me.

 -"This is the 13th time I've gone to Sxsw. Man, it's not anything like it used to be. It's grown to the point where it's just madness. I would really rather not go anymore. There's too much to see. I'm actually planning to go watch the game on Friday afternoon instead and skip the music."
- "Yeah, I might do the same."

What causes apathy, burnout or disinterest in a community?
And what does this really have to do with yoga? 

(Salvador Dali, NYC, 1951)
The SXSW music festival and conference is a longstanding tradition in Austin, Texas. It happens yearly. I'm sure it was started and continues to be run by folks that really struggled to give music a voice in the community. And, it's a festival that I've always loved attending. This year was no exception. But this year, I also saw something something different; something of a surreal premonition, or at the very least, like a millisecond flash, a blinking vision of what might happen to yoga in thirty years if we take the same train as other cultural industries.

And because I figure you can learn a lot about many things by examining a single thing, I'll tell you how this last week, many of us saw how one action creates a rippled reaction... how you can hear the ocean in a seashell, see three worlds in Krishna's infant mouth, and samasthitih in every single pose. So take it as you will, as cautionary tale or as a chance to plant new wishes; this is an examination of yoga through the lens of this year's SXSW music festival.

(Nele Azevedo, Melting Man, Berlin: Installation of 1,000 melting men done in collaboration with the WWF to highlight global warming)

(Bob Geldof, Keynote Address SXSW 2011)

(Bob Geldof delivers keynote SXSW)
I t all started with a simple keynote address delivered by a pensive, sterling-mopped former Czar of punk-rock on Thursday afternoon. Whatever you have to say about former leader of the Boomtown Rats turned think-tank Bob Geldof, you can't mistake his charisma and conviction. And by the time he was done with the groggy and unprepared audience, he had slipped them the suggestion that the train headed to rock and roll had derailed somewhere outside an overpopulated, batty and blithering town called Deadsville. He had managed to spend an hour declaring the loss of its vitality; calling it a relic of the rock and roll that was once a meaningful, provocative relationship with the world. Not surprisingly, you could see furrowing foreheads all along the stratified food chain of assembled lanyards and wristbands. And in the week that followed Geldof's corrosive keynote address, it was not uncommon to hear people talk about their boredom, or the lack of vitality at the festival as "that Geldof thing".

The problem, he said, was complacency. "I don’t hear the disgust in music, and I need to. It doesn’t have to be literal. It has to suggest it."He then declared music to be "the most powerful cultural tool that has been invented in a dozen lifetimes. Music is dangerous." That being the case, Geldof concluded, "We need someone to pause, to reflect, to consider, to be wise, to make decisions, or to interpret, to stop time for a moment, and suggest." (Randall Roberts, LA Times on SXSW 2011 Keynote Speaker Bob Geldof)

The samskaras, (stains, patterns) that afflict the music industry hold some potent lessons for the yoga industry. After all, yoga too has some lofty goals; such that we might call it "the most powerful tool that has been invented in a dozen lifetimes". So by week's end I wondered what Geldof might have to say about yoga as a cultural industry on the brink of change. I wondered if it was possible to imagine a yoga, like rocknroll, that had lost its prana or its life-force? A yoga, that in twenty years or so, and after a few wrong turns into Deadsville, comprised a community of people grumbling about the pointlessness of their practice, while they begrudgingly dragged themselves and their expense accounts to class after class, workshop after workshop, conference after conference. What would happen if an oligarchy of a few celebrity yogis ran most studios; or if a few corporations controlled the global show and its distribution channels? 

(Postcard of Terlingua, Ghost town in Texas "Deadsville"?)
Geldof's indictment of the state of rock music in its homeland can be summarized in one word: imbalance. And it's an imbalance that Geldof traces back to the overwhelming demands of commercial enterprise. And while perhaps sweeping and deliberately inflammatory, the man does have a point. For the most part, music-goers, artists and those on the industry end of things have become pretty comfortable regarding the scale of corporate enterprise. And so the sxsw-goer is generally content; though as Geldof proposes, too tired to do anything. And the comfort level of the community is exactly what Geldof doesn't like much at all. Being sated is apparently not what it's about. 

I found myself by week's end feeling an increasing gratitude that, for the most part, the yoga community still appears to check its blindspots. So maybe the yoga community has not yet claimed complete blindness; thereby enabling and defaulting to a one-eyed king.

(Yoko Ono, On the business of wishes at SXSW 2011)
And, we are fortunate on some other fronts as well. Yoga is part of the service industry (where industries like music and film are not). To that end, at least the word "serve" is in its designation somewhere. And the idea of vitality, life-force or prana is at the very least, built-in to yoga's verbiage. So maybe we're safe for now...

(Yoko Ono and "Wishing Tree")
But how to mitigate the possible side-effects of a growing and successful business? Yoko Ono alluded to one possibility in her keynote interview for SXSW on Friday afternoon; an insight that became the impetus for much of her conceptual art work including, "Wishing Tree".

Moved by current events in Japan, Yoko talked to a full room about growing up in a country plagued by post-war food shortages and a dessimated economic infrastructure. As children, Yoko's youngest brother would regularly become anxious at dinner time.  So in imaginative extravagance, Yoko suggested to her brother that they try to create a menu each night. From aperitif to dessert she and her sibling created menus with the best of everything they could imagine.

And then there was a pause. Yoko smiled. She said wishing together changed circumstance... it made her brother happy.

S o perhaps what best suits our purposes in times of change is imagination. Maybe it's time to start a virtual wishing tree. You can send in your yoga wishes to this blog by contributing a comment if you have anything to add. Wishes of all kinds are welcome; as incoherent, vague or unreasonable as you would like. Or, you can simply wish them on your own terms, in your own time, and in your own headspace.

"I hope yoga is increasingly affordable for those who struggle."
"I wish yoga were part of the school curriculum."
"I wish my friend who struggled with depression had known about yoga".

If nothing else, we'll know we have a partnership of the imagination...

1 comment:

  1. I wish that yoga will continue to be taught by authentic, caring, dedicated, intelligent, informed and curious teachers with a true dedication to serve and change lives.