“This is yoga. Lots of smart people do it instead of going to church.” – Stewie Griffin
Each Wednesday they announce the following week’s Fig-2 artist. Today they’ve announced that next week the ICA studio space is going to be given over to physical activities. Like zumba and yoga, and dancing. Sounds dreadful, I know. When I was at school the PE teachers gave up on me and just let me sit in the corner of the gym reading Ulysses. I used to go orienteering, which is running around a forest with a map and compass racing against other fans of sci-fi and fantasy, but even this physical activity counts against any claim I might have on any kind of sporty jock cachet.
Apart from a ten-kilometre ‘fun run’ I did two years ago I don’t get any exercise. I no longer go running. Seriously, I don’t even run for the bus. I didn’t do a stroke of training for the fun run and I did the run partly to raise money for charity but mainly just to be ironic. Several people refused to sponsor me because they didn’t believe for a second I was going to do it. But I done it, not only that but I dressed up as a fairy with wings and a pink codpiece. I even live-vlogged it as I done it, and I raised £240.
Fun. I started being physically sick after two kilometres and continued to chunder repeatedly while sweating out my whole pituitary gland for the next three kilometres. After that it was sort of okay. I finished within twenty-four hours and noone had to call out Mountain Rescue (the run (okay, jog, bit of walking too) was through central London).
I wouldn’t blame you if you were not entirely amazed, therefore, to learn that I have never participated in the activity known as yoga. Or rather, this was the case until Week 27 of Fig-2 when as part of her week at Fig-2 Karen Mirza organised a session of Kundalini Yoga. Of course I had to go along. Valerie Solanis said that a man will swim through an ocean of snot if he thinks there is a friendly pussy on the other side, but a writer will drink the same ocean of snot if they think there might be a good story at the end of the draught.
Fig-2 Week 27 was Karen Mirza’s first solo exhibition in two decades. I don’t mean she’d been coaxed out of retirement for one last mission like in a cop movie. She usually collaborates. In her Fig-2 interview with Fatoş Üstek she says her relationship with her collaborator is strong enough now that they can do their own things. That’s okay. In the film Coffee and Cigarettes Iggy Pop tells Tom Waits that ever since he quit smoking it’s you know okay and you know now he can smoke! Bam! No, I’m sure they’re fine.
The week was called “The Ectoplazm of Neoliberalism” and involved private and public conversations via astrology, occultism, radical politics and yoga. In this it bears a similarity of content to Suzanne Treister’s Week 14 in which we explored HEXEN 2.0’s cybernetic history of everything according to conceptual tarot cards. Similarly Karen Mirza employed a range of approaches to explore her themes: silkscreen print collages, collaboration, borrowings from the archive of the College of Psychic Studies, her own desk and using the space as an office, and of course the yoga session, which I’ll get to.
It was an interesting week but sadly I missed the crucial event for the last day, the “Workshop of Ideas” that would have explained everything about what was going on and what the “Ectoplazm of Neoliberalism” is all about. Karen Mirza says it will take her two years to unpack what happened during the week. But I don’t know what happened because I missed this bloody key workshop.
Why did I miss it? I was volunteering at a soup kitchen after driving a school bus full of orphans to a children’s opera. In which I was singing. To raise money for charity. In drag. Okay, I went on my friend’s stag do and got trashed on a canal-boat resulting in Sunday being devoted to a £90 hangover, if you know what I mean. I’m definitely too old for this stuff. Who gets married in their mid-thirties anyway? You should get it out of the way in your early twenties for the sake of the physical health of your mates.
I did make it to the yoga session on the Thursday though, remarkably. Remarkable not only because it was in the morning at some horrendous hour like nine after a boozy band rehearsal the night before, but because this was during a tube strike. A sign on the door said noone would be admitted after 9.15am. It was.. oh dear.. or was it? The door opened. I was in. For however briefly, I was now a yoga bear.
“Siri Sadhana Kaur encourages others to experience themselves as joyful instruments of expression and transformation.”
Now, I am not naturally a joyful instrument of anything. When my batterie of phone alarms and clock radios prises open my eyes in the morning, I force them shut again for as long as I can take of Hell’s bells and overly entitled twats being twats on the Today programme. I get up with complete loathing of self and world to swallow the bitter dose of hemlock that is another day of the futile slow death that is existence. From that moment on it gets worse until I can take no more of it and go to work, where my brain is slowly petrified in ennui and incompetence until I can take no more of that either and go home, whereupon I drink a litre of whisky neat from a Doc Marten boot and take prescription drugs and crystal meth until I can’t feel my feelings any more and then I strangle myself with my own hands until I pass out, then next day when the Alarm Chorus goes off I do it all again. At weekends I do the same but in high heels.
“Come back to the breath, come back to your inner experience. Just listen to your breath. Kundalini yoga is not yoga without munthra (mind, cut across) – cutting across the frequency of our mind against those thoughts that block us. Munthra cuts through it and creates a different space.”
Yoga leader Siri Sadhana Kaur was leading a chant when I crept in to become the tenth yogist. I peeled off my skinny jeans, put on some baggy pants I’d borrowed from a competitive eater, and lay down on the floor. For the next three hours or days, Siri led us on a journey into our own mind-body, releasing mental and physical blocks with a combination of soft speaking, guitar, breathing exercises, lying down, and a massive gong.
“Through the repetition we don’t understand the world, it takes us out of the logical explanation of things, puts us into a different space. Training the mind to come into a different frequency rather than did I do the washing how was the traffic this morning. The invitation right now coming into a place, the frequency of another state of consciousness. Through munthra calling in that, we implode to explode. The frequency that we put out is the intention that we create and set within. To tune myself to the bigger aspect of who I am, that capacity, potential ultimately. That’s all kundalini energy is, our destiny, our gift, why are we here, are we an ant, or do we have something greater.”
Kundalini Yoga is a Raj/Royal Yoga that was brought out of secrecy in the sixties by Yogi Bhajan (the famous cartoon picnic basket whisperer from Jellystone Park). It’s one of the more far out forms of yoga. Bikram in its American bastardization is a kind of group boil-in-the-bag intended to make you look and feel like a kipper on steroids. Kundalini is philosophical. It’s holistic and uses cardiovascular exercises that seem gentle but are cumulatively tiring: stretching postures, and lots of lying down that relaxes you after all the cardio, and breathing and meditation to calm your special little insane mind. These together with the channeling of the kundalini energy through mantra give many people a sense of greater physical and mental clarity, energy and focus.
The word yoga means union, and the philosophical and mental elements of the practice are often overlooked and the whole thing reduced to a bit of rolling around on mats during your lunch break to make you feel a bit less worse about having ordered takeaway again the previous night while finishing off the last season of Dexter.
“In yogic and spiritual traditions we each have a unique and spiritual gift. Are we gonna direct and traject our lives and align with that greater aspect or are we gonna get caught up with our own agenda? Through the sound journey you allow that frequency of consciousness and bigger vibration of consciousness to come into play. So we’ll take a deep breath now. We come into sound, making noise, just vibrating. A sigh. Sighs. It’s just nature’s way of detoxing and releasing.”
Life. I sigh all the time. The deep wearied sighing of a boy-man who knows he is wasting his time. My sense of futility is so overwhelming that in order to distract myself from it I fill up my life with as much crap as I can possibly take. A gig or a show or an event every night, crazy projects like writing a haiku a day for two years or an essay for every single week of Fig-2, a couple of bottles of wine a night, a full-time job, learning Italian on Duolingo, books, films, music, being in two bands, constant commuting and never stopping for a minute, just to block out the abiding awfulness of it all — an ironically joyous and life-embracing response to an emotionally crippling inner nihilism.
There is a cult of busyness which a lot of clever modern people are members of. People who are seemingly too busy doing their job to do their job are just the tip of the human iceberg floating towards the shambling Titanic of collective mental health meltdown. We’re all so busy being busy. As Ferris Bueller says, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around for a while, you could miss it.” Only we’re far, far too busy to dream of taking the day off.
“With munthra you’re allowing space through the breath you create that capacity to release space and open up to the bigger you. A different ok this is who I am right now. Keep open to that invitation to yourself, through the munthra – truth is my reality – rather than all the other conversations, history, etc. Truth truth truth, I am truth, I identify with truth. That’s all you’re repeating, it’s called jaffa and through that we create a new reality. Take a deep breath. Exhale. Fill into those cavities, those spaces within. Soften, then exhale, let yourself go. Inner massage through the diaphragm, exhale, feeling that internal massage. You might start to already feel the tension in your body that’s ok. And exhale.”
I enjoy an internal massage myself, like any red-blooded male mammalian metrosexual. But the demands yoga makes of you in breathing and stretching are as strange as dancing when not completely plastered. Self-consciousness and the sense of ridiculousness have to be overcome, which is not just difficult in itself but because these things are crutches. Embarrassment is a way of avoiding having to do things at which you might be good. Noone wants to be good at anything because if you’re good at something you have to keep being good at it otherwise you fear everyone will be disappointed, though really it’s just you that’s disappointed. Noone else cares.
“Through the munthra, through the posture, the breath, align yourself to truth. To your inner wisdom. Throughout this session we’re gonna start to do some postures, transformative postures from a master, use the munthra and then go into relaxation and then have a gong. So you get to experience a greater sound that cuts through the mind and the mental habits. By the time we’ve done the physical postures they’re there to exhaust you to take you into a transformative space.”
I have no inner seriousness at all. This is why I’ll never win the Nobel Prize. That, and because I know nothing about Physics. My natural mode is ironic and tricksy, which is another defence mechanism that has experienced a resurgence among Millennials or Generation Y, or basically among all of us born into the howlingly absurd world of Reaganomics and reality television.
Millennials are often afraid to express a firm opinion on anything in case someone gainsays it and they feel embarrassed. Instead of saying you like the new Nob Jockey album you describe it a bit, and if someone says they hate it then you hate it too. Until then there is the Schrödinger’s Cat situation of ironically detached fence sitting. This is a natural mode of adolescence anyway, but it’s uniquely perpetuated by digital natives sitting on all of the information in the world and unable to comprehend it. Everything levels out, and as it is in Brecht and Weill’s dystopian protoprelapsarian sin city Mahagonny “everything is available.”
“The gong is a deeply powerful sound unlike any other sound. A guitar string is plucked, there’s a peak, there’s a sound maximum then decay of sound. Just as sound decays the gong has an overtone of harmonic that confuses the mind that gives the trans-spatial experience. Expansive self to come alive. Allowing the energy bodies. We’ve got ten energy bodies in philosophy and you’re allowing those energy bodies to really come alive. Whenever someone walks in the room you meet their aura. Nine seconds if you’re in an interview and it’s based on this meeting. This is what the gong means.”
The gong is genuinely sublime and transporting. I did kind of get into the mantras and the soothing spiritualism and idealism of Kundalini yoga, but not completely. This would be something to pursue in further sessions, to learn to basically get over yourself, which I suspect is what the whole activity is for. But the gong. For half an hour we lay on the ground in a group sensory deprivation experience, drifting away on the sustained ebb of the gong.
The sound gently laps over you, lapping the sides, oneiric and beyond time. It’s not like driving on the motorway on a long journey when you’re alone with your regret that you hadn’t done everything you’ve done differently, that you hadn’t fucked up everything that ever happened to you and pissed off everyone you’ve ever met. There’s no thought. The alpha and delta waves kick in, and there’s just you and the gong. There’s just me and the gong. For a moment it could seem as if I could even be happy.
“Inhale. Exhale. Close your eyes and look to the pituitary gland, the master gland of the endocrine system but also the third eye. Look to the pituitary and inhale, exhale – inhale forward, exhale back. Keep looking at the pituitary gland. Come into vibrating – come into the heart centre.”
[They start breathing in and out really fast and noisily…]