June 16, 2014

Zen and the Art of Being Marina (Abramovich) : 512 Hours at the Serpentine

Photo by Adele

There are several people at the Serpentine standing around either motionless, facing the wall, or just staring out of the window, or slowly walking backwards gazing into a small wooden hand mirror. Others are just sitting on chairs dotted around, saying nothing, doing nothing. This artist has a team of assistants in black who clasp people’s hands and lead them to a space to become part of the ’now’ performance. It is like suddenly finding yourself on the set of Resnais’ 1961 film Last Year in Marienbad, where for a moment the universe is temporarily unhinged in slow motion, going backwards in repeated loops and long shadows stick to people even on an overcast day. 

Marina Abramovic, with her jet-black plaited hair and slightly stooping shoulders is arranging people in groups. She gives spontaneous instructions. Amazingly, everyone just complies. She is mistress of ceremonies here after all and people are eager to see her - the hostess at her own party of nothingness. No watches, mobile phones are allowed in the space.

She zeroes in on me spotting my Ziggy T-shirt from the David Bowie Is  exhibition last year, and grabs me by the hand, eyes on my chest, saying ‘David’ as if that is my name. Then she leads me with her tight, warm, cosy hand that I cannot refuse, and walks me to the next gallery. “It’s very crowded here” she says. She proceeds to act as if she’s known me for years. It seems that way to onlookers, but I have been selected - at random or by calculated choice?- for this assignment.

“What do you think it is about?” she asks me. She, the Marina Abramovic, asking me for my opinion?? If this trick of flattery is to immediately disarm any Great British scepticism and sarcasm through flattery, then it was beginning to work. According to Abramovic, binge drinking is also one of the faults of the Brits - she herself is a tee-totaller and uses fasting as a way of sensitising her experience in the world. Yet she believes that addiction to drink is a defensive mechanism, covering up wounds people would rather not open up to. She might well be right. Yet asking for my view was validating, placing the power in my hands, and not in her as the ‘author’ of the work. This shows complete openness, honesty and trust that whatever I felt, that was ‘it’.

“It seems to be like Zen practices” is my answer. She says nothing. Then I dare to boomerang back and ask her what her view of it is. She says “Simplicity. Being  present …this is what people really need in the world now.” I nod in agreement, judging by the numbers of people around me being present with her, the need is greater than ever. 

We are now in a corner where she positions me near a wall. She is still so close that her mouth is almost nibbling my left ear.  “Just stay here in silence…  don’t move and be in the moment” which I do gladly aware that it is a chance to be mindful. “…But don’t forget to breathe,” she adds mischievously, as though I might just stop breathing for her sake. Apparently, in Japan, she is taken so seriously that people might just do that. Few appear to challenge her instructions, even from her assistants who have none of the magnetism and charisma of this woman. “Take as long as you like and come back many times. We need people to come back,” she chuckles. I ask “Is the idea to empty your mind? Is that what you try to do?”  She nods, sphinx-like, “yes, that’s right, sort of.” But in other interviews online she has said that it’s more about just cutting away things that get in the way of direct, open experience, and  just being with that. It is not so much about labeling them according to any religious ideology, though she is on record as having been inspired by Tibetan monks and their disciplines. Walking meditation is one tool. Just sitting or Zazen meditation is another. Endlessly counting individual rice grains apparently helped Lady Gaga to give up smoking. 

So there is a definite link to practices drawn 
Marina Abramovic
from the contemplative traditions. To bring this into the art world helps to blur the boundaries of art and higher order experiences. Abramovic has collaborated with Tibetan monks and shamans to create a series of exercises to allow people to experience ‘durational art.’ These are what she teaches at her Institute where she instructs people to slow down time and learn the art of being.

She then glides away from me with that enigmatic grin on her face to my friend and grabs her by the hand with the same sideswipe and clamp technique, not letting you slip away.  She gets them to walk slowly - a meditation walk which is to increase awareness of each foot fall from toe to heel.  Her presence is very palpable, and real, not abstract or cold, but earthy and intense. Her touch gives off a radiance, a warmth. When Abramovic puts her hand on your shoulder and presses down into you it goes deep. It is a privilege, like receiving Reiki from a master practitioner. She’s channeling this Shamanic type of energy, and it is like being given a gift of transference.  She feeds off the responses of the public - her public, not in a vampiric way, but because it gives her higher motivation to touch those parts that wouldn’t otherwise be touched, people’s inner selves.

The moments after she has gone, I remain still, and gone, and aware of my toes pressing into my shoes, and of my slowed-down breathing and the hushed silence in the room, broken by a few cars passing from outside, were  personal yet shared. It reminds me of being in a church when it suddenly goes intensely quiet and contemplation is realised.  Relief from excess noise is always welcome. It creates space just as Marina says. I don’t have any trouble being still, but I wonder how many others would find it a major challenge. Abramovic has boiled it down to the essence  which was never better expressed  as in Pascal’s Pensees (1761) where he says “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”

This can be scary for some, like approaching that abyss within we tend to run away from with distraction after distraction. She said in the Artist is Present documentary that "the hardest thing to do is something that is close to nothing. It demands all of you because there is not story anymore to tell. There’s no objects to hide behind. You have to rely on your own pure energy and nothing else.”

She operates on many levels. One is just cunning self-promoter, having fun with a bunch of people along for the ride. But see beyond that and another is as strategic conduit of experiences to be shared by everyone, making her a shaman and even high priestess of art. She helps you to create that space inside. You can do it by yourself, no doubt, but by facilitating it, she makes it a shared experience, marked by her presence. Emptiness indeed is all around. The gallery is empty of anything so crude as a physical object. The art ‘work’ she is creating is what the viewers bring to it, carved experientially on the screen of their own minds, but one could call it living sculpture as several people are standing motionless in different directions like statues on a platform when you first walk in.

Abramovic has achieved a near-cult status now by challenging herself at every level. She attempts to fuse artistic concerns with spiritual practices. One of her friends, Laurie Anderson, has noted in Bomb Magazine, that Marina’s work has become ever more personal, direct, and ‘spiritual,’challenging its viewers and participants to confront their own disjointed selves. It is not unconnected that the rise of Mindfulness, as proposed by Kabat-Zinn, has and still is steadily gaining steady mass acceptance in business and the corporate world as well as medicine, education and even the government. The power of mindfulness is that it is deceptively simple.  

Be Quiet! The Artist is Present.
So whether you think it is much ado about nothing, or a chance to trigger a personal epiphany, she’s here in London for the duration of the summer. One day silence another day a scream fest- it could be either or something else. Who knows what she’ll cook up next to challenge us? The queue was not long, but I have a feeling that, while it seems to be easily dismissed as fake, or even a bit daft, it will catch on, and it would not surprise me if, by the end of the summer, people are clamouring to go back again and again to Ms. Abramovic’s house to experience a bit more of this nowness and take away from it what you will.

The exhibition runs until August 25th.

© Kieron Devlin, 2014
all rights reserved



June 10, 2014

The 2014 International Yoga Sports Federation Competition

Roll Call Before Starting 

Watch a video slide show of the Competition here:
So as the dust has settled on 2014's International Yoga Sports Federation competition, one of the most exciting events on the yoga calendar. This year it was at London's Institute of Education, and now I'm pondering about this display of dedication and prowess to the promotion of yoga as a life-changing force. It is more than impressive. As an IYSF volunteer, I was able to meet Rajashree Choudhury and her daughter, plus Cintra Brown, who was the first to bring Bikram to London, and Marianna Massaccesi, the UK youth champion 2014,and so many other great contestants from all over the world. These yogathletes descended on London to take in this juicy exhibition of vendors from Mind Body Connect, Shakti Activewear, Dragonfly, Yogabela, La La Land,to Max, along with athletes and hardworking yoga practitioners. 

Rajayshree Choudhury
Yoga can be classed as a sport. Yes, why not, as B.S.Iyengar said it is only the asanas of all the eight limbs or petals of yoga that are less individual and personal,  so there is no harm in competitive displays of asanas. It has been a tradition in India for over a century to run competitions for asana, and it is through those events that Rajashree and Bikram Choudhury first met. 

Some might not even wish to waste time on this debate about whether it is nor is not a sport, as it's all been said before, and just want to enjoy the display of skill in competition, but yoga has five thousand years of sacred prestige weighing heavily on its shoulder stand. Yoga, while being difficult, is not usually known for its spirit of rivalry, or point scoring, but more for its private and personal body/mind/spirit inner development. It certainly cannot be compared to the body elastics of gymnasts, but there is nevertheless a purely physical aspect to yoga (called asana) and many believe that this athletic strand in yoga which takes long hours of practice and training, is gaining prominence and, yes, even more acceptance, mostly through the efforts of the IYSF (International Yoga Sports Federation) with back up from C.J. from YogaBrighton and Lorraine Bell from Sohot Yoga
who run the UK Yoga Sports Federation.
Joseph Encinia

But asana or posture, as you can imagine, is no ordinary sport. Once you go beyond the physical, and it does  not take much, then yoga's rightful sphere is the field of consciousness. I don't think there could ever be a points-out-of-ten for the achievement of Samadhi for example, or that could we ever envisage a situation where people's experience of Bliss is 8.5 while someone else's is only 7.9? Never, because that is the hidden, mental aspect of yoga which is beyond comparisons of better or worse. Some things cannot be measured on a points scale. Yet the the body-mind connection is evident in yoga, and it can inspire people to know more about it. 

However, on the ground level, it does actually look mighty fine considered as a sport.  It requires intense discipline like any other sport and is eminently watchable, just as we watch divers, who also wear speedoes which are necessary for unrestricted movement of the body. Yogis, in this sense, would have to be called 'athletes' and not yogis or yoginis, but they are clearly kind of both, depending which aspect is focussed on, so we might settle for the term yogathletes? No doubt the argument will go on, and on, as debates that push around words tend to do. It seems to me and others that you are either  in with it  or you are not.  It is a personal choice.
A Female Contestant
Bear in mind that traditionally, women were not allowed to practice yoga, but Western women have changed all that by defying that rule in droves, and now they have almost begun to own yoga in a way that the men do not, so thankfully perceptions do change, and innovation moves forward. 
Whether it reaches Olympic standard is another matter that barely matters, at least to me. Whether people say that yoga-sport is not yoga is like saying a molecule of water is not the ocean as in one sense everything is yoga. It depends on a certain kind of quality focussed attention brought to bear to perfect a pose. 

The fact that a huge number of athletes from Ryan Giggs, David Beckham to Andy Murray all swear that it is Bikram that has enhanced their performance, should be enough to fuse athleticism and yoga in our minds. Yoga, especially Bikram, seems tailor-made to suit the needs of athletes, as it promotes increased detoxing, lung capacity, endurance, and flexibility. It is especially good for restorative work of all the numerous injuries to muscles, joints and hamstrings that athletes, runners and tennis players suffer. Years ago, I had intense sciatic pain in the hips- and that was some serious pain- and it was only my attention to yoga that helped me gradually overcome that. It is also true for dancers, and it should be no surprise that pop stars like Madonna, Beyonce and Lady Gaga choose Bikram yoga to tone up their bodies for their intensive dance routines. 

Budokan is an example of yoga which fuses with martial art ( kind of sporty?) based originally around karate. Cameron Shayne, the founder at Budokan University, defines himself as an ‘artist’ and 'guru killer' rather than a yogi pushing the boundaries of how that is defined.
Jared McCann in Full Bow
This is what yoga as a sport does, pushes boundaries. So now we have a blend of  sport and art and 
let's not forget that it is also an ancient Vedic science of the neuro-physiological. It seems yoga is not so easily locked in the 'sacred' box - exactly because we are thinking outside that box here. Acro Yoga, also works along similar lines combining yoga, with Thai massage, and partner acrobatics, yet no one seems to question the ethics of that particular cocktail. So now we have yoga-asana as sport, as art,and even science. So yoga is and can happily be all of these forms of expression, because it has all these possibilities for expansion into all these activities.

Yet some still argue that yoga is this or that, or not this and not that, yada yada, as if it would somehow be defiled or contaminated by the spirit of competition. I personally do not find it so difficult to accept, but I am not about to take part in any competition anytime soon and I can handle a fair share of paradoxes. But I do know that it can be utterly breathtaking and inspirational to watch and if you do practise, watching great practitioners can help you visualise the alignment of poses much better in order to realise any improvement. What it must do for the contestants is really increase control of focus,  sharpen the precision of movement and access
Tiger Scorpion Pose
to stillness. It can be quite mesmerising.

The rules are simple: practise hard, state the choice of pose before beginning, perform it to the best of your ability, keep an even pace, keep breathing silent and finish within 3 minutes. Total silence must accompany a session, and I was mini-policeman in charge of keeping people out at the door, to avoid causing distractions to the athletes, which mostly come from mobile phone ring tones. Points are awarded by the judges, who check for well-paced timing, regular quiet breathing, precision of alignment, stillness, and whether the hand grip is fully on the ankle in standing bow pose. It all amounts to a graceful performance. The judges, often ex-world champions themselves, use their expertise as teachers to assess the performances often down to fine degrees of different points. Anyone having the skill to compete should be congratulated, but to get into the international top ten as Alessandro Mauro Vanegas (UK) did, is an achievement indeed. 

As the last day came to a close, with contestants from the USA sweeping the board, it became clear that these yogathletes have developed to an extremely high standard. But they are not unbeatable, as Eric Persson from Sweden, caught up, getting into the top three. But it would
Jared McCann
suggest that there is better, or more frequent coaching and/or funding for Bikram yoga training in the USA than in the UK or other countries.

The event brought mostly aficionados, yoga lovers, but I talked to a lady from Sheffield, who I could have sworn looked like the writer, Karen Armstrong. She had come to see her daughter compete. She said it is amazing to see how all the competitors are such great friends. Most likely there is a respect rather than rivalry in the green room where Mary Jarvis prepared the athletes for their moment on stage. Yogathletes will happily share the top positions if they happen to be in the top ten. A healthy form of rivalry may be necessary to give contestants an edge, but everyone who does Bikram knows how hard it is to be really exceptional; so they are more inclined to stand back and admire those who have put in the work. 

Zeb Homison
This year it was Zeb Homison's (USA) turn to be number one, and Jared McCann (USA) obliged to take second place. But only by one point. Eric Persson (Sweden) came third. A few people mentioned that Michael Eley, the reigning UK champion, did not take part due to an injury, otherwise he might have ruffled feathers in the top three. Among the women, Gloria Suen (USA) won, with Gianna Purcell (USA) second, and Anna Cadkova (Czech Republic) demonstrated a perfected skill. In the youth division,  Danton Lee Delchuk (Canada) took first place for the boys and Jana Sougata (India) for the girls.  

A real highlight of the event is the performance of last year's champions with Jared McCann really showing his level-best sustaining a one-handed peacock pose for well over two minutes, and even laughing casually in the middle of poses, showing his innate sense of control and confidence. Chaukai Stefanie Ngai, last year's winner in the women's division, gave a beautiful, highly polished demonstration of some seriously advanced poses. It is not just the athleticism that amazes us when someone nails a pose with technical precision, but the art inherent in the balance required to sustain the
Jared McCann
silhouette the pose creates. It’s a combination of physical prowess, mental focus and mind-body coordination, plus an understanding of how it looks visually from outside for people observing. All of these build strength, poise and technical skill which combined, comprise the beauty of the pose.  Craig Villani's droll commentary throughout kept it fairly light and breezy.

Before the awards were issued, Rajashree Choudhury spoke at the point of tears about how valuable these competitions are. She first started in yoga through local competitions in villages, which was how she met Bikram. She mentioned the struggles and challenges of getting the championship rolling, and sustaining it with proper funding and countering all the attacks, which yoga even helps you to endure. These words came from the heart. That's where it's best to leave it - in the heart centre. 

She said "We all belong to one big yoga family," but like all families, there are disagreements. The point is that the prestige of yoga has grown enormously in the West, perhaps even
The Winners
because of difficult, transitional  times. Yoga has the power to be a catalyst to personal change and development. It can help marry the body to the  mind and spirit, where those may have been split off. Yoga can help you to be able to overcome the odds, and feel released and strong through practice, ready to take on more challenges.

The Yoga Sports Federation competition is just one of many forms of the expression of this great shift to a deeper understanding of the impact of yoga. Roll on next year to see who else can show the world they've pulled it all together. 

"Your hand opens and closes and opens and closes. 
If it were always a fist or always stretched open, you would be paralysed. 
Your deepest presence is in every small contracting and expanding, 
the two as beautifully balanced and coordinated as bird wings."


Watch a video slide show of the Competition here:


© Kieron Devlin, 2014
all rights reserved