Written by Parisa Eshrati
It's difficult to find a genuine form of yoga since the Western world has compacted this practice into a "spiritual fast food". The Black Yo)))ga project, however, serves as a unique practice that stays true to mindfulness techniques by combining vinyasa-style yoga with doom music. This two-part blog discusses this new project and goes into detail about the psychological benefits of listening to dark music.
Part I: Westernized Concepts of Yoga and BLACK YO)))GA Music
I was catching up with some friends at a diner the other week, and after awhile we somehow landed on the subject of the Western approach to yoga. My friend mentioned that there’s a new shop that opened up in town that sells $70 yoga pants, and we laughed at the idea that anyone would be such a nimrod that they’d spend that much money on yoga pants. That laughter quickly turned into a cynical web of thoughts that had me thinking of how Westerners have turned yoga into a “spiritual fast food” of sorts. I thought about people like Swami Vivekananda and Paramahansa Yogananda who came from India with hardly anything but the clothes on their backs, and here we are less than a hundred years later making mass profit off of form-fitting clothes as “spiritual garb”. My friends and I went on to discuss some of the upcoming events in town – including a yoga rave and a yoga class where they serve draft beers afterwards. I mean, hey, if that’s what gets you out of the house and unwind then cool - do your thing. But can we really call this yoga? Perhaps we should we call it what it really is...stretching and booze.
In Sanskrit, the word “yoga” means union, coming from the root “yuj” meaning “to join, unite” and also “to control” and “discipline.” Bhole Prabhu writes:
The root... indicates that the purpose of yoga is to unite ourselves with our highest nature. This re-integration is accomplished through the practices of the various yoga disciplines. Until this re-integration takes place, we identify ourselves with our limitations--the limitations of the body, mind, and senses. Thus we feel incomplete and limited, and are subject to feelings of sorrow, insecurity, fear, and separation, because we have separated ourselves from the experience of the whole.
Bhole Prabhu continues that yoga does not “belong” to the East, but it is important to redefine it in the Western world that’s managed to package the concept of reunification of our higher selves into a workout tape accompanied with spandex and house music. I wholeheartedly agree with that statement in that we should redefine yoga to its original intent, but there also can be unique variations to yoga and it shouldn’t belong to just any one culture. Self-exploration through yoga can come in many forms (i.e. mantra, bhakti, kundalini) - there’s no one path. It’s all about finding what one can truly resonate with. After having that initial conversation with my friends at the diner, I kept thinking that there had to be some unique Western approach to yoga out there that could stay true to mindfulness but didn’t incorporate $70 yoga pants. I was determined to find something.
A few weeks later, I checked my email and saw a subject line that said “New promo material for Black Yo)))ga”. I was immediately intrigued as it both was related to my current quest and had a reference to SunnO))), one of my favorite doom metal bands. The Black Yo)))ga project is a vinyasa-style yoga set to drone, noise, ambient, and space doom music.Certified instructor and creator of Black Yo)))ga Kimee Massie tailored the project in order to create heavier meditative spaces for those seeking to find a balance and release negativity in their lives, but perhaps don’t feel that they fit into a typical Westernized yoga class.Black Yo)))ga just came out with a two-part release consisting of a video from one of their classes, as well as an album with original drone music from the Black Yo)))ga ensemble.
I started delving into this project by solely listening to the meditative soundscapes curated by the ensemble. The twelve minute opening track, “Wandering Through”, begins with quiet noise that builds momentum with a deep vibrational drone that gets louder and more expansive. The intensity heightens as whispering echoes scatter throughout the droney melody. Just as our scattered minds speak to us on a day-to-day basis, the voices in the song similarly feel claustrophobic as they layer up on one another until they culminate into this storm of inaudible chatter forcing its way into the track and under your skin. The voices seem to mimic the anxieties and fear that one naturally would have before trying to silence the mind. Perhaps one of the hardest parts of self-exploration is facing those inner thoughts we battle or try to submerge with distractions, and the ensemble so cleverly captures this feeling and puts it at the forefront of the album. They realize that it is an uncomfortable but necessary process to first face your demons, but they gently guide you in with that droney melody and fade out with an ominous yet beautiful string section. The strings pull you forward with their entrancing sound, but the dissonance reminds you that this is just the calm before the storm.
The album flows effortlessly into more melodic and hypnotic movements. Simple guitar parts create a spiraling pattern that create an ethereal sense of movement, all while maintaining a simplicity so you can focus on your journey and not be distracted by the music itself. Listening to the following tracks reminded me of seeing SunnO))) in concert just over a year ago. Although SunnO))) isn’t a meditational ensemble, their drone music similarly put everyone into an altered state of consciousness. Fifteen minutes into the concert, I noticed half of the audience was grounded on floor of The Rialto Theater with their eyes closed and spellbound by the engulfing boom of each long, strung out note. Similarly, the Black Yo)))ga ensemble creates this sense of space with sustained, repeated notes that suspend you in a cosmic state of doom.
Half-way through, the album gets noticeably heavier and more intense. The track “Negative Confession” features blistering screams accompanied by punishingly intense drum kicks, trembling symbols, and a thick wall of reverb that bounces all of this intensity back and forth to create a powerful whirlwind of sound. At this point in the journey, I believe this track is to aid in releasing the tension of everything you brought into the yoga session - whether it’s from your day, your year, or perhaps even some karmic connections from previous lifetimes. Whatever your beliefs are, this thunderous track liberates any negative feelings by completely letting go and driving every sound into the loudest frequency the album has exposed yet.
The end of the journey is welcomed by sounds that are still heavy in nature, but are lined with an airier atmosphere that lifts off any negativity left behind. The second-to-last track (and my favorite track off the album), “Nest of Thorns”, features every instrument throughout the album. Together, the instruments comprehensively create a feeling that every phase of journey led to this point. The guitar melody keeps you rooted in present moment by keeping you grounded in the repetitive riff, but the other instruments create this experimental and psychedelic movement to help you completely detach.
I then watched some promo footage of one of the Black Yo)))ga classes. The first video began with an unattributed quote stating, “You can’t fully appreciate the light until you understand the darkness.” Aside from already appreciating the expertly crafted drone music, this motto is what really made me feel that Black Yo)))ga was the exact project I was searching for on my quest.
Part II: Therapeutic Properties of Heavy Music
I’ve always felt that it’s necessary to embrace the darkness within our human nature. This passion started back in my mallrat days circa 2005 when I bought a Marilyn Manson t-shirt at a Hot Topic (…hah) behind my parent’s back. This was when Manson was still the poster face of shock and rebellion in mainstream media, so wearing this shirt would get me a lot of dirty looks and, of course, massive disapproval from my parents. My parents told me I couldn’t wear it anymore, and well, I paid a solid fifteen bucks for it – so I wasn’t gonna take no for an answer. I went online and came across a scholarly article called From Alice Cooper to Marilyn Manson: The Significance of Adolescent Anti-Heros, which revolved around a case study of a teenage girl who looked up to unconventional role models such as Manson. It concludes that anti-heros can be a very beneficial resource for adolescents who experience anxiety, and so on. Looking back on this paper, it’s a little outdated and relies on a case study, which does not always make for a very solid scholarly article. Either way, it got me my shirt back and sparked the idea that there is something actually very therapeutic about embracing the darker facets of human nature.
I continued this research in my last year of college when I wrote my Honors thesis on music as an evolutionary tool for our cognitive capabilities, and the intrinsic vs. extrinsic reasons for developing tastes. As a music lover, I knew that music can be extremely therapeutic. That’s sort of a given, right? But what processes are taking place that allow music to be a way of catharsis? This study found that listening to music strongly modulates activity in a network of mesolimbic structures, the hypothalamus and insula, which are all linked to physiological responses to rewarding stimuli. The data from the fMRI test combined with participant ratings on a Likert scale revealed that the positive effect of listening to music is also associated with increased dopamine levels.
It may seem obvious to someone who has been interested in extreme metal their whole life why heavy music is therapeutic, but to others it may seem contradictory to listen to dark music for therapeutic purposes. Recent research efforts have been finding that these types of music can still regulate emotion in different situations. This study offers an explanation via associative and semantic networks in the brain. It explains that negative emotion nodes that represent feelings such as anger or sadness can become activated and still enjoyed because in an aesthetic context, such as music listening, any activation is pleasurable. This theoretical model claims that the mere activation of negative emotion nodes is a pleasant experience because listening to music actives a node which inhibits the “displeasure center”. In layman’s terms, this is essentially describing that since listening to music is an enjoyable experience, it will still be pleasurable to listen to negative music because having any emotional center activated will feel gratifying. This other study also notes the more obvious fact that this type of music is more empathetic and sometimes it just makes more goddamn sense to listen to something intense when you’re feeling that way.
So, all this psychological and physiological research shows that “dark” music can be extremely therapeutic. In my opinion, though, I’ve always considered that it’s more than something that can be beneficial. I think it’s necessary for everyone to embrace darkness before experiencing light. We shouldn’t ignore the fact that this duality exists within ourselves, and we should respect both sides in order to understand all facets of human nature. There are countless ways to delve into that darkness, whether it’s aided from music, movies, artwork, or even taking grim walks through frost-bitten forests. Whatever path you choose, remember it’s not an easy journey - but one that will get you a lot further than wherever those $70 yoga pants take you.