Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Aesthetic Meditations of Death

As I've pointed out before, the larger culture seems to find much amusement when metal is combined with a seemingly unrelated term; "black metal+chef", "metal dudes+cats", and so on. So it's no surprise that "metal yoga" is not only a thing, but a thing that gets reported on with increasing regularity in the mainstream press. It takes two things that are ripe for parody and combines them in one Mr. Show-ready concept. Let the memes begin.

But metal is rarely funny to me, and yoga is something I have a lot of respect for; it's been steadily infiltrating Brazilian jiu jitsu gyms for years, as most BJJ practitioners recognize that mastering one will help with the other. Indeed, most of my experience with yoga has come at the end of a night of hard rolls. [It should be noted, in my gym in KL, from the white belts all the way up to the coach: We were all surprisingly bad at yoga.]

When I discovered a metal yoga class in Brooklyn, I decided to drop in - partly out of curiosity, but largely in the hopes that it would help the pain that had been spreading from my neck to my back and shoulder. With MDF looming, I didn't want to spend the whole week-end nursing an injury and hanging out in the back with the rest of the aging heshers.

The class took place at the back of a bar in an increasingly gentrified part of Bushwick, but the studio was immaculate and professional; the price (including mat rental) was less than what I paid for lunch that day; and the instructor was what yoga instructors probably look like at Wacken (or Valhalla): Tall and blonde, with a charming German accent, and corny in an endearing way. [It's my personal bias that all yoga instructors are a little nutty - an opinion formed not only by the handful I've enountered, but also by my brother, who is both a certified yoga instructor and the most rage-prone person I know.]

The music could have come from my own iPod: Death metal like Benediction and Vader, Winter, classic thrash, some heavy crust. Voivod came on and was skipped over for being too boring. As the most judgemental metalhead I know, I approve of the instructor's discerning taste. Plus, she was wearing a Napalm Death shirt when I walked in, so... you know. Playing death metal during a yoga class wasn't without its drawbacks however; it made hearing the instructor difficult, and I had to continually look around to see what I was supposed to be doing. [I later came to the conclusion that the volume was set at a level necessary to drown out the bar, which was in full hipster swing as the class was in progress.]

The class was small - three other people, the instructor, and me in the back. On the one hand, the small class size seemed like what I'd want [KVLT AND TR00], but things got weird for me when an early exercise involved the whole class doing death metal screams. I was content to fake it in the belief that no one would notice or care. The instructor did in fact notice and care, and made the class hold the pose until I committed. I've been doing death metal vocals for two decades now, yet raising my voice in public is rare (similarly, despite spending all my free time training, I've yet to throw a hand in anger).

This put me in a quandary: Do I flex my diaphragm and let out my inner Barney Greenway? Or pretend my throat was sore and see what happens next? After an uncomfortably long period of time I ended up doing a weak Åkerfeldt/Bloodbath impression to all around disappointment, then made a joke about mic cupping that fell flat. [See, because weak vocalists cup the mic; HELLO IS THIS THING ON?]

Also to my immediate alarm, another of the early exercises revolved around pounding the floor with our bare hands. This seemed neither yogic nor smart. It made me think back to a younger version of myself who would punch doors and walls indiscriminately; and to the current, older, less aggro version having to tell my boxing coach that I hurt my hand in a yoga class. I proceeded to pat the floor gingerly.

It turns out all the punching and screaming was more of a mood-setting measure than anything. The actual yoga was solid, the Vinyasa style with a strong focus on strengthening the core. When the instructor corrected my posture, her strength was both immediately obvious and impressive. Despite my lifelong flexibility issues, and joints that feel like they're made of Rice Krispies and chewing gum, none of the exercises were entirely outside the scope of my abilities; but it was physically demanding to the point that I sweated as much as I did in training earlier in the day. Poses which required extending and holding the arms up were particularly difficult for me; as my delts burned, I had time to reflect on and regret every submission I didn't tap to.

The class ended with meditation of sorts, a visualization exercise that included a wolf howling on a mountain, and the words "Hail Satan" closing it all out. It has to be said, for all the goofiness and my early apprehension, that shit worked. The throbbing pain in my neck and shoulder that bothered me all week had been reduced to a twinge, and I could move my head around more or less freely.

After the class, everyone else seemed of the mind to hang out and bond over drinks in the host establishment. I bolted immediately - not because I didn't enjoy the experience (or the company), but because I had a previous appointment in Creepsylvania. It is not wise to make a group of touring cannibals wait for you.

But with the class came a lot of soul searching and self-discovery; particularly, the revelation that my relationship with metal is almost entirely solitary. Sure I act out when I really get into a song, but for the most part it's either when I'm alone or hidden in the anonymity of a concert setting. Usually when I go to a show, I go alone; it's the communion with the music that I seek, not the communal experience. Even at Rumah Api, a place where I'm both well known and well liked, I prefer to retire to the upstairs record store or watch the bands from a secluded corner (unless I'm taking photos). I've been kicked in the head by crowd surfers enough times to believe that my enjoyment of the concert experience does not require the presence of other people.

My problem with metal yoga wasn't that I think those two things should never go together; it's that metal is something I've spent most of my life engaging in alone. It seems entirely too personal to growl or raise the horns in a room full of strangers. It's the same reason why I can 't do metal karaoke with anyone other than my closest metal friends. Maybe I'm too self-conscious to do something like this regularly; maybe I've been mocked about my choice of music for so long and so regularly that it's not something I can enjoy in the company of strangers. It looks like I'll be sticking with "metal jogging" for the foreseeable future.