Monday, March 3, 2014

Flow state, art, beauty, and yoga

One of the courses I am teaching this semester at the university is Philosophy of Art (a.k.a. aesthetics). Over the past couple of months of teaching this course, I have been trying to read more novels and listen to more music in order to get myself into a more... artistic state of mind. After all, if you only philosophize about something, but have no intuitive experience of the thing in question upon which to base the philosophizing, then the philosophizing becomes a bit fruitless, doesn't it? (Now, who was it who said that "concepts without intuition are empty, intuitions without concepts are blind"?...)

In the course of listening to a lot of great music, I have had the opportunity to witness (on Youtube) many beautiful performances by many wonderfully talented artists. As I do so, I can't help noticing that in many of these performances, it is not just the music being produced that is beautiful. The performer, being fully immersed in the music with her entire being (I suppose this may be what some people call a "flow state"), takes on a certain beauty in her facial expressions, and in the way she moves as she plays her instrument. To give you an example, have a look at this performance of Tchaikovsky's violin concerto in D by Sayaka Shoji. The whole performance is kind of long (almost 38 minutes), and you might not have the time to sit through the whole thing, but if you just watch the first 10 minutes, you'll know what I'm talking about:

After watching this performance for, like, the twentieth time, I still can't decide what is more beautiful: The expressions on Shoji's face, or the music that she is actually playing. But this much seems to be true: Being in a flow state (and if Shoji wasn't in a flow state when she was performing that piece, I don't know who is) is not just something that is experienced by the person who is in that state, but is also often something that we the observers can observe by looking at the person. And if Shoji's case above is anything to go by, it would seem that being in a flow state is not just a beautiful experience for the person experiencing it, it is also a beautiful and inspiring experience for those of us who get to see the effects of that state on the person's face and body. So... yay! More power to flow states! 

But since this is (still) a yoga blog, I suppose I should try to relate everything I just said to yoga. Well, many of us who have doing this practice for a while will readily attest that yoga practice in general (and Ashtanga practice in particular) is quite conducive for producing this flow state in us during practice. If nothing else, the very flowing structure of the vinyasa count ("Ekam, Dwe, Trini...") encourages less (over)thinking and more movement and flow. And I'm pretty sure many of us have at one time or other experienced this kind of flowing feeling of being at one with the practice in the moment of practice.

And this is a very beautiful thing. But at the same time, there is also this perception that yoga is different from the performing arts because yoga practice is somehow personal in a way that the performing arts are not. Perhaps it is because of this perception that openly performance-oriented displays of asana prowess tend to be frowned upon in the yoga world. As a result, there seems to be this tacit consensus among the politically-correct yoga public that if and when teachers or students do poses in public, it should be primarily for educational purposes, i.e. either to show students how a pose is done or to demonstrate a pose in order to educate the public about the benefits of yoga. Doing poses in public without such an educational aim in mind is seen as "showing off" and merely "feeding the ego" (and we know, of course, how bad feeding the ego is in the eyes of the yoga public).

But what if public performances of yoga, like public performances of music, can also have the effect of inspiring the audience with the beautiful sight of somebody who is in a flow state? Imagine if Ms. Shoji were to one day decide, "Hmm... I don't think I'm ever going to perform in public again, because performing in public is showing off and feeds my ego, which is bad for my spiritual development." If she were to decide this (and follow through with her decision), wouldn't the music-loving public be deprived of a wonderful source of beauty and inspiration? After all, we know that great art does not just consist in taking in the art with one of our senses; as we have seen, a big part of the beauty also comes from watching great performers immerse themselves in their art as they perform. In the same way, might it not be the case that at least part of the beauty of yoga comes from seeing your favorite teachers or practitioners perform the poses that they do? Speaking of favorite teachers, here's a recent video of Kino performing lotus handstand in public:

Actually, I don't know just how "public" Kino's performance is in this case, since there doesn't seem to be too many people watching (unless we include the Youtube audience as being part of the "public" in this case). But anyway, I think you get what I'm trying to say here...

But yes, I am aware that yoga and music are not the same thing. After all, yoga is spiritual in a way that music is not (But wait! Do we really want to say that music is not spiritual?...). So maybe public performances of yoga are "wrong" in the way that public performances of music are not. But still... oh well, what do I know?