In the course of my studies as a martial artist when I was younger, some time at a community center in Portland, school at a hippie performing arts college, and a certification in Pilates I’m working on now, I think I figured out a wonderful progression into physical exercise from any point. My mother says Pilates is too difficult, and she won’t work out with me anyway, but maybe one could start in the pool? Ai Chi bases part of its unique benefit from the breath support and the use of water’s buoyancy to support a person with weak bone health, as could happen from osteoporosis or an injury. Ai Chi also bases a lot of the practice on the breath control that goes along with other practices like yoga, qi gong, or Pilates.
All of these practices focus on an exhalation of breath - or vitality or life force as qi gong thinks of it - tied to movement. Yoga emphasizes the timing of ones breath to an openness and reach with the pose itself, especially when transitioning from one to another. This practice is also paralleled in Pilates, although the emphasis seems to be with the exertion of a movement, as would be expected from a fitness program which could be provided with more resistant with tools like elastic bands. Pilates, and all the practices, also do not require a gym and can be done at home, as one would expect as a practice developed for weaker individuals in constrained quarters by someone interned by the British in WWI.
Sometimes I forget to check in with the quality of my breath. Maybe I’m slouched over and using only a small portion of my lungs simply by the way my ribs are place. My diaphragm may not be strong enough to expand and make room for incoming oxygen. Slow diaphragmatic breath tied to a movement decreases blood pressure and lowers ones VO2 max, among many other benefits.
Having just a series of movements to memorize makes it much easier to continue the practice on ones own time, which is the most important part of any health routine for success. It also helps to learn how to tie ones breath to the exertion. In a way, they can all be a meditation. One or another practice may appeal or support one’s personal goals better. Of course, some people prefer the variety when following an instructor, or may desire something more strenuous.
Over my time as a personal trainer, I have found that the way clients see success is when they are able to take control of their own lives. Meeting once or twice a week with someone who gives you a hard day is great, but if a client doesn't make improving their life a priority outside of that time, they will not reach their goals as quickly. Meditation is a fantastic tool to help people become the best version of themself that they can. The meditations that I combined due to the evidence I could find for their efficacy are mindfulness, gratitude, loving-kindness, refuge, and a kriya yoga meditation practice. The purpose is to inspire compassion towards ones fellow man, an awareness of ones thoughts and an ability to surf cravings, and to increase the appreciation for ones life.
First, I invite your eyes to close. Bring your gaze behind your eyelids gently upward, and try to focus on your breath. How does the oxygen feel as you inhale and your lungs expand? How does it feel to expel that breath of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, continuing one of many cycles of life? Note how your breath can expand into your back, and sides. Begin to count your breaths at one, and continue up to ten before counting back down. If your attention wanders, gently bring that attention back to your breath, or to the count. There is no judgement, no failure. There is just the constant cycle of breath, and the recognition of thoughts as they present themself. They can be there when you are done, and do not control you.
I invite you to find the core of yourself, wherever it may be in your body. It may be in your skull or your heart. It may be lower, closer to the center of your body. Think to this part of yourself love, care, and compassion. Imagine as if you found yourself in a place of refuge, of sanctuary. One can find refuge in a wide variety of places. It could be with people you love, your room at home, a quiet library, or an inspiring peak. Try to make that image as clear as possible. What does this place of refuge sound like? Are there smells?
As you breathe, tie a mantra to your inhalation, "I am not my body." As you exhale, repeat to yourself, "I am not even my mind." You are more than these things, not just inhabiting a body of flesh and bone. You are not just thoughts and feelings. Those are transitory, ephemeral. You are life itself. "I am not my body, I am not even my mind."
Wish toward yourself love, safety, and joy with this mantra. You are deserving of that. May I be well May I be safe May I be free from pain and suffering May I know happiness May I know peace After some time with that, redirect the target of your benevolence from yourself toward someone you feel unconditional love for, then toward an acquaintance, then toward someone who has frustrated you recently. After having moved through the mantra for all of these people in your life, try and widen your focus to include as much of your community as you can. This could just be your apartment complex, the city, the nation, or as wide as the world.
To close out our time, picture something you are grateful exists in your life. It should be something you haven't thought of for some time. What does it look like? What does it sound like? How does it feel, or taste? It could be something as small as an apple, or the home you have, or the company of those you love in your life.
Humanity lives in a polis, making human beings political animals. Is all literature political, simply because it has an interpersonal theme? It paints a fictional narrative with which we can hold a mirror up to our life. I find myself empathizing with some characters, hating others, and rooting for victory for a few. If done well, I invest myself fully in the fiction I read, watch, or play. These are not real people, but the impact they have on my inner being is real enough for me.
I have a book I'm using to try and reframe the old play into better structure for a book. This book breaks down all the plots ever written into seven basic ones. They are Overcoming the Monster, Rags to Riches, the Quest, Voyage and Return, Comedy, Tragedy, and Rebirth. These can be internal or external, in some cases. Scrooge could be considered a rebirth story, for example. The Monster to be overcome could be a dragon or a person or ones vile impulses. However, in each case the author is making a statement about what is to be aspired to or rejected as an individual engaging in the society.
If I consider performance styles I have studied, they seem to spring out from societal themes at the time. The characters in Commedia Dell’Arte are representations of doctors who scam, miserly businessmen, and craven soldiers. These stock characters are all heightened to clownish extremes to allow one to laugh at their absurdity, but there is no escape from a social theme there. In Butoh, the dance itself came about as a result of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Romeo and Juliet is about the enmity that two families held which kept two lovers apart. The only styles I would dare hazard to say had no political impact could be physical performance techniques like Le Coq or Meyerhold’s Biomechanics, and perhaps if we look at Cirque Du Soleil, a magic show, or some other physical performance such as The Cabiri in Seattle, we can avoid a political message that may have driven some people I know from the theater to avoid what they feel are pontifications.
“When several villages are united in a single complete community, large enough to be nearly or quite self-sufficing, the state comes into existence, originating in the bare needs of life, and continuing in existence for the sake of a good life. And therefore, if the earlier forms of society are natural, so is the state, for it is the end of them, and the nature of a thing is its end. For what each thing is when fully developed, we call its nature, whether we are speaking of a man, a horse, or a family. Besides the final cause and end of a thing is the best, and to be self-sufficing is the end and the best. “Hence it is evident that the state is a creation of nature, and that man is by nature a political animal. And he who by nature and not by mere accident is without a state, is either a bad man or above humanity; he is like the ‘Tribeless, lawless, heartless one,’ whom Homer denounces - the natural outcast is forthwith a lover of war; he may be compared to an isolated piece at draughts. “Now, that man is more of a political animal than bees or any other gregarious animals is evident. Nature, as we often say, makes nothing in vain, and man is the only animal whom she has endowed with the gift of speech. And whereas mere voice is but an indication of pleasure of pain, and is therefore found in other animals (for their nature attains to the perception of pleasure and pain and the imitation of them to one another, and no further), the power of speech is intended to set for the expedient and inexpedient, and therefore likewise the just and the unjust. And it is a characteristic of man that he alone has any sense of good and evil, of just and unjust, and the like, and the association of living beings who have this sense makes a family and a state.” (Aristotle, Politics, Bk1, Chp 2)
Aristotle is rife with error and controversy, but here I think there is some accuracy. Human beings are social creatures, and naturally hunger for friendship and community with people they care for just the same as for food and water. Naturally, people coalesce into a society which is shaped into their image of good and evil. Unfortunately, that itself is often based on ones perspective. That is all we share with our words and actions in conversation with each other anyway. Theater, and all literature, is a way of sharing a perspective to a larger group that they may not experience otherwise. This sharing is a way to reach out to more members of one’s society, and to provide an opportunity to look at themselves and their life as it compares to the fictional, and occasionally slightly warped, mirror held up to their life.
I was told once that the purpose of art is to provide a greater abundance of life. I have since interpreted this to mean that one gains an appreciation for life beyond ones own limited experience. I will personally never know what it is to be in a woman’s body. It is impossible for me. I will never know what it is to be an Indian or an Egyptian for the same reason. But I can watch or read Guards at the Taj by Rajiv Joseph, or The Tree Climber by Tawfiq al-Hakim. This does not give me the same full experience as a true life would, but I can experience more life than I would otherwise.
Politics is downstream of culture, as an idiom goes. This is true in a democratic state where the will of the people is honored. Art is a manifestation of culture, and influence culture and society more than speaking to friends does. Writing a blog may not have as much impact, but does help me make writing a habit and frame my thoughts (and I have learned to try not to push too hard until I know what the end consequences will be for my polis). Human beings are social animals, and naturally want the world to be good. One can expect actions and words toward ones own family to have an impact on culture of the family society, even if it doesn't go further.
Isn't this funny how little we think it means? T'was just a bunch of words tapped into a screen. I know it's a little bit much Just off of the wall Hey listen, there's a life to live out there! Is that the cry of a million souls from beyond the ever after Roasting in the burning sky Baked into the dark and violent souls of man Nothing, you will be without the empire, us. I will achieve the most possible, the highest heights. I speak the truth, and fight the fights I shall be free I, I, I Dachau, Warsaw, Fire and flame Nagasaki, Hiroshima, radiation shames Yet, peace unto thee Just a couple of words on a screen Tis nothing but a toy for you to express dreams Words are not to hurt Love shall not be kept from the heart If we disengaged from the terrible scheme I'm sure there could be a way out of this theme Even stars glorious are quite obscene When compared to the shattering of a brilliant dream See here a glorious thing that I want of you Can't you see yourself a way to be one highlight of a zoo.
Theater is political, say Brecht, Aristotle, and Augusto Boal. Shakespeare’s plays, even those that aren’t histories with war and treachery involved have a larger theme relating to society. I would even say that all theater is about the society as it presents itself, and the way an audience empathizes with the performances and walk away with their own impressions of the narrative as it is presented is inherently political. How do relationships with loved ones manifest themselves within the society which has built itself? That may be a more Brechtian interpretation of humanity - as beings shaped more by their environment than by their inner soul. Recently I’ve had a couple of conversations about human beings and the way they are shaped by hormones rushing through their body and by the electrical impulses in their mind. If those electrical impulses are shut off in any way, ones senses disappear just the same as if the hand, ear, or eye were removed on its own. If hormones are changed, ones emotional state does as well. I always prefer to think of myself as an individual with freedom and choices pertaining to how I interact with the world. But there are restrictions: debts to be paid, rent owed, jobs to demand attention, and pandemics which limit the engagement that people can have with each other. It is always easier to change ones behavior and opinions to suit the dominant culture. “Don’t rock the boat,” as the idiom goes. I am someone who can find it difficult to do so myself. The person who behaves in that manner is never the protagonist that Thespis created millennia ago, or the detailed antagonist that came about far later. Concerning dramatic narrative Aristotle has some interesting thoughts as to how situations are viewed by people when occurring to a good or bad person.
“We assume that, for the finest form of Tragedy, the Plot must be not simple but complex; and further, that is must imitate actions arousing fear and pity, since that is the distinctive function of this kind of imitation. It follows, therefore, that there are three forms of Plot to be avoided. (1) A good man must not be seen passing from happiness to misery, or (2) a bad man from misery to happiness. The first situation is not fear-inspiring or piteous, but simply odious to us. The second is the most untragic that can be… it does not appeal either to the human feeling in us, or to our pity, or to our fears. Nor, on the other hand, should (3) an extremely bad man be seen falling from happiness into misery. Such a story may arouse the human feeling in us, but it will not move us to either pity or fear; pity is occasioned by undeserved misfortune, and fear by that of one like ourselves; so that there will be nothing either piteous or fear-inspiring in the situation. There remains, then, the intermediate kind of personage, a man not pre-eminently virtuous and just, whose misfortune, however is brought upon him not by vice and depravity but by some error of judgement, of the number of those in the enjoyment of great reputation and prosperity…” (Poetics, Aristotle, chapter 13)
Years ago, I was fortunate enough to be brought by a charming, intelligent, and radical lady to a Theater of the Oppressed workshop. I often look back on it for a variety of reasons. Sometimes I think about the influence art has on society, and sometimes I ponder the methods it used in performance. I found that many of those styles lend themselves to a means of addressing social issues more peacefully, but now I wonder if that was in actuality a side effect. The whole purpose may have been to awaken the spectators of the world to the impact they can have on it themselves, if they dare to participate. Many have participated in a variety of ways over the last few years.
I believe most of our media consumption is crafted to influence the behavior of the populace who watches it. Is it possible that these wealthy individuals have a goal with what is put out for consumption in the world? Noam Chomsky seemed to believe that we were not free in our opinions but instead that Manufactured Consent was the norm, and the CIA seemed to confirm it with the declassified Project Mockingbird. Of course, the question is whether they can still do it today with the wide variety of means to sit back and spectate either online or with the standard television - from YouTube to Netflix to Hulu to CNN to FOX (if I were to only name a handful of video platforms).
“[Empathy’s] mechanism (sometimes insidious) consists in the juxtaposition of two people (one fictitious and another real), two universes, making one of those two people (the real one, the spectator) surrender to the other (the fictitious, the character) his power of making decisions. The man relinquishes his power of decision to the image.” (Theatre of the Oppressed, Boal, pg 113)
In Augusto Boal’s book he traces the history of theater as it grows from the chorus to a protagonist to the medieval passion plays to more concrete characters to audience interaction. He further notes a change from a drive of catharsis as the Greeks wanted to a Brechtian Epic form which leaves the social issues unresolved. This in turn asks the audience what they can do about the environment they have found themselves in. Augusto Boal goes a step further with his invisible theater and his simultaneous dramaturgy. Both engage the public in the performance more directly, and ask what they would do to change the situation presented.
“The poetics of the oppressed is essentially the poetics of liberation: the spectator no longer delegates power to the characters either to think or act in his place. The spectator frees himself; he thinks and acts for himself! Theater is action!” (Theatre of the Oppressed, Boal, pg 155)
Sometimes people act before considering the consequences, just thinking that the world itself isn’t the utopia that it could be. Utopia may not be possible. After all, human beings are fallible, and full of selfish desires. I find that it is through engagement with ones community that one can make ones life better. When one reaches outside of that to shape the world, it seems to be in a violent manner. I’m thinking now of political interventions in Latin America and the Middle East. “War is merely the continuation of policy by other means,” as Carl von Clauswitz has said. I would rather continue the exploration of policy by compromise within a community.