February 23, 2011

Video editing as sadhana: The Power of Then (“yoga by any other name”, part one)

by Matthew Remski, with Scott Petrie

first… a preamble to our “yoga by any other name” series…

A primary axiom of the 2.0-world is that yoga simply happens. Whenever the human being willfully interacts with the existential facts of sensation, self-awareness, intellectual creativity, aesthetic wonderment, etc., towards the purpose (conscious or unconscious) of greater coherence between self and other, yoga is happening. We don’t care what anybody calls it. yoga 2.0 claims it for its own.  Further: yoga is happening in unprecedented ways, through unprecedented technologies. We could be worried about this, but this would be far less productive than investigating and celebrating it.

We’ve spent many, many generations describing yoga in exclusionary terms, obsessed with what we claim yoga is not, and who we think is not doing true yoga while they heretically claim they are. 2.0 suggests that we rest this tired discourse, and spend at least one generation describing yoga in fully inclusive terms, so that we can really find it where we already claim it is: everywhere.

Mindfulness and yoga will not grow as a cultural gestalt through exclusion. Rather, it will grow through appropriation. The share-price of yoga will grow exponentially to the extent that we witness every common pleasure, every conscious communication, every private ecstasy, every shared grief, every orgasm, every farmer’s market, perhaps every spiked tree (it gets messy, alright!)  and every shiver of learning, and hear an internal voice say “That’s it. That’s what we’re talking about.”

In this spirit, the yoga 2.0 lab, through a grant from the World Yoga Federation (just kidding) has commissioned us to investigate several humans who are displaying yogic behaviour and growth in unexpected modes and contexts. We are to seek out yoga as a behavioural strategy that shows up whenever the human being is tired of self-limitation, inauthenticity, and alienation from the other. The WYF is aware that yoga can have ascetic and antisocial modes (Patanjali), devotional and codependent modes (ISKON), bacchic modes (tantra), philo-scholastic modes (vedanta), magico-scientific modes (Kuvalyananda), and new age modes (take your pick). But we will be scoping out technological modes, artistic modes, and everything else.

EK preparing for meditation

Subject 1: EK, video, time-traveling, and tong-len

My friend EK Park told me a story about her personal evolution in the skill of compassion. It didn’t come through her native buddhism. It didn’t come from the christianity she acquired in her melancholic 20s. It came through the sadhana of video editing. Without naming it as such, she has innovated a new strand of tong-len practice, based on the disciplined and meticulous extraction and magnification of beauty embedded in the images of those she films.

Essential detail: English is not EK’s first language – she’s from South Korea. This has been a social barrier at times, but not entirely frustrating, by her account. The foreignness of sounds and their meanings has provided a useful buffer for a personality formerly reticent to reach out. But her steep learning curve in English has bootstrapped her passion in visual media. The muting of speech has forced communication to pour both into and out of her eyes. Now, after several years behind the lens, she says she is finding her voice.

This story doesn’t work if it’s not personal, so I’ll pull back the veil. The fact is that she’s interviewed and photographed me several times for various stuff. I’m always mystified at what she does. There’s little chat. At most, she murmurs “So nice seeing you…”, and bits about light, and the rest is a vinyasa of angles, booms, flashes, an enigmatic smile she can’t entirely hide behind the viewfinder, a puzzled look at a light metre and then my forehead, a complement to my youthfulness, a white umbrella that makes me think of apple blossoms in Seoul. I’ve never been to Seoul. Do they have apple blossoms there? Does she know that she comes from a place that sounds like soul?

EK is drop-dead gorgeous, but it’s not her appearance that enthralls me. Rather, the real erotic radiates from her skill at extracting my beauty from me – my unknown resource. She is beautiful because she is seeing me, seeing through me. The camera floats between us like a zen heart, recording everything with openness. But a zen heart that grasps things, that holds me, a zen heart that won’t let go. I look into the lens and it captures, holds, and melts whatever is left of my male gaze.

She takes the raw footage home, brews some kuchika tea, powers up some bigass Mac workstation, uploads, and clicks on my thumbnail. And another, and another. Then she opens a video file, and begins, as if in a trance, to edit, by angle and frame.

Over Ethiopian coffee and frankincense served by a Rasta named Muhammed (don’t we love Toronto?!?), she tells me what happens next. Over countless hours, she meditates on the portraiture of her subjects, and falls in love, bit by bit, with aspects and tics, angles and expressions that they themselves will never see. The HD etches the sharpest silhouettes and reveals the galaxies of every iris, the landscape of every pore. She can roll a clip backwards and forwards – quickly, then slowly – to reveal a gesture in slo-mo, a smile in reverse. For every shot there is there is second angle. For every self-conscious performance there is a b-roll of candidness. She sees more of her subjects’ bodies and manners than their lovers do. She is becoming their meditation-lover, training herself to pull out the most exquisite and lovable touch.

EK has to compress the richness of all sensory input down into visual form: the temperature of the room, the musk of the subject’s armpit, the sound of voices speaking a language not her own, the taste of electricity from the humming gear.

In traditional tong-len, the seeker meditates on another person’s sorrows, visualizing them  oozing with the black gunk of delusion and mental pain. The seeker then uses the breath as a fantastical vacuum-cleaner that sucks in the black gunk to be annihilated in a visualized flame in the heart.

(I practiced this for many years in my 20s. It certainly took the edge off of my hatred and reactivity, and I liked that. But it also amplified my Jesus-complex, and further blurred my boundary-formation. I walked around for two years thinking I was healing people and myself by presuming to know and inhale their pain. Worse – it encouraged me to dissociate from people I was actually standing in front of. I gazed and breathed and visualized while people talked to me about carrots. It was weird. Worst of all, it put me above others. I was my own fantastical superman. Who knows – I might have even inhaled your very own black goo while we stood together in the checkout line at the Piggly Wiggly in 1992. That’s right. You’re welcome.)

EK’s video editing doesn’t seem to have spurred the same overkill. Because she’s not imagining her subject’s desolation or heartache. She’s looking for something else: an unrecognized love, an overlooked grace. Her job is to pull it out and up to the surface, to shine more light on it, or to reveal it through stronger contrasts. Photoshop does not distort reality for her, but magnifies its unspeakable presence.

The result is oceans broader than the finished film. After the clip is in the can, she often meets the subject by chance on the street and her heart opens up like spring. She instinctively warms to the person, because her meditation has joined her to them, via an image, via software. Can this be so? Can we believe it? It’s what she says! She’s attained some siddhi of loving others through the help of a technology, through the discipline of a repetitive contemplation.

The love isn’t often mutual or reciprocated, and it needn’t be, as she says. It just makes her happy to know the person is alive and free and breathing. And the happiness has slowly extended to enfold others, as well, as though her specific subjects were archetypes for more and more Others. Each subject blooms in an inner garden, and from there creeps outward a flowering-vine heart.

What has video and photography allowed her to do? The same thing as meditation always wanted us to do – to slow down sensory engagement, to disconnect temporarily from reactive cycles, to feel space open around consideration and the organs, to inquire into beauty, to exult in single, coherent meanings. And then – to take that wonderment and precision, that light and depth-of-field, that perspective and angling, and spread it out over the landscape of life. The Mac is her yoga mat. The screen is her altar. Her cat curls beside her, understanding.


But it’s thicker than all this – even more wonderful. It’s not just that EK is using an activity in a mindful way that leads towards an unexpected revelatory insight. This wouldn’t be new. The wisdom mythology is crammed with visions of yogis attaining insight from actions beyond the scope of focused practice: Arjuna with his bow, Siddhartha overhearing the vina player, or the zen master sweeping the temple and falling to his knees in spontaneous sartori. States of deep and empathetic self-awareness have always been reportedly attained through the performance of everyday actions.

But EK isn’t releasing arrows, painting zeros with zen brushes, sweeping temples, or filling altar lamps with ghee. She’s using a technology that’s different on an almost quantum level. Her technology does not operate in the present moment, which is where the arrow flies. Her tools stop and reorganize time itself, allowing perception to sweeten and the emotions to distill.

She has broken interactions with people. Her film captures these interactions. She takes them home, puts them together again, seamlessly, lovingly – and trains her mind to create seamless and loving interactions in the present.

Her devices take her out of time.  Video – literally, spatially, and temporally – disconnects her from her subject. Then, it reconnects her, empathetically, with the Other, outside of the moment she was training within.  Her yoga is achieved through a suspension of time that allows her to build and nourish the intention to reconnect. She is having an intersubjective experience, fragment by fragment. Her method points to an  empathetic potential that might allow deeper connection within a human matrix connected by images. Her method mirrors us: beautiful and broken, present and disjointed.

We have this absurd power to manufacture perfect simulacra, isolated from time and flesh. And now we can use this to learn how to love more, in this time, in this flesh.

This has only become possible now. And we have no idea where this is going. But surely, deeper awareness of such techno-mystical interstices will further draw out their healing potential.

When I consider EK working, that primal fear I have that our technology will rob us of intimacy is soothed. She’s taking apart time to reassemble her capacity for presence. She’s using disconnection to work on connecting. This is one of the faces of yoga 2.0.


Now that this piece is winding down, I’m starting to think that writing is no different – I’ve spent every spare hour of the last four days chewing over this theme, entranced, writing, gushing, cutting, junking, pasting, and reading. And reading. Time is a blur. And now – what will have taken you 9 minutes to read has required a dozen hours of my focused prana. All so that I can refine my connections, speak more truly, consider your needs, and appeal silently, out of time, for community. I’ve meditated through this, and I see more clearly now.


EK, and myself, and every yogi who uses visual media or writing, is utilizing the Power of Then. As does part of psychotherapy. As does the scholar. We pry our content loose from the flow of material time, to examine it and luxuriate in its beauty, but when? What shall we call this time in which we edit and sculpt? What day is it when you are in deepest reverie? I know I see my therapist on Tuesdays, but when I’m sitting there, recrafting my koshas, it’s not Tuesday anymore. It is the meta-now. And this sweetens the now, to which I always return.

Eckhart Tolle would be nobody without books and video: the technological backbone of the Power of Then.


I step back into my own power of then to look over the files of EKs session with me. Half of the shots show me posed and self-aware. Half of the shots show me off-guard and oblivious. But there is a tiny sliver she has selected through her meditation, where these overlap: where I’m too self-aware to be truly off-guard, but disarmed enough that I’m not sure who I am.  Her zen-heart camera fills in the blank. Somehow, between us, across broken time and ruptured space, we co-create identity, personhood, and the unspeakable, and inscribe a kind of empathy that may well be new to our species – as new as photography is. We don’t own each other or need other. We just see each other.

Because she loved me from a distance, in safety, in solitude, through media, out of time, she will smile more fully and instinctively when she runs into you, with or without her humming black box. And her language is crystal clear.

PS — yoga 2.0 is asking YOU! – What are your techno-mystical discoveries?

photo by EK, who makes me feel loved

Matthew Remski is an author, yoga and ayurvedic therapist and educator, and co-founder of Yoga Community Toronto. With Scott Petrie (who provided essential wing-man services for this piece) he is co-creator of yoga 2.0, a project in writing (one book done, eight more in the sushumna-chute) and the embodiment of all things post-dogmatic.

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