At the beginning of Asanas Ritual Vol. 1, the new instructional yoga DVD from BLACK YO)))GA founders Scott and Kimee Massie, a quote appears on the screen: “You can’t fully appreciate the light until you understand the darkness.”
This isn’t your conventional home-fitness DVD, full of hyper-positive buzzwords and bright Lululemon gear. The darkened room is filled with tattooed yogis clad in black. A sustained rumble of ambient drone music plays in the background. Sage burns and Kimee circles the group, lighting candles. Her face partially obscured by a black hood, she uses her most soothing tone to invite the class to take mountain pose.
Kimee — a 200-hour RYT (registered yoga teacher) who has undergone specialized training to learn how to use yoga to help people with addiction, trauma and PTSD — explains this philosophy of light and dark: “Whatever you’re dealing with — your crap, your demons — everyone has that, no matter who you are,” she says. “A lot of times instead of releasing that and letting it go, people shove it deep down, try to forget about it, try to avoid it. That’s where addictions and different [negative] things happen.” For her, BLACK YO)))GA is a place to accept the reality of darkness and then let it go.
The Massies started BLACK YO)))GA — vinyasa-style yoga set to meditative drone, stoner metal, noise and doom — about three years ago. Since 2001, they’d been running a small label called Innervenus, which released records from heavy bands like Vulture, Molasses Barge and Scott Massie’s band, Storm King. (These days, Innervenus is mostly on hold as a label, but functions as an umbrella for the Massies’ various projects.) Kimee, who started teaching yoga in 2011, wanted an alternative to the more conventional classes she was used to, something more suited to her personal tastes.
Scott, along with Chad Hammitt of the band Agnes Wired for Sound, began to put together mix CDs for Kimee’s classes, which included selections from bands ranging from Sleep, Earth and SunO))) — the rendering of BLACK YO)))GA is a wink to fans of that ambient doom outfit — to deep cuts from Depeche Mode and Peter Gabriel, plus some traditional meditation music. (As Kimee put it to City Paper in 2012, “Not everyone wants to listen to birds and waterfalls.”)
With classes held in a variety of unconventional spaces, including Commonwealth Press’ dark and dingy South Side warehouse (known as the Murder Room), BLACK YO)))GA quickly gained a local following. National and international press ensued, spawning imitators from Milwaukee to Washington, D.C. to Iceland.
The Massies toyed with the idea of a DVD early on, and even discussed it with filmmaker Joseph Stammerjohn, of Eyes to the Sky Films. They dismissed it as financially unfeasible. Then Eric Corbin, owner of Homestead-based Screaming Crow Records, dropped in for a couple classes, and suggested releasing a project on his label.
Due to potential licensing issues presented by the mix CDs, making their own music was the next logical step. “We’re all musicians,” Scott Massie says. “So it was almost like, ‘Why didn’t we start doing this earlier?’ When we were making the mixes, we were essentially building the blueprint for what we would sound like if we formed our own group.”
In addition to culling from their own bands, Scott Massie and Hammitt began recruiting people from bands like Vulture, Hero Destroyed, Complete Failure, Veniculture and several others. There were 16 musicians all together. Some of the artists had already contributed original music to BLACK YO)))GA mixes, and many of them had never met or played together before. However, they all seemed to serendipitously appear exactly when they were needed. “It was like we gathered our little cult family together,” says Kimee, laughing.
Like her classes, which follow a loose structure but change depending on what she and the students are feeling, the music of the BLACK YO)))GA Meditation Ensemble is mostly improvised. Scott, who is also certified to teach, used his wife’s general class formula to direct the improvisation. “It was totally a different process,” he says. “Being in bands, you practice and practice and practice. [For this], we’d come up with themes and we’d jam on them a couple times and that was really it.”
The result is a soundscape of brooding, spaced-out doom, driven by cello and guitars, and accented with gongs, singing bowls and ethereal voices. “The music itself became very similar to the flowing, natural process that you might experience in a yoga class,” he says.
For the DVD, which Stammerjohn directed and shot, the Massies assembled a group of enthusiastic participants who agreed to prepare for filming by attending eight weekly yoga classes.
Filming was particularly strenuous for Kimee. “On that day, I had to do yoga for four hours,” she says. “I thought the [third take] was the last one, so I put everything I had into it, and [Stammerjohn said,] ‘OK! I need you to do it one more time!’ I was like, ‘You’re kidding me. My soul just went into that third one!’ So you see my face kind of scrunched up like, ‘Oh my God, I’m dying.’”
But as with a yoga practice, imperfections are part of the process. For both sides of the project, Scott explains, “We wanted to capture more of an essence rather than trying to make this perfectly polished. It’s totally punk rock in aesthetic. There is error in all of it.” Kimee adds, “It’s yoga practice, not yoga perfection.”
After the Oct. 29 release party, the Massies will continue to teach BLACK YO)))GA (they now have a permanent space at the Monroeville Yoga Co-op), and Stammerjohn is currently working on a documentary about the project that will be released sometime in the future. But for now, they’re ready for a break. “Right now,” says Kimee, with a smile and a sigh, “we need to breathe.”