Every Monday evening, dozens of young people head to the building at the corner of Martin Luther King Jr. Way and West Grand Avenue in Oakland, walk through an unmarked wrought iron door, and climb up the stairs to an enormous, dimly lit ballroom. They unfurl their yoga mats in front of a stage crowded with music equipment for what might be the most experimental yoga class in the East Bay: Showga, a yoga class accompanied by a live music performance.
Showga has been held every week at the Starline Social Club for a little more than two years. Katie Colver, a multi-instrumentalist in the band Cave Clove and a certified yoga instructor, started Showga in an effort to combine the two disciplines she loves. Over time, the event has evolved into a unique platform for local musicians to share their work and a popular outlet for yogis to deepen and challenge their practice.
On the surface, taking a yoga class and watching a band might seem incompatible: While some yoga classes play music, generally speaking, they encourage one to focus internally, not externally. Wouldn't listening to live music be distracting? The answer, for fans of Showga, is absolutely not.
Tony Giuliano, who has been attending Showga regularly since the spring of 2012, said the music "rarely or almost never" distracts him from his practice. "It does augment it and make it better though," he said. "When I'm breathing through poses that are held for thirty to sixty seconds, meditating on the music in the background can be incredibly transcendent. Other times, like when I'm lying on the floor in corpse pose, I feel as if I'm floating on water. At the same time, there are plenty of instances when I don't even realize it's there."
Colver held the first Showga in the summer of 2011, at a grassroots music festival in Guerneville called Camp. It was a resounding success. She began booking acts for Showga in Oakland that fall, inviting musicians from a broad range of genres. Because she's well connected in the local music community, she didn't have any trouble finding people who wanted to perform. But over time, Colver realized that certain kinds of music — namely, ambient and electronic — were more ideal for the setting than others.
"Singer-songwriters want you to listen to their lyrics — that didn't quite work," Colver said. "I'm committed to [trying] anything, though. If a metal band had contacted me, I would have booked them." These days, Colver seeks out artists who are sensitive to the fact that they're performing for a yoga class and will pay attention to the pacing of the participants' movements, the energy of the room, and how music and yoga can inspire one another.
Iso Marcus performed with her band Pine at the very first Showga, and has performed multiple times — both with her band and by herself — since then. She also attends class regularly. "What I play at Showga is completely improvised, because I'm in dialogue with the class and communicating with the bodies in the room," she said. "I like to use melodic rhythms to move people through a flow." Marcus added that she appreciates the rare opportunity to play a long set (lasting an hour and a half) and for a meditative audience.
Showga is a flow class, meaning that the poses naturally feed into one another without the need for much instruction. In that way, it's better suited for those who are familiar with basic poses.
Jenna Ornbaun, who started attending Showga in January, wrote in an email that the music helps her become "more deeply focused and zoned out." "In other yoga practices, I have to exert a lot of willpower to 'quiet my mind,'" she wrote. "With Showga, my mind and body are equally engaged, so I don't have to work so hard to be present in the space.... I lose myself in that practice more than [in] any other."
Listening to music can also help lessen the discomfort of certain poses. "When you're a beginner and do yoga for the first time, you feel a lot of pain," Carlos Arredondo, who started going to Showga last summer, wrote in an email. "Since music has always helped me deal with emotions — pain being one of them — it's much easier to forget about the pain and get lost in the trance of music and connect with my body."
However, Colver and co-teacher Raygun Louise are quick to point out that live music can also make practice more challenging, depending on what emotions are triggered. "It's interesting to think of sound as somatic, as something you experience in an embodied way, emotionally and intellectually," Louise said. "Sound alters how anyone feels in a space. Bringing performed music into people's practice is a way of increasing awareness of what you're experiencing." At the same time, however, music doesn't have the same effect on everyone. Ornbaun said she once brought a friend to class who was sensitive to noise. "It was too much for him," she said.
Showga may not be for everyone, but Colver and Louise are committed to making it feel as inclusive as possible, particularly for those who may not feel comfortable in other studios. Participants pay on a sliding scale ($5 to $15), and the vibe is friendly and low-key. (Colver divides the profits evenly among the musicians and teachers after paying for the cost of renting the ballroom.) Ornbaun described it as having a "pop-up feel." "It's just these two women creating this space, which feels very different than walking into a brick-and-mortar studio," she said, adding that Colver and Louise remembered her name after she attended just one class — a reflection of the welcoming environment at Showga.
In fact, the majority of the artists who perform at Showga also participate, so the class has become as much a community of musicians doing yoga as it is a group of yogis practicing to live music. "Aside from the yoga community, Katie is really embedded in the Bay Area music community," said Elia Vargas, a sound and visual artist who attends class at Showga regularly and has performed there as one half of the experimental outfit systemritual. "She has the aim of merging these two lifestyle activities, of integrating a healthy practice within our daily lives."
Colver and Louise hope to one day have for their own brick-and-mortar space, which would ideally include a library and a place to just hang out, in addition to a yoga studio. "Our vision is to create a space that continues to be financially accessible, welcoming, appealing to non-normative bodies, and that's less commercial," Colver said.