What's the difference between hearing and listening? That's the question Lindsay "L. Cooper" McKenzie explores in her Deep Listening workshops at Durham's Global Breath Studio. Deep Listening is derived from the praxis of experimental music pioneer Pauline Oliveros, evolving from its inception as her performance group into a pedagogy at the Center for Deep Listening, a multidisciplinary program at New York's Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. McKenzie, one of the first to receive certification, is now a keeper of the legacy of Oliveros, who passed away in 2016. After leading workshops at Moogfest in May, McKenzie was invited to lead a series at Global Breath.
Much of the experience of Deep Listening depends on where the listening is done. Global Breath, which opened in 2013, is on the top floor of an old building downtown (previously home to the thumping Xscape Club). It's sunny, airy, and comfortable, like a well-loved loft home. During yoga, the windows give glimpses of rooftop and skyline.
The studio is compelling to the ear, too. For part of the two-hour workshop, McKenzie has attendees simply lie on the floor with eyes closed and ears open. This exercise goes well beyond involuntary hearing and into the true practice of Deep Listening: it's a deliberate, attentive engagement with sound. In this space, that includes variations in the soft trickle and burble of a fish tank, occasional piercing street noises, breath, digestion. Rolling onto one's side creaks an old floorboard, and the position introduces dim murmurs from the hair salon below. Stray words form and drift across the mind like clouds. On the ceiling, the HVAC ducts come to life. After a few minutes, their ambient sound reveals itself as two discrete tones: the whoosh of air from the vents and the drone of the motor.
What's deep about this listening is how it reconnects the auditory sense to a more primal, elemental kind of hearing. The mass of noise is separated into its components. Rather than organizing them hierarchically—interpreting language, warning sounds, musical notes, and so on—the mind instead moves among them, curious and active, near to dreaming but awake and steady, at once indwelling and exploring. It's yoga for the ear.
Deep Listening at Global Breath calls to mind George Eliot's famous line from Middlemarch: "If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and thesquirrel's heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence."
The studio's easeful calm belies the chaos of its origins: it was born out of Hurricane Katrina. Studio owners Bart Westdorp and Nina Be (formerly romantic partners, now amicably split), were living together in New Orleans when the disaster struck in 2005. Their home was ruined and their lives utterly leveled. They moved to the Triangle, where Be had family—although when asked about her upbringing, she's quick to give a mischievous smile and say, "Oh, I'm not from this planet." Westdorp is American-born but was raised in the Netherlands. Their routes to and lives in New Orleans were complicated in history and spirit: dancing professionally in New York City, raising children, divorce, carpentry, dumpster diving, running marathons and restaurants and an underground performance space.
And, of course, yoga. Be developed a practice she calls Mindbody Centering Yoga (MBCY), and was training teachers. Resettled in Raleigh after Katrina, Westdorp built Be a studio space for her training programs, and she cajoled him, then only a casual practitioner, into participating. Soon, he was leading the training sessions. A few years later, attracted to Durham's multiculturalism, they found the space that became Global Breath, which Westdorp's carpentry and repair skills allowed him to restore almost singlehandedly—and single-mindedly, with months of labor.
"Bart has a very intense practice," Be says, but it is drawn from his tempered introversion. Be, a natural performer, calls herself "more extreme." Their yin-yang partnership contains a multitude of dual engagements: love and business, society and spirit, industriousness and meditation.
These multitudes are also legible in the name Global Breath, and on the sign outside the studio invoking yoga, mindfulness, and community. Its location in the middle of downtown is purposeful. The yoga here is in and of the world. The muted racket of One City Center's construction sometimes adds a Deep Listening element to asanas; in August, rather than conducting class as the anti-KKK protest march commenced in front of the building, Be and Westdorp took students down to the street to bear witness. They also operate Live Globally, a nonprofit foundation that supports a school in Kenya and local charity work. (It was inspired by a conversation Be had with one of her yoga students, who was Kenyan.) Some of the studio's revenue goes to Live Globally, which has a grant from Duke Interdisciplinary Social Innovators to develop funding and organizational strategy.
Be cites the Hindu concept of seva, selfless service, "which is at the core of yoga," she says. "We're in service. What does that look like as a system, as culture?" Yet even that question has an inner impulsion. "This is a very personal project," Westdorp says.
Deep Listening, for all its pedagogical development, boils down to the immediate: "What am I actually hearing right now?" McKenzie says. Her workshop is at home in a yoga studio, with its emphasis on yoking movement to breath and intention to asana, all convolved in the moment.
If Deep Listening is yoga for the ear, then yoga is also Deep Listening for the body. Of Global Breath's MBCY teacher training, which adheres to no single yoga tradition, and which all the studio's instructors undergo, unifying their practices not in style but in spirit, Be says: "We have no agenda to push. You have to be kind. And a good listener."