Countersurveillance yoga

Note: this guide is a work in progress and may change at any time! We’ve done our best to cite our sources, but this page has not been professionally fact-checked.

This workshop was first facilitated at the CtrlZ.AI zine fair in Barcelona in February 2020.

It’s really stressful to have a body in 2020! Practicing traditional yoga, or other self-care strategies, may not offer specific ways to ease the stress of collectively living under the regime of a “stalker state” (as the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition put it). 

In this workshop, we will guide participants through a series of movement exercises that will expose the principles of the modern American surveillance society—but, you know, in a gentle and relaxing manner. We hope to help participants open their third eyes.

All are welcome; no yoga experience required. If you can, please bring a pillow or blanket.

Script written by Jennifer Lee and coveillance members.

Facilitator information

Goals

  • Create a powerful and empowering series of exercises that point to deeper manifestations and resistances to mass surveillance (and more generally, how order is created, kept, maintained, and destabilized)
  • Encourage people to question existing assumptions about the ways society functions—the way we move throughout society; the ways we see and are seen
  • Energize participants, physically and mentally
  • Ideally this workshop is facilitated by two people, though it can work with one as well.

General principles

  • Give notice of transitions between poses
  • Notice when body touches body
  • Move with the breath (inhale and exhale)

Exercises (45 min)

  • The exercises (from “facing the faceless” through “collective voice”) total 45 mins.
  • The debrief extends 15 minutes after the session.
  • A note on the overall flow of energy: there are three ups/downs, which follow a “do and undo” structure. For example, the first ask is to “say your name and line up,” and the undoing of that is to “please choose your name and location.”

Facing the faceless (0 min)

Leader: Facilitator 1

[This is an optional installation that involves custom software that we wrote to erase faces; if you want to try it, email us, otherwise feel free to skip if you don’t want to set up software.]

[There will be a webcam set up with a screen behind it. The software (clmtrackr.js) will erase the faces of everyone who approaches, replacing it with the background image, to create an effect of invisibility.]

Sign at entrance: Welcome to countersurveillance yoga. We invite you to start by experiencing this installation. How does the possibility of visibility and invisibility make you feel? Once you finish interacting with the installation, please enter the room and sit or stand wherever you feel comfortable.

Alternative sign: please leave your faces at the door.

Opening discussion (5 min)

Leader: Facilitator 2

(Once everyone is inside)

Welcome to countersurveillance yoga. My name is Facilitator 2, and this is Facilitator 1. In this workshop, we seek to provide a brief respite from the unique challenges of living in a surveillance society by practicing actions of collective care and resistance in our physical bodies. 

In this workshop, we will move through 7 different flows. In each flow, we will ask you to move your bodies in different ways, but you are always welcome to opt out and do whatever makes you feel most comfortable. Each flow will involve adopting different poses that point to deeper principles of how surveillance societies function. Then, we will embody poses that work to dismantle these types of surveillance thinking.

We’re going to start by taking a minute to start by stretching out our bodies. Feel free to follow along with us, or stretch out in any way that feels good to you. 

Ok, let’s begin!

[1 minute of stretching]

Names (5 min)

Leader: Facilitator 1

Let’s line up in a row, stand up straight, and say our names. 

Then, let’s slowly take that apart…

Let’s start with names. The language used to refer to us. Forget the name you gave us for a second.

We invite you to think about the way you refer to yourself. Hold those names in your head for a second.

We invite you to think of names that your friends use to refer to you.

We invite you also to think of ways that others refer to you. Perhaps authority figures, like teachers, or even the DMV.

And think about how each name makes you feel.

The single static name is an invention meant to make individuals legible to the nation-state. Trackable, measurable–e.g. for receiving services. Institutions understand individuals as a bag of unique identifiers. Name, social security number, phone number, etc.

If you have not already, open yourself to the possibility of going by many names.

If it is available to you, pick a name that you have never used for yourself but that you would like to use, and hold that in your head for the duration of our time together.

Moving and seeing (5 min)

Leader: Facilitator 2

Now that we have explored the feeling of being named and identified, we’re going to exit this row formation, and explore the idea of movement.

This second flow is called moving & seeing. We invite you to move around the room, to exercise freedom of movement without judgment. Please take a moment to find a spot in the room and sit or stand in a position you find comfortable. 

[Facilitator 2 will sit down cross-legged here; Facilitator 1 will be standing or lying down]

Now, we invite you to think about the space and position that you chose. 

For example, some people may want to be more or less visible, and we may see that in the way we’ve chosen to arrange ourselves.

Without needing to say anything to each other, we’ve introduced ourselves. With this exercise, we each have shared our own ways of moving and arranging ourselves, relative to one other.

Seeing seeing (5 min)

Leader: Facilitator 1

Please come out of your pose, and to a standing position. Stretch out a part of your body that feels tense.

With your eyes open, we invite you to look at the wall. Imagine connecting the dots of where you’re looking

Imagine that your eyes are laser beams that can cut through walls and expand to moving your head and body to trace on the walls around the room. (Focus on the energy of your own line of sight.)

Stop. 

Now, move your head and body to look around the room again, but this time, feel the lines of everyone else’s eyes and gazes moving. Move in whatever direction you feel comfortable. Really see each other. 

Understand that our gazes together have power.

Now, we invite everyone to lie on their backs or sit in a chair. 

Close your eyes. 

Switch off with either leg as necessary if your feet get tired.

Wiggle your toes. Then your ankles, bringing your lower body in.

Pretend that your toes are little cameras encircling the room.

What do you see?

Feeling Information (part I) (5 min)

Leader: Facilitator 2

Now that you’re comfortable in your chosen spot, please find a position that your body finds comfortable. You can either sit on the ground or on a chair, or lie down, whichever you prefer.  We invite everyone to close their eyes for the duration of this exercise.

This next flow is called Feeling Information, Part 1. We are constantly surrounded by flows of information from the moment we wake up to when we go to bed. We are increasingly always reachable, always traceable, and always watchable. We can get so accustomed to the constant flows of information that we consume and share  that we may ignore the impacts of such flows on our bodies. 

With this exercise, we want to explore those impacts. 

Take a second to listen to your body. What is it telling you? What information is flowing through it? Is your body tense? Open? Tired? Curious? Anxious? 

Take a moment to tune into the sounds around you. 

Now close your eyes and take a few slow, deep breaths. Take a few moments to loosen your body from your head to your toes. 

Drop your shoulders. Relax the muscles in your arms so that they are heavy like sandbags. 

Relax your facial muscles. 

Release the tension from your jaw and feel your mouth and tongue relax. 

Untighten the muscles around your eyes. 

Breathe in. 1, 2, 3. Breathe out. 1, 2, 3. (Repeat) 

Pick one sensation — such as the feeling of your breath going in and out — and devote your attention to it. Just focus on that. 

Notice the information that your mind keeps returning to and try to understand them like they are clouds in the sky. Notice them, acknowledge them, but let them float on. 

Now with a clear mind, let’s move on. Please hold this pose.

Feeling information (part II) (5 min)

Leader: Facilitator 1

Please keep your eyes closed. 

Our next flow is called Feeling Information, Part 2.

In old times, people used to believe that to take a photograph of someone was to steal their soul.

Now imagine being photographed, and represented as an image. How does that feel in your body? Can you make a gesture or motion that indicates how that feels? [everyone has their eyes closed] 

Please hold the pose, and release the pose.

Please open your eyes and look forward. Please come to a circle and look to the center of the room. Make sure your ears are visible by tucking away your hair. Adopt a neutral expression. This is the pose we’re usually asked to adopt when posing for an ID photo. How does this make you feel? 

Please hold the pose, and release the pose.

Our bodies are being imaged in many different new dimensions today. For example, every time we fill out a form, we trade information about ourselves to access services, like social media or government aid.

Now imagine filling out a form, being imaged in a different way. How does that feel in your body? Can you make a motion or a pose that indicates how that feels? 

Please hold the pose, and release the pose.

Now that we’ve felt the way it feels to be represented as information–we’re going to move into an open phase. Can you bring your body into poses that feel the opposite of how you felt when you were represented in this way? Perhaps you can make light eye contact with each other as it feels right. We invite you to move through a succession of poses.

[Participants start – pause for 20 seconds]

[Facilitator 2 & Facilitator 1 should do goofy poses to get others to loosen up] 

These poses will look and feel different for everybody, but you can do this in any way that feels real to you. Some of you may move into poses demanding that your full, holistic self be seen, others may make yourselves more invisible. 

(1 min) Please come to a neutral, standing position.

Embrace human illegibility (5 min)

Leader: Facilitator 1

Remember your experience going through airport security, or passing through borders. Think of poses you’ve had to adopt—for example, the “hands up, feet apart” pose required by the American TSA. The purpose of this pose is to make your body maximally legible to humans and machines. 

If it is available to you, please adopt this post, and hold it.

Notice the symmetry in this pose. Symmetry is deeply related to conventional notions of “beauty”—maximal symmetry is coded as easy to read, control, and track in its homogeneity. The most average face is the most conventionally beautiful face.

The length of the pose is the amount of time it takes for the xray to finish scanning you. Imagine being inspected by machines, or an airport security agent. What is the quality of that gaze?

Now let’s shake that out! On the other end, we invite you to take on attitudes of ugliness—poses, facial expressions, and voices that may be coded as ugly, to embrace illegibility to humans and machines.

As Mia Mingus writes, “[Consider] the magnificence of a body that shakes, takes up space, spills out, needs help, moseys, slinks… [consider] the magnificence of a body that has been coded, not just undesirable, but inhuman. See [the ugly] for what it is: our greatest strength.”

If it’s available to you, gently rest your gaze on each other, not staring at any one person, and feel your body respond. What is the quality of your gaze, of our looks?

Facilitator 2 will lead us through our final flow.

Collective voice (5 min)

Leader: Facilitator 2

This is a group of people that might not see each other again, but we were united by our time together.

We would like to lead us in a collective voicing, to simulate a coming storm. This represents the ways that we can use our voices and bodies to create collective power. We have the power to make our voices as loud or as quiet as we wish to make them. Please stand or take a seat in a chair and follow along. 

  • Rubbing palms together
  • Snapping fingers
  • Drumming thighs (crescendo)
  • Pounding feet (crescendo)
  • Drumming thighs (softer) 
  • Snapping fingers
  • Rubbing palms together

Thank you for joining us in practicing counter-surveillance yoga.

Debrief (15 min)

Leader: Facilitator 2

We would like to invite those who want to share the feelings and thoughts we experienced doing these exercises to remain for a few extra minutes. 

Let’s sit in a circle. Please find a spot and a position in a chair or on the floor so that we’re facing each other. 

We want everyone to have space to talk about how their bodies and minds felt during the workshop. We’d like to ask folks a couple of specific questions, then we’ll open up the conversation to be more freeform.

  • Let’s do a quick feelings check-in: Can you describe how you feel right now in one sentence?
  • Now that we all had a chance to check in with each other: How did your body feel throughout the workshop?
  • What did you find the most surprising experiences during this session?
  • Do you have any questions or suggestions for the facilitators?

 If you left your face at the door, please remember to pick it up on the way out.

References


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