As mental health issues and other stressors plague the population of Metro Manila, the Makati City museum eyes to be a haven of healing.
W hen you Google the things that you should or should not do in a museum, there’s a chance that you’ll encounter some generally recognized rules I was actually urged to break the last time I was in one.
“No drinks,” for example, is something you might come across. There’s also the usual request to “observe silence.” And yet, at a popular museum in Makati City not too long ago, at the behest of its curator, I was singing with a cup of warm cacao on my hand. I was also sitting on a large pillow left on the floor with my shoes a stone’s throw away from me. Later that evening, I was on my feet, dancing around a circle of petals and candles as if there is nothing about my scrawny, poorly coordinated frame that I should be ashamed of.
It was a Friday night. I was at the Yuchengco Museum with photographer Aden Michael Manalo while the venue was at crossroads. The place, after all, had just recently launched the Y Space subsidiary of its business. What this means is that it is now renting out some of its areas for various functions, private or otherwise. To further showcase the viability of this venture, the museum, under the leadership of its curator, Jeannie Javelosa, decided to put up a festival which may very well shape the nearly 14-year-old establishment’s future.
“Y Now? Art & Healing Festival,” she told me. And as we sat on one of the quiet corners of the venue, she explained that this is the museum’s response to the challenges of living in Metro Manila.
“The times are really disruptive,” she said while fiddling with her phone. “There’s so much mental illness, people are stressed, people don’t know how to deal with the millennials, there’s an issue of work, life balance,” and the list of problems go on. As a writer who has spent nearly a decade examining life in the capital, I remember instinctively nodding my head.
Every day, the people of Metro Manila are confronted with the backlash of self-service, political improprieties, and sheer ineptitude: from the high prices of basic goods, to the heavy pollution, to the traffic conditions some people no longer call insufferable only because they’ve gotten so used to them. Meanwhile, politicians of questionable qualifications continue to acquire seats of power, laws continue to get exploited or ignored entirely to protect the interest of those in power, and minorities continue to suffer discrimination, one of the many ails of an underdeveloped society. Social media is also a problem. A staple in the lives of numerous Filipinos, it has become a weaponized source of misinformation, unwarranted hysteria, and insecurities. In other words, life in the Metro is a mess.
Javelosa is no stranger to this. As a yoga practitioner and instructor involved in the field for more than 20 years now, she has encountered numerous people struggling to cope with daily life. Living in the capital, she said, is so challenging that Imee Contreras, a mindfulness and dharma teacher, even penned a study claiming that Manila has ranked more stressful that war-torn Damascus.
“Now [critical disruption] is at your face,” Javelosa said. And this is a good reason for her to spearhead their festival.
L aunched that evening, May 24, “Y Now?” is lengthy series of events that will turn Yuchengco Museum into a haven for alternative therapeutic practices and contemporary spirituality. It will have talks, classes, and activities led by high-profile personas meant to shed some light on the less popular ways by which people can deal with the stressors of urban life.
This June, for example, the venue will hold talks on holistic living, art, and spirituality. There will also be weekly yoga sessions and 1-on-1 counseling. Javelosa mentioned that there will be a grieving workshop this coming Sunday and it will be led by Cathy Sanchez-Babao; the session will cater not just to people who have lost a loved one but also those who’ve suffered other forms of setback that they’d like to deal with. On June 22, meanwhile, Master Del Pe, dubbed by the museum as a “life mentor to global leaders,” will be holding a talk and a workshop on daily self-care rituals, that kind that can help people calm their emotions, sharpen their minds and enable quick revitalization. And, later that night, to mark the start of the festival, members of the media and I took part in a scared cacao ceremony, a somewhat three-hour affair that involves drinking warm cacao (as the name suggests,) dancing, singing, and introspection. The ceremony will be happening multiple times this month and a lot of similar activities (which can be viewed here) will be filling up the museum’s calendar.
“It’s the first time we’re doing something like this,” she said, and like a lot of maiden ventures, it will serve as a test run for the concept. The festival, according to Javelosa, will run until June 23. But if it goes well—if the popularity of such activities generates substantial foot traffic for the museum—then she will have enough of a reason to continue offering them.
“Really the direction is this: there is a space here,” she said adding that she wants to use that space to look into the idea of mixing art with healing.
“I think we will see from this first one what the interests of people are.” And this examination of the public began not long after her phone rang and she took me downstairs to prepare for the launch.
B efore heading to the venue of the launch, Javelosa told me that one of the biggest challenges in setting up “Y Now?” was time.
“You know, normally, something like this you have three months, four months [to prepare,]” she shared. “I had, like, what? Two weeks?” Apparently, that was enough time to put something together. The woman, after all, has spent years cultivating a contact list of people involved in what she calls “misunderstood fields” and she believes that now is a good time to tap that.
“I have a network of people that I know,” she said. “And I had to turn away a lot of them because many wanted to be involved with this.” In the end, she said, about twenty interested parties were included in the final line up of speakers and two of them were waiting for us when the doors of Yuchengco’s elevator opened.
At the event area of the museum’s ground floor, the center of Y Space’s operation, we found a large circle of pillows being arranged by two women. One of them was Francesca Regala, a yoga breath, and meditation instructor. The other one, was Lee Grane, a musician who went viral years ago after her audition for a televised singing contest, The Voice of the Philippines, enamored online spectators. The press material of the festival designates her as an “earth and cosmic wisdom keeper” but Javelosa has a shorter title for her and Regala: babaylans.
“I say babaylans,” she said, “because, you know, this is a Filipino-Visayan term to identify the strength of the feminine healing spirit.” This is a force that remains present to this day, Javelosa commented and they intended to impart that through the sacred cacao ceremony meant to launch the festival.
“Here in Manila, we’re just blasted by noise,” Regala said during the opening of the ceremony. “Noise from each other, noise within ourselves. We are living in a place where we are so disharmonic with everything around us.”
“The ceremony,” Lee Grane added, “is really just [about] coming back into harmony. This is a place where we can come together and connect.”
To achieve this, the two women acted like conductors unifying our dissonant voices. They began by putting us at ease, urging us to be comfortable on the pillows and mats laid on the floor. They then tried to know the “voices” that they were working with, having each of us introduce ourselves briefly while saying why we were there. What followed then were the directions relayed mostly by Lee Grane as she strummed a soothing sequence of notes on her guitar. She taught us easy-to-learn songs meant to acknowledge our truths; from the elements that constitute our planet (earth, fire, air and water,) the emotional baggage we carry with us (like grudges) and the undeniable fact that while each of us is unique, we are still part of a bigger picture.
Midway through the proceedings, Regala had us approach her to receive at least one cup of warm cacao. While she did this, Lee Grane explained the health benefits of the drink: from its antioxidants to its capacity to invigorate the body. The latter was a welcome feature (so I learned soon after) since both hosts got everyone on their feet to dance around.
I’m not much of a dancer, to be honest. A friend of mine once told me that watching me dance was like watching some malfunctioning animatronic doll “that COD must’ve given up on.” But the two women told us that this shouldn’t matter. The dance wasn’t meant to impress anyone; it was meant to remind us of the parts of our body we tend to forget. Lee Grane also said that this is a look back at the days of old when dancing was a sacred act (with every step viewed as a message to the planet.)
I’m not one to presume that the planet heard my message but it did feel refreshing to remind my body of its often neglected capacity for certain motions. A man near me echoed my sentiments proclaiming his delight in Filipino. A few others in the crowd, meanwhile, looked breathless but genuinely elated.
And then came the highlight of the evening: a segment of eye contact meditation. Participants of the ceremony were asked to find a partner and simply stare at each other in silence for about 10 minutes. I paired up with Manalo and began the exercise as soon as Lee Grane gave us the signal to start.
Before I tell you how it went, I feel it would be appropriate to first inform you that I’ve had a difficult week. Deadlines, health scares, and interpersonal issues sent me on a bit of a tailspin. I don’t recall crying but I do remember being so frustrated that I ended up harshly criticizing someone for failing at a task I gave him. It was a rough week. That said, however, I realized that the somewhat 10-minute stare down I had with my coverage partner was still one of the most challenging things I’ve had to do in it.
“This is embarrassing,” I told him and he could only laugh nervously in response. When you make a mirror out of eyes intently staring back at you, and you keep it as a mirror for—in this case—10 minutes, you don’t just see yourself. You also see another person observing you, seeing the side of you that doesn’t hide behind movements or other distractions. And, you know that you’re being observed.
I don’t enjoy that level of vulnerability. Perhaps it’s because I’m not used to it having been a loner most of my life. Perhaps this squeamishness is also a product of my life in the capital where I’ve seen people do some things that made me want to look away.
“Jesus, how long does it go on?” I asked Manalo and again he could only respond by laughing nervously. Occasionally, he would also use his long hair to hide his face. But when we persisted and just allowed it to happen, I ended up asking myself other questions. How did he, this photographer, end up here? How did life shape him to become a photographer? What is the most beautiful thing he has seen so far? What drives him to do the things that he does? In the end, what would be his greatest contribution to humanity? Is it something I can help him with?
I imagine that for most of us, we are the protagonists of our own stories, and we are so immersed in that role that we tend to sometimes forget that other people are also the centers of their own universe. It is a thought I’ve been familiar with since I was a child but I admit that there are times when I forget it. And, because I do, I end up committing things I’m not proud of—like lashing out at someone for failing to deliver.
This, at least, was my take away from the exercise. It allows you to look beyond yourself while allowing others the same privilege. It reminds you of how special, rich and complicated other lives can be and that, perhaps, you should not be so quick to disregard them. It’s a fitting antidote to these times, this bloody era of Philippine history where people are getting killed extrajudicially.
I don’t know if other people thought the same thing but I could see other pairs in tears. Some, meanwhile, ended up grinning from ear-to-ear before hugging each other. Rest assured, I did not see a single face unshaken by the exercise. And when Lee Grane started playing on her guitar again, it became clear to me that the ceremony struck chords.
To Javelosa, this is a win. “This is what we’re trying to do,” she said.
Since its opening back in 2005, the Yuchengco Museum has been a venue for artistic and cultural exhibitions. Spearheaded by Alfonso Yuchengco to house his art collection, it eventually allowed his family to become –as the museum’s website states—“vanguards of cultural heritage.” It is more than this, however. Because of its location at the base of the RCBC Plaza, Javelosa believes that around 25,000 pairs of feet pass its vicinity on a daily basis. It is a landmark, a staple of life in Makati City and it can offer more.
“Our audience is the corporate crowd,” she said, “and they’re very stressed.” This, to her, gives the museum the opportunity to provide options for people to find peace and grow.
“You know we’ve always just looked at life from a perspective that it’s got to be this way, said by this way,” she said. “But what if there are alternative ways we can look at to deal with these problems?”
“Maybe we’re not psychologists or psychiatrists,” she added, but not without stating that the practices of those who will be featured in the festival have documented results. She herself has seen how yoga has helped people, how “misunderstood fields” have bettered lives. “They’re healers,” she said of the festival’s resource persons. And if the people embrace their methods in the weeks to come, she assured me that we’ll be seeing more of them—along with people doing the things you don’t always expect them to do in a museum.