Stupid yoga, smart yoga, and life

David Williams, 1970s

That’s David Williams, who went to India in the 1970s and met Pattabhi Jois, becoming the first non-Indian to learn Jois’ entire system of asanas (postures), now called Ashtanga.

Today he lives in Maui, halfway up to its spectacular volcanic crater, and that’s where my wife and I caught up with him a few years ago. We were in Maui and called him. He said ‘come over’. We went to his house. He showed us some pictures of himself in pretzel positions during the 1970s and 80s.

Then he chased out his three Bernese mountain dogs and we threw down our mats in his garage, where he taught us Ashtanga yoga for the next couple of hours. Later, we went to get some Vietnamese food and heard his yarns from yonder.

He told us a lot that day that my wife and I still talk about. With his thick Carolinian drawl, David is simultaneously wise and funny. One issue that he has strong opinions about is hurting yourself.

Western yogis today–the kind you see with tight Prana pants stretched around their firm buttocks, mat under one arm, Starbucks Venti Latte in the other–hurt themselves a lot. All the time, in fact. I have hurt myself.

‘Of course,’ you say. ‘Yoga is stretching, so sometimes you overdo it and hurt yourself.’

Wrong!

As David put it to us: If you went to a ‘real’ yogi on some Himalayan mountain top and told him that you had injured yourself, he would not understand. He would look at you as though you were crazy. It would sound as stupid to him as it would sound to your pastor if you told him that you had hurt yourself praying.

The dumbest and most dangerous “yogi” in the world

Which brings me to this article in the New York Times about “yoga competitions” and to a man named Bikram Choudhury. I wrote about Bikram in The Economist a few years ago, but that was in the Business section and I had to give it that kind of slant. Today, let’s talk about something more important.

Bikram is an extremely smart businessman–he has made Bikram, a specific series of asanas in a hot room, into a big brand.

He is also an unbelievably stupid and dangerous “yogi”. He’s not a Yogi at all, really. And you need look no further than this nonsense about ‘yoga competitions’, which–surprise!–was his idea. He and his wife want to make yoga an Olympic sport, in fact.

Introducing: Satya and Ahimsa

As regular readers of The Hannibal Blog may remember, yoga is really about stilling your mind, as Patanjali described it.

Yes, in order to do that, you might want to prepare yourself physically–ie, with asanas–because, as the Roman poet Juvenal said, mens sana in corpore sano, a healthy mind in a healthy body. But you want to spend just as much time and effort on the other seven of the eight limbs (= Asht-anga) of yoga.

The first, and most urgent, of these limbs is yama, or ethical guidelines. And two of these are:

  • satya, truthfulness, and
  • ahimsa, non-violence.

Now let me explain to you what, for most people, happens in the first five minutes in a Western yoga studio:

  1. They look around at all the other, fitter, slimmer, lither bodies and get competitive. Their ego (one of the naughty things that Patanjali warned us about) flares up. They lie to themselves: ‘I can do what he can do; I can get into Lotus.’ By lying, they have already dropped satya, and are thus no longer eligible to move on to a higher limb such as asana. They should really leave the room.
  2. Having lied to themselves (and the others in the room), they now become violent toward their own bodies. They pull, push … and hurt. Thus they have dropped ahimsa as well. Now they really should leave the room. But they never do, because everyone else is doing the same thing.

Back to David…

So save yourself some time, money and above all hurt and ignore Bikram. Please.

Instead, find yourself a real yogi, such as David.

When my wife and I met David, he no longer looked like the dude in the 1970s picture above. He looks like a middle-aged guy with long hair–less boring but otherwise as physically imperfect as the average guy his age. And yet (why “yet”?), he loves yoga as much as ever. That’s because he decided years ago that stretching is not what yoga is about.

He wrote an open letter about it. He begins:

… First, and foremost, I hope you can learn from me that in your practice, “If it hurts, you are doing it wrong.”…

Eventually, he gets to this issue of competition (or even comparison):

…I am occasionally asked if someone is “good at Yoga.” I quickly respond that the best Yogi is not the one who is most flexible, but the one who is most focused on what he or she is doing… It is with some sadness that I have observed people “competing with their Yoga practice.”…

After all, he continues, what good is yoga is you only do it while you’re young and fit–ie, “good”–and then stop when you get older and stiffer?

… The key is being able to continue practicing Yoga for the rest of your life. … those who continue are the ones who are able to figure out how to make it enjoyable… The others, consciously, subconsciously, or unconsciously, quit practicing. It is my goal to do everything I can to inspire you to establish your Yoga practice not just for the few days we are together, but for the rest of your life….

…My goal is to convey the idea that the greatest Yogi is the one who enjoys his or her Yoga practice the most, not the one who can achieve the ultimate pretzel position… what is really important is what is invisible to the observer, what is within each of you….

… and onward to life

Now take everything that David and I have said above and replace the word yoga with … whatever you please.

How about sex? Do you ruin your enjoyment of it by competing or comparing yourself? Do you sacrifice satya and ahimsa to pretend that you’re a superwoman/superman? Do you “quit”, or want to quit, when you get older and less responsive?

How about friendship? Are you competing with others and comparing yourself based on how popular you are? Are you investing in acquaintances merely to nurse your “network”, even at the expense of other, real, friendships?

How about… [insert whatever is on your mind]

If that sounds familiar, you have sacrificed satya and ahimsa and are not ready to move on to the higher stages of being alive (= yoga). When you rediscover satya and ahimsa, in a garage in Maui or wherever else, you remember what you’ve been missing.

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57 thoughts on “Stupid yoga, smart yoga, and life

  1. Thank you, thank you, thank you!!! This was an incredible post; I’ve always done yoga in the privacy of my own home and I absolutely love it. I always feel so refreshed after even a few minutes of stretching during the day. I’ve never wanted to do a class because I’m quite shy; however, I always felt that, in choosing not to do a class, I wasn’t really doing yoga the “right” way.

    This was a great read and I appreciate you sharing these thoughts.

  2. “How about sex? …………How about friendship?”

    How about also, the way we teach literature (is to study it in order to pass an examination at school, to kill a nascent love of it in the young?); and “classical” music (do “classical” music competitions kill a nascent love of “classical” music in the young?) .

    • yes, to the second, for sure. I still love literature in spite of the way it was taught to me. But classical music was introduced to me in such a way that I still get queasy today when I hear it….

    • Funny you should mention music. I have witnessed many people with a natural born gift for music, who have suffered much for not achieving enough of the “right” kind success or recognition. I believe that practicing yoga in the right way, with the right mind, and right attitude, helps one find the life giving quality other activities can have. Specially the arts, when employed for the purpose of transformation, and for tapping into our inner power. The same goes for stories and literature, they can help heal afflictions of the mind. Having said that, I also think that there is a right place for competitions which can be beneficial for all. Although certainly not when it comes to yoga, that’s incoherent.

  3. Although I do not practice yoga, this post touched me on another level. Came just at the right time. Thanks.

    My mother has been practicing yoga since the 60’s. She is now almost 80 and part of what you said, about image, struck me in the gut. Joan is not the beauty she once was and has lost so much, but she still gets out on that yoga mat, crawling there because she has no balance. Her story is here. For most who meet her, she is the most amazing person they know. Truly. Her story is here:http://cheriblocksabraw.com/2009/02/23/joan/

  4. Very thought provoking. It reminded me of this TED talk:

    which talks about the differences in outlook between East and West. Pattaniak’s comments could explain why the west has ‘corrupted’ the yoga concepts as you’ve described. In any event, hope this interesting video gives you some ideas for future posts!

    • A mind-blowing talk, Thomas. Thank you!!

      It’s right up my alley (comparative mythology) and does inspire me. I feel a post coming…..

      The description of Alexander meeting the gymnosophist in the Indus Valley is fantastic.

    • How transcendental is this (I get lost just before axiom 1):

      GODEL’S MATHEMATICAL PROOF OF GOD’S EXISTENCE

      Axiom 1. (Dichotomy) A property is positive if and only if its
      negation is negative.
      Axiom 2. (Closure) A property is positive if it necessarily
      contains a positive property.
      Theorem 1. A positive property is logically consistent (i.e.,
      possibly it has some instance.)
      Definition. Something is God-like if and only if it possesses all
      positive properties.
      Axiom 3. Being God-like is a positive property.
      Axiom 4. Being a positive property is (logical, hence) necessary.
      Definition A property P is the essence of x if and only if x has P
      and P is necessarily minimal.
      Theorem 2 If x is God-like, then being God-like is the essence of x.
      Definition NE(x): x necessarily exists if it has an essential property.
      Axiom 5. Being NE is God-like.
      Theorem 3. Necessarily there is some x such that x is God-like.

      [I wonder I ever doubted.]

  5. Thank you so much for writing this. I

    I have been practicing for 14 years and always felt the same way.

    I am happy to see wordpress put this on spotlight. Would you mind if I like this post in the livejournal.com/~yoga community? I bet they would enjoy this information too.

  6. You may have or may not have seen recently the ‘Parkour Competitions’ on MTV and G4TV; let me just say it’s the exact same thing you’re talking about with Bikram. Parkour doesn’t have a right or wrong way to do it, so you can’t really be judged on it. The stuff they’re doing in those competitions isn’t Parkour, it’s more like urban gymnastics; it’s not anything like gymnastics.

    I’ve been practicing in the Art of Movement for about three years now, but the past year I have slacked off of my training simply because everyone wants to see me do this crazy stuff that they now associate with Parkour. It’s extremely discouraging, because I don’t wish to be associated with that non-sense. That’s not what it’s all about, it’s about getting from one point to another using your body alone and being in sync with your environment. When I train and someone asks me to do something wild, and I can’t, they look at me as someone why just ‘says’ they practice Parkour. If only they knew.

    Thanks to your post, I’m going out today and training the right way. Thanks to your post, I have a newfound energy to not care what others think. It’s my form of being in tune with my body, forget the crowd, stay true to yourself. Thanks again for the post.

    • You’ve got the spirit, Joseph!

      You also made me look up Parkour, and spend a few minutes on YouTube to learn what it is. Naturally, what came up was the wild stuff, below. How, then, does an ordinary body like mine practice this sort of thing?

    • Here is a good video of a group of practitioners just practicing.

      One of my favorite artistic renditions of Parkour. Nothing insane, just fluid motion.

      You may have noticed that both of these come from Parkour Generations. http://parkourgenerations.com is their website, and they’re a great organization with the objective of spreading the word of what parkour really is, and helping people to know how to train. You can find a couple more of their videos that show them training large classes if you would like some more ideas. The outdoor environment is the only place to truly practice it though; indoor training is for just that, training.

    • Thanks for that. That’s much less intimidating. I love the guys practicing. Something I could get into. (or could have got into in my salad days).

      incidentally, I noticed something interesting for the first time: The Google guys seem to have embedded code so that your videos, placed here under a Yoga post that mentions Ashtanga, display ads for Ashtanga yoga studios. At least from my computer. Hmmm.

  7. Thanks for this post. For a brief period of time, I cleaned at a corporate bikram yoga studio to get free yoga. After about my second time cleaning, I realized that being in an environment where the instructors and store managers were rude to me when no customers were around, but put on a faux yogi front when someone walked in, that it was an environment with which I didn’t want to be associated.

    I finished my cleaning, e-mailed the manager the next day and asked to be taken off the list. Free yoga just wasn’t worth being fake. What’s interesting is that the faux yogis I ran into at the corporate gym gave off the same vibe as the stupid ones you describe. Must have the same ego problem.

  8. Mr. Kluth

    I read with interest your tome on what is “good” yoga and what is “bad” yoga. Perhaps you over generalize. Perhaps everyone is not drawn to the same teacher. Perhaps that is why there are many teachers with varying approaches.

    As a mid-50’s man, I have experienced profound results from my practice of Bikram yoga. Because it may not be the path for you, how can you so readily dismiss it as “dangerous”? A person needs to begin any practice while listening to their own voice in order to avoid injury. You said “……….. in fact. I have hurt myself.” Perhaps if you practiced in a properly heated space and received good instruction you might have avoided any harm to your body.

    One last note. I would take your writing more seriously if you didn’t resort to what appears to be childish name calling. “Stupid….dumbest….” Come on. You can do better than that.

    • Welcome to the Hannibal Blog, Pablo.

      Just to clarify: My little polemic was not directed at “Bikram” as a series of asanas in a hot studio or as a business. Instead it was directed at the, yes, “dangerous” and “dumb” tendency to introduce comparison and competition into Yoga.

      Competitive yoga is an oxymoron (like military intelligence, some would say ;))

      Now, the fact that you have got profound results from doing Bikram is …. great!! Clearly, you are “listening to your own voice”, so you are ahead of 90% of Western yogis.

  9. I know next to nothing about Yoga, Pablo, but do wonder what the pursuit of truths and ancient wisdom has to do with commercial enterprise and organised athletics. They could be mutually exclusive. What relevance, for example, has copyright law? Copyright merely protects your livelihood and priority.

    There again, see how the squalid (but very human) dispute between Leibniz and Newton distracts from the truth of their discoveries. See how Beethoven compromised his spiritual insights and his vision of justice and freedom in extended litigation over his nephew Karl and in wrangles with his publishers over money.

    I do not know if Bikram is properly described as a commercial enterprise but there is no reason to doubt that truths can be discovered through that medium, any more than Newton’s personal shortcomings are a reason to doubt his science or Beethoven’s a reason to ignore his music.

    Andreas, which is the objection you have, to Bikram – as a business or as Yoga?
    I can accept the business, but am unable to form a view of the Yoga.

    • Interesting observation. What I like about this discussion is that it shows the underlying tension between aesthetic (i.e., artistic, spiritual) activities and filthy lucre. The Bikram problem is that he has packaged something aesthetic and is selling it as a commodity and that tarnishes it’s value. An argument could be made that the same thing has happened in all arts and culture. When you try to create something with mass-market appeal it will of necessity lose any ethereal aspect because everything must be quantifiable for marketing purposes. Thus, instead of a spiritual journey, yoga becomes a way to ‘lose 10 pounds’ or ‘reduce your stress level by 50%.’

      I think that this materialization of the aesthetic reduces creativity and risk taking, which is why you have Rocky V and Rambo X and Terminator III, etc. If the market liked it once, it will probably sell again.

  10. Interesting points made by all here. All I can say is don’t knock it if you haven’t tried it. Bikram Yoga works for many people. If it didn’t people would not line up day in and day out and pay a good amount of money to participate in what Bikram himself calls the torture chamber.

    I urge you to read Bikram’s book, Bikram Yoga: The Guru Behind Hot Yoga Shows the Way to Radiant Health and Personal Fulfillment. You will gain some insight into the man. I was the first to criticize his approach until I read the book and began taking the classes. Some may say he is not a true Yogi. But what is a true Yogi? He may not be the true Yogi you have conjured up in your mind, but I’ll tell you this: He is authentic and honest.

    Is it possible for a true Yogi to also be materialistic? Can a true Yogi love fast cars, motorcycles and money? Perhaps it’s time to look at our own internal judgements. Perhaps then we might see that “the greatest Yogi is the one who enjoys his or her Yoga practice the most……..”

  11. I read this last night and thought about it all day. I found this article sophomoric because while lamenting how the west has tarnished and ruined yoga by introducing competition you call Bikram the man a stupid and dangerous yogi and even question if he is a “true” yogi at all. You tell people to avoid his class so they don’t get hurt? What the hell are you talking about? Is judging the man, the yoga and the millions of people who really like and value the practice more ethical and yogi-like than competition? Why do you care if a handful of gifted people want to display their strength, beauty and command of their mind? Do you believe that if they do compete, they lose what their strong practices have brought to them? It’s simply ridiculous.

    Why not let people find the practice that serves them? Why do you feel you need to tell people that their yoga isn’t as good as yours? How do you know how they have benefitted? You don’t. Why do you even care what path other people are on? You can’t choose other people’s paths, but apparently true yogis can be scornful of a path that differs from their own. Your judgements sound fundamentalist to me.

    To degrade practioners who are slim and wear costumes they enjoy because they make less fit people feel uncomfortable is negative and judgemental as well. Most people lose their self conciousness after a few classes when they realize no one is looking at them, people are practicing their yoga and trying to focus on themselves.

    I’m assuming that all the commenters are from the west. Most of us don’t have the luxury to practice on a mountain top in India. We practice in studios where we hopefully benefit from a skilled teacher and contribute to the group energy. We put up with crowded spaces, inexperienced teachers and our own human frailities because we’ve had good teachers and awesome days and we’d rather do yoga than not do yoga. We do the yoga practice that speaks to us. We practice at home and hope we’re doing it correctly and we try hard because we know what being in the posture can do for us. The bottom line is, we keep coming back to do our yoga.

    Your yoga practice isn’t mine, it’s only yours. Enjoy and please, lose the judgement.

    • Oy vey, openscarf. You have reduced me to a shivering, one-inch-tall slug. I haven’t been put in my place like this since my mother … but let’s not go there… 😉

      Seriously: welcome to the Hannibal Blog and I love passionate engagement like yours. And you’re right, of course, that we all need to find our own yoga, which I whole-heartedly endorse.

      There is something you omit in your rant, however: I’m free to give my considered opinion and others are free to come here and get it…. and equally free to ignore it and to debate it. I’m hardly in a position to ban anybody from Bikram studios, nor would I ever want to. They are fun! But so is disco, if you get my gist.

      But I can tell you, openscarf, that I’ve tried pretty much every style and philosophy of yoga under the sun over the past decade. I’ve pretzeled myself in Thailand, I’ve sweated in Bikram studios in Hong Kong, I’ve OM’ed in Big Sur, I’ve Kundalini’ed God knows where. I’ve even picked up smatterings of Sanskrit while reading the Yoga Sutras, the Hatha Yoga Pradipika and the Bhagavad Gita, and given one of those words to my daughter as a name.

      I’m not saying all that to show off (although you may be tempted to accuse me of that) but to prove to you that I have thought long and hard about this, and that I’ve made all the mistakes one can make. So now I feel it’s my turn to opine on my humble little blog. Shanti.

      For the rest of you, they’re having a very interesting discussion about this post over here.

  12. See how an ordered and civilised adversarial system leads us forwards if the participants are honest! It also educates the spectator. A good judge is a spectator: that way a necessary humility is maintained.

    • You reveal your ignorance of the inquisitorial system, Richard. What better than an independent judge to enquire after the truth instead of a mere hope that the truth will come out? What about all the injustices under the adversarial system which have to be undone after it’s too late?

      The British Parliament is an adversarial system, and see what a mockery that has become!

    • You two amuse me. I am planning to write a very opinionated and under-sophisticated (sophomoric) polemic in favor of the inquisitorial and against the adversarial system.

  13. In keeping with your philosophy to write about the real deal instead of tepid and always safe topics, you generate lots of frenzy. Nice going.

    After following your blog for over a year, and reading your readers’ comments, I hear one clear horn blowing: your intention to provide dignity to all, even to those who disagree.

    And so, I must disagree with your shivering slug image. A slug, yes. One-incher-yes, a shivering slug-no. I have never seen a shivering slug. A shivering Dachshund-yes, a shivering baby bird-yes, a shivering child-yes.

    Just providing an opening for Mr. Crotchety, whom I miss.

    Happy Thanksgiving to all.

  14. Just round the block from here, Foreign Toe, there was an inquisition into your ignorance of Nietzsche. Cheri dealt superbly with a wolf that suddenly appeared out of the forest, but she was too kind to you.

  15. Mind you, Foreign Toe, I do join you in crank’s corner on the subject of Xeno’s Arrow. This can only be tested by inquisition.

    I’ve always worried about Xeno’s paradoxes since my father told me of Achilles and the Tortoise over fifty years ago. Much water has passed under the bridge since then.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zeno's_paradoxes

    It is very “non-you” to imagine that these have any significance today because of 19th Century developments in mathematics.

    It is interesting, though, that Relativity recognises that all motion is relative, and so any object can be regarded as either in motion or at rest, the question being irrelevant. Since our concept of time is based purely on motion, what do we mean by “now”? My feeling is that
    these questions do not submit themselves to mathematical analysis because motion and time are the same experience. This means that the ideas of motion, time, speed and space are tautologous with one another.

    If two people meet, they meet. Their time-frame is irrelevant. Then what is a physical meeting? Do we meet on a website or not?

    The depth and ingeniousness of mathematical thought invests it, perhaps, with a false authority. This is not to decry its achievements. Yet since it is based on observation, it is hardly surprising that it predicts observations. It is a language.

    Language is what we do with our observations. Confined as it is, even itself, to what we observe, everything becomes one, unexplained lump.

    Consciousness is the all-embracing, self-defining, unexplained observation.

    What you see is what you get, pretzel or not.

  16. Actually, my father introduced me to Achilles’ experience with the tortoise over sixty years ago. How time flies!

  17. Hey, you, get off of my cloud!

    You do not make a pleasant bedfellow, Richard.

    Cheri says you are all fooey. That doesn’t make me Engshu. Don’t try to fit me into your English shoe, either.

    The trouble is, you’ve always looked down on me. Watch out! I’ll trip you up one day.

  18. The yoga that Bikram’s was hyping
    at 40 C forced me to wiping.
    Now I say om,
    While blogging from home,
    And do three-legged dog while typing.

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