The beauty of Ashtanga Vinyasa

Pattabhi Jois

Pattabhi Jois

It should be obvious, but just to make it explicit: I love Ashtanga Yoga and still practice it as often as fatherhood and a day job allow. That’s about three times a week now.

My obituary in The Economist of Pattabhi Jois, the founder of this yoga style, actually reflected that, even though a lot of people have chosen to interpret it as critical.

(Good writing is about coloring in characters in all their rich complexity, not about churning out hagiographies, as I hope I made clear when I wrote about the creation of this piece.)

Anyway, I came across these old videos of Jois teaching some of his students. And I was struck by the sheer aesthetic beauty of the flowing postures.

Here are excerpts from the first (or “primary”) series. There are nowadays six never-changing series of postures (one for each day of the week, with Saturday being a rest day).

And here are excerpts from the “intermediate” series. I find that this usually gets a laugh out of people: If this is intermediate, then what is advanced?

The students in the video, by the way, have since aged and become yoga celebrities in their own right. They are:

(Here are other posts in my thread on Yoga.)

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Heroines and “literary Darwinism”


Helen and Paris


Ask people to name a woman in the Iliad, the story of the Trojan War, and they will name Helen, the cause of that war, who was known for her beauty.

Ask people to name a man, and they will not name Paris, also known for his beauty but otherwise considered a pansy even though Helen eloped with him. Instead, they will name Achilles (or Hector, Odysseus etc), who were heroes.

So: beauty for women; strength for men (see Hercules). Right?

I began contemplating this when Solid Gold commented under a recent post in my thread on heroes and heroism that

the real question is whether a woman can be a hero.

I think that question deserves books. But I thought I’d share a tidbit from an article about storytelling (another big thread on The Hannibal Blog) that attempts an answer. (Thanks to Jag Bhalla for the link.)

It cites research by a professor of English at Washington & Jefferson College named Jonathan Gottschall, who is apparently one of the scholars known informally as “literary Darwinists.” (The ideas of that great thinker seem to be infinitely extensible.)




As far as I can tell, these literary Darwinists have corroborated the thesis of Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell that all humans in all cultures and ages tend to re-tell fundamentally the same archetypal stories. But whereas Jung and Campbell used psychological logic, the literary Darwinists are using the (Darwinian) logic of relative reproductive success.

And so Gottschall analyzed “90 folktale collections, each consisting of 50 to 100 stories,” ranging from industrial nations to hunter-gatherer tribes, and found overwhelmingly similar gender depictions:

  • strong male protagonists (aka “heroes”) and
  • beautiful female protagonists.

We couldn’t even find one culture that had more emphasis on male beauty,

Gottschall is quoted.

In all, the stories had had three times more male than female main characters and six times more references to female beauty than to male beauty.


That difference in gender stereotypes, [Gottschall] suggests, may reflect the classic Darwinian emphasis on reproductive health in women, signified by youth and beauty, and on the desirable male ability to provide for a family, signaled by physical power and success.

Let me try to make this Darwinian logic more explicit:

  1. Let’s say you have two hypothetical tribes, each reflecting its values through the stories it tells.
  2. Tribe A values male beauty and female strength whereas Tribe B values male strength and female beauty.
  3. We might assume that, over time, Tribe B not only reproduces more than Tribe A, but even that it does so at the expense of Tribe A (resources, conflict, etc).
  4. Ergo, we, who are by necessity descendants of Tribe B, live to retell its stories, the B stories.


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More contemplation of the Bird in Space


You may recall that, a while ago, I showed you Brancusi’s Bird in Space as my overture to a brief meditation on simplicity, beauty, honesty (and Einstein). Well, I couldn’t find a copyright-kosher image of the sculpture I had in mind, so I took a different version, one that was almost as good but not quite.

This, on the left, is the version I had in mind (even though the image is crap). Everything I said stands. When you strip away all extraneous detail, the underlying form of your sculpture (argument, story, living room, body, dish, …) must speak for itself. In this case it reveals its beauty. If the underlying form is ugly, well, let’s at least find out.

How did I come by this picture? Oh, I forget. Let’s just say that an elderly Filipina museum guard made herself known rather instantaneously….

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Brancusi, Einstein, simplicity and beauty

If non-conformity and “impudence” are the first ingredients in the astonishing creativity of a man such as Einstein, as I said here, are there yet other ingredients? Of course. And the most important, in my opinion, is an appreciation of simplicity.

More than most people I know, I yearn for simplicity in my life–on my desk, in my file folders, in my home decoration, in my writing, my sentences and of course my thoughts. Quite probably, that is because there is far too much complexity in all of these.

When I approach a new topic, as I did a years ago when I, who was a technophobe, took over the tech beat at The Economist, I first run it through my complexity/simplicity filter. At that time I came up with this.

If I had to choose a favorite sculptor, it might be Brancusi, who grasped simplicity as well as anybody. It is at heart an uncluttering. In Brancusi’s case, he strips a thing of all unnecessary detail in order to reveal its underlying form.

Simplicity is thus also a form of honesty. Once the underlying form of a thing is revealed, you know whether it has beauty or, in the case of writing, also substance. Some of you may recall my idiosyncratic way of reading, by copying and pasting a long document into my word processor, then deleting all extraneous detail as I go along. In effect, I force simplicity onto, say, a research paper. Often, this is how I realize that the boffin in question was a windbag and had nothing to say, hiding behind verbose complexity. Other times, I realize I have hit a treasure trove.

Back to Einstein. Isaac Newton in his Principia had already said that

Nature is pleased with simplicity.

Einstein extended his hunch, saying that

Nature is the realization of the simplest conceivable mathematical ideas.


I have been guided not be the pressure from behind of experimental facts, but by the attraction in front from mathematical simplicity.

What goes for sculptors, inventors, physicists and other forms of homo sapiens goes especially for writers.