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.’


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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My mentors


Mentor was the wise old man whom Odysseus left behind to look after his son Telemachus while Odysseus went off to fight the Trojan War. Odysseus, of course, would be gone for twenty years in total, so Mentor played an important role in pointing Telemachus in the right direction.

Carl Jung later believed that Mentor was one of the archetypes in our collective unconscious, a character that appears in our dreams and in any good story. Think Obi-Wan Kenobi for Luke Skywalker.

Socrates mentored Plato; Plato mentored (well, at least taught) Aristotle; Aristotle mentored Alexander the Great (pictured above).

So I’ve been thinking about Mentors as I feel myself into the characters in my book. What roles does a Mentor have to play? What makes a bad mentor? And, of course, who were my mentors?

Good and bad mentors

Contrary to the Hollywood image, I don’t think that a good mentor necessarily needs to spend a lot of time with a young person. Instead, he or she is just somebody who shows up at crucial moments, takes a genuine and benevolent interest, and gives a fillip or advice where it is needed.

I am reminded of how David Williams, the first Westerner to study Yoga with Pattabhi Jois (in the 1970s!), once explained to me (as we were practicing yoga in David’s garage in Maui, with his Bernese Mountain Dogs running around us) the concept of guru. Gu means darkness in Sanskrit, Ru means light. So a guru is someone who “lights your candle” but then lets you go, indeed sends you off. An older person who passes himself off as a guru but tries to keep control over you, who lingers, is a fake guru.

My three mentors

Speaking only in the context of my writing career, I had three mentors, I believe.

Clive Crook

Clive Crook

1) Clive Crook

I first met Clive when I was twenty-two or so. I was out of work and confused about life and flew to London on a whim to “interview” with The Economist and the FT, even though I don’t recall having set up any actual appointments. I had the flu, and it was raining. I was down and out. Somehow I got into “the Tower”, as we call our 50s-style building in St. James’s Street, and into Clive’s office. He was perhaps economics editor at the time. He sat in a tiny office with stacks of books all around him that I thought would come crashing down on him any minute. To my shock, he didn’t call security but … talked to me.

Nothing immediate came of that, but many years later I was in some god-awful investment bank and fed up. I wanted out, and into journalism. I wrote Clive a letter. To my renewed shock, he remembered me and was now deputy editor. He invited me to sushi. Again, nothing came of it, but he said something might open up. He advised me to get out of that stupid bank and go to a small sweatshop magazine that was known to take young journalists with no experience. I did. Five months later, he took me out to sushi again. Then I joined The Economist. He saw something in me, and that’s why I have my job today.

Marc Levinson

Marc Levinson

2) Marc Levinson

As I said earlier, the job of a guru is not to stick around forever but to let go at the right moment. Once I arrived at The Economist–rather clueless, I should say–Clive stepped back and another editor, Marc Levinson, stepped up as a new mentor. He was very New York in a very British place. He had recently taken over the job of editing the finance section in the magazine, and was controversial. Some people said he was “dumbing the paper down” (he would have said that he was making it comprehensible and unintimidating.) And he was, by the occasionally evasive standards of British toffs, brash.

He certainly put me through the wringer. On Wednesdays, which are our deadline days (London time), I was occasionally close to tears as he made me re-write the piece I had just filed. He minced no words. “This anecdote is flat, take it out!” “You’re not ready to write this piece yet; go out and find something out!”

Over time, three things occurred to me. 1) He was tough in my face but supported me like a rock behind my back. This is the inversion of normal. People like that are a certain kind of nobility. Over time, I saw actual tenderness in his toughness. 2) While he often re-wrote my copy, he also often forced me to re-write my own. Again and again. He could have saved himself time by just doing it himself. He didn’t want to. He wanted me to learn. 3) I got… better!

Marc left The Economist and went home to New York, where he is the author of a fantastic book called The Box. And thus we parted ways. But if Clive discovered my potential, Marc made me fulfill it.

Orville Schell

Orville Schell

3) Orville Schell

Years later again, I arrived in California from Asia. One of the Sinologists I had always heard about in China was Orville Schell, who was now dean of the Journalism School at UC Berkeley. I sent him an email to see whether he might like to meet some time, and, to my surprise, immediately got a message back in which Orville invited me to lunch at the Faculty Club.

Some time after that, he invited me to … teach! This was amusing to me, because I considered (and will always consider) myself a learner. But hey. If Orville Schell asks me to teach a class, who am I to say No? I said Yes.

For two years, I was a teaching fellow at his school. Just as Clive and Marc had no reason to take an interest in me but did, Orville inexplicably included me in all sorts of events. Interesting people were always coming through, and Orville liked to take them to Chez Panisse for dinner. Very often, he invited me to come along. (My greatest regret is that the night that he took David Halberstam to Chez Panisse and was looking for me to invite me along, I was somehow not to be found. Halberstam died in a car crash the next day.)

As a good mentor, Orville also knew just when to step in forcefully with advice and when to bow out. Three years ago, before I had the idea for the book that I am now writing, I was approached with an unusual offer/opportunity. A literary agent who had researched me and liked my writing asked me to write a book about an extremely large and interesting organization (one that you all use every day). The money was good and to spice it up he had already arranged for exclusive and intimate access to the key individual, whose co-operation might make the book great. I was taken aback but very tempted. But something bothered me. I didn’t know what.

I went into Orville’s office and he immediately made time for me (!). He listened to the situation. Where I was unsure and hesitant, he was forceful and sure. “Don’t,” he said. “If you want to write a book about BLANK, then write it, but don’t take this deal. It will compromise you forever.” And if I didn’t want to write this particular book, well, why was I even contemplating it?

I knew that he was right on the spot. But Orville then grabbed me and led me into the courtyard, where Michael Pollan, author of the Omnivore’s Dilemma and other bestsellers, was mingling. Orville explained the situation, asked Michael to give his opinion, then walked away so that he would not influence the conversation. Michael said exactly the same thing.

And so, I learned a great deal about character, ethics, books, writing and life in one day.

Here is to Clive, Marc and Orville, to Mentor and to Aristotle. May every Telemachus find one at the right time!

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