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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The original “gadfly”: Socrates’ negativity


Socrates saw himself as “a gadfly to a horse”, where the horse was Athens–a “sluggish horse” in need of a bit of “stinging”. This the origin of our cliché. As we keep discovering in this thread on Socrates, the old man is still with us all the time, whether we are aware of it or not.

Socrates also liked to compare himself to a midwife. (Perhaps that metaphor came to him because his mother was a midwife.) What he meant by it was that, through his dialectical questioning and conversation, he “birthed” the thoughts that his conversation partners were already pregnant with. Put differently: He felt that he brought something out of people: he led (Latin ducare) something out (ex), ie educated.

But how did others see him?

Cicero, a few centuries later, said that Socrates practiced a “purely negative dialectic which refrains from pronouncing any positive judgment.”

Hippias, one of the sophists (teachers) Socrates interrogated, said that “You mock at others, questioning and examining everybody, and never willing to render an account yourself or to state an opinion about anything.”

Meno, another conversation “partner”, tells Socrates that “You are extremely like the flat torpedo sea-fish; for it benumbs anyone who approaches and touches it… For in truth I feel my soul and my tongue quite benumbed.”

In short, it is hard to avoid concluding that Socrates left everybody feeling bad. If you were lucky, he merely belittled or embarrassed you; if you were unlucky, he exposed and humiliated you. He never made anybody feel confident or good. In our lingo, he left everybody 😦 and nobody 🙂 .

What if Socrates had talked to Patanjali?

This is quite worth thinking about.

You recall that Patanjali was my nomination for the title of “the world’s greatest thinker ever“. He was the original sage of Ashtanga Yoga. Which is to say: Whereas the Bhagavad Gita outlines Ashtanga Yoga (which it calls “Raja Yoga”: “regal union” or “kingly discipline”) in a narrative form, Patanjali was the first to analyze the “how to”, step by step.

As it happens, he had a lot to say about something that Socrates valued: truth, or Satya in Sanskrit. It is one of the Yamas, or ethical principles, that yogis must adhere to if they want to embark on the journey that leads to enlightenment. Don’t lie, in Commandment language, to others or yourself.

But Patanjali is more subtle than Socrates. Another of the Yamas is Ahimsa, non-violence: Don’t hurt people (others or yourself), physically or psychologically.

The subtlety lies in understanding that Satya and Ahimsa, truth and gentleness, often conflict. It may be true that you are ugly, but do I need to tell you that and hurt you? In Socrates’ case, it may have been true that his interlocutors were, if not ignorant, at least far less wise than they pretended. But did he need to humiliate them publicly?

There was widespread consensus that his negativity helped the cause of truth only insofar as it tore down certain falsehoods. That’s a step forward! But Socrates did not then build on the rubble with a positive truth.

Patanjali might ask Socrates: What, sir, were you trying to accomplish by humiliating your opponents in your dialectic? Did you not forget your own distinction between eristic dialogue, in which the parties try to win, and proper dialectic, which brings people closer together in the common search for truth?

Sometimes, in life and world history, one must be violent in the name of truth. Other times truth is not worth violence. There must be a higher purpose, a positive goal. Otherwise a gadfly is just another gnat that bites to feed on the blood of others.

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