Saturday, November 12, 2011

Haruki Murakami, practice and fairness

Here are some more insightful words from Haruki Murakami:

"...if I don't do anything I tend to put on the pounds. My wife's the opposite, since she can eat as much as she likes (she doesn't eat a lot of them, but can never turn down anything sweet), never exercise, and still not put on any weight. She has no extra fat at all. Life just isn't fair, is how it used to strike me. Some people can work their butts off and never get what they're aiming for, while others can get it without any effort at all.

But when I think about it, having the kind of body that easily puts on weight was perhaps a blessing in disguise. In other words, if I don't want to gain weight I have to work out hard every day, watch what I eat, and cut down on indulgences. Life can be tough, but as long as you don't stint on the effort, your metabolism will greatly improve with these habits, and you'll end up much healthier, not to mention stronger. To a certain extent, you can even slow down the effects of aging. But people who naturally keep the weight off no matter what don't need to exercise or watch their weight in order to stay trim. There can't be many of them who would go out of their way to take these troublesome measures when they don't need to. Which is why, in many cases, their physical strength deteriorates as they age. If you don't exercise, your muscles will naturally weaken, as will your bones. Some of my readers may be the kind of people who easily gain weight, but the only way to understand what's really fair is to take a long-range view of things. For the reasons I give above, I think this physical nuisance should be viewed in a positive way, as a blessing. We should consider ourselves lucky that the red light is so clearly visible. Of course, it's not always easy to see things this way."

Haruki Murakami, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running

As somebody who used to be at least 20 to 30 pounds heavier than what I weigh now, I can totally relate to Murakami's words here. And without being totally conscious of it, I have also, like Murakami, come to see the fact that I tend to put on weight relatively easily as a blessing rather than a burden. If I didn't have this physiological tendency, I would probably not have gone out of my way to find ways and means to keep myself at a healthy weight and size, and would quite definitely not have embarked on the path that led me to Ashtanga practice.

And I personally think Murakami's quite right that regular exercise can slow down the effects of aging. Here's a personal example: Just yesterday, I was chatting with a fellow faculty member in the coffeeshop that I usually do my work in. We had run into each other many times before at this coffeeshop, but this was the first time we actually struck up a conversation. I assumed from the very beginning of the conversation that he knew that I was also a faculty member at the same university. So we were chatting, and he asked me which department I was in. "Philosophy", I replied. And then he asked me who my academic advisor was. At first, I thought he had misspoken, and was meaning to ask who my department chairperson was. So I told him who my department chair was. He said, "No, I mean the person who advises you about what courses to take each semester." And then the realization struck me: He had been thinking I was an undergrad the whole time! I had to clarify and tell him that I was actually faculty. And he exclaimed, "Wow, but you look so young and vibrant! You must take very good care of yourself! All the other guys in philosophy are so, so..." He faltered, looking for the politically correct expression. "So much older", I completed his sentence for him, thereby saving him the trouble of having to find a diplomatic way of saying what was on his mind.  And I also realized that, if I were a more savvy businessperson, this could also have been a very good opportunity for me to advertise my yoga class to him ("Yes, I take good care of myself by doing yoga everyday! Speaking of yoga, would you be interested in taking a yoga class...").

But enough of talking about myself. Coming back to Murakami's words, I think his words apply not just to maintaining body weight and staying fit and healthy. They apply as well to asana practice. Whether we like it or not, many of us are less well-endowed in certain aspects of the practice compared to other practitioners: For instance, some people naturally have less open hips than others, some are less back-bendy than others. Due to certain lifestyle habits, some practitioners may also have certain muscular-skeletal or nervous system issues that make them more injury-prone in some parts of their bodies than other practitioners. As Murakami notes, very often, life just doesn't seem fair: Some people just seem to glide through their asanas, progressing steadily and seemingly unstoppably through the various series, while other lesser mortals seem to crawl along in the lower reaches of primary.

But perhaps, as Murakami suggests, "the only way to understand what's really fair is to take a long-range view of things." Seen in this light, the fact that this or that limitation or issue or injury stares us so squarely in the face is a blessing: It presents us with an invaluable opportunity to understand our bodies and its imbalances more intimately than somebody who's never had to struggle with these limitations. In the process, we gain more body awareness and wisdom, and discover how to do this practice in a way that keeps us strong, flexible and balanced for the rest of our lives in this body. In this way, what originally appears to be unfairness or injustice is in fact a certain unique kind of fairness, a fairness that we can understand and appreciate only through the day-to-day and moment-to-moment struggle of consistent practice. So perhaps there is more fairness in the universe than meets the eye :-) 


  1. Ah! Great post:) I share the sentiment whole-heartedly Nobel. I really like this guy BTW:) If it was not for my voluptuous lower body, I wouldn't have taken my first (cough) Bikram class and embark on my yogic journey. 15 yrs later, I am 45 yrs. young and the mother of a 17 1/2 yr. old college student, people are astounded when they find out both of those facts! I too use my youthful appearance to promote yoga in general and of course, my classes, shameless plugs but very effective I find:) I do of course take it one step further and share with interested parties my vegan, gluten-free diet....but that's another story:) Always enjoy your posts Nobel, thanks:)

  2. an insightful post about relating Murukami's words to our asana someone who is not flexible and still struggling in some of the primary's a blessing in disguise as I am more aware of every part of my body and is learning to open up those tight spots..:)

    love & light

  3. Those who are naturally skinny have less inclination to exercise and eat properly to stay healthy, because this society associates skinniness with healthiness. I find it kind of sad. Some people exercise healthily and eat right, but are naturally a little more plump than the conventional standard of beauty, and people look at them as needing to lose some weight. I guess as you say, the true meaning of who's life style is healthier regardless of how they physically look will start to become apparent at an older age.

  4. I am in the latter camp, and have been long before I took yoga seriously. Weight issues are my cross to bear, and anyone who thinks I was looking for a magic bullet to "make the problem go away" - even when I had been grossly obese ... was not thinking right. The naturally fit and muscular do not understand this.

    At the time, I'd been a step aerobicizin' fool with not much conception of caloric intake ...

    Once I'd reached my late 30's--a few years before that time--I seem to have developed a quite longer-view perspective. It's now 20 years later and I've kept off major weight for over 7 years (with a few backslides) ...

    I credit my pilates fusion yoga practice for maintaining a weight lowered by about 70 pounds.

  5. I have told you before how much I love this book. I seldom re-read books I've read before, but you've inspired me to take this slim book out of the shelf and take another look at these passages you quote from. I need to hear this right now, perfect timing.

  6. so well said - nothing to add ;-) ivana

  7. Thanks for sharing, JayaKrishna. I did not know that you started with Bikram :-) I have never tried Bikram before; I am a very big sweat hog, and am worried that I will pass out from losing too much water :-)

    In any case... it's great that you use your appearance to promote your yoga classes. Perhaps I should be more forthcoming with this too :-)

  8. Thanks for sharing, Karin. Yes, I think the greatest gift of the practice is enhanced body and breath awareness; everything else, as Guruji would say, is just bending. Love and light to you too :-)

    Yyogini, it is definitely true that people in this society tend to associate skinniness with health, whether or not the person is actually healthy. The beauty of the practice, in my opinion, is that it starts from the outside, and encourages us to look inward for the source of wellness, beauty and goodness.

  9. Thanks for sharing, Tina. Very inspiring. I think (and I think you will agree) that when one is truly in touch with oneself on a deep level, one will naturally take the actions necessary to manifest a healthy body and mind (and with it, a healthy weight).

    Thanks, sereneflavor. I'm very happy that I have caused you to reread this book. Oh, btw, congratulations on your recent opening :-)

    Thanks, Ivana :-)