Friday, November 11, 2011

Some random thoughts on Haruki Murakami, lifestyle changes, the yoga practice, and teaching yoga

During my trip to Portland last week, I bought a few books for myself. I figured that if I read a little bit of these books everyday, I might be able to trick myself into thinking that I'm still on vacation when I was no longer on vacation. So far, it's worked. :-) It's really interesting how taking just a few minutes out of my everyday life to read something unrelated to work really refreshes me and gives me a new perspective on my everyday life. One might even say that a good book is a portable vacation :-)

Right now, I'm reading Haruki Murakami's What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. It's his memoir about his thoughts about writing and running, and how they intertwine and define his life. There are many things he says in the book that really speak to what I feel about life and the yoga practice. For example, he writes:

"People are at their best at different times of day, but I'm definitely a morning person. That's when I can focus and finish up important work I have to do. Afterward I work out or do other errands that don't take much concentration. At the end of the day I relax and don't do any more work. I read, listen to music, take it easy, and try to go to bed early. This is the pattern I've mostly followed up till today. Thanks to this, I've been able to work efficiently these past twenty-four years. It's a lifestyle, though, that doesn't allow for much nightlife, and sometimes your relationships with other people become problematic. Some people even get mad at you, because they invite you to go somewhere or do something with them and you keep turning them down.

I'm struck by how, except when you're young, you really need to prioritize in life, figuring out in what order you should divide up your time and energy. If you don't get that sort of system set by a certain age, you'll lack focus and your life will be out of balance. I placed the highest priority on the sort of life that lets me focus on writing, not associating with all the people around me. I felt that the indispensable relationship I should build in my life was not with a specific person, but with an unspecified number of readers. As long as I got my day-to-day life set up so that each work was an improvement over the last, then many of my readers would welcome whatever life I chose for myself. Shouldn't this be my duty as a novelist, and my top priority?...

In other words, you can't please everybody."

Murakami's words here remind me of what I went through when I first started practicing yoga. I was in grad school when I went to my first yoga class, and from my very first class, I knew that this yoga thing was something I wanted to do for a long, long time. (For more details, see this post). Soon after that, I quickly realized that if I was going to keep doing yoga everyday, I was going to have to change my lifestyle, go to bed earlier and get up earlier; like many academics I knew at that time, my life revolved around getting papers graded and getting research done (actually, it still does...), and I would often stay up very late to finish papers or write. You can say that yoga single-handedly turned me into a morning person.

Around this time, I remember chatting with a grad student from one of the so-called hard sciences. I told her that I spent a couple of hours doing yoga every morning. She responded by asking me in a slightly derisive manner how I could possibly have the time to spend a few hours everyday on nothing but yoga, and added, "Perhaps I need to switch my major to philosophy!" [Read: Unlike people in the hard sciences, who work very hard all the time and are very disciplined, philosophy grads are just a bunch of pot-smoking, yoga-practicing hippies...] To her, as to many other grads, spending a few hours a day on anything not remotely related to work was just an unjustifiable waste of time (of course, she conveniently forgot that many academics, including those in the hard sciences, spend a lot of hours on things that are somewhat related to work (going out for drinks with colleagues, for instance) but which are probably not very productive in the long run either).

In any case, I somehow managed to resist reacting to her not-so-polite jab (maybe the yoga was already starting to work, even at that time). Instead, I replied that although work is important, it is just that: It is work, and even if I should have to drop out of grad school (God forbid!), I would still be able to find something else to do. But yoga is something I intend to do for the rest of my life. So which is more important? I can't remember her exact response to this, but I think we basically engaged in a little more polite banter before she slinked away. Well... you can't please everybody, right?

But it's not all bad. The cool thing about changing your lifestyle and worldview is that although it is difficult in the beginning (i.e. getting snubbed by people, or becoming the subject of not-so-polite jabs), if you keep at it, you'll realize that even your friends start to change: They will start to see the value of your new lifestyle and come to respect it. Those who don't will gradually drift out of your life, to be replaced by others who do. So, you lose some, you gain some. :-)

Murakami continues:

"Even when I ran my bar I followed the same policy. [It turns out that Murakami ran a jazz bar for a number of years before he became a full-time novelist. Who knew?] A lot of customers came to the bar. If one out of ten enjoyed the place and said he'd come again, that was enough. If one out of ten was a repeat customer, then the business would survive. To put it the other way, it didn't matter if nine out of ten didn't like my bar. This realization lifted a weight off my shoulders. Still, I had to make sure that the one person who did like the place really liked it. In order to make sure he did, I had to make my philosophy and stance clear-cut, and patiently maintain that stance no matter what. This is what I learned through running a business."

I can't help feeling that the same thing applies to teaching yoga. At the risk of sounding very dogmatic, what this means to me is this: One should stick to teaching what one practices, and not go out of one's way to change one's content to please the student and make the class more "palatable" or "enjoyable" for the student. In other words, if you teach Ashtanga (that's the only style I can talk about, since it's what I practice), you should teach it as closely as possible to the way you practice and were taught. Adding fancy stuff like soothing music or mood lighting or incense, while probably not a bad thing in itself, probably won't do very much for the quality of your teaching. In my (humble) opinion, we are here to deliver something to the student (the Ashtanga method), and so long as even one out of ten students "get" it and appreciate it, we have succeeded. Don't get me wrong: I'm not saying that we should go out of our way to antagonize or alienate people. But at the same time, I can't help feeling that a lot of these yoga classes out there that try to make yoga fit the lives of people who otherwise wouldn't have anything to do with yoga (think "yoga for wine-lovers", "yoga for chocolate-lovers", "yoga for sex-lovers"... okay, I really don't know if there is a "yoga for sex-lovers" yet, but I wouldn't be surprised if it's already on somebody's business horizon somewhere...) are barking up the wrong tree. They might attract lots of curiosity-seekers and be successful in the short-term, but I'm really not sure if they will ultimately do yoga (and themselves) any favors in the long term.

I suppose many people out there may disagree with me on this point. But even if you see yoga purely as a business, it still remains true that a business that tries to be everything to everybody usually ends up being nothing to anybody. Same goes with yoga: If one tries too hard to make yoga something for everybody, one ends up teaching something that works for nobody.

Just my two cents', as always.    


  1. I do agree. Gave this a lot of thought too. In particular to Ashtanga, i feel the practice is in itself a teacher, yes.

  2. I agree as well with you and Claudia:) Be well:)

  3. Great post, Nobel. I completely agree with you and relate closely to Murakami's thoughts as well.

  4. Thanks for sharing, Claudia, JayaKrishna and Megan. Yes, the practice is the ultimate teacher, and we are here to help the student experience this.

  5. Right on Nobel, I'm right there with you. It's funny, this issue keeps popping up for me lately, thanks for the timely post!

  6. Thanks Tom. I'm glad you find this post timely for you :-)