Friday, March 16, 2012

Haruki Murakami, Ashtanga practice, and teenage boys

"Most people are not looking for provable truths... truth is often accompanied by intense pain, and almost no one is looking for painful truths. What people need is beautiful, comforting stories that make them feel as if their lives have some meaning. Which is where religion comes from...

If a certain belief--call it "Belief A"--makes the life of that man or this woman appear to be something of deep meaning, then for them Belief A is the truth. If Belief B makes their lives appear to be powerless and puny, then Belief B turns out to be a falsehood. The distinction is quite clear. If someone insists that Belief B is the truth, people will probably hate him, ignore him, or, in some cases, attack him. It means nothing to them that Belief B might be logical or provable. Most people barely manage to preserve their sanity by denying and rejecting images of themselves as powerless and puny."

Haruki Murakami, 1Q84

Over the last couple of weeks, I have been intently reading 1Q84. Which may explain my lower level of blogging activity. I've been enjoying the novel so far, but it's a pretty intense read, not easy to get through. To begin with, it's almost a thousand pages, and it appears that Murakami is trying to squeeze every idea he has ever had about the world, every bizarre plot device and development, and every strange or interesting character he can think of into these 900 plus pages. You almost have to be a little ADD to be able to keep up with all these things. The novel is a love story, science-fiction tale and detective/mystery story all rolled into one. Personally, I kind of feel the love story (which is basically the central story-line tying everything else together) to be a bit of a distraction from the many interesting themes that he brings up. But then again, maybe Murakami is trying to appeal to as broad an audience as possible. Who knows?

Anyway, the above passage from 1Q84 really speaks to me. I think there is much truth to the idea that most people (including, probably, myself) prefer to believe in beautiful narratives about life and the universe than to confront certain painful truths, especially if these truths contradict the beautiful narratives they want to believe.

Actually, this is kind of related to what I wrote about in my previous post. Think about it this way. We basically have two beliefs here:

Belief A: Ashtanga was designed for teenage boys.

Belief B: Ashtanga was not designed for teenage boys.

If you have been reading this blog for a while and/or know a few things about what many in the greater yoga world think about Ashtanga, you won't need me to tell you that many in the greater yoga world subscribe to Belief A. There are many possible reasons why people might subscribe to Belief A. One possible reason might be misinformation or indoctrination (I would personally call it "brainwashing", but I get the sense that I've already upset enough people as it is...). For instance, I hear that certain very reputable big name yoga studios which conduct teacher training programs all across the country actually tell their teacher trainees that Ashtanga was originally designed for young boys to channel their hyperactive energies and focus their minds. My acupuncturist, who recently completed a 200 hour training program with one such studio (apparently the program is designed in such a way that upon graduation, the graduate will be qualified to teach, among other things, Ashtanga/Vinyasa classes), also voiced the same belief to me when she heard that I practice only Ashtanga (see this post).

In addition, I also have a hunch that perhaps people subscribe to Belief A because it makes life easier for them, in a sense. What do I mean? Well, if it is indeed true that Ashtanga was designed for teenage boys, then if you are not a teenage boy, you have a perfect reason (excuse?) not to practice Ashtanga: It gets you off the hook, so to speak! Well, okay, maybe there isn't any hook to get off of, in the first place, but I think you see what I'm getting at: The general idea is that if there is a belief that makes your life a little easier, why not believe it?

So why don't I believe Belief A? For one thing, because I really don't think it's true. And I also happen to be an Ashtanga Fundamentalist. And it is actually easier to be an effective Ashtanga Fundamentalist if you believe that Ashtanga was not designed for teenage boys: Otherwise, you will basically be going into every practice with the idea that you are doing a practice that was designed for somebody else's body. This can't be healthy, energetically speaking.         

Anyhow, I think I've written enough for now: I have quite probably reached my daily one percent theory limit, and need to get on with other things. So I'll sign off for now.


  1. Dear Nobel, thanks for your phantastic writing,and bringing together the novel and the teenageboys - brilliant! i just bought 1Q84 as audiobook to practice my english...(native germanspeaker)greetings from munich bettina

    1. Thanks Bettina. I hope you enjoy 1Q84 as much as I do. Maybe you can write some reviews on your blog as you read/listen to it? :-)

  2. Wow you reading 1Q84... brave you! James was reading it forever! good that you are enjoying it.

    As per the belief... these days, after reading I Am That, I am noticing that all "this is true" and "this is not true", especially when it does not come to something vital as in "standing in front of the incoming train will kill me" are just words... just waves that come and go... but the infinite truth lies much behind the thoughts projected on the screen generating arguments

    In the end, at least for me, the truth that counts is that the practice works, one way or the other...

    1. I hope James enjoyed 1Q84 :-)

      "In the end, at least for me, the truth that counts is that the practice works, one way or the other..."

      It definitely counts a lot for me that the practice works, one way or the other. But I am vacillating with regard to the further question of "Does anything else matter?" Sometimes, I think that it really doesn't matter whether or not the practice was originally designed for teenage boys (even if it were, nothing can change the fact that we are practicing now and benefiting from it). But there's always a part of me that is attached to things like that...

  3. Nobel, this is so great. I really enjoy your blog posts (and yours, too, Claudia!) - both of you are funny, pragmatic, and insightful. (I've been avoiding IQ84, but I think I will give it a shot after reading this.)

    Being a middle aged woman (is 45 considered middle aged?!) who started practicing Ashtanga when I was 30, I was always mildly irritated by the belief that the "Ashtanga practice was designed for teenage boys" - and, along with that ideology, the belief that those who didn't fit "the mold" should NOT practice Ashtanga.

    In fact, I was told I probably shouldn't do Ashtanga by some practitioners of the more, shall we say, gentle hatha yoga forms. Besides the "it was designed for teenage boys" thing, I have also heard or read so many things against Ashtanga practice: it could make my female body "muscular" (i.e. unattractive); it was too competitive; it was too militaristic; it was too repetitive/tough on the joints; it was too physically challenging. And, my favorite, that it was "boring"


    I agree, many of these squawks of protest and negativity arose from folks who wanted a bit of an excuse/validation for not persevering with the rigors of the Ashtanga practice.

    The practice works for me and I am happy I found it - but, still, I can also understand how it doesn't resonate for some. It is hard! You have to do it every day! Eventually, you will get to a point where you are really stuck and you can be there for a long, long time.

    So, I think you have to be someone who doesn't get discouraged too easily to do Ashtanga (in fact, I work quite a bit on developing my students' ability to persevere and not get discouraged. I can understand the strong desire to just give up and do something "easier". But, I can't help but wonder: are the results the same with the less rigorous systems?)

    I think this attitude arises as well from the natural instinct of wanting to know the team you are on is the best team - Belief A vs. Belief B, as Haruki Marukami points out. ("Other yogas are not as good as my yoga - THIS is the best yoga practice." ) Even Ashtanga folks can have this propensity. What we all need to add to that statement are the words "for me" to make it a correct statement.

    1. Thanks for sharing, Michelle. I just visited your studio's website. It's so great that you are running a mysore program in western MA!

      Yes, Ashtanga does seem to get a lot of bad press out there. I think the only other style out there that can rival Ashtanga in amount of bad press generated is probably Bikram :-)

      'Besides the "it was designed for teenage boys" thing, I have also heard or read so many things against Ashtanga practice: it could make my female body "muscular" (i.e. unattractive); it was too competitive; it was too militaristic; it was too repetitive/tough on the joints; it was too physically challenging. And, my favorite, that it was "boring"'

      Not being female, I can't really relate to the part about making the female body "muscular"/unattractive. But I can definitely relate to the rest. Actually, I think there is a grain of truth in all of this. But as with almost anything in this world, there are two sides to the coin. Here are my thoughts on these things:

      (1) Too competitive/militaristic: Ashtanga can be this way, if one chooses to make one's practice competitive and/or militaristic. And I definitely go through such phases myself, especially when I am trying to master new postures or trying out new ways of getting into or exiting postures. But I see these phases as natural phases of the practice that people sometimes have to go through in order to become more whole as persons. It's just like with life in general: We go through phases where, whether we like it or not, we have to compete with ourselves or others (e.g. for jobs, or to achieve certain things that we need to achieve in order to fulfill our dreams or goals). Why should the practice be any different? If anything, the practice serves as a sort of safe space where we can compete, see our competing selves for what they are, and then let go of them. Personally, I think that people sometimes try so hard to be "evolved" that they deny that there is any competition at all, whether in life or in yoga. I think that in doing so, they are in denial, and ultimately setting themselves up for more pain and suffering in the long run.

      (2)Too repetitive/tough on the joints: Again, I also think that this may well be true. But I think this teaches us to use our body effectively and efficiently: If one is going to use the same joints to perform the same actions everyday, one has to pay much more attention to alignment and healthy movement patterns than otherwise. So in this sense, what might be seen as a bad thing actually becomes a good thing :-) Besides, life in general is like that too: Walking is also very repetitive/tough on the joints. What are you going to do, stop walking? :-)

      (3) Too boring: Wow... I really don't know if I can relate to this... do these people actually do the practice? Or is "boring" simply a nice way of saying "This is too physically challenging to be doing everyday"?

      Wow, I think I just wrote enough in this reply to be able to write a new blog post :-)

  4. I know, that "Ashtanga is boring"critique still astounds me.

    (I had a new student in a led Primary class say one time, "When do we get to do the "fun" postures?!" I guess she was looking for a chance to do "Wild Thing".)

    And, as for being too militaristic - well, "without effort, there is no benefit!"

    RE: muscular women - all the long-time female Ashtanga practitioners I know are beautiful, dignified, and very attractive women. I think that even though this woman - - didn't find what she was looking for (?) doing Ashtanga, in general, the practice in the long run does help make the human physique quite beautiful, no matter the gender.

    Certainly, everyone at the Confluence was lovely and beautiful to behold (men and women) - and not just physically. The practice brings out the light in people - it makes people smile with their eyes. Ever notice that in your students? Very sweet to see it happen.

    p.s. if you are ever in Northampton or the Five College area (Smith, Mount Holyoke, UMass, Amherst, Hampshire colleges) visit our little shala.