Tuesday, October 30, 2012

99% percent similar; or, how some people who watch yoga videos may not be seeking yoga instruction

Yesterday evening, I attended a book reading by an author whom we ("we" as in the philosophy department, of which I am a member) invited to campus. I was half expecting (more than half-expecting, actually) to see a smug, pot-bellied middle-aged white guy read dourly and dryly through a section of what he thought was his great book, and answer a few questions in a perfunctory, smug manner. Although I am definitely guilty of stereotyping here, stereotypes, like rumors, often have a grain of truth: Over the years, I have encountered more than my fair share of philosophers who actually fit this stereotype.

So I was very pleasantly surprised to have my stereotype broken last night. The author in question (I'm not going to tell you who he is, because I try to maintain a certain separation of blog and work here, but if you really want to know who this guy is, email me, and I'll tell you...) turned out to be this unassuming Bostonian who has written a few novels that take a humorous, slightly irreverent, yet ultimately charitable view towards things religious and spiritual. As I listened to him read sections from his very entertaining prose and interact with the audience, I couldn't help feeling, in light of all those wonderful things that happened in the yoga world in Encinitas lately, that perhaps too many of us take ourselves just a little too seriously, that perhaps, when all is said and done, life and its contradictions might be just a little more bearable if we learn to laugh at ourselves and also laugh with others.

There was one thing the author said that I found to be quite insightful. He was telling us that he is basically a political junkie, and listens to late-night talk shows hosted by people from every point on the political spectrum. Listening to these shows often make him sad, because he realizes that when it comes down to it, we are actually 99% percent similar to each other, but people like talk show hosts (and probably politicians too, with the aid of the media) really exploit the remaining 1% that make us different (our socio-economic backgrounds, religions, political persuasions, sexual orientation, etc, etc.) to sow fear and division among us. The result is a very divided country in which people talk at each other rather than with each other. Which is not to say that our differences are not important (they are), but why allow these differences to make life more difficult than they need to be?

Honestly, I can't say that I can always see that we are 99% percent similar; truthfully, even as I am writing this now, there's a part of me that finds it difficult to believe that I, a Chinese-guy-born-and-grown-up-in-Singapore-who-moved-to-the-United-States-when-he-was-twenty-five-who-does-Ashtanga-and-stopped-eating-animals-some-years-ago-who-also-teaches-philosophy-who-likes-double-espresso-and-still-sometimes-has-cravings-for-fried-chicken-or-fish-and-chips-even-though-he-has-ostensibly-stopped-eating-animals, can actually be 99% similar to you who are reading this now. But the more I run this 99% similarity thesis, as I shall call it, through my head, the more I sense that it is true: Over and above our differences, we are probably much more similar to one another than different.

Here's something else I heard on NPR the other day that also reinforces this 99% similarity thesis. This economics professor at some Ivy League university conducted an experiment in which she got a random group of people with very different socio-economic backgrounds and political persuasions to come together in a room (now, why don't I ever get to conduct cool experiments like this that make it onto NPR? ;-)). After a round of introductions in which everybody told everybody where they are from, what they do, etc., they were all assigned to try to solve a problem together. The economist reports that all these people were able to work together amiably, despite their differences. The basic idea is that if you get people to sit down face-to-face and talk about things together, people can often set aside their differences and find workable solutions to common problems. Which is, of course, a bit hard to believe sometimes, given all the differences that are being aired everywhere in seemingly every corner of the mass media during this election season.


I'm not sure what I'm really trying to say in this post. Maybe I'm not really trying to say anything in particular; just thinking and writing aloud, as I often do. And maybe, if you happen to be on the east coast and are sheltering from Hurricane Sandy (I hope you're alright; but I'm guessing you must be, if you can read this), my random thinking-aloud musings here might just offer you a modicum of comfort and companionship in this, uh, dark and wet hour.

But maybe this is what everything comes down to: Different people come at things from very different angles. Or, to to put it in a more fancy way, different people see reality with different lenses. And if we forget that our differences are due in large part to the different lenses that we wear to see reality with, and forget that underneath the lenses we wear, we are really all quite similar, we end up believing that we are really very different when we are not.

Since this is supposed to be a yoga blog, here's an example from yoga that might illustrate this point. Kino, as many of us know, has posted many, many instructional yoga videos on Youtube; so much so that I recently speculated that if the human race were to suddenly become extinct tomorrow, alien archeologists will probably stumble upon her videos a million years from now, and be able to learn Ashtanga yoga from these videos. But I'm digressing; as I was saying, Kino has made many instructional Youtube videos. One of them which has received many views recently is the one on Yoganidrasana below:

Kino, as you can see, demonstrates and talks us through the posture with admirable ease and clarity of instruction. However, it appears that not everybody who has viewed the video thus far was looking for yoga instruction; this is very obvious if you look at some of the comments on the actual Youtube post (two of which actually made it to the "top comments" section).

Kino herself has noticed this, and has remarked wryly on her Facebook page, "So many views in such a short time. Not sure everyone is watching for yoga, though." A couple of her concerned Facebook followers have also noticed this, and have advised Kino to remove these "unacceptable and offensive" comments. 

I'm not here to advise Kino on what to do; I'm sure she will do what is right and most appropriate. I just think that this example illustrates what I was saying, in a rather weird kind of way. Whoever made those comments could just be a little "crazy" (as one of Kino's followers puts it). Or, for all we know, they could actually be trolling the internet in a sexually-charged state of mind, and certain yoga postures--especially Yoganidrasana, which bares and offers the pelvic region to the heavens--might strike them as being inviting in a sexual manner. For all we know, there might even be porn videos out there that feature some of the, ahem, characters in exactly this posture (I don't know this for sure, one way or the other; remember, I'm a yogic prude...). 

So if my above speculation is correct, then the people who left these "unacceptable and offensive" comments may actually sincerely mean what they say, as creepy as this might sound to some of you. Is this a good thing? Well, the answer is probably no, if acting out one's sexual fantasies using instructional yoga videos (especially those with Kino in them... yikes!) is, well, inappropriate. But here's another way of looking at this matter: What if, just what if, these instructional videos happen to be the online sex-troller's first real exposure to yoga, as unlikely as this might sound? What if, after watching these videos, the sex-troller starts to ask, "Hmm... could there really be more to this body position than as a position for sexual activity?" And this question then leads him (or her) down a path of inquiry which eventually leads him (or her) to become a serious student of yoga? In other words, what if being exposed to these videos causes the sex-troller to put on a different set of lenses, so to speak, and see the same physical things in a different light? Unlikely, I know, but hey, crazier things have happened on this planet... 

At any rate, at least this much can be said: Kino may be doing way more good in the world with her videos than she suspects...                  


  1. Many paths on the same journey.
    I was introduced to yoga (ashtanga to be specific) after hooking up with a guy at a party and being particularly impressed with his physique. That and his description of ashtanga as 'acrobatic yoga'. Not the most noble of intentions initially but it started me on a path that quickly transformed into something else (though I still admire a good yoga body).

    1. Who doesn't admire a good yoga body--or a good anything body, for that matter? :-) Your experience is interesting, because I also started out with not the most noble of intentions: I basically stumbled into a power yoga class because somebody told me it was a good way to meet women. Here's my post about this:


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  3. I love the conclusion of your post! :D Funny, a bit subversive but always respectful, well done!

  4. Everything has a duality - this is YouTube's dark side. Once you put yourself out there, there is no censorship! It's rather unfortunate that the sight of a woman's pelvis inspires people to be crude, but I have long since learned that the world is not the sexist-free, gender-neutral, respectful-to-women society I once hoped it was. (Was I ever naive, or what?!)

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