Sunday, November 18, 2012

Learning, struggle, and Ashtanga Yoga

I just read this article on NPR about how eastern and western cultures have very different views about the relationship between struggle and the learning process. Although the article isn't about yoga, I can't help feeling that the insights that it offers sheds some light on how many of us in the west perceive Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga, and may even shed some light on why Ashtanga isn't more widely practiced than it is.

But I'm getting ahead of myself here. If you'll bear with me, I'll start by quoting a long passage from this article:

'In 1979, when Jim Stigler was still a graduate student at the University of Michigan, he went to Japan to research teaching methods and found himself sitting in the back row of a crowded fourth-grade math class.

"The teacher was trying to teach the class how to draw three-dimensional cubes on paper," Stigler explains, "and one kid was just totally having trouble with it. His cube looked all cockeyed, so the teacher said to him, 'Why don't you go put yours on the board?' So right there I thought, 'That's interesting! He took the one who can't do it and told him to go and put it on the board.' "

Stigler knew that in American classrooms, it was usually the best kid in the class who was invited to the board. And so he watched with interest as the Japanese student dutifully came to the board and started drawing, but still couldn't complete the cube. Every few minutes, the teacher would ask the rest of the class whether the kid had gotten it right, and the class would look up from their work, and shake their heads no. And as the period progressed, Stigler noticed that he — Stigler — was getting more and more anxious.

"I realized that I was sitting there starting to perspire," he says, "because I was really empathizing with this kid. I thought, 'This kid is going to break into tears!' "

But the kid didn't break into tears. Stigler says the child continued to draw his cube with equanimity. "And at the end of the class, he did make his cube look right! And the teacher said to the class, 'How does that look, class?' And they all looked up and said, 'He did it!' And they broke into applause." The kid smiled a huge smile and sat down, clearly proud of himself.

Stigler is now a professor of psychology at UCLA who studies teaching and learning around the world, and he says it was this small experience that first got him thinking about how differently East and West approach the experience of intellectual struggle.

"I think that from very early ages we [in America] see struggle as an indicator that you're just not very smart," Stigler says. "It's a sign of low ability — people who are smart don't struggle, they just naturally get it, that's our folk theory. Whereas in Asian cultures they tend to see struggle more as an opportunity."

In Eastern cultures, Stigler says, it's just assumed that struggle is a predictable part of the learning process. Everyone is expected to struggle in the process of learning, and so struggling becomes a chance to show that you, the student, have what it takes emotionally to resolve the problem by persisting through that struggle.

"They've taught them that suffering can be a good thing," Stigler says. "I mean it sounds bad, but I think that's what they've taught them."

Granting that there is a lot of cultural diversity within East and West and it's possible to point to counterexamples in each, Stigler still sums up the difference this way: For the most part in American culture, intellectual struggle in schoolchildren is seen as an indicator of weakness, while in Eastern cultures it is not only tolerated but is often used to measure emotional strength.'


Thanks for reading the above passage. Honestly, I have some reservations about agreeing wholeheartedly with Stigler. After all, there are studies that show that Americans are one of the hardest working peoples in the world, at least in terms of number of hours spent in the office per week and number of vacation days taken in a year by the average American worker. We also know that many Americans hold in high regard the image of the self-made entrepreneur/businessman who built himself or herself up from zilch by struggling tooth and nail to get where he or she is today.

So it is perhaps too much of a generalization to say that Americans necessarily see struggle as a sign that one is not very smart. But maybe Stigler is trying to make a more specific point: Maybe what he's trying to say is that struggle in the classroom or in any kind of formal learning environment is commonly seen as a sign that you are not book-smart or academically inclined. After all, in high school, the kids who do well in math or science just "get it". At least that's how it looks from the outside. Actually, this picture seems to make sense: If nothing else, it might explain the anti-intellectualism that pervades so much of American popular culture. After all, if the book-smart people are people who just "get it" without having to struggle, then the rest of us common mortals who don't have the smarts simply have to suck it up, struggle, and hopefully make good through our struggles.

A bit simplistic, perhaps, but I think there is a grain of truth to this picture. And at the risk of reading too much into things and drawing connections that are not substantiated by hard data, I can't help feeling that Stigler's observations about eastern and western attitudes towards learning and struggle are also relevant to how Ashtanga is commonly perceived in the western yoga community.

As you probably know, Ashtanga practice is not easy. It involves deliberately making yourself do things that, for the most part, aren't glamorous or nice to look at (especially true if you are doing that seemingly interminable sequence of forward bends and hip-openers called primary series), and which are physically and mentally challenging. And whatever series you happen to be working on,  you can be assured that a considerable amount of struggling is built into your practice: Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say that the entire point of the practice is to push you to your perceived limits and make you sweat and struggle. And of course, hardcore Ashtangis/sadomasochists do it six days a week.

Not surprisingly, Ashtanga isn't everybody's favorite style of yoga. There are lots of reasons for this, but one oft-cited reason is that Ashtanga is "boring", "repetitive", and "hard". The cynical part of me believes that at least some of these people who say that Ashtanga is not their cup of chai because it is boring and repetitive and hard are using the allegedly boring and repetitive and hard nature of Ashtanga to conceal their real reason for not liking Ashtanga: It makes them struggle. Or, perhaps more to the point, they are humiliated by the idea of having to struggle. Especially in yoga. After all, isn't struggle supposed to be anathema to yoga? If yoga is supposed to make you feel good about yourself and blissful and all that, wouldn't the very notion of struggling in yoga be an oxymoron? Furthermore, if you grew up in an educational culture that socializes you to see struggle as a sign that you are not "getting it" and are "not good at" something--whether that something is drawing a three-dimensional cube or calculus or Ardha Baddha Padma Paschimottanasana--it would be only natural for you to see Ashtanga practice and the way it makes you struggle (and struggle in public too, if you practice at a shala) as a systematic attempt at self-inflicted humiliation, as a needlessly brutal method of shredding your self-esteem to pieces day after day, week after week, and month after month.  

Of course, if you have been practicing Ashtanga for a while, you will know that in a sense, shredding your self-esteem to pieces is the point of the practice. The practice breaks you down, and then builds you back up. And in the process, you come to recognize that what you thought was the shredding of your self-esteem is actually the destruction of your ego, something that needs to happen in order for something better to grow in its place. Creative destruction, if you will. But it's not always easy to see and appreciate this, especially when it's happening in the heat of practice... Speaking of which, I think I'm going to go make some dinner now, so I can go to bed early and get up early in the morning to have my self-esteem shredded all over again. More later.   


  1. This is very interesting. I can get caught up in the struggle of my own practice, but I also think of it as something to be accepted. Struggle is part and parcel of Ashtanga, it's built in to the practice - generally, the asanas get increasingly hard. The struggle never really ends. There's always another posture to learn, to attempt to master. There's always going to be postures that elude you.

    How we deal with that struggle emotionally is key. Do we resist even doing the practice, do we get disappointed with our bodies, do we judge ourselves, and generally, get discouraged or want to quit altogether? Or do we persevere, challenge ourselves wisely, and continue to playfully explore the potential of our bodies? And, are we benefiting from our practice? Are we hopeful about it, do we feel greater physical and mental wellbeing through it? Most importantly, do we become more clear, conscious and aware as a result of doing the work, every day?

    It should feel good, ultimately, right? It's hard work, but there's benefits to the effort.

    Compare and contrast your post, Nobel, with David Garrigues' recent blog post on the "Tom Sawyer" affect in practice - where he inspires the reader to make the practice more easy and playful, to make an effort to have both strength and comfort in the asana - and to work at making it "look" effortless, like it came to you easily - i.e. the Western way.

    I get what DG is saying, here, but it's a slippery slope with this attitude, too. I agree that we have to have an element of playfulness to our practice, we need to work towards "perfecting" the postures, even cultivate, perhaps, a bit of a badass quality to it, as he suggests.

    I tried his "Tom Sawyer" style practice out the other day, and while it was fun and exhilerating, and the teacher in the room even said to me, "Wow, your practice looks really great!" I found it was hard not to get caught up in my ego when I was practicing with this intention! And so, here is yet another, more insidious challenge or struggle that arises from Ashtanga, that has to be overcome, eventually - those "Damn, I'm good!" thoughts that arise when you can do a posture or the practice well.

    It never ends. There's always going to be a struggle, something more to learn. Heavy sigh.

    1. Thanks for your long and insightful comment, Michelle. I need to go back and read DG's Tom Sawyer post again: I skimmed through it rather quickly when it first came out, and remember thinking that Tom's white-washing experience really gives a very important insight into the nature of the practice. But I don't think I got as much out of it as you did; I certainly wasn't thinking about Tom Sawyer during this morning's practice :-)

      As for ego and those "Damn, I'm good!" thoughts that arise during practice, I feel that it is not really so much about overcoming them as it is about acknowledging them for what they are, enjoying them, even, and then just moving on. Maybe it's just me, but I feel that the practice is hard enough as it is. There are already so few "Damn, I'm good!" moments out there: Why make it harder by denying yourself these moments when they arise?

      And yes, it never ends. But that isn't necessarily a bad thing, if one finds a way to enjoy the pleasant parts of it, and face the bad parts with equanimity.

  2. One thing I really like about DG is that he seems to have very permeable inside/outside boundaries. I, personally, struggle with being stuck in my internal experience, so practicing with him is really instructive: somehow he manages to be equally open to the internal and external. I'm hoping that's a hallmark of long practice (& that I can cultivate the same quality).

    1. Very interesting way of putting it, Karen. I'm not sure if I'm thinking the same thing as you are when you are talking about inside/outside boundaries, but I think I am. I think Ashtanga strikes many casual observers as a very "outside" type of practice; there are so many postures in the series, they are held for a relatively short time period, and there is continual physical motion and continual execution of physically challenging postures.

      But we know that what is going on on the outside is ultimately only a means to access the inside. This insight is not easy to convey. And I agree with you that DG does a very good job of conveying this insight.

    2. Oh, don't get me wrong, Karen, I think David is absolutely on to something here with his fun "Tom Sawyer" analogy - there's something Zen about the idea that making it look effortless is part of the process. It's my own shortcomings that I come smack up against, though, when I try to approach the practice with a striving towards making it look "good" - and when my ego gets massaged, as in the unsolicited comment from the teacher, well, watch out! Lots of vrittis resulting - and "no benefit!"

      It's a fine line we have to balance upon: reaching towards refinement and perfection, and risking getting caught up in congratulating ourselves when we start to approach that place. Like Nobel says, it happens so rarely, that we should enjoy it for a bit when it does....we just can't dwell in that place for too long. There's always more work to be done! As David certainly knows, and teaches and encourages all of his students to do, most aptly.

  3. I don't know if you've seen this, but I believe it relates to what you've written.

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. It is a documentary titled "Children Full of Life". It's moving to say the least, and I'm not certain how many teachers would adopt his style in Western culture. That might be naive of me to say, but I'm going off the stereotype of Westerners being "individualistic individuals".

    3. Thanks for sharing the documentary, Chris. It's very moving indeed. I'm not sure how representative the experience in the video is of Japanese educational culture in general, as the general stereotype of Japanese education is of a process that instills and prizes conformity above all. Indeed, it may be that this particular teacher's teaching style is so unique because it bucks the norm and stands out from the norm. But I'm just speculating here: I don't know anything about the present state of Japanese education.

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