Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Chinese people and yoga, pragmatism and Brahmacharya

I just read this article on Recovering Yogi by Sarah Li Cain, where she describes her experience with taking yoga classes in China. In the article, Cain relates at length an interesting episode about the bowels and yoga. But I am going to leave you to read about that episode for yourself. What I'm going to do here is to focus on some observations she makes at the beginning of her piece. She begins her article with these observations:

"The yoga studio I went to was very competitive. It’s an unspoken rule in China that the female patrons make sure they are dressed to the nines in expensive yoga gear so they can look the prettiest. They also compete to be the best in every yoga class, bending and twisting whichever way they can...
Men go to yoga studios to pick up women. Why wouldn’t you want to be the only male surrounded by twenty other females and have your pick of them?"

Hmm... I honestly don't quite know what to make of this. All of this brings up many thoughts in me. Where to start? Well, let's start with myself. I myself probably won't feel very at home in such an environment; even though Ashtanga does have a not-so-good rep for fostering competitiveness and Type-A-ness (doesn't this sound like Type Anus?...), I do try my best to follow the yamas and niyamas, and to not be competitive with myself or with others.

On the other hand, being Chinese myself, on some level, I kind of get why people in China would go to studios with this kind of mindset. I can't speak for women, but I do know that most Chinese men, for example, are very pragmatic in nature. This being the case, if you are a man who is, well, looking for a mate, it would seem to make sense, according to this pragmatic logic, to go to places where many women are at, and a place where you are outnumbered twenty-to-one by women would seem like a very good place to start, from the perspective of such a logic.

Of course, if you are a good yogi, you'll be thinking: But what about Brahmacharya? Well, at the risk of over-simplifying things, I'll start by observing that Brahmacharya, as far as I know, is a concept that is foreign to the average Chinese mind; and literally so, since yoga comes from India, which is a foreign land to the west of China. And at the risk of over-simplifying things even more, I'll venture to say that Brahmacharya is, in an important sense, also alien to the Chinese spirit of pragmatism. To illustrate this pragmatic spirit further, let me share a little story here. The Chinese writer Lin Yutang once gave the following witty explanation for why Chinese philosophy is so different from western philosophy: When the westerner sees a duck, he asks himself questions such as: Does the duck exist? How is it possible for the duck, which is supposedly a soul-less being, to move? The pragmatic Chinese person, on the other hand, simply asks himself: What is the best way to cook this duck, so as to produce the best-tasting duck dish?

Well, if you apply the above pragmatic spirit to the mind of a Chinese man who is looking for a mate, what kinds of questions do you think the man would be asking himself when he sees a fairly attractive woman (or, in the case of a yoga class, a bunch of fairly attractive women clad in lululemon pants (which, incidentally, are becoming more revealing than ever before))? I'm guessing I don't have to elaborate here...    

So I'm guessing that if you were to tell the average pragmatic Chinese man that women in yoga classes are not to be picked up, he would quite probably look at you like you are crazy, and then say, "But why not? If ducks are to be cooked, why shouldn't women be picked up?" Sounds sexist, I know, but it is what it is.

But then again, for all we know, things may be changing even in China. Some time ago, I was chatting with a senior Ashtanga teacher (I shall not reveal his name here) about possible changes in the global demographics of Ashtanga practitioners in the near future. He believes that as China becomes a world power and more Chinese citizens get exposed to different cultures, more people in China will also start taking up Ashtanga seriously (this is probably already happening anyway). When this happens, Chinese people will then start traveling to Mysore to study at the KPJAYI, and will also naturally delve into the other limbs of the yoga practice (including Brahmacharya). When this happens, they will then start absorbing and internalizing a notion that was once foreign to their minds. And perhaps things will change then.

Well, I'm not sure if this will happen. We'll just have to wait and see, I guess. 


  1. Recently I read in the NY Times that the government in China has declared women over the age of 27 "old goods". That is not the exact terminology but it is the exact intent... There are probably a lot of factors why a woman would want to look and be amazing and try to catch a husband in this way. Is it right or wrong? I don;t know, I guess by now I know better than to offer opinions because in reality I do not even know the half of what are the motivations behind every one of them...

    Provocative article Nobel.

  2. Here is the article, they call them "left over"

    1. I just read the article. Oh gosh, I really don't know whether to laugh or to cry. It seems laughable to me that although China aspires to be a world power, its government and many of its citizens still have a rather feudal outlook about the role of women: They don't seem to get the simple fact that not all women desire to or need to get married.

      But on the other hand, we can also see this as yet another example of Chinese pragmatism/opportunism at work. This time, the pragmatist/opportunist is the Chinese government: Faced with a looming population imbalance, the government has decided that if scaring "left-over" women into getting married and having kids can help to alleviate the imbalance, then this is what needs to be done.

      Oh well... actually, speaking of being pragmatic, I do have a pragmatic suggestion here for those yoga teachers out there who want to go to China and make it big over there: Maybe you can try offering Yoga for Conception classes. I'm sure they will sell like hot cakes :-)

  3. Maybe there will be an influx of respectful Mandarin speakers at the Mysore shala.

    Or, maybe certain Chinese oligarchs will outbid the Tudor-Joneses for the services of Sharat. For which he will take in far, far, far more than the $100,000 or so gross income for his usual two-week stint at the "Jois" shala.

    Then we will know the extent to which China has become a world power.

    1. Well, here is one respectful Mandarin speaker that almost made it to the shala last year :-)

      I think we already know that China is a world power, whatever the oligarchs decide to do (or not do) with their money.

  4. Having taught in China in both Hong Kong and Beijing as well as many other countries in Asia including Thailand, Japan, Singapore and Taiwan I can only say that the Asian students in my classes have been focused entirely on the yoga practice. They were hard working, diligent and thorough in their approach to asana. At the same time the students in my classes in Asia had a natural understanding of the importance of lineage based spiritual traditions and as such they resect the teacher and the teaching immensely. They enjoy seeing progress on a physical level, yet they are simultaneously devoted and humble in their approach to the yoga tradition. I loved teaching in Asia and look forward to returning this year.

    1. Thanks for sharing, Kino. I think you are right that Asians have a strong intuitive understanding of the importance of lineage; I like to think this has something to do with culture and upbringing, but I am probably out of my depth here. I can at least say that *this* Asian has a certain amount of respect and understanding of lineage-based spiritual traditions. At any rate, I also believe that progress on a physical level needs to be accompanied by greater devotion and humility ("with great power comes great responsibility..."). I hope your upcoming Asia teaching tour will be as rewarding (or even more rewarding) than your previous one.