WAWADIA Update #10 /// “Lazy people can’t practice”: Thoughts On a Yoga Meme

WAWADIA Update #10 /// “Lazy people can’t practice”: Thoughts On a Yoga Meme

You’ve probably seen this quote floating around.

Anyone can practice. Young man can practice. Old man can practice. Very old man can practice. Man who is sick, he can practice. Man who doesn’t have strength can practice. Except lazy people; lazy people can’t practice Ashtanga yoga. – Sri K. Pattabhi Jois

It sounds a lot like Jois might be citing Pancham Sinh’s 1914 translation of the Haṭhapradīpikā, 1.64:

Whether young, old or too old, sick or lean, one who discards laziness, gets success if he practises Yoga.

I reached out to Jim Mallinson to ask about where in Svatmarama’s Sanskrit Sinh is pulling “laziness” from. I’m familiar with alasya from Patanjali, 1.30, which is described as one of the obstacles to practice. (Ironically, Patanjali names sickness as an obstacle as well, whereas Jois specifically excludes it.) Jim kindly took a tea break from working on the Roots of Yoga project to reply:

[The verse is] taken from the Dattātreyayogaśāstra, v.40. The word translated with “one who discards laziness” is a-tandritaḥ. Its primary meaning is “not tired” but at a stretch (;-)) it could be understood as “not lazy”. It occurs mostly in instructions to do a practice, and means that it should be done keenly. Tandrā (fatigue/laziness) is a physical, not mental, condition however. At Haṭhapradīpikā 2.33, trāṭaka [a fixed gaze upon a candleflame] is said to cure it along with diseases of the eye.

Brian Akers’ translation of 2002 doesn’t mention laziness at all. Nor does Muktibhodananda (1985). Both of these translators keep it positive: the former calls for “energetic practice” as the threshold for success, and the latter just calls for “practice”. Christopher Wallis was kind enough to interrupt his thesis marathon to send me this impromptu translation that sides more with Akers than Sinh:

“Even if he is young, old, very old, sick, or weak, a dedicated/diligent person who practices daily will achieve success (siddhi) in all yogas.”

I wonder if, with Jois’ limited English, he was wont to reach for written translations to explicate the Sanskrit texts he knew so well to his Western students. I have no idea what translations he may have had available, but Sinh’s is at least seventy years older than the other two, and much more likely to have reached his bookshelf. Who knows? He might have picked up the word from some Westerner with some latent work-ethic shadows. The word “lazy” might not have communicated what he meant at all. But it’s still in heavy circulation.

 

So much for the source and the Sanskrit nuance. People who never met Jois have to make of it what they can. “Lazy people can’t practice Ashtanga Yoga” is a funny joke, right? Meant to be encouraging, right? So why do I feel this strange niggle of shame whenever it pops up?

I’ve been to enough Ashtanga classes to know it’s not my thing. I would go so far as to say I know I can’t do many of the expected movements. Some of them I wouldn’t want to try. If the instructor insisted that I work through setu bandhasana and padmasana in order to complete the primary series (I know there are varying approaches here — let’s say I got a more “traditional” guy), I know I would be too concerned about cervical spine and knee injuries to want to proceed. Would that make me lazy? Are my concerns about physical limitations or my ideas about my discomfort threshold actually forms of laziness, until I actually test them? What might I do to please the instructor if I didn’t want to appear lazy? What does “lazy” even mean to me? Why does it seem to cut at something so deep?

Even if I had gotten into the primary series in my more wiry 20s, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t at 42 still be doing the standard 90 minutes per day, six days per week. But that would be for a whole host of reasons that have nothing to do with laziness. Also, if I was working manual labour 18 hours a day in the Global South, I also couldn’t do Ashtanga Yoga. Not because I’d be lazy, but because I’d be poor and exhausted.

So I don’t think Jois’ joke can be directed at me, at anyone else who isn’t attracted to his system, or at poor people. This would just be rude and elitist, and that’s so not yoga. So who is it directed towards, what does it mean, and what does it feel like to give it and take it?

 

 

A number of thoughts about the quote mushroomed in the comment thread of my recent article criticizing a yoga selfie project that presents bendy-elite postures as the result of hard work alone — never mind physical build, injury history, or access to what type of instruction. “Stephanie” wrote:

I don’t think anyone intends this to mean ‘lazy people need not apply.’ I think it’s intended to say Look, this is your choice, if you want to do it, you can do it. It’s encouraging, and it’s inclusive…

Maybe. But then what? How would “lazy” apply to the person who has already jumped right in? I only ever hear committed practitioners and teachers quoting it. To me it smacks of an in-group encourashame. I.e., you can be young, old, sick, weak when you start, and as you continue. But once you’ve committed to the system, you really don’t want to be lazy. It sounds like it could be a joke meant to stiffen the resolve of people in doubt.

In my work on injuries, I’m very interested in the lag time between when a person first suspects that something is too intense or painful for them in practice, and when they actually stop or alter practice. In between those two points comes a litany of things they are told and learn to tell themselves — “pain is an opening”, “practice requires commitment” etc. — about the necessity of continuing. It’s also in this period that repetitive strain can evolve into chronic injury.

In a further comment, Stephanie qualifies her thought:

____

[L]laziness in Ashtanga culture, as I interpret it, has always been about choice and ability. If I’m physically able to do something, and I choose not to, then that is being lazy. If I’m not physically able, and don’t do it, then that’s fine — no problem. The question for me lately has been more about physical ability and how to determine what that is. To a fundamentalist Ashtangi I probably do seem very lazy!

I can hear the old admonishments sometimes when I take breaks between poses. But when I practice too fast, without deliberation and without taking extra breaths, I get injured. So for me, it’s fine to rest.

This only becomes a problem, in other words, when the teacher is doing the admonishing and pushing, without listening to the student. I may look like I’m being lazy when I rest for a couple minutes before urdhva dhanurasana at the end of my practice… But I feel like I need to do that, and I’m actually working on breathing into my low back to release it and relax any tensions there. So in reality, in my inner world, I’m doing something to the best of my ability, though outwardly this may seem like laziness.

Laziness can also mean inattention… There’s a degree of effort and focus and energy that has to be alive when you practice. Otherwise, you might get injured. So it’s not a good idea to sleepwalk through the practice.

Ultimately I don’t think there are lazy people — only lazy choices. No one is inherently lazy. So that, to me, was what Pattabhi Jois meant by that quote, and that’s why I’ve always thought of it as encouraging, or as a push towards inclusiveness. I never practiced with either him or Sharath so this is quite possibly an overly optimistic interpretation.

I don’t feel like a fear of being seen as ‘lazy’ or a ‘quitter’ has ever kept me from leaving the practice. Though perhaps the push to ‘not be lazy’ has gone too far in the past. This comes down to a teaching style, though. Of course the judgmental push to ‘not be lazy’, coming from an external voice, can cause injury. How can someone else know if I’m being lazy or not, if I’m working to the best of my ability or not, or if I’m paying attention or not?

____

 

This is quite a balanced view, although we have to look at the issue of “choice”. I’ll do this in a bit. What Stephanie brings up are the great questions: what are the metrics of being “lazy”, and how are they internalized?

“Anonymous”, commenting on the same post, adds a different colour, from deeper within the in-group (emphasis added):

_____

hmmmm….as annoyed as I am with the never ending egos of selfies on Facebook, which is ironically what yoga tries to beat out of us …

… and as someone who has received injuries in yoga, many times because a qualified teacher pulled on my body too much when I wasn’t ready for it

… the bottom line is that I used to not be able to do these “difficult” poses and now I can. Because I worked on them every day for 10 years … through injuries and through illness and through it being very boring sometimes.

Call it what you will, but I still find it inspiring. Ashtanga is not for quitters and it’s not for lazy people but it IS for everybody else – lumpy butt or no lumpy butt, old or young, disabled or not. No, not everyone is going to be able to do the posture right off the bat, that’s where the hard work, stamina, and tenacity come in.

I think I was at my most humblest when I saw a woman who is at least twice my size (a good 220 lbs) perform yoga asanas better than I can right next to me at the Jois shala in Mysore, India. That’s when it dawned on me that this practice really was for everyone and that no matter your limitations, if this woman could do it, I needed to suck it up and keep trying. I was also inspired by the people who are quite a bit “older” who make the “pilgrimage” to Mysore India — a few people there are in their 60′s, 70′s, maybe even older. They are doing ashtanga the best they can and not getting pissed off that a younger person next to them is able to practically fly around the room.

_____

Anonymous worked through injury and illness and boredom, and didn’t quit. A “qualified teacher” injured them with invasive adjustments, and they didn’t quit. Not quitting was of great personal value to Anonymous, and I think they’re implying that it gave valuable lessons in all areas of their life. They don’t want to be a “quitter”. Anonymous was also inspired by whatever they projected about the internal experiences of their heavier or older Mysore colleagues to not quit.

But let’s consider someone of similar age, build and skill to Anonymous. If Anonymous B doesn’t want to tolerate being bored or injured in practice or yoinked by aggressive teachers, are they a “quitter” if they bail?

How do we project our self-striving onto others? How do we internalize our own judgments of the work-capacities of others? How do we internalize the eye peering at us from every mirror and CCTV glass bubble in our modern toxic mimic of “witnessing”? How do the words “laziness” and “quitting” police us?

I appreciate that Anonymous has been inspired and has felt many benefits come from practicing with determination. But what is the internal and social currency of that inspiration? Who exactly is a quitter? Who is scared to be a quitter? What do people do when they’re scared of quitting? And what happens when we wrap our devotions up in a key mechanism that fuels neoliberalism — separating the individual from social influence and circumstance to be exalted or derided as the solitary performer of responsibility?

Maybe what Anonymous is saying is that the shala provides a laboratory in which people can explore their limitations. Maybe they’re saying that “Many people have found that if they work hard at this system, they derive some benefit from it.” So why not just say it that way?

 

This could all be primarily a social media boundaries problem. Jois’ quote floats free of its conversational context and meaning, primed to juice any impulse and push any button. Or — an in-group cheerlead is leaking into the out-group. An internal memo was never meant to become public advertising, and yet there it is. A private affirmation blinks out over the internet and is plastered on sandwich boards in front of shalas, and the devoted never stop to consider what it sounds like from outside the bubble.

On Facebook especially, it’s hard to know who shares your ideology. In a weird way, we wind up mimicking advertisers, but with our heads in the sand. Advertisers actually know that they’re reaching people beyond their presumed allies, and they actively want to influence strangers. It may not be what we intend, but we are constantly enabling one of Facebook’s strangest powers: to make personal sentiments gradually indistinguishable from sales pitches. Mark Zuckerberg has given us the perfect stage for enacting the tension between what we feel, what we want to be seen as feeling, and how we want our feelings to be valued or even monetized. He’s done it so well that most of us are only slightly conscious of being in the strange process of constantly re-branding the self. With quotes like Jois’, I think we try to re-brand ourselves out of the entrenched fear of worthlessness.

 

In-group or out-group, it hardly matters. If “lazy” is a joke, it borders on a slur.

I had a grandmother who used slurs in what she thought was a funny way. It was actually a part of her charm to me as a child, until I learned that subtle bigotry isn’t charming. She used to go on cruises to Mexico and have her picture taken with barefoot boys trying to sell pencils to her and her white-haired shipmates. She’d show me the pictures and say “Here are my little Chicos!” And we’d laugh.

Maybe the “lazy people” comment is kind of like that, the borderline-unintentionally insensitive quip of an old man with a twinkling eye. Maybe we laugh until the moment it doesn’t feel right.

What does the “Chico” slur cover up? Between me and my grandmother, it helped to cover up the Mexican boys’ bare feet, as well as their inadequate nutrition and schooling, with the image of their happy-go-lucky charm. It helped us normalize the disparity between having and not having. It made me have to work harder to feel empathy.

If “lazy” is a slur, what does it cover up? How about: the shame of not always having the strength to deal with the impossibilities of our lives? How about: not really wanting to acknowledge how the hearts of others can sink so low? Like Stephanie, I don’t think I’ve ever met a lazy human being. But I’ve met a lot of depressed ones. The clinically depressed find it impossible to move forward, to decide what to do. Is laziness a form of depression? Does calling someone “lazy” moralize this sickness of heart and brain? Andrew Solomon puts it this way in his masterwork on depression: “In depression, the meaninglessness of every enterprise and every emotion, the meaninglessness of life itself, becomes self-evident. The only feeling left in this loveless state is insignificance.”

 

Here’s another question: does the accusation of “lazy” broadcast an over-inflated view of free will? I posted Jois’ aphorism for the yogis of Facebook yesterday, asking for opinions and interpretations of “laziness”. An epic and dynamically constructive thread ensued, unleashing the flood of emotion quivering behind what we hear. I’m not a statistician, and this isn’t a scientific sample, but here’s a rough outline of the data provided by 84 commenters in 11K words over 160 comments (24 being mine) as of 6am EST this morning.

  1. wholly positive responses, seeing pure encouragement in the quote: 6
  2. moderately positive responses, attempting to frame “lazy” in a non-judgmental, yet personally targeted way: 102
  3. negative responses, feeling shamed or bullied by the quote: 13
  4. ambivalent responses, providing scriptural context: 7
  5. social/political responses to the implications of “lazy”: 4
  6. responses in praise of the “courage” of laziness in a type-A society: 3
  7. responses that frame “laziness” in constitutional as opposed to moral terms: 1

There is arguable overlap between categories 3-7. Category 2 is quite popular, and it features dozens of ways of positioning “laziness” as an unfortunate or negative choice, made by the person alone.

I dumped the comments into Word to do a little keyword crunching. Here’s some of what comes up to describe “laziness”:

  • [averse to] “work” — 9 times
  • [averse to] “commitment” — 8 times
  • [averse to] “discipline” — 8 times
  • “unwilling” or “not willing” 7 times
  • [presenting] “fear” 4 times
  • [indulging] “distractions” 3 times
  • “not curious”
  • “not prepared to question your own existence in the universe”
  • “not following”
  • “not showing up”
  • “not doing the series exactly as prescribed”
  • “not possessing the willpower”
  • “not letting go”
  • “lack of depth, ignorance, arrogance, naiveté, closed-mindedness, resistance”

These are all common enough, but troubling in a key way. They turn on beliefs about freedom, choice, and will that are all currently being deconstructed by advancements in contemporary neuroscience. I’m no fan-boy of Sam Harris, but he does a good job of presenting the evidence against free will here, both in broad strokes and with zingers like ““You can do what you decide to do — but you cannot decide what you will decide to do.” Apparently, people in lab coats now can tell what you are going to do before you are consciously aware that you even want to do something. They can look at your brain and see the engines of motor intention firing up before you can iterate your desire or initiate a command. You think you are consciously choosing to do something, but that’s really a story you apply after the choice has been made by an agency you can’t see or know. The story furthers the fiction of an autonomous self. 

So: who is deciding to do things? No one knows. But surely a maze of unconscious impulses and trainings are involved. Other branches of neuroscience are deconstructing agency from another perspective. Bruce Hood has spent his career showing that the sense of self that would consciously choose to do things is mainly a social creation. We believe we have agent-selves because we have learned to share a convenient fiction, as Daniel Dennett describes. The implication for the Jois quote is that no one is actually lazy or type-A in and of themselves. Being lazy or type-A are character descriptions attached, post-hoc ergo propter hoc, to the neurosocial phenomena of bodies that move slow and fast through the landscapes of sorrow and joy. These phenomena, ironically, have been well-described by guna theory: the moods of gravity, urge, and resolution are material in nature and cyclical in influence. They buffet the self that thinks it is separate from them.

 

Another astute commenter on the APP post, Natalie, asked: “How does laziness translate across cultures or not? What was the original social and linguistic context of the Jois quotes? Is laziness in AY about Jois/ other teachers and spirituality, or childhood memories and religious influences?”

I remember from my childhood that morality around laziness in Judaeo-Christian culture is most clearly presented through the parable of the talents. In Matthew 25: 14-30, Jesus tells of a master who entrusts three servants with five, three, and one talent respectively. (A talent was a unit of value equal to 20 years of common labour.) Years later, the master calls the servants to account. The first two have been good venture capitalists with the money, and doubled its value. The master rewards them by doubling their assets again. But the third servant tells a different story:

‘Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed;  so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ But his master replied, ‘You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. (NRSV)

This is perhaps Jesus’ only truly weird Tony Robbins type outburst. He basically says: to the intrepid rich, more riches! Fuck the reticent. Fuck the introvert. It’s so sad, because I hear the third servant saying: “I don’t want to participate in your brutal striving. I know your taste for limitless growth, and it scares me. Here: take your money back.” I don’t blame Jesus for not hearing it that way. He’s thinks he’s the son of God, after all, and that shiz must come with some big achievement-orientation.

By the sixteenth century, “talent” comes to mean “natural ability”, and so has remained, for the most part. But our difficulty in distinguishing natural ability from privilege — along with the problem that natural ability confers privilege — suggests the old meaning is dying hard.

What of the person who hesitates to push forward with their natural ability? Is it laziness or melancholy? A 1514 woodcut of Albert Durer (cropped for the post image, above) suggests a hidden value to this venerable mood. The angel of the psyche sits with his wings pinned against the wall, gazing at the sunset, the tools of his industry littered unused on the ground. There is no more flying for him, because something in him realizes he’s been flying in the wrong direction.

 

Most hating on laziness frames it as a resistance to working and learning something new. But maybe the opposite is true at times. We might be more resistant to what we could learn by doing nothing, by nurturing that dark blue feeling. By burying the talent while the world continues apace. This would be the yoga of laziness and quitting.

Discomfort with laziness reminds me of discomfort with boredom. I’m not totally sure how this relates, but I really love what Adam Phillips says:

Children are not oracles, but they ask with persistent regularity the great existential question, ‘What shall we do now?’ Every adult remembers, among many other things, the great ennui of childhood, and every child’s life is punctuated by spells of boredom: that state of suspended anticipation in which things are started and nothing begins, the mood of diffuse restlessness which contains that most absurd and paradoxical wish, the wish for a desire.*

Jois’ “lazy person” joke-slur is not aimed at the out-group, I’m sure. It’s aimed at the person questioning their commitment to what he has told them to do. The question relevant to the larger discussion of injury is whether, within any group, such a slur might suppress the voice – quiet, sad, injured – that must at times say no.

 

____

On Kissing, Tickling, and Being Bored. Harvard University Press, 1994. p. 68

 
 

11 Comments

  1. Anecdotal & maybe neither here nor there. I am deeply familiar with lazy and with quitting.I gave away my bike, a birthday present when I was 5 on the same day I got it when I was told falling was inevitable. I quit ballet, the swim team, tennis, golf, and the gym. I learned to drive in my 40’s because I wanted to sidestep the hassle of an accident but even more I wanted to avoid looking stupid or inept. I’ve quit jobs and moved, when the going got tough (not even that tough really). I did quit smoking so there’s that. I also come from a culture where sweating or laboring is considered inefficient and for the unfortunate. What I want to convey is that calling me the joke-slur lazy has no effect on me. Even if it bothers me, I won’t budge. Imagine my surprise when I go to my first Ashtanga class, think I am going to die or think that at least someone has to die, but return the next day for more. Oh and I had just turned 50 and weighed 172 lbs. This neither here nor there blathering is to really give you fodder for your next exploration: “You do not find yoga, yoga finds you” or the even more button pushing “If you are fortunate to do yoga in this life, it is because you did some in your previous one” that ought to make some heads explode. For a person like me, who always took her toys and went home when it got tough, the explanation that I favor is that ashtanga found me.

    • Thanks for the lead, Maria. I have a similar story about meditation. Or a similar feeling about how I discovered meditation, or vice versa. In light of the new neuroscience of free won’t, it’s boggling to consider how things happen at all.

  2. Manoj Mehta

    Thank you for this article, Matthew. One issue that hasn’t been highlighted in your write-up is the teaching styles across different cultures. From my own experience and observation, I know that the Indian culture can have a very disciplinarian and authoritarian approach to teaching, be it at school, university, yogashalas…wherever. That’s just the way it is. My guess is that Jois was a product of this kind of teaching style himself, and was teaching exactly the way he himself had been taught. My theory is that many teachers of spirituality from an Indian background firmly believe that the buddhi/intellect needs to be disciplined strongly and with force by an external agent (parent, teacher, guru, etc) before it matures enough to be able to reason for itself in the ‘right’ way. Essentially, the buddhi is lazy, until ‘beaten’ into shape. Here’s the controversial (and debatable) point- Jois, based on his Brahmin (read orthodox) background, probably saw his Western students (with their ‘freer’ ways and culture) as having an even more immature buddhi than people from an Indian background (yes, bigotry of sorts), so he may have felt he had to metaphorically wield his stick in an even stronger, harsher way with Westerners. Hence the focus on laziness and making them work hard in their practice. Maybe the whole system of Ashtanga/Mysore was derived from that kind of thinking. Big teacher showing little children how to become big people….using force. Just a theory…….

    • renata

      from my experience with indian yoga teachers, I tend to agree with your theory.

  3. Jason

    Hi Matthew-

    My personal preference for understanding Jois’ saying is that he did not mean, “First series is not for lazy people.”

    Rather, he quite literally meant that a commitment to an Ashtanga yoga practice — however it is expressed — is not for lazy people.

    Unfortunately, the culture of the studio that he cultivated, and that arose, was such that he almost exclusively taught Ashtanga yoga through the template of various series of postural yoga. It’s these templates that are now synonymous with Ashtanga yoga.

    He also taught a specific seated breathing practice, too, as well as some of the shat kriyas, but his teaching of those subjects tapered quite a bit as he aged.

    Part of the reason I also consider this his interpretation is that he himself did not practice postural yoga, and had not since the early 70’s. Yet he considered himself a daily practitioner — he continued pranayama and puja daily.

    regards,
    jason

  4. My wife and I have an ongoing dialogue for years about the difference between laziness and leisure. She grew up in a military family where if you were not doing something then it was considered lazy. But I am of the view that if I have taken care of my responsibilities, my rent and bills are paid, and I want to sit on my couch and watch golf for a few hours then that is not lazy. That is leisure, which I consider wise to exercise from time to time.

    The same is true in asana practice. If I am doing well and my life is going along fine then I don’t even need to practice. If I am not doing so well and my life is not going along so fine – and I know how to practice but I don’t – then maybe that is another story. Being measured is not lazy. I should add that I did practice the ashtanga-vinyasa series for a while. I was working on third series when I blew a knee out. It was only after that injury that I questioned the relentless push to do more.

  5. Abby

    I’ve only ever dabbled in the Ashtanga practice, and so I don’t feel nearly as qualified to pipe up as some of the other folks who have been in this discussion, but I’ve felt shamed by the “lazy” quote every time I’ve heard it. I can’t imagine Jois would have meant it in a shaming way when he said it, but I do think that the way it’s bandied about social media can come off as shaming, especially for larger-bodied yogis, who face the popular misconception that fat=lazy. Having been the squishiest person in more than one yoga class, it’s a judgment I’ve felt myself. And so to me, it just sounds like one more exhortation from the fitness community that I too could have a proper yoga body if only I got up off my rear end and worked for it, and just wasn’t so lazy.

    Matthew, you bring up depression as a legitimate medical issue that saps energy, but I also think of chronic diseases that have fatigue as a common symptom, like multiple sclerosis, chronic fatigue syndrome, and…others I can’t think of off the top of my head. The practice of yoga has been shown to be pretty effective at combating the fatigue associated with some chronic diseases, and I hate seeing “inspirational” yoga quotes on social media that read as exclusionary.

    I’m a devotee of gentle and restorative styles of yoga, and it’s my opinion that we as westerners could do with a little less pressure on ourselves to go-go-go, and a little more intentional relaxation. I’m also of the opinion that restorative yoga isn’t lazy or easy–I find it quite difficult to relax, it just doesn’t burn many calories.

    • Thanks Abby for the note, and your candour.

  6. Avril Sigerson

    I think you may be uncomfortable with the honesty of the use of the word “lazy” We westerners like to keep things “nice”. I have no doubt that Sri Pattabhi Jois meant to use the word “lazy”. It fits. And we should move away from political correctness and touchiness.
    Avril Sigerson

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