WAWADIA Update #23: “Kino Has a Beautiful Practice” vs. “Kino Is Talented”

 

[dropcap]W[/dropcap]ell, I thought that Friday’s post would be the last before this IGG campaign wraps up, but my partner Alix had a thought over dinner last night that woke me up at #@$%^&! 3am.

So far, a key focus of this project has been upon how the well-worn language, metaphors, and platitudes of modern postural yoga either conceal an unexamined metaphysics, or actively distort the goals that practitioners say they have. I’ve asked what Ashtanga culture might mean by saying “lazy people can’t practice”. I’ve asked what the “geometry of yoga” implies about the eccentricities of the human form. I’ve examined the assumptions underlying the comparison between Mr. Iyengar and someone who carves religious idols out of stone. I’ve looked at what it means to say “Anyone can do these [elite, advanced] postures.” I’ve looked at ways in which the empathy that practitioners claim to develop can be confounded by redirection, blaming, and dismissal through self-referral.

Following along these lines, this is a post about a bit of language that we don’t use. And how, if we did, things might be a little more clear.

Alix was describing how in the dance world she comes from, saying “S/he’s a beautiful dancer” expresses a generalized appreciation for a way of moving felt to be unique and/or authentic. The implicit understanding in dance culture is that this beauty comes not only from opportunity and discipline, but also from innate talent. “Talent” here carries the common meaning: a pre-existing exceptional quality or ability that exceeds the typical capacities of those who engage a particular skill. Without the defining threshold of “talent”, everybody who worked hard in the dance studio would be equally suited to a professional career. Talent is the glass ceiling on the world of professional dance (or music/writing/painting).

It is in Yogaland as well, but we don’t talk about it.

I don’t believe I’ve ever heard or seen the word “talent” applied to the top asana yogis of MPY. But I’ve heard this, thousands of times: She has a beautiful practice. I’ve heard this said about people I know and about people I don’t know, like Kino MacGregor. Kino has a practice, for sure. And she creates beautiful images while doing it. But by calling her practice “beautiful” we generally imply that it has become that way, through, um, practice. This must be partially true. She has no doubt worked extremely hard to attain the postures she performs so gracefully, and certainly that work has impacted her on many levels. But that hard work is also capitalizing on something. She’s not starting from the same place as the vast majority. She comes with talent. Or maybe genes that have programmed her hip sockets in a particularly mobile way. Is there a difference between talent and genes?

[dropcap]E[/dropcap]veryone has a beautiful practice when they’re practicing. And everyone can take selfies. But only a few of those selfies can go viral. Maybe talent makes the difference.

In Yogaland, the valorization of talent happens beneath the surface, because every reason for everything has a hidden esoteric default. Kino, Mr. Iyengar, Cameron Shayne — they all have that something special that shows up in their practice. We don’t want it to be talent. We want it to be a virtue, accessible to everyone. But if we’re honest, talent is probably all we can really claim to see on the yoga mat. If we think we see more than that, we’re getting into the weird projective territory of guessing at the internal states of others.

Using the word “talent” to describe what Kino is working with would come with a price. It would confound the democratic promise of postural learning that fuels the marketing of contemporary yoga. It sounds deterministic, and yoga’s all about freedom, right? Explanations based upon talent or genes would seem to rob the yogi of agency. “Talent” would also reposition the desirability of the skill by obscuring an implied therapeutic benefit that everyone should have access to.

Everyone wants to have a beautiful practice. But most people understand that we are not all developing the same talents for the same reasons. Despite our traumatized, what-else-can-we-do? belief in neoliberal meritocracy, most of us know that talent itself, much like the accident of happening to express conventional ideals of beauty, is the primary engine of visual renown and influence. Nature bestows differences that can look and even feel like inequalities. Perhaps difference is its own beautiful practice.

Talent is not unlike inherited money. It’s the accumulation of beneficial cultural and genetic transactions. Unfortunately, our entire social architecture is set up to believe that it is the earned property of the individual.

On the bright side, the acknowledgement of “talent” might also demystify the process and charisma of exemplary postural yogis, and perhaps encourage more people to practice within their means — or, according to their difference.

 

[dropcap]A[/dropcap]t the Kirov ballet, the faculty running the admissions process have no illusions about what that “something special” is. You cannot count the fucks they do not give about virtue. They are purely interested in the genetic endowment of joint mobility, with a submissive demeanour running a close second. Check out this 2006 documentary called “Ballerina”, which follows five young women from admissions through graduation.

The whole doc is fascinating and chilling and poignant. If you watch from time cue 4:34, you’ll see the battle-axe director (see the lede image above) introduce the admissions exam, where you will watch horrified as twiggy topless ten-year-old girls are manhandled like dogs in a show. What’s the difference between this selection process and how your yoga magazine cover gets shot? Just time, really. And the fact that the yoga model is exercising more consent in the process. But in a way it’s worse, because it’s less honest. The panoptic culture of objectification manhandles everyone, while claiming it facilitates self-expression.

[dropcap]Y[/dropcap]ou might have heard of Jill Miller. Her new book, The Roll Model, is the culmination of years of yoga practice, injury, biomechanics research, massage experimentation, and recovery. There’s a lot to say about the book, but I’d like to close by focusing on a few out-of-the-way captions she writes beneath images of herself demonstrating difficult postures. The captions put talent in its place.

In the first (Kindle loc. 5707), she stands on two blocks in a forward fold so deep that she can flatten her palms onto the floor. The caption reads:

I am demonstrating a fairly extreme range of motion in this forward bend. Please do not try to force yourself into this shape. I use this image to make it obvious that this sequence aims to open the entire back of your body.

In the second (loc. 5762), she’s in a mesmerizing expression of revolved side-angle. The caption:

I am demonstrating an extreme range of motion in this twisted side bend. Please do not try to force yourself into this shape. I use this image to make it obvious that this sequence targets the sides of your body.

Finally, loc. 6494 shows her in three advanced postures, including padmasana. Here’s the best caption of all:

Just because you can do a pose does not mean that you should. These are poses that I have retired from my repertoire. Retired. They made my hips, knees, and spine click and pop and are not suitable for my body.

I might be wrong, but I believe this is the first time in the history of yoga instructional literature in which a teacher/presenter has disclaimed images of their own achievements with the warning “Do not try at home.” It’s like the caption in the sports car commercials: “Closed track. Professional driver. Do not attempt.”

Here’s someone who has the courage to demonstrate a unique skill — a talent — that was maladaptive to her, and that she knows would be toxic for others to mimic. In a way, Miller is sneaking a paraphrase of Krishna’s key teaching in through the backdoor of a biomechanics manual: “It is far better to follow one’s own dharma poorly than someone else’s dharma well.” (Gita 3.35) Don’t imitate, says the avatar.

It reminded me of an interview I did recently with a well-known asana teacher once known for extreme postural flash. He sounded like he’d love the chance to be able to add new captions to old images of himself in elite postures. He said:

If I have to look at a picture of me back when I was doing ashtanga yoga – and sometimes I do – somebody wants me to sign one of my books – and I’m a little bit disgusted when I see myself, because I can see what I would call the psychological aggression that’s in my body, that so many people admire, that they think is something fantastic. But I look at it, and I – and you know, I can see the aesthetics of it, whatever – but I can also see the psychology of it, and it makes me feel very uncomfortable, on the one hand, but also it makes me very glad, because I’m not that person anymore…

I had to go to my publishers four years ago, because in my contract, there was a clause that said something like if they didn’t re-print for two years, then I had the right to take the rights back, and I’d been watching. I went to them and I said, ‘I want the rights back to all of my books!’ And they said, ‘Why?’ And I said, ‘Because you haven’t printed them in two years.’ And they said, ‘Yes, yes, we do understand that that’s the clause that you’re responding to, but why do you want to take them back?’ I said, ‘It’s my business, I just want to take them back, I don’t want these books on the market anymore.’ Because – because – you know, people say, ‘But they were great books.’ And I say, ‘Well maybe they were great books, but that’s relative. As far as I’m concerned, they’re not helpful, and it’s especially because of the images.

This teacher now says that he teaches simplicity. “I give them only very, very simple things to do, and I make it very clear that the purpose, the basic purpose of what we’re doing, is for them to learn how to listen to their body… People willing to come back to a second class with me have a very high boredom threshold,” he says, laughing. He’s exchanged the pizzazz for something quieter.

Miller and my interview subject both had a talent for high-end asana. In setting aside the prerogative of their genes for the chance to deepen yoga — and then being transparent about it — it would seem they’ve made their practice more beautiful. In fact, we might say that they’ve given new meaning to “beauty”.

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30 Comments

  • Yes, what constitutes a “beautiful practice”? I’ve been teaching yoga for a while now and I see many people who can “do” the poses and they are doing them technically well, but I don’t get a sense of breath, or awareness or inner stillness from them. What I do sometimes get a sense of is, “okay trikonasana done, what’s next?”
    On the other hand I see beginners, maybe with their eyes closed who seem to really be exploring their inner selves and bodies, and the poses, although maybe not technically perfect are beautiful because they seem to be filled with the persons spirit and thoughtfulness. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder 🙂

    • I took my first yoga class on 4 October 2014, I have been surverying the yoga ‘culture’ with interest from the point of a new initiate.
      I agree with you completely.
      I have what we refer to as ‘the wonky hypermobility gene’, my sister was excellent at acrobatics, my first born was diagnosed with hypermobility and poor tone by a paediatrician, my second child wore a Pavlik harness to correct her DDH and remains super mobile, particularly in her hips and ankles.
      I turn up on a mat in my mid forties and with no prior training, effort, skill or devotion I fold. Annoying or what.
      I cannot claim anything for this other than a freak of the genes, I joked with a fellow classmate who made a comment that I had hoped for red hair or longer legs, but I got this ability.
      I already understand that this is going to mark my practice and that I should be wary not to look off my mat for fear of being sucked into the very evident yoga cultural norm that looking at other practitioners allows us to gauge our own practice.
      Yesterday in class I chose to do the first stage of the standing on one leg holding your knee pose, rather than hook my toe and stick my foot out. I know I can do the other version, but for the purpose of what I came to yoga for, I felt that doing the pose quietly without concentration or fretting about falling over etc etc might be good, by the end of the second leg I had known a moment of such stillness and focus that I was transported.
      For me yoga is a means, not an end. I like how my body feels when I do it, and it allows me a structure within which to enagage and integrate my physical self with it’s spiritual and emotional aspects.
      I look at the sheet which shows the primary series and I know that there are poses which will be quite unsafe for me to attempt given who I am and what I do with my body off the mat. So I shall never ‘master’ the primary series, but I am sure that my practice will remain a useful and pleasureable pursuit nonetheless.
      I hope I have leant more wisdom than to use yoga or any other practice to punish myself, or to achieve conformity to some ideal. My body is a gift, and I chose to love it, take care of it and cherish it, not quell or punish it by forcing it into positions so I can prove something.

  • It has been forgotten, conveniently, by those who are marketing their ‘talent’, that the most difficult posture in Yoga is stillness. Talent can make one selfish to the point of concealing the essential from others in order to advance one’s worldly status. Yes, this is the worst possible thing to do while claiming to advance ‘Yoga’.

  • I hear you reminding us that the issue is MPY, and what are we doing in asana….

    But Then there’s the Ending here: where a mention is made of ‘yoga’, in it’s wholeness….and the reader is directed to the 8 limbs…

    For sure, the idea of –talent– runs throughout the history of yoga,
    –for sure recent history of yoga ‘delivered’ to the West via the Indian gurus.
    Especially so is talent key for those ‘items’ of yoga that are not postural!

    Choosing students means selecting the talented youth before you. And yes, submissive is a requirement too.

    Brains. This is what the guru had been/is looking for.
    — And the ability to harness that power and use those ‘kids’, especially when they become the talented adults who can mill your grist without any backtalk or gossip, or worse.

    The hierarchy within yoga needs expression regarding all the ‘language’ flying around!

  • A useful corollary to all this is that there will be a dialling back of the use of the term ‘Yogi’ as a self-description. Its use has become ubiquitous to the point of over saturation. Most people are utilizing asana practise towards self-care. In this sense, what is called Yoga practise is really Ayurvedic self-care practise. From here, much more Ayurveda can develop. But to pop into a class and then say I am doing Yoga or I am a Yogi is not only unrealistic but derogatory to the depth of the Yoga tradition. That depth is there to be accessed, in time. Maybe its the hyper nature of American culture that rah-rahs itself into exceptionalism all too easily, but it has gone too far in claiming that MPY is bona fide Yoga.

  • …or how about not just “talent”, but for some celebrity yogis, but also the ability to spend hours and hours a day on asana practice which is completely unrealistic and unnecessary for the average practitioner. Reminds me of a quote from Sarah Jessica Parker where she said “I hear a lot of actresses pretend they don’t have help, and that can’t be true,” she says before adding,

    “It’s really unfair to working women in this country who read [celebrity news] and think, Why can’t I lose weight when I’ve had a baby? Well, everyone you’re reading about has money for a trainer and a chef. That doesn’t make it realistic.”

    If your job is to work constantly on asana practice and then pose for beautiful pictures, or make videos showing your fab tricks then you are very different than most of the students you’ll be teaching, and if you lose the awareness of that, then you may do more harm than good as a “yoga teacher”.

  • Please tell me who the interview subject is. After 15 years of a sans practice, these types of teachers are the only ones I’ll study with now.

  • TKV Desikachar implored his top students to bring him TALENT.

    I doubt he was asking for asana brilliance….

  • Having maintained a practice over a long time, and setting up my non-yoga career to revolve around yoga, I understand dedication and devotion that comes and perhaps lucky to get yoga. Yes there is some genetics involved, perhaps, in how deeply you may be able to physically move, but this movement is not to win you applause at the end of the practice. The movement should be done intelligently. By virtue of a number of people who have pushed themselves further than they needed to and resulted in injury they have come to realize that perhaps it is not out of form but substance while in form, or some derivation of neither. Movement is the external action. There is more to it than the external. I have seen Kino in practice. It is hard work. Perhaps its not sage to pigeon hole her into two boxes of beautiful practice or talented. The unfortunate thing is that it seems that since many of us have been taught by ex dancers, we are largely influenced by what they understand yoga to be. There is however other less nuanced teachings not stressing physicality, but perhaps bring us into being, with what could even be considered not a beautiful practice.

    • Thanks for writing, Nick. I affirm in the article that Kino is probably engaged in hard work. But what she is doing or not doing subjectively is not my target. Rather, I’m looking at the ways in which she is received. The default descriptor is “beautiful”, which carries the weight of meritocracy, and distracts from the givenness of her ability.

      “Some” genetics involved? How about this: I propose that the asana yogi who, because of the shaping of their femoral heads, cannot strike a full Hanumanasana, or a fully-externally-rotated Kapotasana, will never capture the market share dominated by visual advertising. Those who are most visible in asana culture are elite athletes with genetic advantages, and we pretend they aren’t, preferring to believe that we could imitate them if we only worked so hard.

    • “I have seen Kino in practice. It is hard work.”

      I have seen circus acts that are far more difficult than what she does… so what?

      The yoga literature itself says that one should watch out for being sucked into desires for fame, perfection, power and the like. Its perfectly predictable that people will be wowed by glitz and seek to emulate it.

      And when a person keeps giving the suggestion that success in Yoga requires the extremis one is into into, then this is anti-Yoga.

  • It’s finally clicking for me why the old Pattabhi Jois adage about how everyone can practice except for lazy people is NOT a healthy sentiment. At first it sounds inclusive, as laziness is a choice rather than a predetermined condition, but I’m cluing in to a deeper meaning here — the adage, when paired with “inspiring” images of an advanced practice, suggests that anyone can get there with enough hard work and dedication. And that’s not really true.

    One of the most important things I’ve gleaned from your writing is the connection between yoga culture and neoliberal individualism. Who would’ve thought? Most yogis on the surface stand for traditional leftist values — non-harming, social justice, peace, community, animal rights and veganism. But there’s also a connection with the belief system sold on Fox News, that we are all entirely individually responsible for the outcomes of our own lives. It’s just like how conservatives talk about poor people. Poor people haven’t been jilted by the system — they just haven’t worked hard enough. Similarly those who are injured in yoga have brought it on themselves, either by not practicing in the right way, or frequently enough, or by having bad karma, or by eating meat. If only they change their ways, work harder, and better, then they too can have an awesome practice like, say, Kino.

    So here’s the denial of any sort of community influence or responsibility. When I read that APP post you wrote about recently, I thought, why in the world would we have teachers or take classes or be involved in a community if everything we do in yoga is up to us as individuals? I practice in a community because I like the company while practicing, and being with like-minded people, but also because I can’t see myself practice, and I need a teacher to reflect back to me, in intelligent ways, what I’m doing. This sort of interaction is key to any practice, to any culture.

    I wonder if the term Modern Postural Yoga is used to differentiate current practices from ancient yoga, à la Mark Singleton, or is it to differentiate it from a *postmodern* idea of yoga, where we can finally admit that people are not all the same? We are built differently, have different backgrounds, different stories, different thoughts and bones and physiques and therefore there is no universal system of postural practice that can be applied to everyone and work out OK.

    Thanks for opening my eyes to all this. Now I really wonder — why such a leftist practice as yoga has adapted this belief that mirrors the heart and “soul” of conservatism? And when will yoga catch up to whatever age we are in now, post-post-postmodernism?

  • Unfortunately, the yoga industry sells itself with glamour shots, and that glorifies the form of the asana. It’s as if a house builder sold hoses based on the attractiveness of their builders or the shininess of their tools. Silly, but it’s how you make a buck in the USA. And really, if it weren’t for the cash that silly advertising brings in, we could not afford to pay for studios and teachers…

    And I think that it is good to remind ourselves that asana are tools, not goals, and it doesn’t matter how shiny your tool is – it only matters how well you use the tool to build your self. So the point is using the tool to do the work that builds the house. If the guy with the 600 horse power handstand is just hanging out in the pose, it isn’t doing any work, so it is worthless, or possibly harmful.

    We should stop admiring the asana of the gal with her leg behind her head. Instead, admire the asana of anyone who is using the pose at 80%, to make herself into the person she dreams of becoming.

  • I am sorry to say that I find this essay a disappointment when compared to the rest of the WAWADIA series. The article itself is somewhat unclear – the thesis is obviously relatively valid, albeit uninteresting. People with natural dispositions toward [activity] will generally be more successful at [activity] and their success will garner more attention than those less successful. Trying to physically emulate someone operating at a high level without the necessary experience and ability will always be hugely dangerous, whether we are talking about asana or pole vaulting or BASE jumping. All this is fairly obvious.

    The meritocracy of yoga (and our society in general) is, in my opinion, a magnificent and productive culture. No matter who you are or where you come from, nobody will keep you from applying yourself fully, and you will be judged on your accomplishment rather than your ethnic background, socioeconomic class, gender, etc. Or at least, this is the ideal towards which we can, and I would argue should, strive.

    In one breath, you state that “talent is probably all we can really claim to see on the yoga mat. If we think we see more than that, we’re getting into the weird projective territory of guessing at the internal states of others.”; however, in the next you postulate at “the givenness of [Kino MacGregor’s ability”.

    All you observe is Kino on her mat (or Mysore market stall or where ever, I’m no Kino fan), yet by observing nothing more than her practice you immediately delve into ‘ guessing at the internal state’ (of her pelvis). This is contradictory, and seemingly deceitful. By postulating that those with an advanced asana practice got there by virtue of their genetic endowments, you condescend to all who have accomplished by means of effort. As someone who has worked quite hard at a variety of endeavors and never felt very fundamentally gifted at any of them, this postulated attitude is frankly offensive.

    Apply the same argument to other fields: ‘That freshly minted PhD must just be really smart; school is easy for him’; ‘that rich man must have inherited his fortune’; ‘Remski must simply have the ‘good writer’ gene’. Invert the argument and you immediately end up telling the large, strongly built man ‘don’t do yoga, that’s only for flexible women’, or worse yet, telling your daughter that girls are bad at math. The genetic predisposition argument is hugely limited by the simple fact that it’s untestable with modern technology (I work in genetics – when someone finds the ‘math’ gene, please call me).

    The highest echelons of human achievement are always populated by the ranks of those endowed with genetic gifts and the psychological fortitude to work as hard as anybody. But one step below is populated by those lacking particular natural talent, but gifted with a determination to be great, and in my experience, excluding very particular disciplines, an average innate talent and world-class drive will leave every few unimpressed. This is the beauty of a meritocracy. The vast majority of people are far more limited in their drive than their genetic material. Why limit them further by reinforcing unproductive self-criticism?

    Acknowledging innate talent is a seductive ideal – however, it can extremely rarely be accurately quantified, with obvious rare counterexamples, e.g. the VO2max of an endurance athlete. As such, innate talent, or lack thereof, is far too easy to use as a scapegoat, an excuse for a lack of conviction or desire, and we immediately revert to the dejected little boy on the playground utterly convinced that he is physically incapable of throwing a baseball accurately, and soon thereafter he will quit even trying.

    Open and frank discussion of the effects of particular asanas are huge, and hugely neglected. As you note, few yogis ever go on the public record saying that they quit doing Dwi Pada Sirsasana because it was destabilizing to their pelvis (though plenty will admit to it in person). But is the admission even necessary? Perhaps – after all, every piece of climbing gear in my closet is stamped with the phrase ‘climbing is dangerous’. It is really so astonishing that hanging off the side of a rock presents itself with danger of injury, or that putting both your feet behind your head isn’t necessary for a long and healthy life? In a vacuum it seems obvious, but there is a strong element of self deception running through the yoga communities that I have experienced.

    The yoga culture facade of never admitting to weakness or injury, never breaking the assumed dogma, this is something to change, and would perhaps make a good subject of a separate essay, as well as real-world dialogue.

    One final point: the series of WAWADIA essays, while opening a new dimension of communication, thought, processing, and digestion of modern and historical yoga culture (and thank you so much for that!) the discussion is seemingly rooted in one underlying assumption: that asana practice should be physically therapeutic. I believe that many dedicated practitioners do not practice under this assumption, though of course I could be very wrong. I personally understand my practice as a desire for what I term a ‘deep experience’, which is a long blog comment in and of itself. Maybe we can leave the physical health to the doctors and physical therapists we have access to, and appreciate that perhaps more than a few are not motivated by such a singular and immediate objective, no matter what the yoga studio intro paragraph promises about transforming into a ‘happier, healthier’ you.

    “It may never be perfect; it still can be great ” – Pennywise

    • Paul, thank you for taking so much time here.

      I’m honoured that you’ve followed the series, but am confused as to why my sustained critique of meritocracy in MPY and our broader social paradigm has been unclear for you so far. There’s no meritocracy in neo-liberalism; neo-liberalism depends on convincing us that there is. It wants to convince us that the playing-field is level; that we’re all starting from the same place. On the mat, there is no meritocracy lurking in hypermobile joints, nor in the privilege and leisure time it takes to practice 2 hours every morning while maintaining a job and a family. There is no meritocracy in the objectification or sexualization of particular body types. Off the mat, merit is the exception to the rule of privilege.

      I reviewed your comment and my article to see if I could understand the inconsistency that you claim, and I don’t get it. I’m using Kino’s physical display and how it is discoursed as an example of how we attribute hidden, psychological virtues like “openness” to biomechanical properties. The range of motion that she displays in her hips is not the “internal state” the culture presumes, and that I’m talking about. It’s fully visible and assessable by anyone who studies ROM in a formal way. Kino is doing things that other people can’t do, because her bones are shaped differently than most. She’s not unlike Usain Bolt. There is the possibility that she’s also perpetually injuring herself, but that’s another issue.

      You write: “By postulating that those with an advanced asana practice got there by virtue of their genetic endowments, you condescend to all who have accomplished by means of effort.”

      Who are we talking about here? Where’s our data comparing people who are gifted to people who get by on elbow grease? Now we’re in Malcolm Gladwell territory. His 10,000 hour rule is thoroughly refuted. Kino’s hard work, and yours, is not a reliable predictor of success in your endeavours. In the key study that trashcans Gladwell, the “deliberate practice” of a sport only accounts for an 18% variance in outcomes. The suggestion is that Kino’s kapotasana is 82% something other than hard work.

      Why did you not feel “fundamentally gifted?” That’s a question for psychology: feeling ungifted doesn’t make it so.

      And why should any of this be offensive? Does the recognition of fundamental inequality threaten our narratives of heroism and tarnish what’s left of the American dream? To me, this comes back to the bija of the Gita: you must act, but you have no right to claim ownership over the results of your actions. Pride in accomplishment is always somewhat deluded, ignoring the sea of supporting factors that have nothing to do with your agency.

      I defer to your expertise in genetics, and apologize for using its language in a sloppy way. For most, it’s a metaphor for luck, but I can understand how this might be irritating to the person in the lab, actually crunching genes.

      But for me, luck is complicated by wounds. When I consider the nature of my “good writing gene”, I think of a childhood surrounded by books, watching my parents teach literature and history, and not having to work in a sweatshop in Bangladesh at the age of eight. This is luck. But there’s also this: for reasons I’m sure I will be therapy for for the rest of my life, I desperately needed to be listened to, and writing provided for me an empty page that would always receive my thought without judgement. Writing for me comes out of a mixture of circumstance and anxiety, the need to self-console. These would be the unconscious and cumulative talents of nurture vs. nature. I did not “practice” writing to get to where I am. I compulsively wrote, and write, to get myself out of where I was.

      I didn’t set out to be a good writer. In this way, Kino and I might have a lot in common. But neither of us has something that everyone else can get through practice. Neither of us has something that we can claim pride in. Our talents don’t make either of us virtuous or heroic. If anything, they make us compulsive, which is just another form of suffering to deal with.

      Finally, if you read through the prospectus, you’ll know I addressed the question as to whether yoga is or should be fundamentally therapeutic. I don’t have an opinion here: my critique is aimed at the fact that MPY has been marketed as wholly as therapeutic — even down to naming the primary series “yoga cikitsa” — and this is unwarranted, deceitful, and dangerous.

  • Hi Matthew,

    Thanks for the thorough response, and my apologies for getting a bit hot-headed in my last post.

    Perhaps I am misunderstanding your wording here: “But if we’re honest, talent is probably all we can really claim to see on the yoga mat. If we think we see more than that, we’re getting into the weird projective territory of guessing at the internal states of others.”

    If talent is all that we see, and we define talent as innate ability, then the clear conclusion is that work, effort, and practice are quite useless. Observing a dedicated practitioner for a period of time refutes this hypothesis immediately. Perhaps I misunderstood your phrase ‘internal states of others’ – I interpreted it as the underlying physical makeup of our bodies, which was at odds with your assumptions about Kino MacGregor’s biomechanical structure. With your response above perhaps you mean someone’s underlying psychological makeup?

    Fundamentally, I disagree with your fundamental premise that most peoples’ level of accomplishment is driven by their innate talent, or lack thereof. In my view, the most critical factors driving achievement are luck – in being introduced to an activity while young, having the means to pursue it, etc, and most importantly, a desire to succeed.

    A single psychology study focusing on chess and music is missing the point – these are two extremely specific skill sets where I absolutely agree that talent is hugely important. The key point is that most activities do not fall into this category. Also, for someone who is as pedagogical as you, I’m surprised that you would consider one psychology study sufficient to ‘thoroughly refute’ anything!

    It’s hardly a salient point, as we can go around and around arguing our personal philosophies and not get anywhere.

    I am gifted to have parents who valued education and paid for my undergraduate education. I was gifted, as you suggest, not to be born into a sweatshop. I was also gifted to have no inclination toward chess or music. However, if we focus on my professional talents, I never excelled at any subject until halfway through a PhD in engineering and applied math – the asset that impressed my undergraduate advisor enough to get me into a good graduate program was my work ethic in her lab. Seventeen years of working hard for modest marks kept me from ever feeling particularly gifted.

    Coming back to yoga, many days a week I am surrounded by people who work hard at their practice, who have their natural physical proclivities and limitations alike, and progress by virtue of their hard work. The superstars in my universe have their obvious innate limitations, yet were extremely successful at their chosen path regardless. For example, Tim Miller and David Swenson never could approach the depth of a backbend of others. Their lack of a instagrammable Kapotasana hasn’t apparently limited their influence as dedicated asana practitioners and teachers.

    I realize that these discussions quickly descend straight to philosophy. I prefer science, so I will simply reiterate that I think it’s absurd to suggest that our fates are 82% determined by innate ability, and I feel (strongly!) that suggesting as much has the inevitable effect of discouraging people from accomplishment through effort.

    There are so many low hanging fruits to criticize in modern asana practice – overzealous teachers, dangerously physical culture (adjustments), misrepresentation in marketing (chikitsa!), lack of critical analysis, no cost-benefit analysis, and the like. I don’t really understand how delving into a society’s implicit philosophical understanding of accomplishment helps us understand how to more safely approach yoga, except to formulate hypothesis regarding the performance of elite practitioners – particularly when all the underlying investigation is equally valid applied to any individual of elite physical capability.

    I enjoy the rigor by which you formulate your thoughts, and anxiously await your future writing. Thanks for indulging my perspective.

    • Paul, I’m learning a lot from you: it’s not an indulgence at all.

      I could be clearer. When I say that “all we can really say we see is talent”, I’m saying that motivation, desire, past training etc. are invisible. We see something that is “given” in an existential sense. Everything else we think we see is fictional — even if it is influenced by the testimony of the person themselves. But what do people claim to see in Kino? They say they see intention, dedication, wisdom. Because these attributes may or may not be true, they are at best fictions, and most likely transferences.

      Again, my critique is focused on internalities that are presumed to follow from or cause physically discernable traits. Throughout WAWADIA, I have tried to deconstruct the widespread habit of attributing psychic or spiritual ability to physical skills. The biomechanics of a yogi’s pelvis are no more mysterious than the steering specs on a car. We can even see them directly through radiography. I’m targeting things we can’t see, but pretend to.

      I cited only one of the dozen or so articles that review the research that casts Gladwell off the island. Just google “Gladwell 10,000 wrong”. I can’t stand behind the 82% suggestion, because it’s not my field, but I think it’s really poignant that this idea could be offensive.

      Science can’t really approach the philosophical conundrum we’re skirting around. The real question is: how much of anything do you actually do? You worked hard, but why, and facilitated by which resources? Are you “in control” of why you worked hard? The new neuroscience of free will is upending every pride we claim, and this is a good thing, I reckon. The world is driven towards destruction by men who over-compensate for their lack of certainty by inflating their sense of agency. Do you remember the last GOP convention? Do remember everyone chanting “We built it?” Total hubris. They’re sitting in a stadium built by minimum-wage workers wearing underwear sewn in China, drinking coffee grown in Costa Rica, listening to speakers parrot Milton Friedman. No one is an island of accomplishment.

      I don’t think an honest appraisal of how little our deliberate and conscious efforts directly cause the outcomes we desire or expect should discourage a person of integrity from pursuing their heart’s desire. What it will do — what I’ve seen it do as a therapist — is that it allows the subject to relax just a little into the fact of their interdependence. Even recognizing that “your” microbiome is doing more to digest your food than your gastric chemistry is can be a profound relief to the anxious striving that predominates human life, speeds everything up, interrupts the daydreaming of children, and tells teenagers that they are shiftless if they don’t power their way through activities they don’t even choose for themselves.

      With no free will, what do we have? Humility, interdependence, the knowledge that every effort is bound to every other, that there are no geniuses, but DJs only, cutting and pasting in creative ways that are themselves the product of intersubjective exchange. It’s not an easy place to be, but that’s because empathy is hard.
      There is no doer in the way we think there is. Kino might feel this as she practices, but we talk about her as though she’s doing it alone, in some special way.

      Of course, the illusion of free will could be very useful to maintain while we address ecological disaster. People have to feel empowered. In this I’m sure we can agree. The problems arise when we begin to believe that our feelings are truths.

      O and just to ground that Gita reference, 2.47 sums the paradox up in an astonishingly modern way: “You have a right to perform your prescribed duty, but you are not entitled to the fruits of action. Never consider yourself to be the cause of the results of your activities, and never be attached to not doing your duty.”

      • Matthew, if you say that we have no free will and by that you mean that we exist within an interdependence, then what do you call the fact of making one choice over another. Isn’t the use of the term ‘free will’ by you obscuring the fact we are free to make choices, within whatever limitations we find ourselves?

        • My understanding of the contemporary neuroscience is that we think we’re making free choices after a whole pile of neurophysiology has determined what our choices might be. I’m not a big fan of Sam Harris, but his little book Free Will provides a decent summary of the evidence so far.

          • This is a pet interest of mine, and thought you might like to know that Harris’s position on free will, while erudite, is not at all unchallenged or settled. He rests most of his hard evidence on experiments by Benjamin Libet from the 1980’s–highly regarded and widely reproduced.

            However, Aaron Schurger recently published a compelling counter to Libet’s experiments:
            http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn22144-brain-might-not-stand-in-the-way-of-free-will.html#.VIoKdY1dVJk

            And other neuroscientists like Peter Tse have put forth a compelling articulation of the evidence with ample room for free will:
            https://books.google.com/books?isbn=0262019108

            It’s a fascinating tangle for anyone interested in yoga philosophy–the existence and nature of free will has big implications for the karma flag that Krishna is always waving, as well as the tapas that Patanjali keeps asking us to bust out. Personally, I was always pleased with the Buddha’s encouragement to stop asking about the arrow and just pull the lil’ fucker out.

  • Great discussion. I hope you two have the opportunity to read a recent article in the New Yorker about the issues discussed here.

    I feel both mremski –and Paul would like very much to read James Surowiecki’s article in the Critic At Large section:
    Entitled — BETTER ALL THE TIME How the “performance revolution” came to athletics —- and beyond.
    he New Yorker Nov. 10,. 2014,

    Here we see a great discussion of how far we have come in many endeavors.
    How we have exceeded our wildest expectations BY PRACTICING OBSESSIVELY and with every advantage we can conceive of !!

    You both MUST read this article if you haven’t already.
    It goes beyond well beyond –physical culture prowess– in exploring many areas of human endeavor, and for sure, the competitive nature of nation states in even the realms of production and research and development.

  • Matthew, in my eyes it doesn’t serve us well to deny “free will” as a working term for living as a social being.
    The “whole pile of neurophysiology” (we are getting merely a glimpse of) is sufficiently complex to contemplate on the possibilities of our lives than to discuss wether there is no free will sensu strictu at all.
    Its not an on/off state, its a universe of stages between zero and one!
    In fact that is part of the thinking of the sutras!

    • Thanks Clemens. You know, I agree with you, and regret my haste in that part of the above. Glad it’s only a post. I think my impulse (which feels more compelled than free!) is to throw a rhetorical wrench into the self-making, self-made ideology of MPY. But I should finesse that argument more.

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