“I want to say, in all seriousness, that a great deal of harm is being done in the modern world by belief in the virtuousness of work, and that the road to happiness and prosperity lies in an organized diminution of work.”
—Bertrand Russell, from In Praise of Idleness
“Step onto your mat and out of your day,” the teacher sings out as she leads us through initial sun salutations. Her voice is cheerful, her instructions clear and confident, and all the students around me seem excited to be here. But I find myself growing agitated. With each passing forward bend, step-back, updog and downdog, I find myself feeling more and more frustrated and annoyed.
It isn’t until we stop and rest in mountain pose, my breath slowing and mind quieting, that I realize why. I was halfway through my inhalation when she told me to exhale. I was still exhaling when she told me to inhale. I was being directed toward a fast-paced breath at a time when I just wanted to slow down. I stepped out of my fast-paced day into an even faster-paced yoga class.
The rest of the class is more of the same: encouragement to move quickly and cheerfully from pose to pose, while I grumble to myself about the shortcomings of modern postural yoga.
The phrase ran over and over through my mind like a mantra. Sometimes I listened to that advice, breathing and moving at a rate that made sense to me. And sometimes I listened not to my breath but to the radiant teacher whose siren song of speedy vinyasa would draw me away from my leisurely flow.
Speed is the ideological fuel of industrialization. As the saying goes, time is money. As a result, saving time means saving money. In pre-industrial cultures not organized around money, time is organized differently. The Hopi language does not have verb tenses, which means there is no way to indicate or differentiate past from future. If your day were sequenced as a series of present moments that exist only now, moving quickly would be reserved for emergency situations only.
In the world’s transition to industrialization, the whole nature of time shifted dramatically. Rather than simply meeting basic needs (hunting, farming, foraging, etc.), work was organized in shifts and paid by the hour—with the most productive industries becoming the most profitable ones. And productivity meant getting things done fast.
I imagine that this transition was incredibly difficult and painful for the first few generations of farmers whose lands were encroached upon as they were forced into cities to work in factories. In medieval Spain, holidays and leisure time accounted for almost five months a year: it has been estimated that in the thirteenth century peasants farmed their land about 150 days per year. To move from this relaxed pace of life working outdoors among friends and family, into dangerous factories under constant pressure to work harder and faster, must have been extraordinarily stressful.
Bodies that could not move quickly could not keep pace with the demands of industrial production. And so speed became interwoven with industrial society and industrial bodies. Business became characterized by busy-ness. And our bodies were forced to adapt to this rapid new pace. Not surprisingly, being slow became associated with laziness, and being quick with success.
Post-industrial societies are further intensified by the speed of life being internalized and experienced as normal—the heaving chug of steam engines now becoming a vibratory hum of data. Our bodies hustle from one extended period of sitting to another, our minds struggling to process the staggering amount of data with which they are almost constantly bombarded. In the 1970s, we were exposed to about 500 ads a day. Today, that number has ballooned to 5,000.
We are doing too much, and growing too fast. We are expanding out of control and using up resources in a way that simply cannot be sustained.
Yoga as Enclave
Yoga promises a personal and social enclave that can insulate its practitioners from the ideology of speed. Ashrams, yoga studios, and retreat centers can be safe havens where people can escape the pervasive feeling that they should always be doing something. That inclination toward productivity flows like an ocean current. If you are not consciously moving against it, it will pull you along effortlessly. And the yoga studio provides us with a venue in which we might take our foot off the gas pedal and practice the art of moving slowly.
We are doing too much, and growing too fast. We are expanding out of control and using up resources in a way that simply cannot be sustained. Slowing down is imperative not just for our mental health, but also for the health of the planet.
Like the humming of our refrigerators, we hardly notice the headlong rush of post-industrial society that surrounds and pervades us. We take notice only when the refrigerator stops. And when it stops, there is a quiet sigh of relief. Yoga can be that moment when the fridge stops running. We notice the quiet that was there all along. We notice the stillness that was obscured by the momentum of busy-ness and cultural conditioning toward progress. But progress toward what? And at what cost?
Not long after that too-fast yoga class, I saw one of those inspirational yoga memes on a Facebook feed that seem to be tossed around in the social-media breeze like fast-food napkins. The meme said, “Yoga is not about perfection, it is about progress.” Is progress really what we are aiming for? Progress means that things are not good, and that they will get better in the future. Progress means you have work to do. Progress means you should get busy. Hurry up and make progress.
Perfection means there is nothing left to do. Perfection is accepting things as they are. That does not mean that things will stay the same. Nothing stays the same. Things do get better. And things get worse. But if we are truly present, in this moment, things cannot be any other way. Presence is perfection, and it is by doing less that we may rest in presence.
It is difficult to do less in a culture that is perpetually demanding and suggesting that you do more. Every advertisement goads you to do something. Your boss wants you to do something. Your government wants you to do something. But what about your yoga teacher?
Does your yoga teacher ask you to do nothing? I’m not talking about the little end-of-class nap that comes as a reward for your hard work. I’m talking about during class. Straight-up laziness and practicing doing less should be a part of our practice. It requires practice precisely because it is so difficult. Quiet eyes are met with flickers, quiet ears search for sounds, and quiet minds are fertile fields for imagination, sleep, and memory.
The Lazy Yogi
The lazy yogi is a seeker of nothingness. The lazy yogi is a sloth hanging from the branches of yoga practice.
Did you know that sloths actually sleep only about ten hours a day? A quick Google search revealed that they are scrappy fighters and good swimmers, too. They are not lazy. They are efficient. They are not ne’er-do-wells looking for a free ride. They are just remarkably well adjusted to their environment. They live in trees and eat mostly leaves. They don’t need to hustle. And yet somehow these adorable arboreals became the namesake for one of the seven deadly sins.
Sloth. Right up there with greed, envy, and wrath. Being slothful is the opposite of being industrious. And being industrious means being busy. It means hustling, working, expanding, accumulating, saving, investing, and building—building, always building. Whether on the trading floor of Wall Street or the elliptical machine at the gym, success in a world dominated by the ideology of speed is characterized by hard work and growth.
Hard work and growth. Stock market gains, bigger GDPs, bigger biceps and longer hamstrings. New territories explored and new resources exploited, new postures, more variations—is any of that making us truly happy? The happiness associated with, say, longer hamstrings is as short-lived as a sugar high. It leaves us only with thirst. In a world such as ours, yoga can be our intervention. It can provide us with a slothful stillness that is the antidote to our thirst. Unfortunately, it can also be swept along in the tsunami of speed and progress, and end up only reinforcing the ideology of speed.
Yoga can make you strong and supple like a leopard. That is awesome. But yoga can also make you lounge and chill like a sloth. Which is also quite awesome. I need to be very clear here, so I am going to write it out in capital letters, okay?
I AM NOT ENDORSING A SEDENTARY LIFESTYLE. THAT HAS BEEN PROVEN TO BE DANGEROUS AND UNHEALTHY. PLEASE MOVE YOUR BODY ON A REGULAR BASIS.
But you do not need to hurry. You are perfect. You can get bigger, stronger, richer, and live longer if you think it would benefit yourself and the world around you. If you think it would make you happy. But let’s learn to embody the intelligence of the sloth. Be content with where you are, who you are, and what you are. Relax into the perfection of presence by doing nothing.
Do nothing! This is the rallying call of the lazy yogi. But don’t feel you have to do nothing immediately. Take your time. Whenever it occurs to you, simply do nothing. Pause between tasks and do nothing. Pause between postures and do nothing. Pause in the middle of postures and do nothing. Pause between words and do nothing.
Slow down and do nothing. Do nothing, and practice being perfect.