The challenge to my intelligence

Years ago I discovered Lydia Davis‘s fragmentary short stories. While extremely brief and lacking standard beginning-middle-end structure, they were strangely compelling. Recently I was reminded of her: the title of my last post, “The End of the Story,” is the title of her only novel. For fun I Googled her name and found an interesting 2008 interview in The Believer.

When asked about how Samuel Beckett‘s writing influenced her, she responded:

I came to Beckett very early on and was startled by his pared-down style. As I practiced writing (in my early twenties), I actively studied his way of putting sentences together. I copied out favorite sentences of his. What I liked was the plain, Anglo-Saxon vocabulary; the intelligence; the challenge to my intelligence; the humor that undercut what might have been a heavy message; and the self-consciousness about language.

I added the underline to the words that leaped out at me.

Yoga teachers who challenge my intelligence

While we universally respect another person’s intelligence, Davis offers the reason why: If challenged by another’s intelligence, we tend to push our limits and rise to the occasion. We become more intelligent by way of another’s intelligence.

That’s why I do Iyengar yoga with teachers who make me think. While Iyengar yoga definitely has a “feel good” effect, it requires effort. In class one cannot drift off and casually go through the motions. Instead one must constantly pay close attention to the body from head to toe—to train the mind toward stillness. BKS Iyengar often refers to body intelligence, which he differentiates from body language, as he did in a 1998 interview with Gabriella Giubilaro.

I’ve occasionally dropped in on random yoga classes where teachers give minimal instructions and no corrections. The emphasis is on ease and fun. One Vancouver yin yoga teacher often says, “If you’re feeling it, you’re doing it.” But can an anything-goes attitude lead to intelligence?

Intelligence and imagination

Among the teachers who challenge my intelligence is Berkeley-based Donald Moyer. Known for his deep teaching, he guides students anatomically, physiologically, mentally, and philosophically, using precise words and metaphors. For example, he might teach poses via the kidneys. “Lengthen the kidneys down, toward the thoracic spine,” he might say in Uttanasana. “Rest the lower kidneys against the ribs, and penetrate the upper kidneys deep into the body.”

Huh? His instructions can be difficult, even abstruse to the uninitiated. Daydream for a moment and you’re lost, trying to identify body parts and to perform multiple actions.

Sometimes a student will say, “That’s impossible. The kidneys are organs. You can’t move them!”

True. We cannot literally move the kidneys as we do our arms and legs. But Donald guides the intelligence through the imagination. By attempting to move the kidneys, we move the surrounding muscles and bones subtly, from the inner body.

Sometimes we must move beyond the literal—in literature and in asana. I rarely read poetry, but I’m reminded of it here. If a poem mentions a blue rose, one could argue that there’s no such thing. But then one is stuck in the prosaic.

With intelligent teachers who challenge us, we go beyond ease and fun and the obvious—and toward our own intelligence.

Image: Genetically modified “blue” rose developed by Suntory, Wired; Uttanasana, Yoga Journal


  1. It is so important to find a yoga teacher who can deepen your knowledge. The concept of ‘challenging your intelligence’ can be helpful when thinking about ways to find more meaning in one’s practice.


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