The Subtle Body: The Story of Yoga in America
by Stefanie Syman
Farrar, Straus & Giroux
These days, yoga in America is an ubiquitous and chameleon pastime, a spiritual discipline alternately watered down or revved up or dharma-infused to meet the needs of millions — yuppie housewives, professional athletes, earnest hippies, pop stars and average joes – who heed a common call to the mat. But once upon a time, not all that long ago, “yoga” as we know it was an exotic, ostracized and utterly foreign discipline, steeped in mystery and mired in misunderstanding.
Traversing the timeline of The Subtle Body: The Story of Yoga in America, author Stefanie Syman explores everything from ancient Indian spiritual practice to acid-fueled flower power meditations to the rise of celebrity endorsed $100 yoga pants: her journey is long and complex, her stories rife with manipulation, experimentation, scandal and inexplicable realizations of bliss. And while Syman doesn’t always succeed in rendering the more obscure minutiae of the ancient texts all that interesting, she dutifully powers through this requisite information so that, once she finally gets to the good stuff (like sex, drugs, Marilyn Monroe and everything else you could wish for in one hell of a fun chapter dubbed “Psychedelic Sages”), we know how and why yoga stumbled into its teenage rebel phase, got its act together, and matured into the moneyed, respectable and downright conventional institution it is today.
As it turns out, yoga captured the minds of America’s literati long before the likes of Ginsberg and Kerouac appropriated the spiritual discipline for a generation of beatnik dharma bums. Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, those darlings of the American canon, were among the first to take on yogic philosophy and apply it to their lives and writings. (Remember transcendentalism? Thoreau’s “deliberate” lifestyle at Walden Pond included meditation, asceticism and conscious living as inspired by the Bhagavad-Gita— in short, everything necessary to earn him the dubious but certainly defendable title of “first American yogi”).
Of course, what is now the stuff of high school syllabi was still, in its day, completely nuts: Thoreau didn’t make yoga mainstream by any means and, for much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, it remained an alternative lifestyle pursued by the country’s weirdest and wealthiest characters. Despite the string of imported Indian gurus and white shastris (teachers) that popped up over the years, it wasn’t until a petite, pale-skinned yoga teacher named Indra Devi arrived on the Hollywood scene in 1947 that yoga made its way out of the mystic, suspicion-arousing clouds of spiritualism and into the world of popular culture. Thanks to Devi, Syman explains, Hatha yoga came to Americans via Hollywood as a distilled discipline, specifically designed for physical fitness and devoid of any exoticism or religious pageantry. This “fitness yoga” took Hollywood starlets and national bestseller lists by storm; and a few decades later, the hippies had all the tools they needed to turn feel-good physical yoga (along with the help of an acid sidecar) into the psychic explorer’s key to the cosmos.
A long-practicing yogini in her own right, Syman is well qualified (perhaps more so than she knows) to discourse on her chosen subject. Her passion for finding and connecting the links between American history, popular culture and the yogic subtle body is evident in her literary undertaking alone: there is a voluminous mass of information to be read, navigated, digested and explained in the annals of yogic history, and Syman leaves precious few pages unturned. Unfortunately, this passion and personality – admittedly tangential to the factual focus of her book but nonetheless integral to its spirit – remains mostly hidden, popping out in rare instances of writerly whimsy until the peculiarities of modern yoga and personal observation allow her to flourish in the book’s final chapters.
No sooner does this gracefully intimate and astute analysis of yoga in today’s world finally begin to take shape, than Syman’s book comes to a beautifully written but jarringly abrupt halt. After completing almost three hundred meticulously researched pages dedicated to the history of American yoga, Syman is right, of course, to resist forging ahead with random musings on some imagined yoga of the future. But what I would like to see, and what I hope will arise from the intriguing nuggets at the end of The Subtle Body, is another work by a talented and knowledgeable voice: one emboldened to delve further into the crazy, convoluted world of American yoga as it is today, enriched by historical awareness and informed by the instincts of an evolving and powerful practice.
by Lauren Westerfield