Where the Ascetic Meets the Athletic
The story of yoga in America, as many journalists have pointed out, is the story of assimilation, diversification and, more recently, commodification. Although there are many devoted students of yoga, who regard it as an exacting physical and spiritual discipline, there are also many trendy yoga consumers today, who regard it simply as another form of exercise like spinning or Pilates, as a hip new way to stay fit and lower stress, or even as a celebrity-inspired fad. Arguing that the varieties of yogic experience in America can “leave you metaphorically standing on your head,” a recent article in The Hindustan Times noted there are now such things as circus yoga, nude yoga, pre- and postnatal yoga, acro yoga (acrobatics), Christian yoga, hip-hop yoga, even yoga for dogs (“doga”).
According to Yoga Journal, nearly 16 million Americans were practicing yoga in 2008, and the yoga industry earns some $6 billion a year in the United States. The Canadian company Lululemon, which sells items like the $118 Lulu Zen Wrap and the wildly popular $98 groove pant, reportedly has a market cap of more than a billion dollars. Yoga for Foodies events, staged at spas and restaurants around the country, feature yoga sessions, followed by multicourse meals that include red wine and chocolate. And celebrity yogis, NPR reports, have become “brands unto themselves, complete with book deals, fashion lines, studio franchises and intellectual property lawsuits.”
So how did yoga arrive at this point? How did a centuries-old spiritual discipline, associated with meditative practices in Buddhism and Hinduism, become a fitness routine subscribed to by professional athletes, C.E.O.’s, Hollywood stars and suburban soccer moms? This is the story that the journalist Stefanie Syman — a founder of the Web magazine Feed — proposes to tell in her new book, “The Subtle Body: The Story of Yoga in America.”
Certainly the subject has the makings of a compelling cultural history — one that might explore the collision of East and West, American attitudes toward religion and the mind-body split, and the mainstreaming of countercultural attitudes and trends. But while Ms. Syman has amassed a lot of entertaining anecdotes about the history of yoga in this country, her overall narrative suffers from odd gaps and elisions. She fails to give the lay reader a real appreciation of yoga’s ancient history and the evolution of various practices and schools. And the final chapters feel truncated and rushed; they do not even seem to draw usefully on a plethora of recent newspaper, magazine and radio reports about the latest permutations of the yoga boom in America.
What Ms. Syman does do deftly is trace how the likes of Emerson (with his interest in Indian thought) and Thoreau (with his practice of meditation) helped create a context in which an American yoga could take root. And she provides a lively gallery of larger-than-life characters who would contribute to (or undermine, or co-opt) the progress of yoga in the United States — beginning with Swami Vivekananda, who came to America in 1893 to raise money for the poor in India, and who drew large audiences at the World Parliament of Religions, convened as part of the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago.
From Vivekananda, Ms. Syman moves on to Pierre Bernard (the subject of a recent biography, “The Great Oom” by Robert Love), a self-promoting entrepreneur who founded a secretive, cultlike society called the Tantrik Order and who was accused of being a white slave trafficker.
Bernard’s story “could have ended here,” Ms. Syman writes: “a two-bit occultist and lothario who, like many a charismatic leader, was felled by a combination of his own recklessness and bad timing,” but the guru managed to reinvent himself. In 1919 his disciple and wife, Blanche De Vries, opened the Yoga Gymnosophy on East 53rd Street in Manhattan — a luxurious series of studios where yoga poses and breathing exercises were taught. That same year she and Bernard created the Braeburn Country Club (later renamed the Clarkstown Country Club) in Nyack, N.Y., where well-to-do members could choose from a startling array of activities, from practicing yoga to joining a cross-dressed baseball team to watching circus trapeze acts.
Among the other yoga gurus and entrepreneurs profiled in these pages is Theos Bernard, Pierre Bernard’s half nephew, who gained fame as a “spiritual adventurer” after journeying to India and Tibet in search of teachers, and who opened the American Institute of Yoga and the Pierre Health Studios in Manhattan. There is also Indra Devi, a middle-aged, Russian-Swedish immigrant who arrived in Hollywood in 1947, opened a small yoga studio and quickly acquired celebrity students like Greta Garbo, Gloria Swanson, Jennifer Jones and Robert Ryan. The brand of Hatha yoga she taught was, in Ms. Syman’s words, “simple, practical, and adaptive” — accessible to Americans with its emphasis on health and well-being, not spiritual uplift.
Whereas Devi had broadened the appeal of yoga by reducing it, basically, to a set of “health exercises,” says Ms. Syman, the psychedelic cowboys Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert, armed with psilocybin, mescaline and LSD, would steal “yoga from the health seekers and weight-conscious” and “put it back in the temple, where they believed it belonged” or at least restore “some of its spiritual import.”
The “marriage of acid and yoga” at the Avalon Ballroom in San Francisco on Jan. 29, 1967; Allen Ginsberg sitting in the lotus position and chanting in Lincoln Park in Chicago as the police clubbed protesters during the Democratic National Convention of 1968; the swami Satchidananda delivering an invocation at Woodstock and exhorting the massive crowd to channel its energies — such scenes are all captured by Ms. Syman with plenty of energy and verve. She goes on to chronicle how the ’60s version of yoga — with “its promise of physical-psycho-spiritual transmutation” — gave way in successive decades to more narrowly defined versions, from what one instructor dismissively calls “the marshmallow school of yoga” (in which “you sort of lie on the floor and exhale a whole lot”) to more demanding forms that merged the athletic and the ascetic.
That children practiced yoga on the White House lawn during the 2009 Easter Egg Roll, Ms. Syman writes, is a measure of how thoroughly this ancient spiritual discipline — once regarded as exotic, bohemian, even threatening — has been assimilated by the American mainstream and transformed.
“We had turned a technique for God realization,” she writes, “that had, at various points in time, enjoined its adherents to reduce their diet to rice, milk, and a few vegetables, fix their minds on a set of, to us, incomprehensible syllables, and self-administer daily enemas (without the benefit of equipment), to name just a few of its prerequisites, into an activity suitable for children.”
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