Can one write about yoga without being either overly precious or deadly earnest? Emily Gould considers the book "Poser" ...
Special to MORE INTELLIGENT LIFE
The foundational text of yogic philosophy, the Sutras of the Indian sage Patanjali, contains the following tip: “The pains which are yet to come can be and are to be avoided.” Among the pains I try to avoid: reading Yoga Journal magazine. Though I’m a certified yoga teacher—in fact, the subscription comes free with my insurance—I’ve long had an allergy to what might loosely be called “yoga culture”. Too often I find that yoga-themed books and magazine articles are about the trappings of yoga practice, not the practice itself.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m all for any and all ways of doing yoga, from the yoga-influenced fitness classes that deal exclusively with Asana (physical) practice to the meditation, breathing and philosophical study that remains more obscure to most Westerners. My own practice of alignment-based Iyengar yoga is a huge part of my life, though I try to avoid writing about it—which is awkward, given that I make my living mostly by writing about myself. My excuse has been that spiritual experiences tend to be difficult to put into words.
But that’s not true: spiritual experiences are easy to put into words, as long as you stick to cheesy, clichéd ones. Though Yoga Journal and similar publications often contain good practical articles by skilled yoga teachers—the anatomy column is reliably great—these tend to be bracketed by goopy, self-help copy in a style endemic to yoga-writing: either cute folksiness or dead-earnest humorlessness of the sort that both invites and defies parody. And don’t get me started on the ads, a regular source of contention in YJ’s letters-to-the-editor section. I’m clearly far from the only person who finds it annoying that articles about accepting your body are always surrounded by photos of young, lithe, mostly-white women showing off skin-tight, expensive spandex. In other ads, Eastern asceticism meets Western commerce in discomfiting ways. The most recent issue had a quarter-page ad for a book called “The Intuitive Investor”, featuring an image of the book jacket floating over a Zen rock garden and the copy “Lovingly written for you … for a life of abundance”. A few pages later, an article about meditating in order to let go of desire nestled between half-page ads for retreats in tropical paradises. Wish you were there? No! Don’t wish for anything!
In her new memoir “Poser: My Life In Twenty-Three Yoga Poses”, Claire Dederer (pictured below) takes on the contradictions inherent in being a Westerner who dabbles in a non-Western belief system that comes lightly disguised as an exercise class. Born and raised in the Pacific Northwest, she now lives in a North Seattle community of locavore recyclers where, she writes, signs on her neighbours’ gates warn “be mindful of dog” (instead of “beware of dog”). Even still, Dederer had spent years feeling deeply suspicious of yoga: “I thought yoga was done by self-indulgent middle-aged ladies with a lot of time on their hands, or by skinny fanatical twenty-two-year-old vegetarian former gymnasts. I was also unsettled by the notion of white people seeking transformation through the customs of brown-skinned people.”
Despite these well-founded misgivings, Dederer finally starts taking a Hatha yoga class, spurred by back pain from nursing her daughter. As she gradually becomes aware of her body in a new way, the nervous tremor she’s always suffered from becomes impossible to ignore—especially in moments in class when her body is meant to be still and calm. From this point on, the book is structured around the poses she practices, with chapters dedicated to the lessons that each one teaches her.
Some poses make Dederer reflective about her present life, and her struggle to reconcile her drive to be a perfect mother and wife with her growing discomfort over her loss of professional identity. Other poses lead her backwards, into her past. In these “child’s pose” sections, Dederer muses about the decisions her mother made—having children early, then leaving her husband for a much younger man during the dawn of feminism—and how they shaped Dederer’s own life.
Dederer is at her best when describing the physical aspects of each pose. Detailing the process of preparing to practice hanumanasana (full splits), she writes: “We started in a wide lunge, and then, bracing our hands on the floor on either side of our waists (or on towers of blocks), we began easing into the pose. Though easing was the wrong word. Maybe difficulting?” In recounting her Asana practice, she’s as skilful at capturing moments of grinding frustration as she is at describing glimpses of blissful transcendence—the expansive thrill of spending a moment in a precarious balance, or the sense of discovery in a deep hip opening.
The book is less convincing when Dederer becomes more general, especially about her demographic. “We were a generation of hollow-eyed women, chasing virtue,” one chapter starts, before detailing the organic baby food and toxin-free lifestyle of Dederer’s neighbourhood. Though she dutifully provides secondary sources that affirm her judgments about herself and her ilk, these parts of the book have the glancing feel of a tossed-off freelance assignment, written by someone who did just enough research to find authorities who agree with her.
In a chapter that briefly details the author’s peripatetic pre-marriage 20s, she writes that she wouldn’t want the “messy, scary” brand of freedom she experienced for her daughter or son. “It’s possible my parents’ split caused me to be a less stable young adult,” she writes, and then swiftly refers to some study about children of divorced parents feeling “troubled”. Here and elsewhere all the reader really wants from Dederer is an assertion that she thinks her parents’ divorce helped inform her own anxieties about ‘freedom’, not the testimony of an expert witness. But Dederer seems loathe to provide such frank insight about herself—a frustrating trait in a memoirist.