Book Review: Do you know how yoga came west?
We just finished Stefanie Syman's book, The Subtle Body: The Story of Yoga in America, and here's what we think...
Modern yoga is a CONVERSATION between ancient texts and modern lifestyles, between Eastern philosophies and Western physical culture; between esoteric, spiritual ideals and the mundane, on the ground, daily needs of contemporary people.
Syman does a thorough job of placing yoga within all of these seemingly contrasting contexts. As Indra Devi said,
"Yoga has something for everyone,
but not everything for everyone."
Syman's book is like yoga in that way: it has something for everyone, but only from the conversation between India and America. (We'd love a follow-up book with a more global view.) But this book is a comprehensive start and a must read for anyone who is studying yoga at any level. It is organised, more or less, chronologically, so that we follow a clear through line, seeing the precedence for each new phase in the history of yoga. Along the way, we meet people important to the practice. Not just the gurus and teachers, but the students, writers, politicians, hollywood stars, musicians, philosophers, academics, and pop-culture icons who guided yoga into counter-culture and then into mainstream culture, like a series of mini-biographies. And we get a peek at some of the distinctions among the various schools and traditions of yoga. While this is not a guide to practicing, it does give a sense of how diverse the modern yoga universe is and how distinctions break down along geographical, generational, and intention-oriented boundaries.
New Students of Yoga...
will get a great introduction. If you are considering trying yoga but unsure about wading into the deep waters of yogic philosophy, unsure about which class to chose (fx, What's the difference between and Ashtanga class and a Vinyasa class and which one is right for you?) reading this book will empower you to make knowledgeable choices about starting a practice.
Long Term Practitioners...
can deepen your practice with appreciation and reverence for everyone who worked, thought, wrote, traveled, taught, sponsored, hosted, started a business, lost a business, and did what they did to make this practice available to YOU. And another, possibly more humbling and potentially very important reason to read this book:
YOGA IS NOT WHAT YOU THINK IT IS. IT IS MORE.
At least, it is more than what I thought it was. I had an idea that yoga sprang from one ancient, cohesive set of rituals and practices. And that is was us, the modern yogis, who began to slice and dice it to fit our needs with these niches. We all eventually find our yogic niche. And maybe that niche changes - after a decade of Power Vinyasa classes we find ourself drifting into more and more Yin classes; or we change neighbourhoods, find a gem of an Ashtanga studio and get hooked, even though we always thought Ashtanga was maddeningly routine...we'll mention no names, here. This is all hypothetical ;) I was under the impression that is was us modern yogis who morphed a beautiful practice of ONENESS into a form of nationalist pride; that it is an annoyingly modern phenomenon to chose sides, gang-style, and segregate ourselves, the YOGIS, from each other. Isn't this supposed to be about UNION? So, why do I hear things like, "She doesn't do real yoga, just restorative." Or, "He isn't a serious student of yoga, he doesn't even have a regular meditation practice."
But as Syman elaborates on the evolution of the practice, it is increasingly obvious that there has never, anywhere, been one yoga. Yoga is a field to be researched. And this book is a great place to start! I would love to see another book this thoroughly researched and this well-written with a more global framework.
WE WANT MORE!
While the Story of Yoga in America is compelling, it doesn't satisfy our craving for a comprehensive story of modern yoga. For example, much of the Yin tradition and other traditions with roots other than Indian are left out. If you know of another book or publication that explores yoga in other continents or countries, or with a wider world view, we'd love to know about! Leave us a comment below.
OR... if you have read Syman's book and have something to share, we'd love to discuss! What did you get out of it? Did it change your physical or meditation practice in any way? Thanks for your comments below!