Elephant’s First Online Book Signing “The Subtle Body: The Story of Yoga in America” by Stefanie Syman

Via on Aug 4, 2010

Today I have the great pleasure of welcoming Stefanie Syman to Elephant for our very first Online Book Signing. Stefanie is the author of the much anticipated and enthusiastically received history of AmericanYoga, going back to mid-1800s, The Subtle Body: The Story of Yoga in America.

I got a copy as soon as it came out, and it reads like a thriller. It’s a must for any serious Yoga enthusiast. But it’s so entertaining it clearly has an audience outside the Yoga world, too, as evidenced by this New York Times review, which featured a picture of Marilyn Monroe doing Yoga (which, of course, inspired our intrepid Waylon to go out and find the complete set of Marilyn yoga pictures). Stefanie was also recently interviewed on the popular YogaDork blog.

I’ve asked Stefanie a few starter questions below, but the real purpose of this blog is for you to be able to meet Stefanie and ask your own questions, just as if this were a live book signing event.

To receive a copy of the book signed by the author, please send, by Aug. 18th, a check made out to Farrar Straus and Giroux,  for $33.49, to Angelina Venezia, Farrar Straus and Giroux, 18 West 18th Street, New York NY 10011, along with a note with the words “Elephant Book Signing“. You are also welcome to request a special inscription.

Stefanie Syman’s articles on technology, media, and culture have appeared in 
The Wall Street Journal, The Boston Globe, Rolling Stone, VogueThe Village Voice, Yoga Journal, and Namarupa.  Syman has been featured in two documentary films, Yoga, Inc. and Ashtanga, NY. In 1995, she co-founded FEED (formerly www.feedmag.com) an award-winning independent web magazine, and for the next six years acted as Co-Editor and Co-Publisher. In 2000, she was part of the creative team that founded Plastic.com, a content and community site focused on pop culture. And in 2005, as Editorial Director, she helped launch lime.com, a site focused on healthy living and sustainability. Stefanie has been practicing Ashtanga Yoga for fifteen years. A native of Los Angeles and graduate of Yale University with a degree in literature, she currently lives in Brooklyn.

Here were the questions I asked Stefanie to get the ball rolling.  Please make her feel welcome by asking your own questions below in the comment section.

Bob: Welcome to Elephant, Stefanie. We’re very pleased to have you as our first Online Book Signing! Please tell us why you decided to write The Subtle Body.

Stefanie: The short answer is that I wanted to read this book. After I had been practicing yoga for awhile, I realized that there was no easy way to find out how it had morphed from a millennia-old, Indic spiritual discipline into one so readily available and widely practiced in 20th and 21st century America.

I was also dissatisfied with the way other outlets wrote about yoga. Mainstream media coverage tended to be trivializing, and yoga media often struck me as too reverent. And neither one was bringing the deep historical perspective to the subject that I craved.

When the idea first came to me, I had just had to shut down FEED (www.feedmag.com), a web magazine I co-founded in 1995, and I was looking for a juicy writing project. Oh, and my husband put me up to it.

Bob: I love that! “I wrote this book because I wanted to read it.” What are the most important things you’d like the Yoga world to learn from The Subtle Body they don’t know already?

Stefanie: The first thing I’d like them to learn is that yoga has been here a long time and almost immediately attracted significant numbers of Americans to it. And that includes both more meditative forms of yoga such as Raja Yoga as well as Hatha Yoga, which Swami Abhedananda was teaching before the turn of the 20th century.

The second is that the Indian Swamis and American teachers who popularized yoga here have been enormously inventive. I don’t see this as a break from tradition in the negative sense but rather the necessary adaption to a new context, culture, and historical moment.

That said, I do believe that for yoga to work, that is for you to achieve its full potential, you’ll probably be more successful if, for instance, you assume that the subtle body (of chakras and nadis) exists at least as a functional metaphor. That is, you must buy into at least some of yoga’s presuppositions to succeed, and these definitely challenge some of our assumptions about reality (you can’t after all locate the subtle body with any known imaging device, so by scientific standards it doesn’t exist).

Bob: That makes sense. I think metaphors can be as powerful as facts in the way they affect our brains anyway. What are the biggest difficulties you had in writing the book, and how did you overcome them?

Stefanie: The biggest difficulty was probably getting my arms around the subject. There are so many teachers and moments that were important in yoga’s assimilation here that I had to make some tough choices. I couldn’t include them all.

Then too, I wanted to give readers some sense of what it’s like to embark on a yoga practice, and it wasn’t always easy to find credible first person accounts. Luckily, some pretty famous writers/poets have found yoga and recorded their experiences.

Bob: What is most surprising experience you had in writing The Subtle Body?

Stefanie: The most surprising moment was probably finding an 1898 New York Herald article about yoga which could have almost run verbatim in 1998. It was a trend story about how the “fashionable set” was doing yoga, and it was illustrated with line drawings of men and women assuming various, now familiar, yoga postures. The “explainer” piece that accompanied the story was a muddle but it was clear that Americans were practicing Hatha and Raja Yoga and this both amused observers and was cause for consternation.

Bob: Yeah, one of the many things that surprised me in the book was how early the debates started between “exercise” yoga and “authentic” yoga, debates that are still going strong today in the Yoga blogosphere. How did you come to choose the title?

Stefanie: The phrase seemed evocative generally speaking and is also a through line for the book. In each era I looked at how teachers and swamis talked about the subtle body since that gives you a good sense of how far out of the realm of the familiar they are willing to take their American students.

Bob: What’s the most interesting question I should be asking that I haven’t thought of yet?

That’s a tough one. At readings, people often ask me how writing the book affected my own practice. One answer is that it deepened my appreciation of yoga in some ways. But on a day-to-day level, having my two daughters (which I did over the seven years it took to write the book), has affected my practice far more. And this is actually relevant to the book since many of the most successful popularizers of yoga in America have been keenly sensitive to the time constraints most of us face.

Others have benefited from moments when (some) Americans were relatively unencumbered. The swamis who came in the 1960s come to mind, since many young Americans could afford to not do much besides yoga (it was the peak of American prosperity and, of course, the moment the baby boomers came of age) and Bikram and Jois in 1990s, when lots of professional women delayed having kids and so had the means and the time to take up yoga in earnest.

Bob: Thanks, Stefanie. Great answers. Now I’m going to turn you over to our eager cyber audience for their questions. Thanks again for being here for Elephant’s first online book signing.

To receive a copy of the book signed by the author,
please send, by Aug. 18th, a check made out to Farrar Straus and Giroux,
for $33.49, to Angelina Venezia, Farrar Straus and Giroux,
18 West 18th Street, New York NY 10011,
along with a note with the words “Elephant Book Signing”.
You are also welcome to request a special inscription.

About Bob Weisenberg

Bob Weisenberg: Editor, Best of Yoga Philosophy / Former Assoc. Publisher, elephant journal / Author: Yoga Demystified * Bhagavad Gita in a Nutshell * Leadership Is Like Tennis, Not Egyptology / Co-editor: Yoga in America (free eBook) / Creator: Gita Talk: Self-paced Online Seminar / Flamenco guitarist: "Live at Don Quijote" & "American Gypsy" (Free CD's) / Follow Bob on facebook, Twitter, or his main site: Wordpress.

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39 Responses to “Elephant’s First Online Book Signing “The Subtle Body: The Story of Yoga in America” by Stefanie Syman”

  1. Linda-Sama says:

    Hi, Stefanie…..

    After the John Friend/Anusara NYT debacle and the subsequent outcry from Anusara students and teachers, more than a few of my friends from overseas (Brits and Indians) who are students and teachers emailed me and said "wow. Yoga in America, eh?" They really shake their heads and marvel at the whole "cult of celebrity" in American yoga.

    What do you have to say about the cult of celebrity in American yoga? According to my British friends in particular, they feel the whole entourage thing going on with American yoga stars is rather absent overseas.

    Look forward to your reponse….thanks!

    • Hi Linda-Sama,

      I can't speak to the European scene at all since I haven't seen much if any of it. I am slightly doubtful that there's zero cult of celebrity around yoga teaches there though can believe it's less intense. But we do have Hollywood here and turn out all kinds of celebrities weekly–and lack aristocrats and royalty. So, in general I think Americans turn business leaders, artists, and actors (not in that order) into something akin to aristocracy and now that list includes yoga teachers. The ones who tend to fall into that category seem to me to be unusually charismatic (think Pierre Bernard in the 1920s and 1930s, Ram Dass, especially in the 1970s, and now John Friend).

      -Stefanie

  2. Newshoes522 says:

    We are living in an era of great uncertainty– perhaps no more so than previous generations, but one cannot be sure. It seems increasingly clear that if we do not dramatically shift in our relationship to the earth and other sentient beings on this planet, our species may not be around much longer. How do you think the West's newfound infatuation with yoga plays a role in an age of materialism, mass consumption, and selfish independence in all this? There's been a lot made of the year 2012, shifts in global consciousness, etc, etc, etc… do you think yoga will play a major role in deciding our future as a human race? If so, how?

    • Hi Newshoes522,

      Americans have believed that yoga would be part of the New Age and a new consciousness for the past 40 years. The fact that we have not made a bigger shift towards sustainability suggests to me that yoga alone is not enough and or that not enough people are practicing. But let's be clear, in the Indic tradition the goal of yoga is personal liberation from samsara. Any eco-benefits were almost entirely incidental.

  3. integralhack says:

    Stefanie,

    Has any "positive evolution" occurred in the Western practice of yoga? It seems that many yogis are split between the "purists" who see the materialism and focus on the physical as diverging negatively from the original yoga(s) and the then there are Western stylists and creatives who are bringing new insights/practices from other disciplines or traditions (e.g. "Yin Yoga").

    Do you see the new syntheses as positive or negative or both? Why?

    -Matt

    • stefaniesyman says:

      This is a reply to Integralhack:

      I definitely think there's some positive evolution here. For one, I think the refinements of the postural practice through forms such as Anusara have been hugely helpful to many people. Then too, teachers such as Dharma Mittra and Richard Freeman have made the whole depth and breadth of yoga practice and philosophy more accessible to Americans even as they uphold their respective lineages.

  4. Kris Lowe says:

    Hello Stefanie – After all your research into modern yoga, and with the lens of ancient yoga also in view, is there as way you can sum up "What is Yoga?" in a way that incorporates all? Can bahkti yoga, karma yoga, fitness yoga, yoga therapy, kundilini yoga… possibly fall under some common definition?

    Kris

    • I'm not sure what "fitness" yoga is… As for the rest, they all are ways to transform the mind/body in order to apprehend divinity however you figure it –Brahman, superconsciousness etc. Yoga changes your consciousness, but what you experience through this process isn't a single thing since different schools have different ways of talking about this, from merging with Brahman to the isolation of Purusha.

  5. Nancy says:

    Hi Stefanie.. Do you see the trend of yoga going in the direction of getting more in touch with the traditional rather than only moving away from it? How about the newer movements to combine other philosophies (i.e. Buddhism) with yoga? Do you see these schools/practices as reconnecting with the past or a new fresh approach to yoga.

    Thanks!
    Nancy

  6. Michelle says:

    Hi Stephanie,

    I am excited to read your book.

    Yoga has always evolved – what we think of as classical yoga was modern in its time. What do you see are the primary differences between Eastern Yoga & Western Yoga in terms of style, approach, & emphasis on the practice?

    Thanks, Stephanie!

    • Sadly, I'm not at all equipped to make those comparisons. I focused only on what has been taught in America. There are many others doing work on yoga in India from David Gordon White to Mark Singleton and others.

  7. Sawennatson says:

    Hi Stefanie, Matt, Bob, and fellow readers (co-conversationists)! I think my question is related to Matt's:

    In North American Buddhism there is a sense that we must diligently practice the Buddhadharma in order to not lose out on the opportunity before the Asian masters pass away. The notion that there are qualified North Americans who can pass on an "authentic lineage" is sort of new.

    Is there a similar feeling in the yoga tradition? Are there "authentic" North American yogis contrasted with yoga practitioners. Is this a concern in the contemporary yoga community?

    -Sawennatson

    • Hi Sawennatson,

      I think that the Tibetan diaspora has affected the assimilation of Buddhism and has given North Americans access to these great teachers. The situation with yoga is different. For one, not being a monastic tradition which is entirely focused on preserving tradition, the lineages that have come over have been essentially "newer"–some like TM or even Sivananda Yoga initiated in the 20th century. And most of the Swamis who came in the 1960s have passed away. I wouldn't say the North American yogis are not authentic, just that they are operating within a different kind of tradition which is far less cohesive.

  8. Satyam says:

    Greetings Stefanie,
    Thank you for your research and presentation – you must have certainly come across much in your study. Interesting to hear that 100 years ago a similar discussion was going on, i.e. physical vs spiritual.

    The most classical definition of yoga may be the pursuit of atman (unit consciousness) into Paramatman (Cosmic consciousness). These days many say that all expressions of yoga in the US are good as it allows people to enter the fold at whatever level / perspective they wish – and over time they will grow and mature in their practice.

    My question: Are there any expressions of yoga happening now in the US which you feel truly threaten or undermine this ancient discipline? For instance: breach of etiquette between teacher/student; use of intoxicants like yoga with wine; or any such other expression that I may not have heard about. Or do you feel that really "it is all well & fine".

    As yours is a wide-angle view coupled by a depth of study, would be most interested in hearing your response?

    Namaskar,
    Satyam <a href="http://www.renyoga.com” target=”_blank”>www.renyoga.com

    • Hi Satyam,

      I find some of the combinations of yoga + a bit silly–but I don't think they threaten the tradition. Serious seekers will find serious teachers. As for the rest, yoga has long been part of our entertainment culture: yogis were literally imported to act as contortionists in American circuses in the 19th century.

  9. Hilary Lindsay says:

    Stefanie,

    Thanks for Yoga Inc. and for your thoughtful words on Yoga. "Americans tend to secularize and re-sacralize depending on the cultural moment" is a wonderful way to describe us. The yoga phenomenom is a fabulous means for exploring the history and society of humans which you are doing vigorously. I look forward to diving into your book.

  10. The most common way was to offer a very abbreviated practice which usually involved some poses and simple breathing exercises. The other way was to write instructional books (and then of course DVDs) so people can practice when they have the time. Indra Devi and Richard Hittleman both used these tactics.

  11. Hi, Kris and Stefanie. I'll throw in my two cents worth here.

    Stefanie, I'm very puzzled by your response to Kris, "I'm not sure what "fitness" yoga is…"

    Don't you think that "fitness yoga" is the correct term for at least 90% of the yoga going on today in the U.S. today? I would define it as yoga as practiced in health clubs, tennis centers, many Yoga studios, and other venues in which the primary, if not sole focus is on exercise rather than any other aspect of Yoga. What's your preferred term for that?

    I would say that unless one wants to follow my Yobo spoof recommendation, one has to recognize the fact that the vast majority of Yoga in the U.S. has nothing to do with the other aspects of Yoga. But I agree that the 10% is where the fascinating diversity and interesting history is.

    One of the reasons I appreciate fitness Yoga is that I started there myself–solely to improve my flexibility for tennis, at my tennis club. Now I'm at the opposite extreme, primarily into Yoga philosophy, but I like the whole spectrum of Yoga.

    Bob Weisenberg
    YogaDemystified.com

    • Bob,

      the reason I question that terminology is that most teachers of "fitness" yoga don't call it that and layer on what they believe to be teachings of real spiritual import. You can argue with the depth of their teachings, but I hate to completely dismiss these either. Ashtanga Yoga for many is purely a physical practice, but this is hardly true to P. Jois' own philosophy. what I think you're talking about is the intentions of many American practitioners at a given moment. I myself have only a physical practice right now but don't see myself at all as a fitness yoga buff. And as you say, you started out in one mode and switched.

      • Thanks, Stefanie. That makes sense. Even my tennis club Yoga teacher lit candles, read some poetry, did savasana, and said some strange things about "the light in you sees the light in me" or some such Sanskrit, which is why I started reading more about Yoga.

        And, just to be perfectly clear, I don't dismiss any Yoga. I embrace it all.

        • Kris Lowe says:

          Thanks, Bob, for following up. I've got to admit that there have been many classes I have been to, seen on DVD, etc, that I have a hard time finding any yoga in – other than that they use yoga poses. Absent even of the candles and poetry you describe. My instinct is to say they are not really yoga – only fitness. Then again, if I see a photo of someone in tree pose, for example, I immediately say, "Oh, they do yoga!" – without a thought about whether it is only a pose or so much more. Such a dilemma for me…

  12. Lucy Edge says:

    Dear Stephanie

    With all of your research into the history of yoga what do you see as its future?

    Thanks and good luck with the book – its on my wish list for my birthday!

    Lucy Edge

    • Hi Lucy,

      I think there's room for more of a focus on meditation and less of a focus on postures–and we're due for a re-expansion ala the 1960s. I also have seen some resistance to the high priced yoga retreats and classes. I also think the medical community is coming around so maybe more "prescriptions" for yoga.

  13. (For those who aren't aware of it, Lucy Edge is the author of the popular and hilarious "Yoga School Dropout" about her trip to India to seek enlightenment. Highly recommended.)

  14. Mahita Devi says:

    Hi Stefanie, thank you for sharing so openly. I have not yet read this book but after reading the posts I see that I am missing out. As soon as I have a free moment I will. I am almost finished with my MFA—and then I will have the freedom to read books of my own choosing.
    What stands out to me is the following, “But on a day-to-day level, having my two daughters (which I did over the seven years it took to write the book), has affected my practice far more.”

    I am wondering if you could share more of this experience/process. How do you find and sustain the balance between studying/writing/practicing/living? This is something I am exploring on my own path.
    Thank you.

    • There's no simple answer. I have a very supportive husband as well as a great babysitter. I also choose to practice rather than do other things sometimes–from TV to socializing–but there are times when I must let it go and do.

  15. Hi Stefanie! I don't now much at all about yoga in America but looking forward to reading your book. I imagine I will find similarities with yoga in Australia too, but on a much smaller scale, so keen for the insight. Thanks for sharing.

  16. YogiOne says:

    Stephanie,

    I have heard many people say that the chakras can be used as a metaphor and you assert it is necessary to at least buy into them at this level if not moreso. I wonder if you could state what that metaphor is in a nutshell.

    Sat Nam,

    Scott

    • stefaniesyman says:

      The metaphor is simply a spiritual anatomy… By metaphor here I mean that the chakras are used to stand in for something, they are an imaginative way of describing this subtle physiology that may not exist materially speaking, and yet still functions and can produce specific effects-e.g. leading the aspirant to bliss consciousness, samadhi etc.

      • YogiOne says:

        Ok, so chakras are basically placebos. If you believe it will work, it will work regardless of whether there is any actual "medicine" there or not. I can live with that. Not sure its a metaphor, but what the hey…

  17. [...] Elephant's First Online Book Signing "The Subtle Body: The Story … [...]

  18. [...] I recently had the great pleasure of interviewing Stefanie Syman. Stefanie is the author of the much anticipated and enthusiastically received history of American Yoga, going back to mid-1800s, The Subtle Body: The Story of Yoga in America. [...]

  19. Celia Aurora de Blas Aurora says:

    I don't know that I have a question to ask as everything above seems to cover my thoughts, but I just want to thank you for taking time to talk here.

    Namaste,
    Aurora

  20. [...] last year, three books on the subject appeared: Robert Love’s The Great Oom, Stephanie Syman’s The Subtle Body, and Philip Goldberg’s American Veda. These meticulously researched, highly informative histories [...]

  21. Hi Amy,

    Yes I have read Mark's book, it's excellent. As I say in the introduction, I couldn't do justice to all of the people and schools who had a hand in bringing yoga to America and popularizing it. That said, I think that I found a narrative arch that holds up across a lot of figures I don't dwell on. Basically, Americans tend to secularize then re-sacralize yoga depending on the cultural moment. But you'll have to read the book to see the full sweep of the story and how, I hope, it transcends, single teachers or communities.

  22. Hi Tobye,

    I'm not sure there is a difference in what you describe. Building on the past and reinventing using the materials from the past turn out to be the same thing when you really look at what's going on, and this is certainly true of yoga. It's a constant process of reinterpretation and invention, synthesis and the effort in some schools (but not all) to stay true to a tradition. And you can probably get my book shipped to Ireland :)

  23. Tobye Hillier tobye says:

    Thanks Stefanie, you're right of course!

    I guess I was asking the same question as Lucy Edge below, but was intelectualising a little too much :o)

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