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

Via Bob Weisenberg
on Aug 4, 2010
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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.


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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.

Comments

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!

  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?

  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

  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

  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!

  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

  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

  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. stefaniesyman says:

    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

  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

  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.

  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

  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. 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 […]

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