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August 4, 2010

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

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.

Bob Weisenberg

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