August 17, 2011

Yoga Cynic Meets Yoga Bitch (Kind of a Book Review)

Writing about yoga for on-line publications such as this one may not may ya rich and famous, but never let it be said it doesn’t have its perks. Like, for instance, publishers sending me review copies of new books, Waylon buying me lunch when I was in Boulder a few months ago, and……ummmm…….well, maybe that’s about it.

The latest is Yoga Bitch: One Woman’s Quest to Conquer Skepticism, Cynicism, and Cigarettes on the Path to Enlightenment,* by Suzanne Morrison** a book that had me laughing out loud at the author’s irrevent commentary by the second page, and, ultimately unable to put the book down until a very un-yogic early morning hour***), as I read about her journey from a yoga student who sometimes, y’know, forgot to pay for her classes, to teacher training in Bali, to the disturbing crass commercialism of the modern western yoga industry, to actually teaching even fewer yoga classes post-teacher-training than I have.

The only trouble was the feeling of dread in my belly. I’ve read enough books like this, seen enough movies, with their starting-out-cynical protagonist to know that they almost invariably end in one of two irritating ways. Either a) the cynic turns into an airy-headed romantic, embracing everything she’d previously found flaky and ridiculous as if a wealth of well-honed critical faculties just slipped right out of her head during inversion practice, and b) the cynic never really tries to open up to anything other than the snarky, negative viewpoints she started with and decides that, to paraphrase another Morrison, the west really is the best, and closed-mindedness and xenophobia really are the way to go. (Or, to get all academic about it, we’re presented with a false dichotomy between thoughtlessly disdaining otherness from the supposed heights of western overeducated ostensibly liberal postmodernism, or thoughtlessly idealizing it from the classic romantic standpoint that anything outside our clinically depressed middle class postmodern paradigm must be more authentic and spiritual, and, of course, if it makes ya feel good, it must be true…as if a more nuanced viewpoint, in which different cultures/practices/outlooks on life, including our own, all have their merits as well as drawbacks and ridiculous excesses is completely out of the question).

And yet, I was pleasantly surprised to find that Yoga Bitch remains far too smart a book for either formulaic extreme. while Morrison admits to wanting to write a classic spiritual memoir about finding the God she desperately wants to believe in, she finds she can’t, honestly, and doesn’t. And, while she ends up with a sort of dueling duo of disillusionments—with both the painfully earnest-yet-hypocritical uber-new agey side of yoga culture and the ultra-commercialized even-more-hypocritical big city variety—she’s not willing to throw it all out the window, either (not permanently, at least). Like no other yoga/travel memoir I’ve read, she critically examines the condescension of affluent westerner yogis who can afford to romanticize poverty and think they’re giving dark-skinned third world people a compliment in calling them innocent. To anyone who finds the previous sentence confusing, I couldn’t recommend Yoga Bitch more highly.

That said, the yogis she spends time with, particularly on the retreat/teacher training in Bali that take up most of the memoir, seem, in a word, extreme—full of every new age hypocrisy and extreme alternative medical view (insisting that drinking your own piss every day—a subject she dwells a bit much on—cures everything from dysentery to cancer and AIDS), to the point that they, and other aspects of the book, sometimes seem a parody. Then, I’ve seen enough of the alternative spirituality world not to question the veracity of Morrison’s account too much, even when her encounter with the commercialized New York yoga world seems to offer little other than the opposite extreme (though, when I decided she was completely full of it, in bringing up the obviously satirical Enlightenment Visa Card, I Googled it and…Suzanne, I apologize for doubting ya).

So, maybe she’s just been unlucky (or, y’know, the universe has had different plans for her, or something) in the yogis she’s known, or I’ve just been incredibly fortunate. Maybe she just needs to get away from the pretentious yoga communities of Seattle, New York City, and the western spiritual tourist enclaves of Bali and come to Philly (where, admittedly, the really nice, mostly very down-to-earth yoga teachers and students I know would make more a mellow Friends than the more Seinfeldian, and far more entertaining, cast of characters populating Morrison’s yoga world).

Anyway, for all the eye-rolling at the woo-woo behavior and self-righteousness, etc. of the hardcore yogis, and disillusion at the failings hiding beneath their sanctimony, Morrison makes it clear that she shares their desires and respects their passion and earnestness, even if she remains dubious, herself. What was most striking, to this reader, was how the experience carried over. On the one hand, her retreat/training experience fits quite well with the fears I’ve had before each retreat/workshop/training I’ve attended (which, fortunately, for me, were not realized). At the same time, even as things seem to be going bad, I find myself, in reading about it, desperately wanting to go on retreat…even if it’s with people who expect me to drink my own piss.

Certainly, to many readers, her tale might be a bit too nuanced, without any comfortable conclusions, its author still seeking, still questioning, her views on things a maze of acknowledged contradictions. She was lost, and she’s still lost, even retaining an ambivalent attitude toward cigarettes. All in all, it’s probably not the best introduction to the world of yoga and may not serve as the kind of inspiration loyal readers of Eat, Pray, Love are looking for****. Hell, the book probably won’t even make it to Oprah’s Book Club*****.  It’s neither a traditional spiritual memoir nor your standard postmodern trashing of the those goofy people with their yoga mats, and that, I think is its strength. Here’s somebody who, despite a dedicated practice, still has many of the same misgivings I do, but it still plugging along. This is a real person trying to be as honest as she can be about her experience, with humor and without sugarcoating…and what could be more yogic than that?



* turns out I’m not the only one, either. Nancy Alder has done an eye-opening interview, and Diane Ferraro also has something coming up.

** also turns out she’s an Elephant contributor…but anybody who thinks that would bias this reviewer should check out some of the snarky comments I leave on my fellow contributors’ pieces (hell, Brooks hasn’t spoken to me since I called her a celebriyogi) (Waylon, on the other hand, still does talk to me, but I suspect it’s only because he knows there’s more where this came from).

*** okay, technically, that’s hour’s considered either un-yogic or very yogic, depending on which direction you’re coming to it from (i.e. post-, as opposed to pre-, sleep).

**** a book I enjoy making fun of but, must confess, have never read…though, at least, that puts me in good company (even if I’m not as funny as Lewis Black).

***** which I’ve also been known to make fun of…Morrison probably has, too (at the very least she gets in choice dig at The Secret)…though some of the books thus honored are actually very good.

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