October 11, 2012

Misadventures of a Garden State Yogi: A Seriously Funny Yoga Memoir.

Misadventures of a Garden State Yogi is the first yoga memoir I’ve found that’s not only funny and entertaining, but also intriguing in its exploration of some of the deeper dimensions of yoga in everyday American life.

The handful of yoga memoirs I’d read previously disappointed me. While generally fun and well written, they didn’t communicate anything about yoga that I found particularly interesting or meaningful. Instead, the transformative elements of the practice came across as either pedestrian (reducing stress and gaining a bit of self-knowledge) or clichéd (delivering true love and inner peace). As a result, I was on the verge of writing off this popular new genre entirely.

Happily, Misadventures of a Garden State Yogi reignited my interest in its creative potential. On its face, the book doesn’t tell a particularly dramatic story: Ordinary guy discovers yoga in college, quits his unfulfilling post-collegiate job to road-trip around the country with a friend, lands in New England and spends a lot of time at Kripalu, and eventually finds that he’s ready to settle down to work, marriage, and family.

Essentially, this is ordinary upper-middle-class American stuff (at least for many in my generation or close to it, who weren’t nearly as oppressed by student loans and a dicey job market as college grads are today). But the way author Brian Leaf tells his story is anything but average. On the contrary, his ability to write in a way that had me laughing out loud throughout the book – while at the same time being impressed and intrigued by his experience of yoga—is extraordinary.

It’s not easy to be funny and have depth at the same time. Only the best comedians achieve this elusive combo: They have the gift of helping us laugh, think, and feel at the same time. Sometimes, we’re laughing so hard that we’re almost crying. There’s a deep truth to the physicality of this combo, as the most powerful humor alchemically transforms the pain and confusion of life into creative wit and riposte.

The opening scene of Misadventures of a Garden State Yogi describes the author “sitting naked on the toilet” in his doctor’s “special post-colonoscopy bathroom,” agreeing in desperation to the “atrociously humiliating” procedure of being “rolled” by two nurses to relieve painful post-exam gas. Ack! Seemingly not auspicious! But this is the genius of the book: Leaf manages to transform the painful shit of his life into something positive and even uplifting—all with good humor and a light touch.

In this sense, the comedy of Misadventures of a Garden State Yogi feels profoundly yogic.

As the subtitle of the book states, yoga enabled Leaf to “Heal My Colitis, Calm my ADD, and Find the Key to Happiness.” At first glance, this sounds silly and rather mundane. But as I breezed through this super-easy-to-read book, I realized just how impressive a feat it really is.

Being afflicted with such a physically and psychologically painful problem of colitis at only 16, only to later discover that you’ve also been struggling with ADD all your life is not easy. Even harder, however, is grappling with the problem we all face: that is, how to be happy—and I mean really happy, not smiley-face, denial-driven fake happy – in life.

Like so many commercialized yoga products, Misadventures of a Garden State Yogi provides us with a pat list of “The Eight Keys to Happiness” for our edification. Normally, I find such bullet-point instructions for unlocking the keys to happiness annoying. I’m sick to death of our American addiction to quick-fix pseudo-solutions to deep problems and profound questions. As a general rule, I believe they do more harm than good.

In this case, however, I was won over. In the course of the book, Leaf evokes his list in a way that makes it feel alive, rather than clichéd:

  1. Do yoga. And if you already do yoga, do more yoga.
  2. Follow your heart.
  3. Cultivate and follow your intuition.
  4. Apply at least three pieces of Ayurvedic wisdom to your daily schedule.
  5. Meditate.
  6. Connect with your heart, and interact with others from that place.
  7. Speak and act from your true self.
  8. Become most real.

Sounds simple enough. But is it? Not really.

But for those of us intent on bushwhacking our way toward positivity—and reality—through the dismaying conditions of our time, Misadventures of a Garden State Yogi provides a fun, friendly and supportive read along the way.


Editor: Kate Bartolotta

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