October 29, 2012

Yoga in America: Containing Multitudes

For anyone interested in checking out that yoga thing the kids are all talking about, contemporary America provides a dizzying plethora of options: hatha, vinyasa, ashtanga, anusara, Kripalu, kundalini, Bikram, kids’ yoga, chair yoga, hip-hop yoga, prison yoga, yoga for dogs, yoga for men, yoga for bikini bodies, yoga for men who want bikini bodies, pretentious yoga, elitist yoga, bitter yoga, mean-spirited yoga, territorial yoga, intentionally confusing yoga, and so on.

For those looking for that ever-elusive deeper meaning of yoga all the more serious kids are talking about, a bit of reading and talking with yogis will reveal confounding myriads of options, as well:

What deeper meaning?! Yoga’s about getting a firm ass that looks good in those ludicrously expensive stretchy pants!
No, thank you, yoga’s most definitely NOT about getting a firm ass that looks good in those ludicrously expensive stretchy pants!
Actually, yoga can involve getting a firm ass that looks good in those expensive stretchy pants, but there’s a lot more to it than that!
More specifically:
Yoga’s a religion!
Yoga’s most definitely not a religion!
Yoga’s Hindu!
Yoga’s about God, however you want to define Him/Her/It!
Yoga’s about the universe (whatever the hell that’s supposed to mean)!
Yoga’s about reincarnation!
Yoga doesn’t require any religious or metaphysical beliefs!
Yoga’s a form of dualism!
Yoga’s an antidote to dualism!
Yoga’s a competitive sport!
Yoga’s most definitely not a sport, and it’s inherently non-competitive!
Yoga’s about devotion to a guru!
Yoga does not require a guru, which is good because they’re all a buncha money-grubbing pervs!
Yoga’s about stuff you have to go to India to understand!
Yoga’s about what’s right here, right now!
Yoga’s about what’s right here, right now, but you have to go to India to realize that!
Yoga’s about healing!
Yoga’s about attaining perfection!
Yoga’s about realizing you’re already perfect!
Yoga’s about accepting imperfection and being okay with it!
Yoga’s about attaining enlightenment!
Yoga’s about understanding that you’re already enlightened!
Yoga can’t be described!
Yoga’s described perfectly in the Yoga Sutras and Bhagavad Gita, thank you!
Yoga’s about keeping it positive!
Yoga’s about keeping it real!
Yoga’s about feeling one with everyone around us!
Yoga’s about feeling superior to the person on the next mat who’s not as fit or spiritual as you are!
Yoga in America’s corrupt and full of contradictions, unlike the pure spiritual yoga in India!
Yoga in India’s also corrupt and full of contradictions, and has been for thousands of years!
Yoga ain’t what you think it is!*
Yoga’s not just a t-shirt slogan!*
Yoga’s whatever you want to make of it!*
Yoga is truly whatever you think it is and whatever makes sense to you!*

To misquote that greatest of 18th century American yogis-who-probably-didn’t-actually-know-they-were-yogis, Walt Whitman: Does American yoga contradict itself? Very well, then, it contradicts itself. American Yoga is large. American Yoga contains multitudes.

Such a conclusion, of course, opens up (at least) one very big question: should it?

To many, the answer to that question would seem to be a very clear no—hence, amidst the din, we hear countless voices attempting to shine a light through the darkness of confusion, to reveal REAL YOGA to the Lululemon-clad masses. Enough, in fact, that they might succeed if only they could agree on just what real yoga is. As it turns out, real yoga seems to have as many definitions as yoga.

To some, this is a deplorable situation. And a few of their voices, along with many who would disagree, are heard within the pages of Yoga in America: Passion, Diversity, and Enlightenment In the Words of Some of Yoga’s Most Ardent Teachers, a book more interested in shining a light on the diversity of yoga and ways of looking at and experiencing it than in providing any one answer.

The collection’s many chapters—if you love one, there’s more like it, and usually links and references for further reading; if you hate one, don’t worry, it’ll be over soon—include representatives of countless schools of yoga, with viewpoints that are scientific, poetic, new-agey, comedic, and both extremely broad and more cautiously narrow in their definitions. Some I thought were brilliant, others full of crap. Some of the authors may be reading this review right now and thinking I’m full of crap. And, that, I think, yoga cynic that I am, is just as it should be.

Some of the pieces here deal in large, very inclusive ideas. Others are more like descriptions of, or advertisements for, particular types of yoga, offering, in most cases, resources for anyone interested in learning more. Voices are mystical, therapeutic, scientific, pseudo-scientific (one couldn’t depict a broad swath of the spiritual set without including some misappropriation of Einstein and/or particle physics), articulate, awkward, descriptive, prescriptive, theoretical, practical, didactic, enlightening, annoying, and refreshingly open-minded.

There’s something for just about anyone here—those looking solely for physical benefits, those looking for something a little deeper, those looking for something a lot deeper, those looking for definitive truths, those who don’t trust anything claiming to be a “definitive truth,” those looking for some version or other of God, and those looking for nothing of the kind. As such, there’s also something to offend just about anybody here. Unless you’re the kind of starry-eyed, all-embracing universalist who could look at a God Hates Fags sign and say “well, if you just ignore the ‘hates fags’ part, it’s a beautiful evocation of the omnipresent love and mystery we all experience’” you’re likely to find a good bit of stuff to raise your hackles.

As such, it’s a fun book for the experienced yogi to snuggle and/or wrestle with. And, for someone new to the practice, while it could be confusing, at first, the book can offer a useful array of options, presented in a friendly and accessible format.

If there’s anything I’d like to have seen, it’s an even broader spectrum of voices, including those on the far fringes, to truly represent American yoga: starry-eyed devotees who can attest to the liberating effects of giving everything one has to allow one’s guru to add yet another Rolls Royce to his collection, or those who can describe how yoga, combined with starvation diets and a few million dollars worth of plastic surgery, can make anyone look like a Barbie doll. Then, I’ve always been a bit of a troublemaker. For most, what’s here should suffice.



* From Yoga in America: Passion, Diversity, and Enlightenment In the Words of Some of Yoga’s Most Ardent Teachers, Deborah S. Bernstein & Bob Weisenberg, Eds. (which, actually, came out a few years ago, but, hey, people wanna send me a free review copies, I don’t ask questions)

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