Sarit Z. Rogers photo
Here is a collection of essays by North American yoga practitioners who offer pause to reflect and make sense of the complexities of contemporary yoga as it addresses the complexities of our lives. These pages reveal the commonality of a cross -section of humanity looking for itself through yoga in a culture informed by other’s culture, in a post-industrial time informed by another time. It is humanity not always agreeing but looking for ways to survive, to thrive, to connect, to give back and to discover itself. The diversity of the essayists’ opinions offers a rich salon for discussion…. Do not skip one word of the introduction as it’s an excellent synopsis of the pages to come. This book will engage you as a good novel or yoga class does.
Author Carol Horton and blogging pioneer Roseanne Harvey of It’s All Yoga Baby have codified and furthered the discussion of yoga writers across the world as co-editors of a book of essays by yoga practitioners who, in Carol’s words, “embrace yoga as a means of engaging with, rather than retreating from, the complexities and problems of the contemporary world.”These writers discuss the transformative powers of yoga for the individual as well as society, while exposing the pitfalls of a yoga that changes in concert with a culture which is now in social, economic, environmental and political unrest.
Here are essays so rich in content they would make whole books; essays that speak to nostalgia, yearning for reconnection to the earth and to each other; that speak to loneliness and recovery and community and isolation. Here is yoga as a support group, family, medicine, psychotherapy, church, a shelter, the birth of the first conscious breath and a political instrument in the deeply personal stories of these practitioners.
These essays, both intimate and an extension of personal bias, expose how much the experience of the individual informs a yoga practice and illustrate that there is not a solitary thing called yoga.
The essays invited interesting questions:
Can we revise yoga to suit our culture and still call it yoga?
Can we learn not to subjugate ourselves to Madison Avenue’s standard of beauty?
Can we heal our connection to the earth?
Can we overcome eating disorders and alcoholism?
Can we peacefully engage in politics and affect change?
Can a yoga practice affect ethical choices and does yoga necessarily include a system of ethics?
Can we successfully run a community studio?
Can we practice yoga without our bodies?
Can we find our inner realm?
While most of the writers find common ground, there are also enough strong assessments and diverse viewpoints that I imagined them closeted like Congress, vibrant conversation threatening to blow the doors open! I meant to read 21st Century Yoga in one sitting or at least in a couple of days but savored the content and reflected long while reading each piece because there was so much to enjoy and a few things that annoyed me, which I enjoyed all the same for that.
Here is some juxtaposition that makes for interesting conversation:
Be Scofield differentiates between ethics and spirituality while Michael Stone views them as one and Julian Walker questions the application of The Yoga Sutras in contemporary yoga.
Be asserts that spirituality, whether in a religious context or a psychoanalytical context, will not change one’s politics; that this spirituality will as likely confirm deep seated beliefs. He states that if “ethics are the source for how we determine just behavior; it’s the ethical system – not the spiritual practice – that helps decide these (social and political) issues”.
Michael contends that politics can be a spiritual process citing the ethical teachings of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali as a guide to navigate political discourse and social action.
Julian decries a fundamentalist interpretation of The Yoga Sutras in contemporary teachings when he reveals that author Patanjali was the product of a culture that was sexist, ascetic and classist.
These authors see inherent problems in identification with the body or no problem at all!
Frank Jude Boccio contends that superficiality in advertising and the marketing of yoga’s bodily image is a violation, degrading yoga’s value.
Julian Walker contends that celebrating the body beautiful is empowering and positive.
Nathan Thompson observes that women tend toward a yoga practice geared heavily toward asana and blames this on their isolation from nature in the post- modern world.(I wish he would have given evidence for that hypothesis.)
These essays are more unified. If the healing of each individual contributes to the healing of society, these authors reveal the potential of yoga to impact society.
Melanie Klein tells the story of a young woman’s struggle with body image that was soothed by the physical practice of yoga only to be reignited when a standard of yoga beauty was later thrust to the forefront of consumerism and leaked into the community experience of yoga. (I found this curious as she describes her practice in a space where I also practiced and I remember a roomful of perfect bodies driven by something that seemed like desire for perfection.)
Chelsea Roff echoes Melanie’s observation with another take- away on the two edged sword of asana in her heart wrenching story of surviving anorexia. Once therapy enabled her to step into the world, the yoga practice that would restore her embodiment would later threaten to contribute to a relapse of her eating disorder.
Angela Jamison entered yoga as a sociology experiment and walked out in love. But it didn’t happen that simply. What love story ever does? She describes her introduction into a confusing yoga community in upheaval in Los Angeles that appeared rife with competitiveness and superficiality. She came away with the belief that a yoga experience should not be wholly subjective or subverted according to one’s needs or inner voice but best served by an experienced guide.(The choice of experienced guide will be subjective as well and there is no certainty that the choice is infallible.)
Tommy Rosen’s story of drug addiction and redemption through the yoga practice includes a cautionary tale that yoga is not a panacea or a replacement for an addiction program.
Roseanne Harvey committed to yoga after it helped her through a severe bout of depression.
Both Matt Remski and Michael Stone propose that community is a key component to further the yoga experience so that it might foster social and political healing.
Matt posits that healing others is the logical extension of a personal practice. He offers solid advice on how to run a yoga studio toward that end. (He does not speak to the discussion of how to make a living teaching yoga this way, although he does point out how hard it is to make a living running a studio.)
Michael echoes the notion that the ongoing vitality of a yoga practice can be found in community as he conflates the Occupy Movement with the intention of the yoga practice.
Both Michael Stone and Roseanne Harvey portray the budding of yoga through the mind and imagination.
Roseanne continues the practice of yoga through her yoga writing.
Michael asserts that our true nature is found in our imagination.
This collection of emotional, informed, opinionated topics provides a salon of exciting discussion that both editors hope will continue. As Roseanne says in her conclusion, a yoga discussion will provide an understanding of how we might use yoga to advance our lives in an optimal direction.
Several of the essays engaged me like the beginning pages of a novel that I didn’t want to end, whose characters I became invested in. Despite having spent the greater portion of my lifetime looking at life through the lens of a yogi informed by counter culture and later by cultural confiscation, I found some unusual viewpoints as well as something fresh with each essay.(Julian’s essay opens the book and it is dense with history, poetry and philosophy that can be daunting and a bit confusing but it is worth the effort to stay with him or come back to him later.)
I will add that these writers are not the only voices in the room or necessarily representative of all the community, as much of it lies in the fringes. And these essays do not address every question that begs consideration. But that does not make 21st Century Yoga any less relevant. I feel respectfully obliged to mention that a book of essays by American yoga teachers, Yoga in America was published in 2009 which includes contributions from several Elephant Journal writers as well as its former associate editor, Bob Weisenberg, who co-edited the book.
It is to the credit of the 21st Century Yoga editors that a shared vision and desire to explore yoga’s effect and potential unfolding specifically as it relates to the choices we make as social or political beings ensures this book’s significance. I believe that it is a cohesive advancement of the discussion of who we are as people and people practicing yoga.