Books: The Subtle Body (The Story of Yoga in America)

The Subtle Body by Stefanie Syman
The Subtle Body by Stefanie Syman

I was lucky enough to stumble upon a book reading by Stefanie Syman this weekend at YogaWorks Soho. Her book / seven-year research project, The Subtle Body: The Story of Yoga in America hit shelves this summer, and taught me a lot about the ways that Americans have interpreted “yoga” over the years. (Thanks Anya Porter, host of Saturday’s Breakti, for teaching the free community class beforehand!)

Stefanie talked about several notable shifts in the yoga community. The first, in the early 70’s, when Iyengar and other teachers were reclaiming yoga from its “dirty hippie” associations with the psychadelic 60’s. Iyengar forbade chanting and meditation in classes, and many teachers followed their gurus’ direct instructions to secularize yoga, to “save” it from irrelevance. Yoga could cure insomnia, help your back pain; you didn’t need to worry about the spirituality.

But, moving yoga completely into the realm of physical fitness meant that, in the 80’s, it couldn’t compete with aerobics or Jazzercise. It was seen as too gentle, too soft. So I guess that explains the rise of Bikram, Ashtanga, and other “power” yogas. Yoga teachers wanted to prove its strength. And now maybe we’re ready to again see its spiritual side.

I’m not saying that yoga needs to compete, or be popular. It’s just kind of an interesting question of identity. A simpler presentation is more popular in the short term, but a more integrated persona (encompassing both physicality and philosophy) is more lasting.

The other interesting discussion concerned the monetization of yoga. She said that even Rolls-Royce affecianado Bikram started his LA studio with just a donation box. American friends told him it would never work and indeed, it wouldn’t. India has a strong tradition of generosity towards teachers. All students give what they can; rich students give a LOT. In America, people would often give nothing, and sometimes steal the donations. So yoga teachers are forced to sell their services as retail. We can stop feeling guilty now.

(Yes, some teachers get a bit out of control with the money/fame, or pursuit of it. But the “guru” relationship/title is a whole complex topic.)

Read Stefanie’s book to get the direct quotes. It introduced me to a lot of characters I’d not known, and a lot of cool stories. (e.g.: Thoreau, out at Walden, was practicing yoga from a book. You can call him the first American yogi.) You can find the book on Amazon (including Kindle/iPad versions), or at your local library. Thanks, Stefanie, for your hard work!