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In The Subtle Body, Stefanie Syman tells the surprising story of yoga's transformation from a centuries-old spiritual discipline to a multibillion-dollar American industry.
Yoga's history in America is longer and richer than even its most devoted practitioners realize. It was present in Emerson's New England, and by the turn of the twentieth century it was fashionable among the leisure class. And yet when Americans first learned about yoga, what they learned was that it was a dangerous, alien practice that would corrupt body and soul.
A century later, you can find yoga in gyms, malls, and even hospitals, and the arrival of a yoga studio in a neighborhood is a signal of cosmopolitanism. How did it happen? It did so, Stefanie Syman explains, through a succession of charismatic yoga teachers, who risked charges of charlatanism as they promoted yoga in America, and through generations of yoga students, who were deemed unbalanced or even insane for their efforts. The Subtle Body tells the stories of these people, including Henry David Thoreau, Pierre A. Bernard, Margaret Woodrow Wilson, Christopher Isherwood, Sally Kempton, and Indra Devi.
From New England, the book moves to New York City and its new suburbs between the wars, to colonial India, to postwar Los Angeles, to Haight-Ashbury in its heyday, and back to New York City post-9/11. In vivid chapters, it takes in celebrities from Gloria Swanson and George Harrison to Christy Turlington and Madonna. And it offers a fresh view of American society, showing how a seemingly arcane and foreign practice is as deeply rooted here as baseball or ballet.
This epic account of yoga's rise is absorbing and often inspiring—a major contribution to our understanding of our society.
Yoga conquers America and is conquered in its turn in this labyrinthine cultural history. Journalist Syman traces American enthusiasm for yoga back to Thoreau and follows it through cycles of waxing and waning popularity: it was decried by Victorians for its association with madness and tantric sex rituals, celebrated in the 1960s for its association with altered states of consciousness (and tantric sex rituals), and ubiquitously embraced in the 21st century as a wholesome, anodyne exercise program. The author argues that, even as the om-chanting adept became the embodiment of spirituality, yoga's mainstreaming risked the discipline losing its rich spiritual content, along with the more extreme contortions, regular enemas, and whatever else Americans considered off-putting. Unfortunately, the author's attempts to clarify yoga's spiritual content, which is multifarious and intractably murky, don't always succeed, and sometimes the narrative bogs down amid barnstorming swamis and their squabbling sects. When she pulls back to view the culture mashup yoga has become "a cure for back pain, a beauty regime, and a route to God" she gives a cogent, engrossing analysis of this Asian-born spiritual practice turned all-American panacea. 8 pages of b&w illus.