book review: 21st Century Yoga

ksdhfaLast week, I took a little retreat upstate. It was nice, if rainy. I practiced. I sat. I ate goose eggs. I read a few books. While I had intended to read up on the new yoga history, again, due dates dictated my reading order. I started with a book of essays: 21st Century Yoga: Culture, Politics, and Practice edited by Carol Horton and Roseanne Harvey. The contributors have all written extensively online, and are connected through an online yoga community.

I don’t read all that much about yoga, because I respect it as one place I’m not all up in my head. But as I’m writing about it (which is more stream-of-consciousness than thought, honestly, maybe obviously), reading up seems appropriate. I don’t follow yoga culture, as most of it is vapid and uninteresting. What does yoga culture mean anyway? In a one-mile radius of my home there are a number of wildly distinct yoga cultures. From the top of my head: Sivanada, Integral, Laughing Lotus, the Shala, Jivamukti, Yoga to the People, Bikram, YogaWorks and Iyengar of NYC. I’ve tried them all at least once, other than the Shala, and while they all have something to offer, they didn’t resonate for me as asana practice, and certainly not as community or culture.

This is usually the case with yoga blogs as well. So much drivel must be waded through to find something good that it’s just not worth the time. Though there are a handful I really enjoy, most that are well-written and produced are usually just not something I care about. So I live in my dark little yoga cave of practice and teaching uni students. It’s not that I don’t want to teach elsewhere or be part of a community, I just haven’t happened on any that resonate. (While my shala is friendly, it’s small, and too transient/impersonal to be called a community.)

This book seems to take from an equally eclectic group of teachers and practitioners, albeit with an intellectual bent. That is as good (the writers are careful about woo woo) and bad (I do yoga to escape pedants. Namely myself. And because I like the non-verbal aspects of the woo) as it seems. The pedantry was minimal, though. While a few essays irritated me, most I really enjoyed. Many essays addressed yoga community and several took issue with yoga consumerism, spirituality lite, and the concept and selling of the “perfect” yoga body. I most liked the essays that felt honest and intimate.

The essays are by six men, three women, and one transgender person. My favorites were “Starved for Connection: Healing Anorexia Through Yoga” by Chelsea Roff and “Yoga for War: The Politics of the Divine” by Be Scofeld.

CRPIRoff’s piece is a personal account of her recovery from anorexia. She’s clear that depending on frame of mind, yoga can be used to heal as well as to perpetuate disease. While intense, her story is not inflated or dramatic, and she speaks to the complexities of using yoga to heal, especially a disease involving body image. Her frank discussion of self-hate was powerful and stayed with me:

Many of us have been taught that people with eating disorders simply want to be skinny, that they feel like they have to look like models on magazine covers to be worth anything, or that they just have an unhealthy “need for control.” Those are all symptoms of an eating disorder, not the cause.

I didn’t starve myself because I wanted to be skinny. I starved myself because I didn’t have the inner resources to cope with the chaos around me. I starved myself because I wanted to reclaim control over my body, because my own mother had rejected me, because I believed myself unworthy of nourishment and love. I starved myself because I lost all connection with who I was: my goodness, my worth, the light within we all bow to when we say, “Namaste.” I starved myself because I wanted to die.

I hated my body because I hated myself, not the other way around.

(Horton & Harvey, pp 91-92)

The essay is a must read for anyone interested in yoga with an eating disorder, and helpful for anyone close to someone with anorexia.

Scofield’s essay, about spiritual practice and social and political change, hit at something very important for me, something kind of hovering at the side of my mind unformed. There’s a belief in NYC yoga and meditation circles that these practices will automatically turn people to good. If, say, bankers, politicians and corporate CEOs are exposed to them, they will magically wake up and stop robbing the nation at large and become environmentally, socially conscious citizens. But like Roff points out in her essay, yoga can be used for changing habits, or perpetuating them. Scofield:

As we’ve seen, countless people have been deeply entrenched in larger systems of violence and domination despite believing they were experiencing connection with the divine through meditation, yoga, or some other spiritual practice. Of course, others have used their spiritual practices and beliefs to resist these same power structures. Therefore, if we assume that there is in fact a divine foundation of reality, it’s extremely difficult to see how it wouldn’t be morally and politically neutral. If there were a distinct political or moral direction to the divine, and practices such as yoga or meditation were means of tapping into it, then all practitioners would eventually share the same political ideology. This, however, is obviously not the case.

(Horton & Harvey, p 144)

So what from there, eh? It’s hard to say. The book inspired some interesting questions and challenged certain assumptions. Some writers defined yoga or yogic concepts on their own terms, but wrote as if it were established fact, which I found problematic. On the whole, it was an engaging read, and a welcome addition to the yoga shelf. I liked.

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