review: yoga in america

what_is_yoga_front_coverYoga practitioners in the West are in a constant process of understanding themselves and the complicated, centuries-old tradition they have embraced. The latest addition to this quest is the recently published, Yoga in America: Passion, Diversity and Enlightenment in the Words of Some of Yoga’s Most Ardent Teachers, edited by Deborah S. Bernstein and Bob Weisenberg. The book features a crop of fresh voices from the American yoga community (you won’t see any big names or A-list teachers here), most of whom are experienced, certified teachers.

The 46 essays in this compilation are responding to the question “What is yoga?” (which is ultimately, “What is yoga in America?”). They cover the full spectrum of yoga styles, from hot to gentle to Ashtanga, and examine yoga philosophy and how yoga intersects with Taoism, Buddhism, Christianity and everyday life. The simple act of purchasing this book is an act of service, as proceeds support yoga retreats for wounded soldiers and the families of fallen firefighters (the retreat centre is run by one of the editors on the US Virgin Islands – and because the book is self-published through Lulu.com, all the proceeds go directly to the cause).

With such a wide range of yoga practices and voices from diverse backgrounds, the overall quality of Yoga in America is uneven, but there are places where genuine brillance and insight shine through. Sandra Carden’s essay, “Healing Through the Sacred Realm of Emotions,” is an informed and interesting look at yoga therapy, including first-hand experience with a Vietnam vet and findings from current research on psychoneuroimmunology. When I finished reading this piece, I felt that my understanding of the mind-body connection had grown and I’d learned more about the possibilities of yoga therapy.

Co-editor Bob Weisenberg’s essay, “The Wonder of Being Alive: Yoga Philosophy Demystified,” is a six-point distillation of what he’s learned from his studies. He starts off by defining what yoga means to him, and then elaborates on each point in clear, colloquial language (taken from a work-in-progress and available online). He pushes beyond the common usage of the word “divine” and instead cites a preference for “wonder” because it lacks the religious connotations.

While I question where he gets the authority to define himself in his bio as a “yoga philosopher,” it’s apparent that he’s engaged in processing what he has learned about philosophy and enthused about sharing this with others. Weisenberg is clearly influenced by Stephen Cope’s Yoga and the Quest for True Self, which is an excellent model for deep thinking about yoga. In the end, Weisenberg summarizes his understanding of yoga as described to a friend: “Just relax, breathe deeply, and experience each moment, non-judgmentally, as it’s happening, no matter what’s happening.” It’s simple without being simplistic, profound without trying.

In examining what yoga is, we inevitably come up again what yoga isn’t, as Kelly Grey so wonderfully demonstrates in “The Downside to Down Dog.” She shares her journeys through India, her perceptions of ashrams, her experiences with dodgy gurus and her struggles with the “ugly business” of running a yoga studio. Her writing is raw and frenetic, and she’s unafraid of exposing her messy yoga experiences. She even questions the question, “What is yoga?” and instead proposes that “the more appropriate question is what is your heart? Your voice? Your essence? What is your love, your deepest most personal truth?”

These are the questions that the editors could have asked most of the contributors of the book. Almost every piece here could have been pushed and prodded a little more, to extract the gems of wisdom within. The editors would have been better off taking 20 essays, instead of 46, and developing them more thoroughly – this would have allowed for a breadth and diversity, while still maintaining quality and focus. I would have liked to see more sincere personal narratives, and less self-promotion or examinations of the meaning of capital-Y yoga. While the intention behind the book is inclusive and service-oriented, most of the essays come across as overly pedantic or didactic, and I found myself wanting more grit, more real experience, more depth.

5 Comments

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  1. Hi, Roseanne.

    Thank you for this exceptionally thoughtful and penetrating review!

    Bob Weisenberg

  2. “her struggles with the “ugly business” of running a yoga studio”

    oh god, could I write about the same subject (hey, wait, I already have in my blog.) I have never owned a studio, I have only taught in two, but after my experiences in them, I will never teach in a studio again.

    think I will get this book BECAUSE the big names aren’t in it….

  3. Great review! It sounds interesting 🙂

  4. Sounds interesting, and what a great cause. I really like what you quoted from Kelly Grey’s article–the concern with yoga as ultimately a way of learning about oneself, as opposed to some esoteric tradition. I wonder, though…and forgive me if this makes me sound even more like a yoga cynic than usual, or if I’m misunderstanding either the book’s purpose or your review…if the unevenness, including the pedantic or self-promoting nature of some of the contents, might, in a way, make it a truer portrait–i.e. presenting yoga in America zits-and-all (showing some of what Grey tells about)?

  5. Dr. Jay: I think that’s a really good point, and I’d definitely consider the book a “true” portrait of yoga in America – zits and all! One thing I didn’t get into in this review (it wasn’t the right place) was the American-ness of the book – and what it meant to be a Canadian yogi reading a book about yoga in America. In many ways, one’s experience of a yoga practice is global, universal, and it transcends nationality. But there are so ways that (specifically) American culture has morphed and warped yoga, and this has rippled into the rest of the Western world. I felt that this kind of cultural criticism was missing from the book, and what I saw instead was a weird kind of patriotism.

    Anyway, you should definitely check out the book for yourself and see what you think. Also, ‘Yoga in America’ is going to be the next selection for the Namaste Book Club (http://namastebookclub.blogspot.com/), and based on what’s started here, we can expect lots of good discussion.