Shortly after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Suzanne Morrison walked into her first yoga class in Seattle, looking for comfort in the midst of collective trauma and a way to overcome her fear of death. Yoga Bitch: One Woman’s Quest to Conquer Skepticism, Cynicism, and Cigarettes on the Path to Enlightenment is the hilarious and honest story of her search for inner calm, love and transformation.
After her initial introduction, she becomes enchanted by a seemingly perfect yoga teacher named Indra, and soon signs up for a two-month teacher training in Bali with Indra and her partner, Lou. The couple becomes for 25-year-old Suzanne an example of true, adult love between two people on the spiritual path. She also encounters a range of characters (who embody the whole spectrum of yoga stereotypes), drinks her own pee and has a kundalini awakening.
Suzanne does a great job of writing about yoga in a way that is real, gritty and funny. The book is sprinkled with sharp one-liners and wry observations of the people around her. “Wellness is very big among my yogamates. If Wellness were a person, it would be Michael Jackson circa 1984 and my yogamates would be screaming, crying fans, jumping up and down just to be so near to it. Kind of the way I would act around a cup of coffee and a pack of cigarettes right about now.”
However, what happens between these funny lines is at times lacking. The book is structured as a chronological diary-entry style recount of Suzanne’s retreat in Bali, with chapter introductions from the present day. These introductions were the most interesting parts of the book, offering insight and a sense of change. These also had the most authentic feel – the diary parts, which attempted a real time feel (as in, “I just came back from yoga class and had to write in here immediately”), often felt contrived and overwritten.
They also felt like the journal of a 25-year-old, which I think is the intention, but it was still a little painful in parts. As Suzanne notes in numerous places throughout the book, transformation takes time, it doesn’t all happen within a two-month retreat. But that transformation, which could have provided the book with some much-needed substance, happened in the gaps between the Bali experience and the years-later reminiscing. She tells us about these changes, but we don’t get to see her go through them, and that’s disappointing.
Where the book was most flawed was, ironically, in its discussion of yoga. Anything beyond Suzanne’s commentary on her “yogamates” and their yoga habits was at best, weakly researched, and most often, downright wrong and infused with New Age rhetoric. “According to the Yoga Sutras,” she writes, “we’re supposed to be grateful for what we already have and avoid focusing on what we don’t have but would really like… This is called the practice of abundance.” I am no scholar, but I’m pretty sure there is no mention of abundance in the Yoga Sutras.
Yoga Bitch is a self-conscious spiritual memoir, and the writing is very aware of the conventions of the form. Suzanne notes toward the end of the book: “I’ve always wanted to have an experience like the ones you read about in spiritual memoirs. All spiritual memoirs follow the same path, from I was lost to Now I’m found…. No matter what the particulars are, spiritual memoirs always suggest that there is a butterfly emerging from the cocoon at the end of the journey, and that was what I wanted.”
She is aware that her own story won’t end like that, which is refreshing. But how does her story end? (Spoiler alert!) She reconnects with a man who gave her a book before she went to Bali, a man known only as “the sailor.” They fall in love, decide to “not transcend” and get married. Essentially, the path she follows is I was lost to I tried finding myself but it didn’t work to But then I found a man and it’s all good.
For all its surface irreverence and bitchiness, the heart of this narrative is very safe and conventional. Suzanne’s writing is strong and smart, and her voice is authentic. But unfortunately, Yoga Bitch doesn’t offer a new or inspiring story, just the same story seasoned with low jabs at over earnest yoga practitioners and easy critique of the yoga industry.