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THE SUBTLE BODY by Stefanie Syman


The Story of Yoga in America

by Stefanie Syman

Pub Date: June 29th, 2010
ISBN: 978-0-374-23676-2
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

An all-encompassing survey of how the Eastern practice took hold in America.

On the heels of Robert Love’s The Great Oom (2010)—an entertaining portrait of early yoga impresario Pierre Bernard and his popular health center—journalist Syman casts a wider net, uncovering yoga’s growth since the mid-19th century. In tackling the challenge of how to define yoga, the author’s study suffers from a kind of amorphous, throw-in-the-kitchen-sink syndrome. Syman continually probes into whether yoga is a religion or a health practice, and traces how proponents from Ralph Waldo Emerson to the Beatles fashioned it in their own way. Emerson’s discovery of “Hindoo” scriptures led to a lifelong fascination with Eastern thought, helping shape the transcendental message in his writings and poetry, while Thoreau’s Walden was the product of an ascetic in the yogi tradition. Thoreau “transmuted his work into an act of devotion,” writes the author, and “made a religion of writing.” Eastern gurus like Swami Vivekananda were featured at the World Parliament of Religions at the Chicago Columbian Exposition of 1893, and invited to teach at places like Green Acre, Maine, attracting mostly women. Bernard spread the benefits of Hatha Yoga—involving physically demanding breathing and body positions—from San Francisco to New York, and his nephew Theos Bernard traveled to the source, India and Tibet, and wrote popular books on the subject. Even Woodrow Wilson’s daughter Margaret eschewed the conventional lot for an “ideal life” as a seeker in India. Once yoga hit Hollywood, thanks to itinerant ex-pat Brits Gerald Heard and the Huxleys, stars like Gloria Swanson used it famously as their “youth and beauty secret.” Syman moves fluidly through the heady psychedelic years to the “new penitents” of today (e.g., Bikram), who like their yoga “sweaty and religious.”

A soft-pedaling history that packs a lot of synthesis into a palatable-enough package.