Friday, January 14, 2011

The Cultural Circuitry of Yoga in America: An Interview with Author Stefanie Syman

(Ruth St. Denis and Denishawn dancers in Yoga Meditation, 1915)
"The group, Leary, Swain and the Vedanta devotees then sat cross-legged on Oriental rugs and chanted. When the acid hit, Leary saw shock and amazement on the "Holy folk", despite their years of practicing Bhakti and Raja yoga. He himself imagined, briefly, that he was Shiva". (from The Subtle Body, The Story of Yoga in America by Stefanie Syman)

(Ruth St. Denis)

I f you're American and you do yoga, you've probably wondered, at some point mid-way through a sonorous closing chant of "OM" how yoga even found its way to these shores. The Subtle Body: The Story of Yoga in America is Stefanie Syman's folio of American yoga memories; a book dedicated to uncovering the cultural circuitry of American yoga practice. Each snapshot is a peek at the complicated love affair of Americans with yoga. A tango of a relationship that runs hot and cold by turns,  
The Subtle Body: The Story of Yoga in America, tracks the historical development of yoga in American popular consciousness, its momentum, and its surprising staying power.

(3 pics clockwise: madonna, bks iyengar 89th birthday, marilyn monroe)

The book begins in New England where we see naive strains of Hindu thought germinating in the work of Transcendentalists Emerson and Thoreau, before it shifts to the first transatlantic visits of gurus such as Vivekananda. And the story doesn't stop there. It careens through the literary and spiritual histories of luminaries, and documents the spiritual shifts in a country's consciousness through their stories. Among those explored are: Margaret Woodrow Wilson, Indra Devi, Alan Watts, Aldous Huxley, Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, Ruth St. Denis, Greta Garbo, BKS Iyengar, Bikram, Pattabhi Jois and Madonna.

(Aldous Huxley)
What differentiates the book from many other histories of yoga is that the story of yoga in America is told through its eminent, dramatic personalities; those characters that have long dominated the public imagination. Their personal stories, sweeping and epic, reveal the limber zeitgeist that has characterized yoga in America ever since yogic thought first hit the ground with Emerson's publication of "Brahma" in 1857.

Zeitgeist is a word Stefanie Syman is familiar with; and it's no surprise that yoga's place in the popular imagination should be one of her book's main preoccupations. Stefanie Syman has been involved in writing about contemporary culture for more than a decade. A native of Los Angeles and graduate of Yale University with a degree in literature, her articles on technology, media, and culture have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The Boston Globe, Rolling Stone, Vogue, The Village Voice, Yoga Journal, and Namarupa. Syman has been featured in two documentary films, Yoga, Inc. and Ashtanga, NY.
(Greta Garbo)

In 1995, she co-founded FEED (formerly an award-winning independent web magazine, and for the next six years acted as Co-Editor and Co-Publisher. In 2000, she was part of the creative team that founded, a content and community site focused on pop culture. And in 2005, as Editorial Director, she helped launch, a site focused on healthy living and sustainability.

Stefanie has been practicing Ashtanga Yoga for fifteen years and currently lives in Brooklyn. I caught up with her to chat about her book and was curious about her personal reasons for tracking this unusual cultural phenomenon where physical culture, spiritual awakening and commercial enterprise collide.

Priya Thomas Interview with Stefanie Syman, November 2010:

(Author of the Subtle Body, Stefanie Syman)
Priya: I enjoyed reading your book.

Stefanie: Oh good!

Priya: You cover a lot of ground in terms of the cultural history of yoga in America. What made you interested in taking a look at such a vast practice?

Stefanie: Well I was practicing yoga and I'd been a writer and author and editor as the main part of my professional identity and career for a long, long time. And I had founded this website Feed. And at a certain point, as Feed was winding down, or shortly after feed wound down, it occurred to me that no one had figured out how yoga had become so popular in America. No one had really addressed yoga in that way as a subject where people had already looked at Buddhism and its relationship to the West; and tried to track how Buddhism had become popular here. And in some ways, it's a very similar, sort of parallel story. And it seemed obvious that there was room for that story and that there was need for that story to be told because yoga was - at that point in 2002 - on its way to becoming far more popular and profitable than Buddhism.
And it seemed like something that I could tackle because I was a practitioner so I was involved and interested in the subject, and on the other hand, I had spent my life writing critically about culture and watching how other facets of culture are assimilated. 

Priya: When did your practice begin? Do you want to tell me a little bit about your own relationship with yoga?  

Stefanie: Sure, I began practicing in 1994. Like many Americans, I was injured. I had a running injury so I was trying to find other things to do... And I was really somewhat allergic to yoga's deeper, other dimensions at the beginning. I really saw it, for me, as a physical practice. I'm from California so i think I had a lot of the associations and stereotypes, the negative ones that came with yoga. But as I practiced, I became more interested in yoga philosophy and its other dimensions. But I hadn't really had occasion to look into it that deeply.  I practiced Ashtanga, and at the time Eddie Stern (my teacher) wasn't doing lots of philosophy classes or lectures. It was really just a physical practice. That's really changed; he's been doing a lot more teaching recently. So it became both a subject that I felt that I had something to say about and I did extensive amounts of research; but also, it was an excuse for me to look into it more deeply. 

(Yogi Ascetics, Central India, courtesy of Project Guttenberg)
Priya: Now in tracking yoga's development in America, you note how much of the practice in its early stages was based on misunderstandings due to a lack of available literature, poor translations from the original Sanskrit... or misunderstandings of India or Hinduism. The initial American response to yoga and Hinduism was that it was sinister, strange and profligate. Do you think yoga in America today still carries overtones of these misunderstandings...of being considered strange, eccentric, or sinister? 

Stefanie: I think there's a little bit of it that carries over. I mean I think it's been pretty well tamed. But I think that there's almost potentially a problem that we've tamed it too much. But I do think you can still sense ambivalence; and people in some ways still have a hard time relating to yoga.
This hasn't happened in a little while but I think it's just cos I haven't had this conversation where I'll meet someone and they'll say, "She just wrote this book about yoga". And the person will say, "Well I practice yoga, but I'm really not into that spiritual stuff". Or, they'll have to kind of stake out their position vis a vis certain dimensions of the practice. And I think some of it is reaction to the American iteration of the spiritual dimension which people find either shallow or unsatisfactory or all sorts of things. Sometimes I think it's just a genuine "I really think that other stuff is weird" and, "You know I'm a former dancer and so all I really care about is the movement".

Priya: Right. 

Stefanie: So I definitely still see that. And then you also see the kind of thing that's been happening now. There's been a big dust-up over whether Christians should practice yoga on the web. I don't know if you saw that... 

Priya: Yeah. I stumbled on that as I was rummaging through your blog the other day. I skim read the article that was posted...I found it an interesting debate. It's a very American mid-west, bible-belt perspective on Christianity to think yoga should be off-limits.  

Stefanie: Well it's an evangelical perspective.  

Priya: Yeah that's what I was getting at. It's a literalist reading of Christianity.

(Margaret Woodrow Wilson)
Stefanie: Right well evangelicals think the bible is the literal truth.  

Priya: exactly. 

Stefanie: It follows. But you should know that Mohler's essay kicked up a firestorm. If you just do a search for his name, there was just hundreds of articles and people writing in and mainstream publications covering it. So I do think that one of the things that is complicated for people is that if you are evangelical, and you're really seeing yoga as a spiritual path, you're abiding by a specific tradition, you will run into things that contradict your faith.   

Priya: Yes.  

Stefanie: The conception of divinity in Christianity is really, really different. The practice you use to reach that divinity or make contact with it are very different. So, I think I find the sort of whitewashing of difference frustrating because I don't think it's respectful to either tradition.  

Priya: Uh huh...  

Stefanie: Now my conclusion is not that you shouldn't practice yoga though. You know, I just think you have to be honest about if you're a deeply faithful Christian, yoga metaphysics and theology, as we know, are heterogenous. But again, if you're abiding by a specific kind of yoga which usually comes with a philosophy and metaphysics and theology, it's likely that there will be some points of difference. 

Priya: Yes. It's also arguable that literalist readings of the Bible don't mesh with the approach to the body that we find in yoga practice... But I don't want to get into a theological discussion about it...Though, in this case, it brings up also what you talk about in the book as a certain puritanical "tenor" of yoga in America that has carried through to modern day practice. You specifically talk about this puritanical spirit in America in the book in terms of what you call, "the no-pain, no-gain" philosophy of practice. You talk about how a very physical, stern practice has a tendency to take root in America. Do you think the very physical kind of yoga practice is going to have any real meaning and purpose as America's demographic changes? 

Stefanie: I don't know demographics that well. But I think Americans are very Christian. But as you mentioned, there's a lot of diversity within that Christianity.

Priya: I'm wondering whether there's a different demographic that is growing side-by-side with  Evangelical Christians. So while there are head-on collisions with yoga, there's also this emerging demographic that is much more cross-pollinated, and comfortable being loosely tied to several faiths and multiple cultures.

Stefanie: Yeah America is (I hesitate to say) increasing eclectic. But there's just a huge springing of American eclecticism that doesn't seem to go away and that's very persistent. So in that sense, yoga always appeals to those people - maybe not to every single one of those people - but it's very enduring in its appeal to that segment. And given that we're going to be racially much more mixed. I mean you're going to have no dominant race in say know I think it follows that yoga will continue to appeal when we're less tethered, and when the categories are shifting. And there's a lot more interfaith marriage now so if you look at those trends, then I would think that yoga is staying very strong.

(Pierre Bernard, Yogi, Simulating his own death)
(Pierre Bernard)

Priya: By now we all know that the history of yoga is riddled with stories of dramatic crackpots peddling religion! I found the story of Pierre Bernard quite interesting because he's a perfect example of that kind of "go big or go home" mystical leader. In the book he comes across as ambitious and enigmatic...almost like a Houdini of yoga. This was his downfall, as you outline in the book. But you also mention that one of the problems with modern American practice is that it lacks a religious component, and that "the lack of a religious component deletes an essential part of the practice." What do you think it deletes? 

Stefanie: Well, I mean I think if you're just practicing the asanas and you're not aware of the purpose of them, whether or not you buy into that purpose....well, there's a richness to it. There's a belief that you can move energy around in your body in a really powerful way, and even just that, which I would say is still a little bit superficial, but still, it's not just the movements themselves that are making you strong but the way that you're moving energy through the subtle body. You know I think you're cutting yourself off from a potentially richer and deeper experience if you don't see that. Even if you're not aware or interested in that, if you're calling it "yoga", then you always leave the door open to more engagement. 

Priya: Right... 

Stefanie: And I think meditation and pranayama are very helpful practices to transform your consciousness. I mean I personally haven't been able to delve into those practices as much as I would like just because of the usual demands on one's time. But you know, yoga was crafted as a spiritual technology. Hatha yoga has a strong physical culture component, but that's by no means its purpose. So it's kind of like if people discovered praying made you prettier, and then prayed but weren't concerned with God... 

Priya: Ok. 

Stefanie: But then again tantric yoga which is hatha yoga, has always been tied up with worldly pleasure. In India, there's a long history of using yoga for "bhoga" or yoga for pleasure, and the co-opting of yogis by powerful kings. So it's not particular to us. I mean these things get appropriated in all sorts of ways.   

Priya: That kind of overlaps with a question I had. In your book you talk about how yoga is parodied by pop culture. Why do you think popular culture is still quick to dismiss yoga? 

Stefanie: Well, I think it's a number of things. One I think it's that kind of secular bent to media, the reporters and journalists...and a skepticism I think that it's history here has been filled with charlatans. I mean it wasn't just the prejeudices of media, there were actual charlatans in yoga. Pierre Bernard himself lacked integrity almost entirely, although he was extremely charismatic and successful.  I also think that because so many women practice, it's a female preoccupation so there's a sexism to how it's perceived. And I think there's a yuppie quality to it that people find distasteful even though they're part of that. I think it's a little too close to home. 

Priya: And within the tradition that yoga comes from there's also been a steady stream of swamis that have discouraged the practice of hatha yoga. So do you have ideas as to why there would have been a resistance to hatha yoga within the culture? 

Stefanie: Sometimes it would be personal. I mean Vivekananda apparently tried Hatha yoga and was really bad at it. But also, hatha yoga is a tantric yoga and there was a lot of ambivalence about Tantra especially when Indians were starting to contemplate independence and were under colonial rule...I think there was always ambivalence between Brahmins and Tantrikas. But I think it may have intensified under colonial rule. I mean, this is India's history that I'm not deeply familiar with...Certainly, Indians felt they had to clean up their own religion for it to be competitive with Christianity, in the world market of religions on some level. And Tantra was kind of bad news for lots of reasons. And so hatha yoga was similarly seen as kind of dangerous.

But then, you know, it turned completely. Because in the 20th century, there was a very active movement to revive hatha yoga specifically to help build stronger Indian bodies as a nationalistic project. That was really a nineteenth, turn of the 20th century kind of issue that didn't last.

Priya: You mention that one of the pitfalls of the esoteric elements of the practice has been a kind of guru-worship that evokes connotations of sexual abuse and other abuses of power. You say this is a result of a scriptural tradition that suggests that the guru is the absolute made visible. Can you detail which yoga scriptures would be responsible for that notion? 

Stefanie: I don't know. I mean I'm not really close to that research right now. I think there's a very common prayer about the guru that suggests that the guru is your channel for the divine. And I think that you get in word, an expectation of really deep devotion. That this person can liberate you from samsara...That said, in India, there's a much more down-to-earth relationship to gurus cos it's part of their culture and so I think there's a little bit more of a healthy attitude. I read an Indian commentator who said, "You know in India we take 50% of what the guru says and we throw out the rest".
I think here we didn't have the modulating experience that Indians have had. We've only had either the texts who were leading or the gurus themselves who were either flippantly or tacitly expecting this. So we didn't have you know those examples of people around us, behaving in a more appropriate way.

Priya: Is it possible that the Christian tradition, as a monotheistic system with a different approach to text as scripture, has a tendency to read Hindu scripture as homogenous? From what I know, the Yoga Sutra, for instance, only talks about Isvara and never mentions the guru. So I find it interesting that there was that kind of tendency towards guru-worship in America. My understanding was that the scriptures are subtle and varied; and insights on the guru can be competing and contradictory...

Stefanie: Right yeah. I mean I think we're not educated about these things. So if your guru Muktananda says something, and he may even contradict himself, but I think it's a combination of what is said by the guru and then the kind of cultural context in which he operates. 

Priya: Ok.. 

Stefanie: And while the Yoga Sutras doesn't say anything about gurus, I mean the use of the Yoga Sutras as a text, that's a very, very recent thing. It being held up as so central....And people like Muktananda, the swamis, Satchidananda used the YogaSutras more, but someone like Muktananda I don't think used them at all. So I think it was also somewhat specific to the guru also, if they were invoking a textual position or if they were invoking their own lineage, and their own teachings by their guru. I mean there's a lot of innovation by all of these swamis that came. But as far as we knew, they had been teaching it exactly as they had been taught. And we couldn't make that judgement either.

Most of us don't know how to read Sanskrit or parse the details or have access to details....especially before the web. People have questioned the lineages of many of these swamis, yet that level of evidence couldn't even be obtained unless you went to India and talked to locals.

But I think a lot of it was that all of these people had these really powerful experiences with these swamis. To them, the logical outgrowth would be this sort of devotion. I mean, as far as I know, we're supposed to be devoted to either Jesus or the Trinity or in the Jewish religion there's no analogous relationship. So we kind of I think enacted a parody of it or a caricature of it on some level.

Joel Kramer has written a lot about authoritarianism and the guru and I have not read his stuff...he probably has some more interesting things to say. 

Priya: Oh that's interesting! I'll see if I can ask him for an interview at some point.  

Stefanie: I also think it's funny, I think that part of it is that we were hungry for an ideology that ran counter to what was being presented. I think the guru worship i think was at its most intense in the 60's and 70's. In that time we were really thirsty for alternatives to corporate capitalism and the industrial military complex. And so we wanted something complete and coherent. And yoga and the teachings of these swamis offered that. I think we just wanted some kind of trade on some level, rather than turn the same level of critical thinking towards what they had to offer. We wanted a complete and whole alternative that we could just consume. 

Priya: Right...I assume all systems contain contradiction, questions, gray areas... 

Stefanie: Right! No I totally agree. But if you're hanging out with Muktananda, there's a coherence there, and you would never know about heterogeneous nature of texts etc or contradiction.. 

Priya: Right. that's true. Why do you think that's what Americans wanted? 

Stefanie: I think the community part of it was extremely powerful. 

Priya: There's a quote in the book that I found curious: "taking the religion out of yoga is like taking the sad and troubling parts out of the Great Gatsby"...
What do you think the sad and troubling parts of religion are? And why would they be worth keeping at this point? 

Stefanie: It's just a part of life! And I think in yoga and in tantra there's a lot of darkness. Not so much if you read the Yoga Sutras; but I mean even the Bhagavad Gita, there's that whole vision of Krsna which is horrifying...I mean Arjuna practically can't handle it! 

Priya: (laughing)

(Goddess Kali, Aspect of Sakti)
Stefanie: And Kali is a deity that's extremely dark! I mean, I think that's what our TV and a lot of our entertainment functions as...But I think unfortunately, there's just not a way to process it. You kind of get left with just the horror and the spectacle of it. Whereas I think in Hinduism, I think there's an attempt to transform those dark energies into something better.  

Priya: Yeah, that's interesting about the darker elements of life, or the "shadow" that we possibly sublimate through visual culture. You discuss psychology and the influence of Carl Jung in American yoga practice in your book. Specifically you talk about how the idea of "self-realization" starts to be seen more and more through the lens of psychology as "integration" or "self-actualization". In the book you say that there's "something troubling about yoga being experienced as this ancient kind of psychotherapy". Why do you find that troubling?

Stefanie: Because, for one, it ends up being kind of narcissistic. And I think it may be co-opting a practice that was really not terribly focused on the individual as an individual being healthy and ok. I mean the concept in yoga was to completely transcend one's existence. So there is a contradiction there to me. I think a side-effect of all these practices is that you're actually much better adjusted. But I don't know that that kind of language and that kind of thinking about the self and the psyche is pretty specific to a western quest for enlightenment. And i do think it can end up creating someone who is so invested in this narcissistic kind of way, or shallow way perhaps. I think there's overlap, but I think it's a somewhat shortsighted reading of yoga. And I think what happens is that it gets translated into the same mantra of like "cheer yourself up"....rather than, "if you really transform your consciousness, that just won't even be an issue and you will react to a situation with a completely different mindframe".  But that's harder work...

Priya: You also allude to the fact that it was the delusional and exotified elements of a tradition that gave the early days of American yoga a magical quality. Now that we've grown to understand yoga a bit better in America, and "made peace with yoga" as you put it, do you think we're less inspired? Were you saying that knowing the tradition better in America has stripped yoga of its imagination?

Stefanie: Well I don't think that anything can be taken from yoga persay. Like yoga only exists in our relationship to it, and how we exact it, perform it, talk about it...I think all that is there for the taking and for the developing on some level because it is in the tradition. And I believe it is being kept alive in certain circumstances for sure. The kind of yoga that's going to become most popular is going to be, by definition, the simplest. That's just what popularity means.
It means the most people can make sense of it. And if you're having to deal with the most people to make sense of any phenomenon, then I think you end up with a simplified version. And yes, we come at this exotifying it because it's not our culture. But I think there's been much more of a renewed interest from a scholarly perspective which is great.  

Priya: In the last chapter it sounded a little bit as if you were intoning that contemporary yoga practices were less subversive for the fact of their popularity...and that as a consequence of the internet age yoga has been "evened out" or "flattened"...

Stefanie: Well yeah but I think that's true of every phenomenon.  It's much harder to find a way to resist the dominant culture when everything just becomes another Youtube video. So I don't think that specific to yoga, but I think it's particular to our culture. 

(left to right: Desikachar, Krishnamacarya, Indra Devi)
Priya: You call yoga: "a bloated kitchen-sink of a word" and suggest that it was Indra Devi that finally turned this unruly thing into something that Americans could finally get behind...namely a "health tonic". Why do you think Americans have an easy time relating to yoga as a health practice?

Stefanie: Well we're Christians or Jewish...primarily. I think ultimately it's much easier to get someone to say "hey this is gonna help you feel better" than "hey you need to start practicing a new religion". You know missionaries had the same problem in other countries. And they converted some, but it was a pretty ugly scene.

M aybe Stefanie is not off-the-mark in suggesting that Americans taking on yoga is like "converting" to a new religion. For some of us, we convert based on the promise of toned abs, or a good, common-sense "core" workout. For others, the thought of getting in good physical shape along with thirty others in close quarters is a compelling reason to avoid yoga. And for some, stress or struggle brings us to the brink, and we grasp at what we have at hand...our body and our breath. So I suppose the conversion experiences that turn us on to yoga can be as visceral and demanding, and as "ugly a scene" as any missionary could have dreamed up.

Ultimately, yoga, in its myriad shapes and forms, with its thousand gurus and their thousand prescriptions, has converted through zeitgeist... a feeling...palpable but light as air. Maybe in America, where the metaphysical concerns of yoga are a lesser concern in most yoga classes, the "subtle body" is something we experience through the energy of the collective.

The American relationship with yoga is not simple. It comes with a history full of the usual epiphanies and failings. There is a strange equanimity to yoga's light and dark in America; its misdemeanors and untenable miracles, inflicted injuries and cosmic blunders, teachers/gurus/mentors with sugar pills and healing hands... And for all its complexity, yoga has yet found a stability and devotion far beyond that which any early American could have predicted.

You can buy The Subtle Body: The Story of Yoga in America here.
• Read Stefanie Syman's blog at

1 comment:

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