The Subtle Body: The Story of Yoga in America by Stefanie Syman, NOOK Book (eBook) | Barnes & Noble
The Subtle Body: The Story of Yoga in America

The Subtle Body: The Story of Yoga in America

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by Stefanie Syman
     
 

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In The Subtle Body, Stefanie Syman tells the surprising story of yoga's transformation from a centuries-old spiritual discipline to a multibillion-dollar American industry.

Yoga's history in America is longer and richer than even its most devoted practitioners realize. It was present in Emerson's New England, and by the turn of the twentieth

Overview

In The Subtle Body, Stefanie Syman tells the surprising story of yoga's transformation from a centuries-old spiritual discipline to a multibillion-dollar American industry.

Yoga's history in America is longer and richer than even its most devoted practitioners realize. It was present in Emerson's New England, and by the turn of the twentieth century it was fashionable among the leisure class. And yet when Americans first learned about yoga, what they learned was that it was a dangerous, alien practice that would corrupt body and soul.

A century later, you can find yoga in gyms, malls, and even hospitals, and the arrival of a yoga studio in a neighborhood is a signal of cosmopolitanism. How did it happen? It did so, Stefanie Syman explains, through a succession of charismatic yoga teachers, who risked charges of charlatanism as they promoted yoga in America, and through generations of yoga students, who were deemed unbalanced or even insane for their efforts. The Subtle Body tells the stories of these people, including Henry David Thoreau, Pierre A. Bernard, Margaret Woodrow Wilson, Christopher Isherwood, Sally Kempton, and Indra Devi.

From New England, the book moves to New York City and its new suburbs between the wars, to colonial India, to postwar Los Angeles, to Haight-Ashbury in its heyday, and back to New York City post-9/11. In vivid chapters, it takes in celebrities from Gloria Swanson and George Harrison to Christy Turlington and Madonna. And it offers a fresh view of American society, showing how a seemingly arcane and foreign practice is as deeply rooted here as baseball or ballet.

This epic account of yoga's rise is absorbing and often inspiring—a major contribution to our understanding of our society.

Editorial Reviews

Michiko Kakutani
What Ms. Syman does…deftly is trace how the likes of Emerson (with his interest in Indian thought) and Thoreau (with his practice of meditation) helped create a context in which an American yoga could take root. And she provides a lively gallery of larger-than-life characters who would contribute to (or undermine, or co-opt) the progress of yoga in the United States…
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
Yoga conquers America—and is conquered in its turn—in this labyrinthine cultural history. Journalist Syman traces American enthusiasm for yoga back to Thoreau and follows it through cycles of waxing and waning popularity: it was decried by Victorians for its association with madness and tantric sex rituals, celebrated in the 1960s for its association with altered states of consciousness (and tantric sex rituals), and ubiquitously embraced in the 21st century as a wholesome, anodyne exercise program. The author argues that, even as the om-chanting adept became the embodiment of spirituality, yoga's mainstreaming risked the discipline losing its rich spiritual content, along with the more extreme contortions, regular enemas, and whatever else Americans considered off-putting. Unfortunately, the author's attempts to clarify yoga's spiritual content, which is multifarious and intractably murky, don't always succeed, and sometimes the narrative bogs down amid barnstorming swamis and their squabbling sects. When she pulls back to view the culture mashup yoga has become—“a cure for back pain, a beauty regime, and a route to God”—she gives a cogent, engrossing analysis of this Asian-born spiritual practice turned all-American panacea. 8 pages of b&w illus. (June)
From the Publisher

“Stefanie Syman's . . . spacious history of yoga in America, The Subtle Body, begins by describing how deeply and enduringly classical Indian philosophy influenced American transcendentalists. Both Emerson and Thoreau admired the Bhagavad-Gita . . . However, neither knew much about the physical-fitness side of yoga. The earliest Indian vendors of spirituality, like Swami Vivekananda . . . looked down on the asanas, or poses, of hatha yoga as a defective path to yoga's goal: the union of the individual self with the divine Self.” —PANKAJ MISHRA, The New York Times Book Review

“Syman . . . astutely shows how yoga's versatility as a practice has helped it adapt to ever-conflicting historical currents.” —CLAIRE DEDERER, Slate

“Syman gives a terrific overview of the teachers whose names are now so much a part of the history of yoga in this country: Vivekananda, Sri Aurobindo, Prabhavananda, Indra Devi, Jois and Bikram . . . As for charges of commercialism or elitism: ‘Yoga is both an indulgence and a penance,' she writes. ‘It will tone your thighs, and it might crack open your reality.'” —SUSAN SALTER REYNOLDS, Los Angeles Times

“Many of us have been waiting for decades to read a comprehensive history of yoga in the United States. Stefanie Syman has written that history and she has written it very well. I recommend this book to the 16 million people who practice yoga in this country, as well as to anyone who simply wonders what the fuss is all about.” —David Gordon White, author of Sinister Yogis

The Subtle Body is an enthralling book, and an enlightening one.” —Robert Thurman

“Stefanie Syman's superb book fills a major gap in our understanding of religion in America. This fascinating account, full of colorful characters, demonstrates the importance of yoga in transforming Americans' understanding of the body. Any survey of American religious history must take this narrative into account.” —Randall Balmer, Professor of American Religious History, Barnard College, Columbia University

“As this intriguing narrative chronicles, few points of dynamic transfer in the encounter between East and West have proven more useful to creative Americans than the ancient philosophy and exercise regime of yoga. For its many practitioners, yoga fuses body, mind, spirit, energy, and attitude into an alembic of well-being harmonizing self and non-self, struggle and peace.” —Kevin Starr, University of Southern California

Kirkus Reviews
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.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781429933070
Publisher:
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date:
06/22/2010
Sold by:
Macmillan
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
400
File size:
649 KB

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Meet the Author

Stefanie Syman, a literature graduate of Yale, was a founder of Feed, an early, award-winning Web magazine. She has written for The Wall Street Journal, Rolling Stone, Vogue, and Yoga Journal. A native of Los Angeles, she lives in Park Slope, Brooklyn, and has practiced yoga for fifteen years.


Stefanie Syman, a literature graduate of Yale, was a founder of Feed, an early, award-winning Web magazine. She has written for The Wall Street Journal, Rolling Stone, Vogue, and Yoga Journal. A native of Los Angeles, she lives in Park Slope, Brooklyn, and has practiced yoga for fifteen years. She is the author of The Subtle Body.

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