The studio was decorated in the style of Don’t Be Afraid, We’re Not a Cult. All was white and blond and clean, as though the room had been designed for surgery, or Swedish people. The only spot of color came from the Tibetan prayer flags strung over the doorway into the studio. In flagrant defiance of my longtime policy of never entering a structure adorned with Tibetan prayer flags, I removed my shoes, paid my ten bucks, and walked in . . .
Ten years ago, Claire Dederer put her back out while breastfeeding her baby daughter. Told to try yoga by everyone from the woman behind the counter at the co-op to the homeless guy on the corner, she signed up for her first class. She fell madly in love.
Over the next decade, she would tackle triangle, wheel, and the dreaded crow, becoming fast friends with some poses and developing long-standing feuds with others. At the same time, she found herself confronting the forces that shaped her generation. Daughters of women who ran away to find themselves and made a few messes along the way, Dederer and her peers grew up determined to be good, good, good—even if this meant feeling hemmed in by the smugness of their organic-buying, attachment-parenting, anxiously conscientious little world. Yoga seemed to fit right into this virtuous program, but to her surprise, Dederer found that the deeper she went into the poses, the more they tested her most basic ideas of what makes a good mother, daughter, friend, wife—and the more they made her want something a little less tidy, a little more improvisational. Less goodness, more joy.
Poser is unlike any other book about yoga you will read—because it is actually a book about life. Witty and heartfelt, sharp and irreverent, Poser is for anyone who has ever tried to stand on their head while keeping both feet on the ground.
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About the Author
Claire Dederer’s essays, criticism, and reporting have appeared in Vogue, The New York Times, Slate, Yoga Journal, Real Simple, and The Nation. She lives on an island near Seattle.
Read an Excerpt
POSERMy Life in Twenty-Three Yoga Poses
By Claire Dederer
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLCCopyright © 2011 Claire Dederer
All right reserved.
Creamy and flushed and covered with fuzz, our baby daughter was like a delicious peach. Only much heavier. Even though I fed her on a diet of breast milk and nothing else, she grew fatter and fatter. She was dense with good health.
The story of how I nursed my daughter has a catch-22 ending. The child was thriving on this milky, unending flow of a food designed perfectly for her. When she was ten months old, I began to feel like we might weigh about the same amount. I would haul her onto my lap, and she would gaze up at me with delight, and, in the parlance of the day, latch on. I would gaze back at her, amazed that I could so easily satisfy another creature. She was intent and happy as she suckled away.
The only problem with the baby was that when I held her in my lap for these marathon feedings, she was crushing something crucial inside me. Maybe my spleen, or possibly something larger. I tried lying on my side to nurse her, but she required so much food, provided in such lengthy sessions, that this wasn't really tenable. The milk was making her so, ah, healthy that it was getting harder and harder to actually deliver the milk to her. (That's the catch-22 part.)
Cast your mind back to the late 1990s for just a moment. Nursing, at least where we lived in Seattle, was a strange combination of enthusiast's hobby and moral mandate. Drive thirty miles to the north, where my husband's cousins lived in suburbia, and you'd find mothers happily plugging a bottle of formula into their babies' squalling mouths. In Seattle, only full-time working mothers gave their babies bottles, or rather their nannies did, and those bottles were filled with the mother's very own milk, expressed through a breast pump.
Weaning wasn't allowed until at least one year. This was by the consensus of who, exactly? Us. We were mothers with books. We looked things up. We knew stuff, like, for example, that the American Academy of Pediatrics said that at least one year of nursing was optimal for the baby's immune system and brain development. For the kind of mothers we were, optimal meant mandatory, and one year meant a few. Seattle at that time was a town where little dudes strolled up to their moms at the playground for a quick top-off, said "Thanks, babe," and rejoined the soccer match.
Lucy wasn't yet ten months, and I wasn't supposed to quit nursing until at least a year. If you think this sounds like a frivolous dilemma, or not worth losing sleep over, then that just goes to show you were not a new mother in a liberal enclave at the end of the last century.
While I debated whether or not to wean her (and Bruce, my husband, feigned interest), the inevitable occurred. My back went out. The middle of my back pinched me all the time, like a salacious old man. I couldn't sit in a straight chair. I couldn't lie flat on the couch. I couldn't lift the groceries. So I weaned her.
Now that I've been doing yoga for ten years, I'm tempted to say something wise, such as: I was ready to wean and my body made the decision for me. But back then I didn't believe in that kind of crap. Instead, I paddled around in a complicated gumbo of guilt and relief. I claimed to feel cheated of my full, god-given, federally mandated year of nursing. I apologized to my husband for my subpar performance. I told my friends: Oh, no! I can't nurse the baby! Inside, I secretly exulted. I had my spleen to myself again.
We lived in Phinney Ridge, a North Seattle neighborhood filled with educated, white, liberal, well-intentioned people. Which pretty much describes all North Seattle neighborhoods. Phinney Ridge is notable for being even more liberal and even better intentioned than most. In Phinney Ridge, people don't have BEWARE of DOG signs. They have PLEASE BE MINDFUL OF DOG signs.
When I complained about my back, which I did often and with gusto, the people of Phinney Ridge all had the same answer: Do yoga. My doctor said, "There are poses that will strengthen your back." The checker at Ken's Market told me I could buy a good yoga video at a nearby New Age bookstore. The homeless guy selling the homeless-guy newspaper outside Ken's Market said, "Be sure to get a mat! It's really hard to do yoga without a mat."
I had a number of preconceptions about yoga. I thought yoga was done by self-indulgent middle-aged ladies with a lot of time on their hands, or by skinny fanatical twenty-two-year-old vegetarian former gymnasts. I was also unsettled by the notion of white people seeking transformation through the customs of brown-skinned people—basically, to my mind, a suspect dynamic.
Despite these sloppily thought-out but strongly held reservations (my specialty), I had suspected for years that I probably ought to do yoga. I was a nervous kind of person. A self-conscious, hair-adjusting kind of person. A person who practically burned with worried energy. I had a constant tremor in my hands, so that the whole world knew how anxious I was. Just a couple of weeks earlier, I had been hanging out at a coffee shop, feeding Lucy bits of cracker and navigating the coffee cup from the saucer to my mouth with trembling hand. A gentleman approached and introduced himself to me as an "energy shaman." Before I could think of a way to get rid of him, he took my shaking hand in his and pronounced gravely, "You could use a lot of work."
"Oh!" I said, grinning nervously. "I'm sorry! I just, I have this tremor that I've had since I was a little kid, and I'm not getting a lot of sleep because of the baby. And I guess I've had a lot of coffee," I concluded lamely.
"Do you eat a lot of chicken?" he asked. "That can cause energy problems."
I stood up, spilling my coffee, and swiftly loaded Lucy into her stroller.
"Well, goodbye!" I waved cheerfully, and left the café, fairly thrumming with energy problems.
Yoga seemed like just exactly what I wanted: something to calm me down. It also seemed like just exactly what I didn't want: a place where everyone could see what a mess I was, could see my tremor and my anxiety and my worry. There was something about holding still, about inhabiting a pose, that was scary. What was under all that anxious chatter?
But now things were different. I had a baby. It was imperative that I be able to lift her. I would do anything to be able to lift her. Yoga class, however, was beyond me. Like everyone else, I was terrified of a roomful of people who were good at it. Little did I know then that only very occasionally in yoga do you stumble into an entire roomful of people who are good at it. And when you do, they often turn out to be assholes.
I figured a video would be the best approach; maybe I could get the benefits without all the pesky humiliation. On an Indian summer afternoon I decided to head over to the New Age bookstore. Amid much pinching, I wrangled the baby into her stroller. This engendered another form of mother guilt: recently strollers had come under the North Seattle mother's list of banned substances. Apparently the baby felt alienated so far away from its mother, and preferred to be snuggled up against the mother's back or—there was no escaping its Perón-like hegemony—her breast. You were supposed to strap your baby into a sling or a Snugli (known around our house as a Smugli). There was some theory about the baby wanting to see the world from the same perspective as its mother. Which looks crazy as I type it, but that was the argument. At any rate, putting your child in a stroller was fast becoming yet another way of letting the world know that a) you didn't really love your kid and b) you were an uneducated dumbshit.
That was all well and good for people with those lightweight babies made from balsa wood, but my pleasingly substantial daughter and I were devoted to strolling. And so we made our way through the fall afternoon to the bookshop, the baby graciously tolerating her dumbshit, unloving mother.
I had walked by the New Age bookshop many times but had never gone in. Wrestling the stroller through the door, I was hit with the ecclesiastically grubby smell of incense. Everything in the store was dusty and slightly off plumb. The magazine racks tilted; the books were piled haphazardly; the posters of chakras and mushrooms and stars were at various subtle angles.
I found a teetering wire rack of yoga videos. Some of the people on the covers were orange. Some wore headbands. Some were peeking out from behind swirling, vaguely medieval purple writing. I chose a beginning yoga tape. It looked safe. The woman on the cover was not orange and she wore no headgear. The graphics did not look as if they'd been drawn up in an asylum.
I located a yoga mat, and paid, and then the baby and I got the hell out of there.
That night, Bruce gave her a bottle (to which she had adapted nicely, thanks) and I went into the room with the TV which, like everyone on Phinney Ridge, we refused to call the TV room. I put on my tape. The blond woman gazed into the camera from her serene world, a place where potted orchids thrived. There was some discussion about not overdoing it and going at your own speed, and then the yoga session was under way. The woman sat there with her eyes shut. I sat there looking at her. Apparently we were warming up.
This pleasant state of affairs continued for a while. Unfortunately, soon it was time to do asana. This had a forbidding sound.
"Jump your feet about three feet apart on the mat," said the blond lady. This I did. "Turn your left foot in about forty-five degrees, and your right foot out." Done and done. Check me out! "Extend the right hand over the right foot, and gently rest the hand on the shin, the ankle, or the foot, wherever is most comfortable." Tippy, but I was on it. "Slowly rotate your torso upward, and extend your left arm toward the ceiling." Aaand I'm out. I sat down with a thud and watched the woman with her strangely unshifting expression. She was a puddle on a windless day. In a calm voice, the way you talk to old people when you're convincing them to take a few steps across the hospital room to use the bathroom, she said, "Tri-ko-na-sa-na." She lingered on the word, obviously enjoying the sound of the ... what was it? Sanskrit? "Triangle pose," she translated.
I rewound the tape. I tried again. Right leg out. Feet turned at an angle. Extend right arm. Drop right hand to right shin. I started to worry. How was I going to get that left arm up? How was I going to turn my torso? Oh, shit, now or never. I flung my left arm into the air and twisted my torso maybe a millimeter up. Pinch.
I caught a glimpse of myself reflected in the darkened window I was hunched up like "It's Pat!" from Saturday Night Live. I rewound the tape again, and followed the directions again, and ended up, again, bunched in an odd shape. I could feel parts of my body bumping together that had never bumped before. Something hurt. I had a feeling it wasn't supposed to hurt.
Looking back, I can see that I had just learned a paramount yoga lesson: Get a good teacher. Or at least a live one. My back still hurt, and though muscle relaxants exerted a powerful allure, the muscle-relaxant lifestyle was not really doable for me. I made my living as a book reviewer. (A terrible idea, by the way.) When I took muscle relaxants, the novels I read for review tended to improve dramatically. Since my critical faculties were really all I had going for me, I reluctantly went drug free.
There was this notion in my mind that somehow yoga was going to make me better. Better than I'd been, better than everyone else. More virtuous. I liked the idea of myself as a yoga person. (I could not bring myself to say yogi, or yogini.) Lithe, probably thin, with some kind of ineffable glow And my back wouldn't hurt. Clearly it was time to try an actual yoga class. The following week, on a rainy October day, I left the baby with my mother and drove across town to the yoga studio my friend Katrina went to. Katrina was sort of nutty, but she had a gorgeous ass, so I thought, What the hell.
Inside the front door of the studio was an entry vestibule, decorated in the style of "Don't Be Afraid, We're Not a Cult." The walls were painted white and screened with tasteful shoji panels; the blond wood floor was uncarpeted and spotless; neat cubbies awaited shoes. All was white and clean, as though the room had been designed for surgery, or Swedish people. The only spot of color came from the Tibetan prayer flags strung over the doorway into the studio.
In flagrant defiance of my longtime policy of never entering a structure adorned with Tibetan prayer flags, I removed my shoes, paid my ten bucks to the wan girl at the desk, and walked into the studio, where eight or ten young women were sitting on their mats. Even though we were there for a beginner class, they all looked incredibly fit and somewhat stern. Their ponytails were glossy and neat. Those ponytails were ready for business. The women sat cross-legged, with straight backs. They all gazed straight ahead into the middle distance, as if they were about to break out into a collective fit of landscape painting.
I smiled apologetically. This is my worst habit, and I hope to break it by the time I'm eighty. When I'm an old lady I'll finally be able to swagger into a room with a fuck-you attitude. I laid out my mat and sat on it. I felt the onset of the deep sorrow that, maybe peculiarly to me, precedes any new physical undertaking. I have never been good at sports; I always feel like a spectator, even when I'm in the middle of a game.
The shoji screens filtered the light from the vestibule, spreading it on the floor in a grid. My sense of futility grew larger. I looked at the serene ladies and wondered if they really believed that enlightenment would find us here, in a drafty room in a strip mall in North Seattle.
As I looked around at the fair-skinned women and the prayer flags over the door and the little altar in the corner, my preconceptions about yoga seemed immediately and all too amply confirmed. The scene was the very picture of white female self-indulgence. There were no Indian people in this room, that was certain.
A woman in her late twenties entered and rolled out her mat in front of us. Her thick blond hair was cut in an expensive bob. Her eyebrows were fancily mowed. Her outfit was black and tight. She looked as though she had been a step-aerobics teacher until about five minutes ago. She looked like her name was Jennifer.
"I am Atosa," she said. Like hell you are, sister.
"Come to a comfortable sitting position," she said. "Please bring your fingers into the gyana mudra. Mudra is the yoga of the hands." She made a circle with the thumb and forefinger of each hand, and I followed suit. It felt corny but sort of wonderful at the same time. My hands looked enlightened.
"We will begin the class with one long om," Asha intoned. "Breathe in, and om on the exhalation." I sneaked peeks around the room. The other women looked peaceful and relaxed, as if they were in an ad for bubble bath. I breathed in and let out my om, which came in a wheezing gasp. Atosas om boomed and wavered beautifully.
"The om travels up from the seat, through the heart, and out the top of the head. It passes through all the charkas." Atosa listed all the chakras by name, location, and color. Yoga seemed to involve a lot of talking.
We did a series of wildly uncomfortable movements that I now recognize to be sun salutation A. We reached for the sky, we touched our toes, we lunged one leg back. Then we pulled back into downward dog: both hands on the floor, both feet on the floor, bottom jutting up toward the ceiling. We lunged again, touched our toes again, and there we were, where we started, reaching for the sky. I was red and breathing hard and trembling. As we sank into a deep runner's lunge, Atosa looked at me with worry. It wasn't "I'm worried about you" worry. It was "I don't need anyone collapsing in my class" worry.
"Excerpted from POSER: My Life in Twenty-Three Yoga Poses by Claire Dederer, to be published in January 2011 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright © 2011 by Claire Dederer. All rights reserved."
Excerpted from POSER by Claire Dederer Copyright © 2011 by Claire Dederer. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Reading Group Guide
Claire Dederer wasn’t looking for enlightenment when she decided to try yoga; she just wanted to heal her aching back. As a time-crunched new mom, she didn’t even want a live instructor, opting for videotapes that made her back ache even more. Eventually, she found a class led by a man with a Vincent Price voice and a gentle, encouraging demeanor. That was more than a decade ago, and the transformation she has experienced as a yoga student continues to affect all aspects of her life. By turns wry and wise, Poser captures Claire’s unique journey to self-acceptance. As she progresses through increasingly challenging poses, she taps a well of emotions, ranging from fear to exhilaration. She struggles to be patient in the face of constantly awkward turns, gradually dissolving the perfectionism that marks so many women in her Seattle community. A child of the 1960s and ’70s, she had watched her free-spirited mother navigate an unconventional marriage. Raising children of her own, Claire is determined to provide more stability, even as she and her husband eke out an unstable income as writers. But on the yoga mat, the reality of “stability” takes on new meaning, helping her gradually come to terms with uncertainty and simply savor the experience of life.
“The longer I do yoga, the worse I get at it. I can’t tell you what a relief it is,” Claire writes. A book that brims with truth—from the tragicomic to the transcendent—Poser is one that you will want to share. The questions and discussion topics that follow are designed to enrich your reading group’s experience of this illuminating memoir.
Questions and Topics for Discussion 1. Claire’s first challenge is to find the right instructor. What qualities would your yoga instructor need to possess? How do Claire’s expectations compare to those of other students she meets along the way?
2. What is at the heart of the perfectionism Claire sees in her circle of Seattle friends? At what point does wanting “the best” for a child become excessive and unhealthy?
3. What did Claire’s parents teach her about being a parent and a spouse? How was she both liberated and hindered by their unconventional marriage?
4. How do Claire and Bruce shape each other over the course of the book? As they cope with his depression and celebrate triumphs in his career, how does her role in his life evolve?
5. The chapter titles reflect the fluctuations as much as the progression of Claire’s life. Which of these poses—ranging from Camel to Downward Dog—could capture turning points in your life as well?
6. Discuss the book’s title as it is reflected in the book’s studio scenes. What does Claire discover about her true self as she struggles, concentrates, and adapts in class? What “impersonations” does she shed?
7. How does Claire and Bruce’s concept of money change throughout the book? How is their marriage affected by the fact that they are in the same profession? As writers, do they have a different outlook on livelihood and providing for each other?
8. Claire writes vividly of her childhood with her brother. What are the greatest differences and similarities between them? What memories will Lucy and Willie have of their childhood?
9. What does Poser tell us about the cultural changes that have influenced women’s lives in America since the early 1970s? How do Claire’s needs and expectations compare to her mother’s? How does the enormous popularity of yoga reflect these cultural changes?
10. Chapter 10, “Scale,” concludes with Claire’s observation that “the yoga taught in the sutras was different from the yoga that was taught in The Pradipika, which was different from the yoga that I was taught in the studio. But I was a magpie, a bricoleur, a pragmatist: I would take what I needed, and logic be hanged.” What surprised you the most as you read about the sometimes contradictory history of yoga? Which approach to yoga seems the most appealing to you?
11. In chapter 28, “Splits,” Claire writes, “Boulder was a tonic, a place where your path (in all its meanings) could be the most important thing in your life, and you could be surrounded by other people on their very special paths.” What do Claire and Bruce discover about their paths when they move their family to Boulder? How do the landscape, the community, and other factors capture the significant changes that occur during this chapter in their lives? Which locales have had the greatest effect on your path?
12. How does Claire’s sense of self change after her parents’ divorce? Why do you think they remained married for so many years?
13. What gives Claire the wisdom to make her home on the island where, in 1973, her concept of home had been shaken? What makes an island the appropriate setting for the closing passages in the book?
14. What makes Poser different from other books on yoga you have read? How does it buck the trend of self-help guides and memoirs?
About the Author
CLAIRE DEDERER’s essays, criticism, and reporting have appeared in Vogue, The New York Times, Slate, Yoga Journal, Real Simple, and The Nation. She lives on an island near Seattle. PRAISE FOR POSER “Let me be honest about something: I love yoga, I live for yoga, and yoga has changed my life forever—but it is very difficult to find books about yoga that aren’t incredibly annoying. I’m sorry to say it, but yoga sometimes makes people talk like jerks. Thank goodness, then, for Claire Dederer, who has written the book we all need: the long-awaited funny, smart, clear-headed, thoughtful, truthful, and inspiring yoga memoir. To simplify my praise: I absolutely loved this book.” —Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love
“As a yoga-culture skeptic, I began this book with a certain dread of encountering breathless, self-righteous platitudes about the spiritual healing powers of yoga, but I was immediately charmed and disarmed by Dederer’s fiercely intelligent, funny, unsentimental voice. This book contains real, hard-won insights; yoga became, for Dederer, a rebellion against goodness, not a path to it. This story of her revolt against perfectionism is a joy to behold and a true inspiration.” —Kate Christensen, author of The Great Man and The Epicure’s Lament
“Claire Dederer is all these women: a daughter attempting to make sense of an irresistibly nutty divorce; a new mother trying to meet the ridiculously high standards of a peculiarly liberal breed of über-moms; a wife struggling to salvage intimacy in a marriage slammed by exhaustion, mortgage payments, and encroaching in-laws; and a lost soul who stumbles into a yoga studio and finds salvation. Above all, Dederer is a brilliant writer whose prose sparkles and cuts deep. Poser is a book you will want to immediately share with your friends. It’s hilarious, unflinching, and bursting with love.” —Maria Semple, author of This One Is Mine and producer of Arrested Development
“This funny, spectacularly well-observed, and moving book does what even yoga can’t: it provides solace while making you laugh. I feel three inches taller.” —Henry Alford, author of How to Live: A Search for Wisdom from Old People (While They Are Still on This Earth)
“Poser made me laugh out loud, and delivered the welcome message that at least one clog-wearing, educated, creatively employed, left-leaning, hyperaware mother of two young children has found a way to prevent her head from exploding from stress. With humor, big-heartedness, and depth, Claire Dederer has beautifully described how she said ‘screw it’ to the perfectionism that is the feminist legacy of her generation.” —Lisa Jones, author of Broken: A Love Story
“Like many a stiff-jointed U.S. male, I’m not interested in yoga. Yet I devoured Claire Dederer’s elegant account of how trikonasana saved her life. Poser is a bracingly honest investigation of family and freedom, parenting and perfectionism. It is also funny enough to make most writers swoon with envy.” —James Marcus, author of Amazonia: Five Years at the Epicenter of the Dot-Com Juggernaut
Reading group guide written by Amy Root / Amy Root’s Wordshop, Inc.