Poser

The Curse of Perfectionism and the Yoga Cure
New books dissected over email.
Jan. 11 2011 4:07 PM

Poser

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Poser: My life in twenty-three yoga poses.

Dear Emily,

I'm relieved that our editor turned this into a Book Club, because it feels better to be talking about this book with you, my fellow mommy-critic-sometime-memoirist, than it would to be writing, you know, a review. Claire Dederer and Poser make me feel what you aren't supposed to write about in a review. My main feeling is jealousy. She's so funny! She writes so well about stuff that I've been through myself and tried to write about, so I know how hard it is to do, let alone to do with style and wit and the sustained absence of cliché. I'm talking about stuff like religion (yes, I'm calling yoga religion—let's debate that?), which can get sanctimonious and stultifying fast; her marriage, which she somehow makes real while not telling us things that would hurt it (I hope); her mother and her broken-up marriage and Claire's consequent angst and ambivalent quest for/hatred of security that give the book its appealing backward-forward two-step motion; her rage at being left at home with the babies while her husband works, works, works; her somehow-not-overly-adorable children; her fellow mommies; her own book criticism; her North Seattle baby co-op. And did I mention yoga?

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This is a yoga memoir. Elizabeth Gilbert says so in her blurb, and it's true, though happily in a much more interesting way than that marketing-department phrase makes it sound. I do yoga too, but I couldn't have imagined myself reading a yoga memoir. But Dederer has seen me coming. She doesn't approve of it either. Even as I'm casually draping my hand over the title on the subway, I'm cackling at her description of looking up yoga sutras in the Eastern Spirituality section of her local bookstore, a part of the store she never thought she'd enter. "Now, the teachings of yoga," begins the dusty pamphlet of Patanjali's Yoga Sutras. That "sounded like Don Pardo," she observes. (Remember him? He boomed announcements on SNL and The Price Is Right.) The third sutra reads: "Then pure awareness can abide in its very nature." This, she points out, "seemed unlikely." By the time she's through with the book, she has concluded that reading sutras "was like reading bread, or grass. Impossible."

But even as Dederer deliciously trashes the way people talk about yoga, she somehow manages not to hate the thing itself. On the contrary, her love of yoga, American yoga, in all its weirdness, is the most original part of the book. Unlike all the shameless yet somehow shame-filled young yoga teachers out there intoning appalling Indian poetry at students trapped under blankets at the end of class, Dederer doesn't worry about spiritual authenticity. She's a syncretist, not a purist. She abandons the genius teacher of ashtanga yoga with the impeccable lineage dating back to the Indian "father of modern yoga." She'd rather do yoga in a strip mall with a heavyset woman who chatters about the Laurie Anderson concert she just saw. Dederer does hot yoga and power yoga with 20-year-old cheerleaders and does not object. She takes her insights where she can find them. By the end of the book, she has even given up trying to be "good" at yoga. "The longer I do yoga, the worse I get at it," she says. "I can't tell you what a relief it is."

This brings me to the other big theme in the book: her perfectionism, and how it nearly wrecked her life. Trying to be a good daughter and a good mother consumed a lot of time that should have been spent writing and living and loving lovingly rather than demandingly. This may or may not have hurt her marriage and her children, but it definitely made her unhappy. Since these are the main conflicts of my life too, I devoured with guilty recognition her neurotic quest for the best possible preschool, the best place to live, the slimmest yoga body, and was genuinely moved by her ability ultimately to rise above such nonsense.

And yet—here's my one criticism of the book—at various points she inserts grandiose, clunky assertions about her own perfectionism that sound like they were put in by an editor worried about what to say in the press release, rather than written by Dederer herself. She elevates herself to the status of a generational totem. She is a child of the generation that got divorced in huge numbers in the 1970s, so she's got big questions to ask: "What happens when a generation of children grows up with all these comings and goings; when a generation of children grows up with parents who want to be free, and think freedom is movement?" An obsessive search for security and perfect motherhood is her answer.

But even if this paradigm rings true for Dederer, daughter of a woman who left her husband for a hippie, it's fairly unconvincing as a larger explanation of what causes women today to drop out of the work force and get trapped inside a miserable, compulsive motherhood. Like her, I've spent quality time mashing carrots and waiting outside little-girls' dance classes and taking long solitary walks in an effort to restore the sense of self lost in the clamor of motherhood. I've devoted a lot of time and money to solving the puzzle of my particular craziness in the context of my personal history. But I try not to lose sight of the fact that in addition to my own psychological dysfunction, there are huge social forces working against my being a member of the productive class, and even huger obstacles facing women with fewer resources than I have.

 I've run out of room, so I'll stop pontificating. I'll just say that I'm not asking Claire Dederer to write the updated Room of One's Own. I just think that she shouldn't have strayed into the realm of clinical social analysis. She didn't need to. She's a marvelous writer, and she does more than enough when she helps us to see what being Claire Dederer feels like.

Cheers,
Judith

Judith Shulevitz is a former culture editor of Slate and the author of The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time.