As anyone who's practiced yoga in a studio abutting an Arby's can attest, the ancient Indian tradition has hit the big time in the United States. Yoga is a $5.7 billion global industry, with an estimated 15 million Americans professing to some sort of yoga practice (though that number looks awfully low to me). And since the 2006 publication of Elizabeth Gilbert's blockbuster memoir Eat, Pray, Love, another trend has surfaced: the profusion of searching first-person narratives of yogic self-betterment. (In case you're one of the five people who hasn't read or seen Eat, Pray, Love, the basic gist is: Successful but unfulfilled thirtysomething writer chucks it all, marriage included, and travels the world to reclaim lost joie de vivre, spirituality, and so on. Revelations ensue.)
Even in their modern incarnation, confessional yoga-themed memoirs have a longer history than Elizabeth Gilbert's conjugal unhappiness. Three years before Eat, Pray, Love, the actress Mariel Hemingway published the turgid Finding My Balance: A Memoir with Yoga, which pairs the formative events of her past with favorite poses from her yoga practice. ("Today is the day after the horrifying terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. … I feel the grief and shock through all my body as I stand here in Mountain pose.") In 2005 there was Lucy Edge's Yoga School Dropout, which chronicles, in rather exhaustive detail, the ashram-hopping adventures of a former London ad exec who goes to India in search of enlightenment, the perfect yoga butt, or at the very least a husband.
Still, it's only in the last year that the fusion of these two trends—the mainstreaming of yoga culture on the one hand, and the Gilbertian journey of self-discovery on the other—has reached its peak. Since last summer, around the same time Libby Copeland wrote a piece for Double Xabout literary agents being flooded by pitches for the next Eat, Pray, Love, we've seen the debut of a yoga-themed chick-lit series, Rain Mitchell's Tales from the Yoga Studio, as well as a whopping three different yoga memoirs, or yogoirs, or yogalogues, or whatever you want to call this brand-new sub-sub-genre of books about how finding yoga can provide a fast track to finding oneself. The yogic Bildungsroman maybe?
The latest entry to the field, released earlier this month, Suzanne Morrison's Yoga Bitch: One Woman's Quest to Conquer Skepticism, Cynicism, and Cigarettes on the Path to Enlightenment, alternates between diary excerpts from the author's post-9/11 trip to a yoga-teacher certification course in Bali, and reflections on how that experience has shaped her in the intervening decade. Morrison is a funny and engaging writer, at once sincere about her spiritual aspirations and aware of all the clichés they entail:
When people visit my house they will say, She is a world traveler. She is worldly. She has exceptional taste in phallic sandalwood sculptures. She doesn't just go on vacations: she goes on sacred vacations.
Her writing about the unexpectedly competitive nature of yoga culture is likewise strong, but, alas, many of Morrison's narrative devices—namely, her "kundalini experience" and the envy it inspires among her peers; the ineffable horror of pee-drinking; and the author's growing doubts about her entirely off-screen boyfriend back home—fell short on the drama. And when the book ends, like so many Sex and the City episodes, not with Morrison uncovering some deep spiritual truth but rather (spoiler alert!) with her finding the right man, this reader could only sigh in disappointment.
A different breed of yogoir is Neal Pollack's Stretch: The Unlikely Making of a Yoga Dude, the story of a thickening, balding narcissist's unexpected love affair with yoga, and the lengths he'll go to get his fix. Stretch is less about Pollack's own transformation into a "yoga dude"—this takes place fairly early on in the book—than an exploration of the modern industrial yoga complex at its most wackazoid. (Think a 24-hour yogathon, jam-band-accompanied yoga classes, and the very-L.A. international yoga championships, the last transposed almost verbatim from a story Pollack wrote for Slate.) Pollack tries hard, often too hard, to appeal to the dude contingent, serving up description after description of his own disgustingness, à la "[b]ending forward over my knees, I caught the faint and unpleasant whiff of my own ass." But if he occasionally favors cheap humor over original insights, Pollack's passion for yoga is winning, and the passages about yoga's addictive qualities were enough to make me want to unroll my mat again.
Still, it's Claire Dederer's Poser: My Life in Twenty-Three Poses, already the subject of a Slate book club, that gets my nomination for the year's best yoga memoir. Poser follows a more artful variation on Mariel Hemingway's structure, with each chapter linking a pose to a period in Dederer's life. Her discovery of yoga just over a decade ago provides a useful conduit for the crisis Dederer underwent in her early 30s, when after a wayward decade she found herself strapped with two young children, a depressive husband, intrusive parents and in-laws, and not enough money. There are no round-the-world journeys of self-discovery in Poser and only a glancing attempt to make sense of the sacred Hindu texts that seem to have so little bearing on the yoga practiced in strip malls across the country today. Dederer keeps on showing up at her neighborhood yoga studio because she likes it, and because on some amorphous level she believes it will improve her:
I didn't believe in the infinite or in the energy of the sun and the moon. I didn't believe that saying "om" connected me to anything outside myself. More than that: I didn't care. … But. There was this idea that yoga was going to make me better. Maybe it already was, just a bit. Calmer. More grounded. Less afraid. So I chanted and posed and sat. I carried on as I had begun: What the hell. Maybe some of it would take.
All very relatable and good, like much else in the Poser. But. As in the other two books, I was less interested in these asana reflections than in Dederer's own fascinating life history: from her parents' breakup in the early 1970s to the turn-of-the-millennium culture of OCD-parenting that defined her early years as a parent.
And that is my baseline complaint about all these books: The yoga theme seemed, if you will, overstretched at times. Despite having intermittently practiced yoga for exactly a decade myself, I did get pretty tired of all the "yogic" revelations dropped into these books as if by editorial fiat (Morrison's out-of-body experience during meditation; Pollack's euphoric downward-dogging on a beach in Santa Barbara; Dederer's teary flashback to her daughter's horrible, horrible first few months of life in cobbler pose). I wondered, too, if elevating spiritual transformation into a mass-market paperback might just be harder than Elizabeth Gilbert makes it look. To judge by the sales figures—according to Nielsen BookScan, Poser hovers around the 20,000-copy mark, while Stretch hasn't yet breached 3,000—these books aren't doing much to revive publishing's flagging fortunes. Eat, Pray, Love still reigns supreme.
Contemporary U.S. yoga culture readily encourages self-reflection in its adherents—and a good thing, too. But as a narrative device, the leap from mat to matters of the heart just seems too obvious somehow. Now, a really searing Pilates memoir, that's something I'd like to read.