I’ve finished reading Stefanie Syman’s The Subtle Body: The Story of Yoga in America, but I am going to stretch my comments about the book over several entries because it’s a bit daunting to tackle them all in one sitting.
First off, I am very sympathetic to Syman’s task as a journalist-writer with a strong historical bent. When I was writing non-journalism material in Peru, I was always wrestling with themes that required you to tap into historical sources and combine them with more current sources, like interviews, eye-witness accounts, breaking news, etc. Syman is working on a story line that starts in the 1840s and ends 160 years later. The first half of the book, she’s dealing with almost exclusively archival or bibliographical materials, as well as a historical context that has already been defined. In a sense, it’s actually easier to tell that narrative because there is no competing story line. Syman could pinpoint chronological instances when yoga underwent a dramatic shift: Emerson’s poem on the Brahma, Thoreau’s personal inquiry into meditation at Walden Pond, the arrival of Vivekananda in the United States or the Parliament of the World’s Religion in 1893. This part of the book is more history told with a journalistic knack for story telling.
On the other hand, as the tale moves into the 20th century, Syman has to narrow the narrative options because there are just too many paths, too much information, too many sources, plus her own interviews and eyewitness accounts. To make her story compelling and manageable, she has to choose to follow one or two paths through a chapter. Towards the end, by the 10th chapter on psychedelic sages (Timothy Leary, Ram Dass), I sensed that the centrifugal pull was forcing her to make more arbitrary choices, to impose order on a teaming cauldron of personal stories, pop psychology, new wave journalism, archival research and gossip column tidbits. By then, yoga had split into multiple streams that were diverted into new geographical regions, new segments of the population.
I know where she’s coming from. A writer’s most difficult task is weeding out the extraneous, the vivid details that distract, the historical sidetracks. For the most part, I think Syman’s pulled it off admirably. By the end of the book, you get the feeling that in the flow of events from the Ganges to the Hudson, yoga did not end up being such an alien substance; it could bend and flex with the American persona until they became intertwined.
One point that I believe Syman missed or did not have time to explore was the influence that the simultaneous arrival of Buddhism had as a moderating, softening factor on the austere messengers of hatha yoga and Hindi religiosity. The infusion of mindfulness in the America scene made yoga more palatable. Yoga was not just weird postures, but a physical extension of a contemplative practice.