Yoga in America – a personal story

One of the interesting aspects of Stefanie Syman’s The Subtle Body: The Story of Yoga in America (Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2010) is that each yoga practitioner has a chapter or episode in the book because we are characters in this story. We share the cultural experience and turn to yoga to resolve a personal issue, whether it be physical fitness, mental gymnastics or spiritual discovery.

Photo: yoga class
A wide-legged forward fold or Prasarita Padottanasana

Reading the first chapters, I was reminded of my own encounter with Thoreau, Emerson and their escape from the confines of conventional religious faith in America. In high school, I read Walden and selections of Emerson’s writing, but it was a hard read because as a teenager I was not able to understand all the true historical, social and cultural significance of the Transcendentalists. I was much more attune to local vibs of incense, prayer beads and peasant blouses and my own disconformity with US society than I was to Hindu philosophy.

I also had a real interest in Aldous Huxley and read a lot of his novels and philosophic works. I did not go into his interest in LSD and other hallucinogenics, but his sensitivity to alternative ways of  seeing appealed to me.  My reading of Huxley’s Ends and Means was central to my intellectual growth. Huxley and other British intellectual refugees, like Christopher Isherwoord and Gerald Heard, played a key role in giving yoga a foothold on the West Coast (Chapter 8: Uncovering Reality in Hollywood). Their presence also led into the next chapter, “Psychedelic Sages” — Timothy Leary, Ram Das and the other crazy men of the 196os.

I eventually had a glancing encounter with yoga after I graduated from college, in 1973. I told that story here: How yoga did NOT change my life. I think I actually went to my first yoga class in blue jeans. In any case, I did not get to explore yoga much more because I moved off to Peru a few months after that summer.

The next time that my life intersects with yoga is 30 years later  — in 2004 when I start looking for a way to deal with a series of physical and mental conditions. By then, the Syman story has practically ended, and I was just one of the 11 million (or whatever the figure was) Americans practicing yoga. I think what drew me to yoga was the increasing flow of scientific information about yoga’s health benefits.