The Subtle Body
Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux
FTC disclosure: Impulse buy.
The subtle body describes a network of channels (nadis) and wheel-like vortices (chakras). These are invisible to the naked eye and even the microscope; the subtle body is distinct from the gross or physical body, though manipulating one necessarily affects the other. –p. 5
Overall, I found this to be a fascinating story. However, I think it was unnecessarily bogged down with minutiae (the author spent an entire page talking about the World’s Fair, which really had no bearing on the story) and at the same time, it glossed over certain things that would have enhanced my understanding (for example, what exactly is the difference between a guru, a swami, and a sri?). And I’m still confused about all of the different types of yoga.
Instead of telling the history of yoga in America, I think the author chose well-known and/or exotic figures and focused a chapter on each of these people. There was little attention given to the actual practice of yoga by the common people (that’s my term…I felt, at times, like I was reading The History of Yoga as Practiced by Famous People). Here’s a brief synopsis of each chapter to illustrate what I’m getting at:
Chapter 1: Brahma?: Ralph Waldo Emerson was into studying the East, and it influenced his writing. His poem Brahma reflects this influence, and some argue that it is a summary of Indian philosophy and yoga. There is a lot of description of the Bhagavad-Gita in this chapter, and it made my head spin. Also, I will confess that I totally bogged down and put the book down for about a month. After I picked it back up, it still took me about 3 or 4 chapters to really get into the writing.
Chapter 2: Thoreau’s Experiment: The author argues that Thoreau was the first American yogi. He might not have been going about it correctly, but he had good intentions.
Chapter 3: The Guru Arrives: Swami Vivekananda arrives in the US, and teaches classes on the nature of God, as well as yoga, at Green Acre, a spiritual retreat founded by Sara Chapman Bull and Sarah Jane Farmer. Vivekananda’s Raja Yoga was all about breathing and meditation…he considered it a “scientific method to quell the fluctuations of the mind and thereby see God.” –p. 55
Chapter 4: Swami Vivekananda’s Legacy: In a nutshell, Hatha Yoga (which teaches asanas, or poses) was bad. Raja Yoga was more mental, while the physicality of Hatha Yoga was frightening to many people. This idea of Hatha Yoga as unacceptable would linger for many years. There was also the idea that yoga in general was a fad that women embraced that led to instability and madness.
Chapter 5: The Making of an American Guru: Along comes Pierre Bernard, who is heavily involved in Tantric Yoga, and who also founds many clubs and studios that are all plagued by raids (the persistent idea that yoga is licentious led suspicious minds to often call the cops).
Chapter 6: Theos Bernard’s Spiritual Heroism: Theos was Pierre’s half-nephew, although the two weren’t especially close. Theos travelled to India, wrote his dissertation on yoga, and wrote a few popular books on yoga and his experiences in India (unfortunately, one of them was made up). Theos was bound and determined to popularize Hatha Yoga. Unfortunately, his marriage to a wealthy socialite made him tabloid fodder and ultimately hurt his cause.
Chapter 7: Margaret Woodrow Wilson “Turns Hindu”: For reals. The daughter of Woodrow Wilson actually moved to an ashram in India, where she spent her final years.
Chapter 8: Uncovering Reality in Hollywood: Aldous Huxley pops up in this chapter, along with Greta Garbo and Somerset Maugham. It’s yoga does Hollywood.
Chapter 9: Hatha Yoga on Sunset Boulevard: Still in Hollywood. Indra Devi shows up in town, and teaches Hatha Yoga to movie stars as a way to keep tone and trim. Gloria Swanson was a big fan. The author states that Devi made the word yoga “mean what will least offend her audience.” –p. 192
Chapter 10: Psychedelic Sages: Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and Transcendental Meditation. Or, the Beatles turn into hippies. Also, Timothy Leary turns on, tunes in and drops out. Or, skip the yoga, take drugs and whammo, instant oneness with god. Except then Leary’s buddy Richard Alpert traded in the drugs for yoga and became Ram Dass.
Chapter 11: How to Be a Guru without Really Trying: Yoga becomes “just another American pastime.” –p. 237 You know, kind of like aerobics. B.K.S. Iyengar becomes popular, as he emphasizes poses and praniyama (breathing). Meditation and chanting were strictly forbidden.
Chapter 12: Marshmallow Yoga: Once again, yoga and eastern spirituality comes under attack. There’s even mention of the Rajneeshpuram scandal, which occurred near the little podunk town that I lived in as a small child. Yoga devolves to marshmallow yoga, where “You sort of lie on the floor and exhale a whole lot and it’s good for puffy ladies.” –p. 267
Chapter 13: The New Penitents: And then we come to the final chapter, in which Bikram yoga is explained, and Sri K. Pattabhi Jois and Ashtanga yoga is introduced, and I pretty much ended just as confused as I started. Sure, I learned some stuff, but now there’s all this other stuff floating around in my brain, and I somehow ended up with just as many questions as when I started.