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The Subtle Body: The Story of Yoga in America Hardcover – June 22, 2010

16 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Yoga conquers America—and is conquered in its turn—in this labyrinthine cultural history. Journalist Syman traces American enthusiasm for yoga back to Thoreau and follows it through cycles of waxing and waning popularity: it was decried by Victorians for its association with madness and tantric sex rituals, celebrated in the 1960s for its association with altered states of consciousness (and tantric sex rituals), and ubiquitously embraced in the 21st century as a wholesome, anodyne exercise program. The author argues that, even as the om-chanting adept became the embodiment of spirituality, yoga's mainstreaming risked the discipline losing its rich spiritual content, along with the more extreme contortions, regular enemas, and whatever else Americans considered off-putting. Unfortunately, the author's attempts to clarify yoga's spiritual content, which is multifarious and intractably murky, don't always succeed, and sometimes the narrative bogs down amid barnstorming swamis and their squabbling sects. When she pulls back to view the culture mashup yoga has become—a cure for back pain, a beauty regime, and a route to God—she gives a cogent, engrossing analysis of this Asian-born spiritual practice turned all-American panacea. 8 pages of b&w illus. (June)
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From Booklist

Syman begins her embracive and illuminating history of yoga in America by discussing how polymorphous a practice yoga has become. From an age-old spiritual tradition in India designed to enable disciples to gain mastery over their bodies to attain the divine, yoga has morphed over the last century and a half into a form of exercise so mainstream, people performed yoga poses on the White House lawn during Easter celebrations—a sight no one would have imagined when yoga first scandalized Americans with its frank approach to every aspect of physical life, from breathing to sex. From Thoreau, the first American yogi, to the earliest yogis from India in America, including the influential Swami Vivekananda who arrived in 1893, Syman profiles a great array of colorful yogis and yoga teachers while chronicling with remarkable knowledge and wit all the permutations yoga has undergone. Of particular pleasure and discovery are Syman's coverage of yoga in Hollywood, the profound social changes propelling the union of yoga and psychedelics in the hippie era, and the yoga for success of more recent vintage. --Donna Seaman

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; First Edition edition (June 22, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0374236763
  • ISBN-13: 978-0374236762
  • Product Dimensions: 6.3 x 1.4 x 9.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (16 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #852,535 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

32 of 37 people found the following review helpful By A. Jones on September 9, 2010
Format: Hardcover
A fascinating, exceptionally well written book about the history of yoga in America. Well researched and referenced (reads almost like a doctoral dissertation). It's major weakness is the complete lack of proportion between the historic importance of various characters and the amount of text devoted to them. Obscure and relatively irrelevant characters (e.g., Margaret Woodrow Wilson) get far more page time than T.Krishnamacharya and BKS Iyengar. How is this possible? Many of the interesting and influential teachers of the past 30 years are not even mentioned. Many of the distinct styles of Hatha Yoga are not even mentioned. It's almost as though the author ran out of time or steam when she reached 1980. Also, having referenced so many interesting but obscure old documents, the author would have been wise to provide more pictures.
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42 of 52 people found the following review helpful By Rickter on August 31, 2010
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Having been a student, practitioner, and teacher of yoga for the past 35 years, it was with some positive anticipation that I began reading The Subtle Body. Unfortunately, when I completed the book my first thought was that if I knew nothing about yoga, this book would make sure that I never pursued any form of yoga in the future. Yogis were a pretty weird and suspicious group as described in the book.

The author should be praised for amassing a substantial number of references. However, the errors and omissions in the book would keep me from recommending it to others. For some reason, the author chose to develop individual chapters of the book to the Bernards while only mentioning Paramahansa Yogananda in passing. My view of Swami Prahbavananda, based on reading his books and discussing him with a Nun who knew him was that he was of the highest intellect and morality. In this book he comes off as a chain smoking guy who had some conversations with Isherwood and Huxley.

Certainly, the numerous controversies in which some yogis were involved deserved mentioning. However, the positive aspects of many of the yoga masters described were downplayed or left out. For instance, Muktananda's Siddha Yoga is discussed in terms of Durgananda who left Siddha Yoga on good terms. No mention was made of the several other substantial SY swamis who have maintained their work within the organization.

Of considerable concern is the failure to discuss yoga philosophy and psychology which some feel trump that found in the west. Their is little discussion, if any, of the title of the book. The subtle body needs much more clarification or it seems like some silly fantasy.
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25 of 30 people found the following review helpful By J. owen on August 13, 2010
Format: Hardcover
This is a book I've wanted to see for a long time. The subject of yoga culture and teachers was central to my own life from the 60's through the 90's. I think many of you old yogis and ashramites will enjoy this book. Despite many flaws, it is entertaining.

As a book of history, this has much interesting research into the early days of American yoga thinkers and teachers. I thought the focus on Pierre Bernard was excessive compared to other teachers and Gurus (Yogananda seemed marginalized by comparison). The focus also seems very heavy on tantra and sexual scandal, which to me seemed to be there to sell more books.

The later years of yoga fly by very quickly and Ms Syman seems to prefer the media shock value and scandal of the Gurus of the 60's through 80's and miss less dramatic but important developments of the various yoga/meditation movements. I'm tired of the Beatles/Maharishi connection seeming to be the center of Mahesh's career. There Was life after the Beatles for the TM movement

This book is strong on history and source referencing but weak on cultural analysis and makes many bizarre connections. I'm sorry, but I think this person should stick to being a reporter, not an analyst.

I guarantee its worth going over to U-tube to see Elvis sing "Yoga is as yoga does', a gem of a very bad song that Stefanie mentions when citing the media dumbing down and whitewashing of yoga.

So, enjoy it. Take with a grain of NaCl.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Patrice D on October 25, 2011
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
As a New Yorker who was first introduced to yoga in grade school Phys Ed in the 70s, this book shed light on my own experience and the evolution I have witnessed since learning my first pose. The information is superbly researched and the words beautifully chosen. It is a reader's book and most enjoyable.

What was most interesting to me was the perspective provided about the "overnight sensation" that is the yoga we can now find all around us. The book shares details of the struggle that yoga, or any ideas new to our culture, experiences when hoping to be understood whether it source is a person, a people or a concept. It shares with us vital happenings in the history of yoga within the societal context that shapes the events and the people making those events happen. It delivers what is promised by showing us, not a encyclopedic detailing of events, but how the subtle body of America interacted over time with the subtle body that was becoming the cultural concept of yoga we have today. Here in America, we make things that seek acceptance into our culture our own before embracing it, Ms. Syman taught me that we did nothing less with yoga.

I would recommend this book to anyone who enjoys reading and words. And specifically to those working today to have energy healing techniques understood more fully. The book will help you see that each leg of work is important even if the goal takes more than one generation.
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