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The Subtle Body: The Story of Yoga in America Paperback – May 24, 2011
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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)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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 --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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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.
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. The trumping of spiritual yoga by the various hatha yoga "studios" has been deplored by such yoga scholars as Dr. Georg Feurstein. This issue is missed by the author.
Of greatest concern, was the oblique conclusion that yoga and western religion are antithetical to one another. Yogis have gone out of their way to show the parallels in the western and eastern paradigms. Certainly, there are differences, but many practitioners of western religion have found ways to assimilate a yoga practice into their lives.
Anyone wishing to understand yoga would do better to read Prabhavananda and Huston Smith's Spiritual Heritage of India. Then go to various centers offering meditation as a main form of yoga and find one with which you are comfortable.
The Subtle Body: The Story of Yoga in America
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I have been a teacher and yoga practitioner for years now.Read more