Sometimes I observe America as a foreigner, though I’m a pure-bred from the home of the red, white and blue. The feeling is similar to when I visit India. The collective historical, sociological, cultural, and religious experience of its residents remains outside my grasp no matter how often I visit or how long I stay. Echoes of antiquity nuance Indians’ social interactions and their thoughts. A remote past bridges into daily minutiae as a silent puppeteer.
Unspoken subtleties manipulate Americans, too. I tried to figure one out yesterday while reading The NY Times Sunday Book Review of Poser: My Life in Twenty-Three Yoga Poses a memoir by Claire Dederer. Dani Shapiro, the book’s reviewer, described yoga as a “New Age national pastime.” Then goes on, “Let the eye-rolling begin. But what makes “Poser” work on a lot of levels is that first in line to ask searching questions and poke fun is the author herself.” I guess because Ms. Dederer, the author of Poser, pokes fun at herself for doing yoga she, too, presupposes Americans will roll their eyes about the yoga reference of her book.
I assume Americans understand Ms. Dederer need to poke fun of herself, setting herself above her yoga peers, and Ms Shapiro’s elbow jab “I-know-what-you’re-thinking” comment, “Let the eye-rolling begin.” Or do we?
Am I to join others to poke fun at the multibillion dollar fitness industry? Hey, I’m game. I’m with Sandip Roy, who in a recent NPR piece Yoga: A Positively Un-Indian Experience, makes light of American yoga and its commercialism. But if we’re going there, why is yoga such a target? I think we should take a stab at the golf industry. But maybe we don’t do that because of the fine-line distinction between yoga and Zen, the latter enjoying intellectual status with those ignorant of the depth of real yoga (not the American-pose-yoga).
Surely we Americans aren’t scornful of the money made on yoga. Right, of course not.
So do we think there aren’t any health benefits? Maybe 15 million Americans practicing aren’t enough to prove that people find it has value in their lives.
Really, what causes the almost-involuntary reaction to dismiss yoga? Or put another way, What are we dismissive about? Is it yoga’s eastern origins in Hinduism?
That doesn’t seem likely on two counts. First America’s yoga hardly resembles its ancient roots. Yoga is the process to unite with the divine. Yoga poses aren’t a path to God without the whole-life practice and internal journey to God. Additionally there are three other yogas, having nothing to do with poses, that offer viable paths to God.
Another reason why I’m led to doubt that we’re prejudiced against yoga because of its eastern heritage is the fact that Americans, including those of Judeo-Christian ties, have subsumed so much eastern thought into their beliefs. You’d think certain things like reincarnation and karma were always part of America’s collective unconscious.
So, is it that America’s yoga is affiliated with New Age thought? Perhaps we’re getting closer to the cause of cynicism. Certainly there are aspects of New Age thought that are questionable. But buying organic food, a hallmark of New Agers, has gone from obscure hippydom to mainstream marketing strategies for chain grocery stores across the United States. In fact, the November 29, 2010 front cover of Newsweek reads “The Dinner Divide.” The article presents a case for the disparate socio-economic status between those who eat organic and those who don’t. Isn’t it a fact that yoga practitioners also come from the wealthier, well-fed class of society? The Yoga Journal says the median household income of its 1.9 million readers is $84,120. I’m going to venture a guess here and presume Ms. Shapiro wasn’t insinuating that NY Times‘ readers would have a problem with the social distinction of yoga practitioners.
Perhaps some people’s negative knee-jerk reaction to yoga is just a symptom of a slow assimilation process. After all, yoga only has a one-hundred-year history in American society, as Robert Love’s The Great Oom: The Improbable Birth of Yoga in America details. That’s only half the span of our great country’s life.
Of course, the eye rolling issue is simple preoccupation with how we’re perceived by our fellow Americans within the context of “American-normal.” But that’s where I’ve always gotten really lost. Maybe someone can explain to me what’s normal, given that America, and the world, is forever changed by the global sharing of thought.
How much longer are we going to hold onto elitist, malformed prejudice? Let’s judge yoga from a critical assessment of how it came to exist and what its true use is. That will really get some eyes rolling.
Since I enjoy a lively discussion, I’ll write about that next, because, unfortunately, in Dederer’s book Poser, we’re not going to get a look into the broad picture of yoga from India.