Every year Yoga transforms the lives of hundreds of average Americans. But in 2011 a significant number of yogi writers opened up their hearts to reveal their own intimate journey. They chronicled their experience with pen in hand, sharing their challenges, triumphs, and insights along the way through Yoga-inspired memoirs. And it seems that these memoirs are part of growing trend. Yoga and the written word are uniting in new ways, giving readers another avenue to explore their own practice: memoirs that relate a journey of overcoming fears, shifting perceptions and making the ultimate transformation towards a more enlightened relationship with the self and the world; stories that reflect our own journeys.
Yoga has a knack for finding its way into our lives at pivotal moments; like the book your neighbor lends you that you hesitate to crack open but once you do, it changes your life forever. Yoga crosses the paths of memoirists with auspicious serendipity, inviting them to stare their most formidable enemy straight in the face: fear. These writers all saw fear, came so close they could smell it. Armed with Yoga mats, they stepped forward on to the path of unknown: paved with self-doubt, imperfection and uncertainty and began their journeys.
Claire Dederer, author of Poser, My Life in Twenty-Three Yoga Poses, found Yoga when nursing her baby daughter caused her back pain so severe that she couldn’t even sit straight in a chair. At the urging of everyone from her doctor to her neighborhood grocery checker, she sought out Yoga simply to end the pain. Dederer ventured past her initial apprehensions and the practice became easier, more comfortable. She embraced all that seemed to accompany being a yogi: the gear, the look, the peaceful approach to life. Yet surprisingly, a mountain of self-exploration lay ahead, “I did Yoga because of an idea I had of who I wanted to be: serene, fit, spiritual. I bought a pair of Yoga pants and grew my hair longer so it would stay in a ponytail…I did Yoga, and I was a mess. The Yoga was supposed to reveal me as perfect, and instead it did nothing but reveal my deepest weakness.”
It’s natural to step away (or run like mad) from this kind of discomfort. For those who keep on, as Dederer did, there is no choice but to come face to face with one’s taunting weaknesses. She found herself having relationships with the poses that led to conversations; sometimes angry and frustrated and other times emotional. Pen in hand she worked through these conversations and musings, which eventually evolved into a memoir that is honest, funny and real.
Suzanne Morrison, author of Yoga Bitch, hesitated to even admit her fears. In search of inner peace, she begins her practice in Seattle. Dazzled by the outward appearance of serenity her teachers exuded, Morrison joins them for a 200 hour Yoga teacher training in Bali. She hopes her teachers will teach her “how to live.” Still, she struggles to embrace a yogic lifestyle, questioning everything from her teachers’ approach to chanting, to their strict adjustments and holistic remedies for Balinese maladies (which include drinking one’s own urine!). Indra, Morrison’s yoga instructor, interprets her refusal to fully accept their teachings as a deep rooted fear and calls her out, “You see death everywhere you look, so you’re afraid to act…You look ahead and see traps and pitfalls, you look behind and you see loss and death.”
Morrison considers dropping out of the program, leaving Bali, and returning home to the comfort of her family, cigarettes, and all that is familiar. Yet, she stays, journaling her way through the days of asana, meditation, and contradictions. With each entry she comes a tiny bit closer to uncovering the core of her true self. Eventually, the journal she keeps becomes the backbone of Yoga Bitch, a laugh-out-loud hilarious account of her adventure in self-discovery in a foreign land. While few readers can relate to the outrageous lengths she must undergo to maintain health in Bali, many yogis can empathize with the major life questions she tackles on the mat.
Witer Bruce Black felt so sure of the usefulness of the pen while sorting through the well-spring of emotions that meet yogis on the mat, he wrote Writing Yoga, a book to guide readers through the art of keeping a practice journal. Black first took up Yoga at the urging of his wife as an alternative to running, a fitness routine that was taking a toll on his body. Black found his work on the mat to be both meditative and challenging. In Writing Yoga, he shares his confrontations with darker emotions, “This uncertainty, this new fear, was an unexpected gift. It forced me to look deeper inside myself for support. Each time I felt anxious or nervous, I had to listen harder to my inner voice—the one that was warning me to be careful, suggesting that I might be taking too great a risk—and evaluate it.”
With regular practice and considerable patience Black learned to listen to his inner voice with such attention that he was able to decipher the difference between his “alarmist’s voice” and his true voice. Journaling played a significant role in guiding him through that learning curve and to this deeper understanding of his inner voice. Writing Yoga is an insightful and beautiful guide for both beginners and long-time yogis. His writing exercises encourage yogis to dig inward, using our experiences on the mat as a basis for overcoming fear and understanding the blocks we encounter every day.
Yogi and teacher, Michele Hérbert, left her home and community in San Francisco in the 1970s to embark on a spiritual journey with her guru, Walt Baptiste. In her book, The Tenth Door, Hérbert recounts the many events that led her make such a brave leap followed by a period of rapid spiritual growth. The heart of her experience occurrs in the jungles of El Salvador where she studies with Baptiste. A surprise turn of events leaves her in charge of his retreat center with very specific instructions for the care of the land and her body and soul. Hours of Yoga practice and meditation in solitude lead her to a profound realization, “Through these intense periods of practice, I came to see that each moment truly is a crossroads…It was my choice to buy into the tricks of my mind or to practice staying present and conscious with each passing instant, each passing thought. Which way does thou goest? Here, on my own, I would have to continually choose.”
The transformation that matured while Hérbert studied in near isolation brought her closer to intuition and consciousness. Though she published her memoir earlier this year, more than three decades after her experience in South America, it is a story no less pertinent or compelling. It is a tale of personal strength in the face of doubt, conflict and fear to which many yogis can relate.
Dayna Macy’s book, Ravenous, is an exploration of the author’s obsessive relationship with food. In her quest to understand her compulsive food choices, she seeks the council of food gurus and artisans. Each encounter gives her further insight to her physical and emotional connections with her favorite bites. It isn’t until she takes on a strict Yoga routine that she becomes intimately aware that “we continue to act and think in habitual ways, without ever really challenging these patterns, they become a part of us, making it difficult for us to behave or think differently. The only way to get out of the rut is through diligent practice and attention.”
Macy’s investigation over the course of a year teaches her that the connection between body and mind is an intrinsic one; each relying on the other for wellness. Also, continuous care and action nurture the growth of this connection. While often light-hearted, her memoir shares insecurities that are familiar to many readers.
This year has brought yogi readers beautiful, funny, raw and real experiences that reflect our own inner journeys. We want to read stories that tell us we are not crazy, that other yogis have felt similar emotions, have encountered blocks just as challenging. We want to hear from people just like us. We want to laugh and cry a little along the way. These recent memoirs allow us to connect to voices that sound like ours; real voices that share relatable fears.
With luck 2012 will bring us more inspiring stories of strength, spiritual growth and transformation that reflect our own inner journeys–stories we can laugh with, cry with and connect to; stories that may lead us to find that the yogic experience is very much a universal human experience.
Yoga isn’t just flooding the world of memoir. It has crept into popular fiction in the form of light-hearted and funny reads to accompany you on your holiday vacation.
Rain Mitchell’s novel, Tales from the Yoga Studio takes place in a fictional Silverlake studio where a familiar cast of yoginis meet to share their practice and their lives. Mitchell warmly pokes fun at stereotypes frequent Yoga goers come to know while crafting complex characters that must navigate through depression, betrayal, friendships and loyalty.
Downward Dog, Upward Fog follows the fast-paced life of thirty-three-year-old Lorna, a career-minded woman who begins to explore her inner workings with the help of Yoga and a few enlightened characters. Author Meryl Davids Landau intimately acquaints the reader with Lorna’s demons as she wrestles with a disconnected boyfriend, meaningless job, and family trauma.
Light and playful, Yoga chick lit is a budding trend in fiction in which readers journey along with characters as they learn key truths about the world, others and most importantly, themselves.
Jazmine Green teaches yoga at the Yoga place in Downtown and Yogala in Echo Park. www.jazminegreen.com