Cover Art: ©Chris Silas Neal and FSG
my life in twenty-three yoga poses
BY MAGAZINE EDITOR SUSAN MAIER-MOUL
Taking up yoga in the middle of your life is like having someone hand you a dossier about yourself.
A dossier of information you’re not sure you really want.
Sometimes a movie or a TV show is enough of a sensation that there’s a reverse engineering moment in media-making land, and a novelization is written. A ghost writer transforms the screen version from shooting script to book format, because the audience wants more.
There’s a big market for the gaps in the story, especially if the characters are compelling.
Claire Dederer’s Poser is a little like that, a memoir with a through-line borrowed from a ubiquitous aspect of contemporary mainstream American life: the urban, the suburban, the small town yoga studio. And ultimately, Poser is a book that ends up mattering because it tells the stories that fall outside the condoned narrative.
By condoned, I mean the part that made it into the movie, the part that everyone who’s a yoga teacher or who loves their yoga class gets all up in their namaste just thinking about, and I’m saying with admiration, that’s not the part that turns up in Dederer’s spiritual adventure.
What do women want women to want?
Poser is the finely rendered over-seventy-percent-of-people-who-practice-yoga-are- women context of practice, the what does that have to do with it? detail that is left on the cutting room floor when “the story of yoga” is shined up and turned into history.
In an important way the main subject of Poser is not yoga at all but growing up, female, educated and middle class, and what that means you are allowed to do with your life, according to your peers.
In the mid 20th century, Joanna Russ wrote a classic of literary criticism, How to Suppress Women’s Writing. Its language might seem a bit dated, but its currency is unerring in its depiction of the difficulty women face in the critical and popular reception of their efforts, namely, legitimating it.
Russ tells us one way to suppress women’s writing is to complain, loudly, “But look what she wrote about.” It’s what critics said about Sally Mann when she gave us the uncomfortable and gorgeous power of Immediate Family. It’s what they said about Sharon Olds when she wrote poetry about sex with her husband.
Mann and Olds, like many other artists, were criticized for being women who dared to deem their very own ordinary lives valuable enough to form the basis of their creative output.
Children. One’s spouse. One’s body.
Yoga for me was an attempt to fix something that was wrong with me. This anxiety that I didn’t understand, that seemed to come from nowhere.
For Lisa, yoga was a flight, out of the house and into the world. She was good at it and she thrilled to it. Lisa, with her competence and her children and her collection of cookbooks, was not a mother at yoga. She was something else.
She found this experience – of being a body in space; of being a character in the drama of a studio class; of becoming a yogi, a word she used freely – irresistible.
How could home compare with being at yoga?
Life in the om lane
Dederer has dared to write about her everyday life, not about running a company as she raises children, and not about going to a foreign island or continent to lend a hand in a crisis.
In this Poser is, in an odd way, a work of cultural anthropology no less valuable than Joseph Alter’s work about yoga in India. It says, let’s not talk about what texts and philosophers say is practice, let’s go see what people are actually doing.
Dederer’s answer? Posing.
It’s kind of interesting don’t you think? I had learned that what I wanted was to live in a place where I could, sometimes, practice being more real and less perfect.
And here I was, as if by magic, in the place where the shit hit the fan and then everyone pretended it wasn’t really happening. I was getting a second chance.
Jane Austen wearing Lululemon
There’s a certain kind of woman who is going to feel criticized by this book, and a certain kind who is going to feel superior to it, and please, do not imagine these are mutually exclusive. I felt myself in both positions, irritated, exasperated and hurt as I read it.
What compelled me to go on reading Claire Dederer’s just plain old good writing was her self effacing admission that she felt the same way. The feeling I got when I read it was the one she built it to give me.
When reviewers opine, as some have, that Dederer’s trope is too clever, it’s more likely they mean it isn’t heroic enough. If you’re going to have the temerity to write a book about your life, heroic is what is demanded by the public, a kind of generalizing that leads our eyes upward to glory.
What we want from our fantasies, our stories, our memoirs, yes especially our histories, is validation.
The truth is nothing, not even the epic, is going to reclaim us from our small minds and our trivial agendas, except the personal recognition that we have been: cold, and small.
When Dederer realizes the barfing incident she and her brother have laughed at their whole lives while making fun of their seventies mom is not only childish, it’s cruel, a kind of moral reckoning occurs. There’s no epic resolution, only the subtle painful development of character:
But there is another story, too: the story of my mother building the fire, setting the coffee table, making the dinner, turning the lamps down, inviting the children into the living room for a special evening, a special treat.
When I think about this story, the story of my mom in the gray house on Manitou Beach trying to make something new and pleasant and fun, my heart breaks a little.
Pray, love, remember
The motif of the postures that winds through it all, postures and modifications, drift and signal like Ophelia’s recitation of flowers. Instead of drowning, though, Dederer turns the trope on its side to watch the wheels spin. Meaning arrives not via the gods or the story arc, but by the engaged living of life.
The everyday life of raising children, making a relationship work, and dealing with her past renders Dederer a yogic kind of freedom: the release of form from its enslavement to human distortion and the imperfect idea of perfection.
We were going home because we wanted to.
We had located our faculties of desire.
We were not going home in order to be good or to do the right thing. We were going home because we felt like it.
And amazingly, this feeling, the feeling of doing exactly what we wanted, imbued the trip with a profound sense of adventure.
It’s an easy sensation to ridicule; it’s easy to parse it as self absorbed. The truth is, though, that almost anyone will be a better human being if they understand what they want.
Almost anyone will be a better human being when they stop projecting what they want into the fantasy of it being something they have to do because it’s good, or it’s right, or it’s how everyone should be.
Ultimately, practice that results in “locating the faculties of our desire” is practice that leads to self observation instead of self criticism and its endless life-sucking dissatisfaction with everything around us.
I thought I would do yoga all my life, and I thought that I would continue to improve at it, that I would penetrate its deepest mysteries and finally be able to perform a transition from scorpion directly into chaturanga.
But here’s the truth: The longer I do yoga, the worse I get at it.
I can’t tell you what a relief it is.
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© 2011, The Magazine of Yoga, LLC.