Photo: Sarma Ozols
The co-founder of FEED magazine and author of The Subtle Body takes time out from her new venture to talk booms: technology and yoga
BY MAGAZINE EDITOR SUSAN MAIER-MOUL
Website FEED Archives
Related post Stephanie Syman, Part Two
As someone who began consulting in content development and design in 1998 around the same time I began to practice yoga, I was curious about Stefanie Syman’s work and career path. If you had anything internet going on back in the day, then FEED magazine was on your radar screen as a wickedly smart and funkily creative think tank-y project run by young culture entrepreneurs.
It was a great pleasure then to encounter The Subtle Body last summer, to read Syman’s Story of Yoga in America and to follow her mind at work on a problem that interested me.
The Subtle Body will be released in paperback May 24th.
Parallel paths: internet startup and trying out a practice
Susan Maier-Moul I thought we might begin by talking about your very interesting background as the founder of FEED in 1995 which coincidentally or not is when you began practicing yoga, do you want to talk about that?
Stefanie Syman You’re putting your finger on something really relevant which is that not only did I start those things at almost exactly the same moment, within weeks of each other, there were these interesting parallels between the two. And at first those two sub cultures were on exactly parallel tracks and not meeting at all.
So I had this life in the Internet world—running around to all those launch parties where the entrepreneurs would hover around the hors d’oeuvres table and the VC guys would swarm around trying to pick out which of these kids might be worth anything – and the whole thing was shot through with that rah rah energy of the first Internet boom, the amazing energy of young people getting to play at being taken seriously probably well before they should have been.
Also, the rewarding experience of running FEED for six years, which was really just one of the most fun times of my life, professionally.
There were so many great writers that we were working with early in their careers.
Susan It’s insane when you look at who was there. It’s mind blowing to me.
Stefanie James Ryerson was an editor at FEED way back in the day; he just did the introduction to the Foster Wallace thesis published by Columbia University Press.
Susan Clay Shirky, Alex Ross.
Stefanie Sam Lipsyte, Chris Kenneally, who’s already had one great book and another on the way, and Amanda Griscom who is now Amanda Little, and Kathryn Schulz who wrote Being Wrong which came out last year and did fantastically.
And then there are people whose careers are kind of starting to creep up, who were late contributors to FEED, relatively, who wrote maybe one or two pieces for us before we shut down, and now, their careers are blossoming. It’s really wonderful to watch.
So that was all going on and very exciting, and I was practicing yoga.
At the beginning of FEED when I would tell people I was practicing yoga I would get funny looks. I was definitely weird, no question, in the internet world.
Within a few years however, not only did I stop getting funny looks, I found that people were showing up in the studio who were in the FEED community who had been, I wouldn’t say outright disdainful, but who had been at the very least perplexed by yoga.
So it was an amazingly fast explosion—a yoga boom—that really drew people to the practice.
Most of that traffic started before 9/11. I started thinking about the book in 2002, after having watched that boomlet. I had clearly witnessed a round of assimilation in a matter of five years. But that didn’t really fully account for yoga’s popularity. I knew, even not having done a shred of research, that didn’t explain it very well.
Make room for yourself in the work that matters to you
Susan My favorite definition of power is from Carolyn Heilbrun, have you heard of her?
Susan Well, you’re young, she would have been trending before you were interested in that sort of question.
Stefanie I love that you think I’m young!
Susan Didn’t you just have a baby last year?
Stefanie My second.
Susan Congratulations! Well, I turned 52 this year.
Stefanie So there’s a ten year span between us. Congratulations on 50!
Susan It’s a good ten years too. Turning 50 is everything they say it is.
Stefanie It seems like it. I feel like my 40s are way better than my 30s already.
Susan So Carolyn Heilbrun says, “Power is the ability to take one’s place in whatever discourse is essential to action and the right to have one’s part matter.”
I think of her because I like your description of your career as being able to take your place in conversation that mattered to you – by means of your ingenuity, by means of your intelligence, and by means of a group collective and technology – having what you wanted to say count.
Stefanie Yes. It’s kind of interesting how that all works. I think you put your finger on a lot of reasons. Part of it was, and I see this again and again, we—that is us then young Gen Xers– hit on and embraced digital media early enough so that we were seeing – and were looked to, to understand – where it was going and how to use it, and what it was all about.
Young people are usually in that role, now we see it with facebook and Twitter and all the social media. Not without ambivalence of course.
But our arrogance was checked to a small degree. I and my fellow FEED editors had clearly literary ambitions, which meant that we necessarily respected and admired the American literary tradition, both the authors (start with Hawthorne and Emerson and keep going) and the magazines and journals that published them (The Atlantic, The New Yorker, The Paris Review etc.); even if we were kind of snotty about it at the time, it was the lineage we all aspired to.
Stefanie So we managed to not scare people with a lot of the crazy “you’re all going to be obsolete rhetoric.” At FEED we were clearly embracing technology but we really wanted to be a moderating voice on some level, because we thought a lot of the boosterism was just silly and stupid, and would not reflect how this was all going to shake out.
So while we got our friends, who were these young writers, involved, we also worked really hard and felt proud of ourselves when we got more established voices to participate.
In some ways we felt much more excited about that because we didn’t know what all our friends were going to do. They were talented people who we managed to convince to write for us but you can’t make any assumptions about where their careers were going, right? When Nicholson Baker did a dialog for us, we were psyched.
Susan Was that around the time his escalator book (The Mezzanine) came out?
Stefanie It was around the time his book on libraries (Double Fold) came out. It might have been Page Versus Pixel. The FEED archives are up now, did you know that?
I have really bad memory about the specificity of some of this. I blame it on pregnancy, which always seems to wipe out a good chunk of my memory, particularly for names and dates. I think recent research suggests that nursing and pregnancy do, in actual fact, change your brain.
Susan Are you looking into that?
Motherhood, career, women and yoga
Susan Do you think there is a hive mind or exponential aspect to people working and thinking together the way all these bright people seem to come out of FEED?
Stefanie Yes and no.
FEED seemed to multiply the impact of any one of us, but at the same time the degree to which any one of us could leverage this depended on all kinds of factors, including when you would sell a book project, the timing of your kids, your gender. (Having to bear the children affects your career, even if you are an exceptional multi-tasker with totally reliable help. At least, it did mine.)
And having a career in media puts an added layer of pressure on any mother, since your job is to generate ideas that resonate widely but in those early years of motherhood, your focus is so narrowed.
I can remember how liberating it was when my oldest turned 2 years old because I didn’t feel the need to constantly look at her, not just the monitoring you do to make sure she doesn’t hurt herself; it’s a more primitive need to see your baby, they take up your whole view, and there’s literally not much you see beyond their faces for those first two years.
And then, they start pushing you away, and it’s both heartbreaking and totally freeing. (And, of course, when I’m not with them it’s a different story.)
The point is motherhood puts a different sort of pressure on creators than it does people who have regular jobs, where you actually show up and have a defined set of tasks and responsibilities.
Susan We could have a whole other conversation about this. I think that is one of the things that is interesting about the fact that in America a high percentage of people who practice yoga are women, given there is a ton of stuff about women’s bodies that we are really just starting to crack.
Stefanie We definitely haven’t gotten our due yet scientifically.
Susan Even after decades of all of us “getting it.” It’s interesting to me that even people in yoga tend to give blanket explanations about what yoga is “good for” and I think we don’t even really know anything about a woman’s body —
Stefanie Yes. I believe that yoga works, and it does those raw, general things people say it does most of the time. It relieves stress, anxiety, and it probably reduces inflammation.
And yet, I think we have no clue about the mechanisms. There are a ton of NIH studies going on now about yoga, but I’m not sure that even those studies will fully crack what yoga does physiologically and how it does it because its effects are so systemic.
Susan I think you’re spot on. I was frustrated trying to teach about that aspect of yoga because I could not, on my own – try as I might – set a framework that would allow me to say responsible things.
I think those NIH initiatives you just cited are a kind of cul-de-sac because they’re predicated on an utterly outdated model of bodies, and current human science.
Do technology and yoga share any DNA?
Susan Is there something about American culture and the tech boom of the internet that does parallel the rise of yoga’s popularity?
Not just a growth curve per se, but an attitude that might be fostered by what academics call cosmopolitanism – the information access afforded by the internet giving us a sense of being connected to people by something more than proximity. So that new ideas don’t appeal to us just as exotic – instead they’re appealing because they’re relevant.
Stefanie Not at first. At first, I felt that the yoga community, as much as you can generalize about it, was hostile or indifferent to the Internet. In fact, yoga has long been used as an antidote to modernity or post-modernity.
Starting with the Thoreau and on through Pierre Bernard, many saw yoga as way to escape or at least recover from the negative aspects of industrialization. And this was equally true during the 1960s. We put a man on the moon, but yoga was the way to personally commune with the cosmos, no equipment necessary.
I think we played up the exoticism because it made yoga seem like a more powerful counterweight to Western society and culture (at a time when communism no longer functioned that way). And a strong residue of this counter-cultural attitude persisted into the 1990s.
As the Internet has matured, most people have figured out that it’s an extremely useful tool for communicating about yoga. It also makes things like planning a trip to India or putting together a yoga retreat much easier. Not incidentally, in making yoga easier to discover, I think it makes that discovery a little bit less exciting.
It’s hard for people who’ve grown up with the Internet to imagine what’s is like to hunt down a book in bookstores and libraries and the intense satisfaction of getting your hands on something really rare and hard to find.
You have a different relationship to it. But then you can very easily map this increased access starting with Emerson (who owned one of the only copies of the Bhagavad-Gita in Boston) to our day.
Technology has been ripping down these boundaries for awhile now. And while it may make us more open to these ideas, it also may make them a little bit less precious.
Tomorrow in part two of our Conversation with Stefanie Syman, Stefanie talks about her yoga teacher, Eddie Stern, reactions to The Subtle Body, the contribution her book has made to the understanding of contemporary practice, and about FEED Your Head, her current project with Joanna Yas.
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© 2011, The Magazine of Yoga, LLC.