It’s hard to read The Subtle Body (FSG), Stefanie Syman’s terrific new history of yoga in America, without noticing the starring role New York City has played as one giant asphalt yoga mat.
But that’s exactly what happened in the New York Times review of the book by the famously harsh and analytical Michiko Kakatani. “While Ms. Syman has amassed a lot of entertaining anecdotes about the history of yoga in this country,” writes Kakatani. “Her overall narrative suffers from odd gaps and elisions.” The reviewer wants to know why Syman, a historian, doesn’t cover contemporary yoga culture or explain why yoga pants cost $98.
We posit that it’s Kakatani’s review that’s guilty of gaps and elisions: It’s quite strange that one of the sharpest book critics writing for New York City’s hometown paper missed that so much of the history of yoga unfolded right here.
Syman’s book is page-turning 300-page string of historical vignettes that flow easily like a vinyasa over the cast of characters (swamis and gurus, philosophers and starlets) who make up the flexy-bendy history of the city. The takeaway lesson? Just how long this pastime has been undeniably popular. New Yorkers have been practicing yoga since the late 19th century.
In Syman’s book we learn that New Yorkers got their first exposure to Hinduism and yoga around the turn of the twentieth century with the first wave of swamis like Vivekananda. “In 1898, a piece ran in the New York Herald that basically said all the fashionable people in the city are doing yoga,” explains Syman, who lives in Park Slope. “It could have run in 1998. There were a lot young, attractive women teachers, and students on the social register mentioned, like the Rutherford sisters, who would have been equivalent to the Hilton sisters. The scene was that contemporary-sounding.”
By 1919, we had our first “aesthetically pleasing” yoga studio for hatha on East Fifty-third Street called Yoga Gymnosophy Institute for Women. (In a five-floor townhouse with marble staircases and Oriental carpets, no less.) “Yoga was immediately popular with the same kind of people then as now,” says Syman. “Mostly upper and middle class women.”
“Yoga’s now a pastime,” a term that Syman, an Ashtangi of 15 years, often uses. “But for the first half of its life in New York, people were seeing it as a fully realized spiritual practice with meditation. It was not really physical culture until the 40s.” What people were looking for, says Syman, was something that that mainline Christianity or Judiasm didn’t offer: a tangible route of personal transformation.
Physical culture came quickly enough, when Sri Krishna Pattabhi Jois unfurled his mat and Mysore-style Ashtanga practice here in the 1970s displacing hatha yoga as the only game town. “Yoga infrastructure took shape sooner here than in California,” says Syman. “And even during yoga’s ebb and flow in popularity, New York has a held onto a handful of continuously operating studios, like Integral Yoga, Shivananda for a long time, and Dharma Mittra.”
Of course, Syman’s a historian, and as such the contemporary yoga scene falls outside the scope of her book. “Covering the scene now would have been a whole other book,” says Syman, who touches on yoga’s revival in the 1990s thanks to luminaries Eddie Stern and Sharon Gannon and David Life of Jivamukti.
I can see how Kakatani missed Syman’s New York City. The typically sharp and pragmatic reviewer didn’t approach the book as a straightforward work of non-fiction, but responded to its topic with the Times’ trademark skepticism and distrust of yoga culture today. As though to turn each page was to take a symbolic sip of yoga’s spiritual Kool-Aid.
“When I started this project, yoga was not being written about like any other American pastime,” says Syman, though that’s what yoga’s become for 16 million Americans. “It’s like baseball only without the teams, scores, and stadiums,” says Syman. And, as her book shows, it’s a pastime that’s been around for just as long. —Melisse Gelula