Yoga Memoirs for the Soul

Marilyn Monroe doing yoga Courtesy of Everett Collection

More than 15 million Americans practice yoga. They do it in 100-degree rooms, they do it in swimming pools, they do it on bikes, they do it to reggae music and to Christian prayers. You can buy yoga mats at the grocery store and find instructions on your airplane seatback. But apparently yoga is still exotic enough to be fodder for memoirs of the road to savasana—that’s corpse pose, or, for the uninitiated, lying on your back feeling grateful that class is over. Hence, Claire Dederer’s book, Poser: My Life in Twenty-three Yoga Poses.

The yoga memoir (see also Stretch, Finding My Balance, Yoga School Dropout) feels much like any narrative of religious conversion, except that the yoga narrator freely mocks some aspects of the practice while adopting others. (It’s hard to imagine C. S. Lewis writing about his conversion to Christianity and making fun of the goofy priests and wacky incense.) Which is maybe the appeal of yoga: unlike traditional religions, yoga encourages a salad-bar approach, letting practitioners choose the parts they like (toned arms, instructors’ tendency to end classes by giving students mini head massages) and ignore the others (breathe through your perineum!).

There is much that is silly about yoga, and the effective yoga memoir first reassures the reader that the writer is not one of those spacey-eyed, splayed-hip nuts who is constantly tucking a foot behind her ear and says “namaste” instead of hello. Dederer immediately establishes herself as a relatable, down-to-earth narrator, a person who might kick up to headstand at a party, but only after a few drinks.

If you’ve ever done a downward dog on a sticky mat, you will laugh at her descriptions: the teacher who “looked as though she had been a step-aerobics instructor until five minutes ago” yet insists she’s called Atosa. (“Like hell you are, sister,” Dederer writes.) Or the instructor who liked to tell “humble little fables about monkeys and lions and tigers” in class, as though Dederer and her fellow Seattleites “all shared subcontinental Asian animals as our cultural touchstones.” Or the way that, despite the admonitions that yoga is a noncompetitive practice between you and your perineum, it’s impossible not to surreptitiously check out everyone else’s peaceful-warrior position.

Dederer names each chapter after a different pose, then explains what that pose means to her. Cobbler’s pose brings on an unexpected sobbing fit, and a memory of her daughter’s difficult birth. Camel pose creates “a fluttery, scary feeling” in her breastbone, which her teacher diagnoses not as a pulled muscle but fear. The chapters titled “Child’s Pose” tell the story of Dederer’s unconventional childhood: her mother left her father for a much younger man, but her parents remained married, sharing custody of her and her brother. Dederer says that yoga actually helped connect her own anxieties about motherhood to her ambivalence about her laissez-faire upbringing.

The link between infidelity, childbirth, and triangle pose is tenuous, but successful memoirs have been framed around less (Eat, Pray, Love, anyone?). The book’s weakness is the same one that plagues most yoga memoirs: the assumption that yoga is a kooky, cult-like practice, so what is such a nice girl doing in an overheated room of sweaty, chanting human pretzels? In truth, these memoirs are written by exactly the sort of person the modern American version of yoga is made for: secular, liberal, middle-class knowledge workers who want a workout but are also looking for something a little, you know, spiritual. A yoga memoir by a conservative Republican Catholic NRA member? Now that would be a real stretch.