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Namaste or Not

Hatha Yoga means the union of opposites, and Claire Dederer had a lot of opposites to forge back into a whole. In her twenties, she hopscotched around the world, driving a forklift in Australia, touring Southeast Asia, taking a leisurely decade to finish college. “Work” in those days meant earning just enough to pay for pitchers of beer and cover charges at clubs.

But in her thirties, married, with one child and then another, the demands of home constrict and almost defeat her. She is terrified of error, teetering on the edge of dread. When she goes to a yoga class, she feels compelled to leave the upscale equivalent of a burnt offering: roasted organic chicken. “There it was: love, concern, nurturing, all rolled in a four-pound organic fryer.”

Poser: My Life in Twenty-Three Yoga Poses, Dederer’s chatty and charming memoir, is about figuring out how to be at once good and free. Those are the two irreconcilable poles of upper-middle-class family life, and the tension between them undergirds a decade’s worth of books on mothering. (Maybe more than a decade: parenting is annoyingly discovered anew by each person who undertakes it.)

What Dederer adds to the genre is yoga. Devoted attendance at yoga class is the mechanism by which she blends goodness and freedom—or, more precisely, learns to shrug off both. Yoga is a chance to escape some of her family obligations—she starts practicing because she hurt her back while nursing her daughter—but it is also a key to some kind of glowy perfection. “I had started going to yoga because I wanted other people to admire my goodness.”

From a marketing perspective, bringing yoga into the mix is brilliant. If the mommy memoir feels a little played out, the yoga memoir is a shiny and new revelation for the same audience. The tired, tense, trying-to-be-good mothers whose copies of Perfect Madness and Operating Instructions are dog-eared and frantically underlined are now going to yoga in droves. It is part of our goodness project, too. Yoga, unlike other forms of exercise, has a sanctified air. Yoga class will make us patient, forbearing, grounded—good mothers with great abs.

But the problem with a yoga memoir is that yoga is not a narrative. “Taking up yoga in the middle of your life is like having someone hand you a dossier about yourself,” Dederer remarks. “A dossier full of information you’re not sure you really want.” But that is not true (unfortunately for the determined doers of yoga). A dossier is instantly legible. Yoga’s messages are cryptic and intermittent, its transformations slow and inchoate. And here is the real stumbling block for a memoirist: yoga is resolutely about the present. Nothing is more immediate than breath, and yoga teachers say, again and again, come back to the breath. Yoga opens a radio frequency into how your brain and body are working together or in opposition right now, at this very moment, with no back-story. It tells you that your shoulders or hips are tight, or that you cannot do the same pose today that you did yesterday because it is a different day and your body is different. What yoga does not tell you is that, really, you are a mess because of your mother, or because you are a mother.

So parts of Dederer’s memoir have a willful and cobbled-together feel, as if she is forcing a pose to fit a narrative. In the chapter entitled “Mountain”—the chapters are named for yoga poses—her daughter tells her, “Thank goodness you’re so big. That way I fit into your lap.” This leads Dederer to a few paragraphs on mountain pose, and she concludes, “Heavy, inert, solid, intractable. These are not things women are supposed to be. I was, Lucy said, big enough for her. And I was glad to be.” That’s sweet, but if Lucy had said, “Thank goodness you’re so tall,” and Dederer had riffed on tree pose, nothing else in the chapter would have changed.

Dederer grasps, for a moment, the folly of making yoga into something it is not. Toward the end of the book she says that “[i]t was easy to think of yoga as a cure, a program, a teleology…. You learned how to act right at yoga and then you acted right, or righter, when you were in your car, or at the grocery store, or putting your children to bed.” But then she asks, “What if the whole point of yoga … was instead finding whatever pleasure we could in the present?” That’s more like it. But a few pages later Dederer is back with the program: “What if I applied [a teacher’s idea of yoga being a ‘counterweight’ to everyday life] right here and now” while fighting with her daughter over hair brushing. “What if I didn’t have some goal for how I might act but simply acted differently,” she asks, and then forges right ahead with another goal and “simply stopped being so preoccupied with doing things perfectly.”

But the point of yoga being a “counterweight” is that it is not the same as everyday life. Yoga teachers tell us to put aside ego and goals, but without goals, would we ever get off the couch to go to yoga in the first place? Thinking of yoga as a counterweight is a way of protecting yoga, of not enlisting it in our programs of self-improvement. Dederer is still trying to act right at yoga and act righter at home (who isn’t?); and she still insists upon a link between those rightnesses.

Why can’t we just let yoga be yoga? The tradition’s American practitioners (myself included) seem unable to bear, or even to understand, the idea of transformation without direction. We want to be better and we want to know exactly how. And the language of yoga seduces us into thinking that we can know it. We stand on one leg to be more balanced. We thrust our chests into the air and drop our heads back, reaching backwards for our heels so that we will have open hearts. We sit with the soles of our feet together and our elbows pressing our knees towards the floor to be more grounded. But maybe what modern American practitioners think happens to us in yoga is not the result of any particular pose, but of the words and the metaphors that surround the poses.

Or maybe what matters are not the moments of doing but the radical and unprecedented moments of not doing—of staying still in a pose. The stillness feels so strange that we believe it has to be profoundly meaningful. On the other hand, if the traditions and poses and philosophies had originated in Indianapolis rather than in India, would Americans imbue yoga with such transcendent significance? Would it still be a holy corrective for the insults and the injuries of modern life, or just another way to get in shape? It’s not at all clear if the changes we seek, and find, come from what yoga does to us or what we do to yoga.

A yogic sage would probably say that it doesn’t matter. Don’t care, just do. And by the end of her book Dederer lets go of her efforts to improve by trying not to improve. “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.… 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.” Relief is what harried and over-advised upper-middle-class parents are seeking, from yoga and from the soothing pages of memoirs of people like ourselves. But by the time it’s over, Dederer’s book has served as a lively reminder that it will likely all be okay if we just stop trying so damn hard.

Eventually Dederer’s yoga practice leads her to conclude that the pursuit of goodness has made her brittle and secretive. Once she has slipped the chokehold of perfection, she is less entranced by its opposite, freedom. Dederer and her husband and children had escaped Seattle and the too-close embrace of a loving and complicated family, and reconstituted themselves in Boulder. But it didn’t work. “I could practice reality, and imperfection, and messiness in Boulder, but really, it felt like avoiding the whole point. Reality was at home, with my family. My other family,” meaning especially her mother, who left Dederer’s father when Dederer was six, and hauled her stunned and reluctant children to hippie outposts on the fringes of Seattle where she lived with a young boat captain.

So Dederer and her husband decide to go back to the “reality” of her other family. “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.” To get a little distance from their oppressively engaged parents, they re-settle not in Seattle but on nearby Bainbridge Island, which is where she had lived immediately after her parents split up. “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.” A yoga teacher would say that every practice, every breath, is a second chance.

Jennifer Bradley is a writer and policy analyst whose work has appeared in The New Republic, The Atlantic, Democracy, The American Prospect, and elsewhere.