The Subtle Body: The Story of Yoga in America
If you assume, as I did, that yoga came to the United States via the Maharishi in the 1970s, you’ll be surprised again and again as you read Stefanie Syman’s The Subtle Body. This intensively researched history reveals an unexpected American familiarity with yoga as early as the late eighteenth century, and a steady underground pursuit of yoga’s fundamental nature that burst into a national obsession in the past decade.
The Transcendentalists may be credited with bringing interest in the Eastern philosophies to polite Western society. It cannot be said, however, that Emerson and friends had a firm grasp on what yoga was or, for that matter, any interest in the discipline. Nevertheless, the study of The Bhagavad Gita led to a slow blossoming of yogic practices, and by the late nineteenth century, yoga was a key component of a spiritual retreat in Maine. It was there that Swami Vivekananda instructed his flock of mostly female followers in the practice of yoga, even delving into “Kundaline” and meditation. The part of the general public that was aware of the goings-on viewed the whole situation with a suspicious eye. Was it quackery or pagan religion? The same question issues from a large portion of the population to this day.
Though not a focus of Syman’s book, it is interesting to note that women were (and remain) the bulk of yogic followers and supporters. From the conversion of Woodrow Wilson’s daughter to Garbo and Swanson, women flocked to yoga and Hinduism, either in search of spiritual enlightenment or weight loss and beauty.
The Subtle Body is a hearty volume, better suited for the serious student of yoga than for the dilettante. Syman balances her research with profound characterization of the key players and delivers an exceptionally fast-paced but thorough history of Eastern spiritual and physical paths as they blended into and assimilated Western culture.