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  • Yoga lit: a mat-side guide to the genre

    14 comments Published Dec 1, 11 AM
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    (Or, how to write your own yoga memoir or novel in six easy steps)

    In February, 2006, Viking published Elizabeth Gilbert’s international best-selling memoir Eat, Pray, Love, which has sold over ten million copies to date. As the post-publication hype increased, I refused to read it solely on the basis of its inclusion in Oprah’s Book Club. But in 2008, after a glowing review from a trusted friend, I broke down and read the damn thing.

    And I liked it. No — I loved it.

    There was a reason the book sold faster than piping hot bucatini with extra virgin olive oil to us, the twenty- and thirty-something yoga-practicing, yoga-dabbling, and yoga-curious women on self-proclaimed spiritual journeys: Gilbert was honest, vulnerable, and relatable. She was, like us, searching for something. Something greater. Something…else. Although I could easily adopt pasta consumption as my religion and probably remain quite content for some time, I ultimately decided I agreed with Gilbert: pasta is just not enough. (Sorry, pasta.  I still love you, and always will.)

    A number of other yoga-related memoirs and novels have cropped up since then, and I’ve become slightly obsessed. Obsessed enough to want to read them all, and also write my own. Oh, you want to write one, too? Well, I have advice, because I’ve begun to notice some emerging patterns in the growing genre. Here’s how it’s done:

    1. Eat Pray LoveRecount the breakup of a romantic relationship and its role (or lack thereof) in your spiritual development (or lack thereof).  Gilbert’s book helped modern yoginis to acknowledge that we beat ourselves up for not being skillful practitioners of non-attachment in relationships. We believe we’ve failed when we don’t refocus our energy into our practices when our partners cheat, dump us, or otherwise exit the picture. After we read Eat, Pray, Love, we acknowledged that we had been unable to force ourselves to believe that our relationships were impermanent, maya, illusory. Gilbert gave a voice to that universal experience.
    2. Interject a lot of Sanskrit words, yoga philosophy, and descriptions of poses into the narrative. In 2010, I snapped up both the hardback and audiobook versions of Claire Dederer’s cleverly titled and visually appealing Poser: My Life in Twenty-three Yoga Poses as soon as they were in stock. Poser: My Life in Twenty-three Yoga Poses Hooked instantly by the peachy beige cover with drawings of asanas standing in for some of the letters, I was equally enamored of Poser’s organizational structure. Each chapter is named after a different yoga pose — a new physical and mental challenge. And in each chapter, Dederer confronts a corresponding “off-the-mat” spiritual or emotional challenge. A slightly obsessive-compulsive recovering perfectionist with a couple of mental health diagnoses—I’ve got half the DSM covered, y’all—I found myself once again able to relate. I could have written this book, I thought. I should write a book like this. Dededer looked for perfection in her asana practice, motherhood, and marriage. Pressured by her North Seattle neighbors to join them in excelling at being as good in their thirties as they were bad in their twenties, Dederer began to crack under the pressure.
    3. Hell-Bent: Obsession, Pain, and the Search for Something Like Transcendence in Competitive YogaSet your book in the context of a yoga teacher training or retreat — the more woo-woo, the better.  Yoga teacher training provides excellent fodder and an intriguing backdrop for a compelling—even frightening—story, as evidenced by the excellent book Hell-Bent: Obsession, Pain, and the Search for Something Like Transcendence in Competitive Yoga. Journalist Benjamin Lorr describes his descent into the sometimes shady, always fascinating world of Bikram Yoga and competitive asana. The descriptions of Bikram’s outfits are worth the price of the hardcover. Lorr recalls literally rib-splitting backbending training at incognito locales for upcoming asana competitions, where practitioners would seize, puke, and lose consciousness regularly. And they were proud of it. At the $10,000 Bikram teacher training, the practice tent got so hot that more puking ensued. At least there were Bollywood film viewings in the evenings. Did I mention these viewings were almost compulsory? Refreshingly, Lorr tells a very balanced tale, giving equal page play to the good, the bad, and the ugly in an objective, compassionate tone.
    4.  Enlightenment for Idiots: A Novel Go meta: write about writing about yoga.  (Bonus points for exotic setting such as Rishikesh, Mysore, or Thailand.)  Anne Cushman’s Enlightenment for Idiots: A Novel is fiction, but reads like a meta-memoir.  Protagonist Amanda, a yoga teacher and writer, is approached by her publisher to write a “for dummies” guide to attaining enlightenment. Newly single (see #1, above), and with a substantial advance from her publisher, Amanda travels to India, expected to fast-track the universe — which we reader yogis know unfolds in its own time — so her manual can be released by her editor’s deadline.
    5. Lose faith in a teacher.  We’ve all had to learn the hard way that our teachers aren’t perfect.Suzanne Morrison’s Yoga Bitch: One Woman’s Quest to Conquer Skepticism, Cynicism, and Cigarettes on the Path to Enlightenment takes place at a two-month-long yoga retreat in Bali. Morrison’s teacher Indra (name changed) preaches the yamas and niyamas, but her practice of them is a different story.
    6. Yoga Bitch: One Woman’s Quest to Conquer Skepticism, Cynicism, and Cigarettes on the Path to EnlightenmentInclude anecdotes about the more woo-woo side of yoga.  Stories of students trying kriyas from the Hatha Yoga Pradipika are always fun. In Yoga Bitch, most of the teacher trainees drink pee on the advice of their teachers. (For the record, I did not do this in my YTT and do not know anyone who has.)

    Side note: if you decide to release an audio version of your book, make sure the performer can pronounce pradipika, Mahabharata, and any other Sanskrit words in your text.  Botched Sanskrit deteriorates your credibility.

    About Nicole Mark

    Nicole Mark

    Nicole Mark, E-RYT 200, teaches hatha yoga in the Triangle area of North Carolina to students ages 6 and older at Heart of Yoga School, SYNCStudio, and Carrboro and Durham Yoga Companies. She’s developed a kids’ yoga program for ages 6 and older called Lil’ Asana and regularly teaches specialty classes like Yoga for Anxiety and Depression and Yin Yoga. When not on her mat or wrinkling her forehead at the Upanishads, she reads fiction, journalism, and philosophy, writes for the Carrboro Yoga blog, and eats a lot of cupcakes washed down with far too many coffee drinks. Find her on Twitter at @NicoleLilYoga or at her website,