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Pasatiempo - - CONTENTS - Body of Truth

The God­dess Pose by Michelle Gold­berg; Body of Truth by Har­riet Brown

The God­dess Pose: The Au­da­cious Life of In­dra Devi, the Woman Who Helped Bring Yoga to the West by Michelle Gold­berg, Al­fred A. Knopf/Ran­dom House, 322 pages In­dra Devi, “the woman who helped bring yoga to the West,” un­doubt­edly lived a dy­namic life. Born into an aris­to­cratic Rus­sian fam­ily, her wan­der­ings took her to Ber­lin, In­dia, Shang­hai, Los An­ge­les, and Ar­gentina, among other places. She prized her free­dom so much that when her hus­band, then in his eight­ies, was on his deathbed, she re­lied pri­mar­ily on as­sis­tants to care for him, as she didn’t want to scale down her trav­els. Her mantra might have been: There’s al­ways some­thing to do. Michelle Gold­berg’s am­bi­tious new bi­og­ra­phy, The

God­dess Pose, en­cap­su­lates the life of this whirl­wind woman, while also giv­ing a so­cio­his­tor­i­cal tour of the cities Devi found her­self in. Devi had an way of show­ing up in places where history was be­ing shaped — in Saigon dur­ing the Viet­nam War, in Dal­las dur­ing Pres­i­dent Kennedy’s as­sas­si­na­tion.

Map­ping out de­tailed his­tor­i­cal con­texts works bet­ter later in the book. When Devi be­comes a guru to Col. Díaz Her­rera in Panama, it makes sense to know how the newly spir­i­tu­al­ized Her­rera was in­stru­men­tal in strip­ping Manuel Nor­iega’s in­ter­na­tional cred­i­bil­ity. Her­rera drew his courage from Devi, and his ac­cu­sa­tions helped turn Nor­iega into an em­bar­rass­ment for the U.S. Ed­ward Kennedy even­tu­ally ini­ti­ated a res­o­lu­tion in the Se­nate to in­ves­ti­gate Nor­iega, who was then in­dicted and im­pris­oned.

Ear­lier in the book, when Gold­berg spends end­less pages ex­plain­ing the cul­tural and his­tor­i­cal scene in Ber­lin where Devi (then Euge­nia Peter­son) was danc­ing in an Alice in Won­der­land-like cabaret, the nar­ra­tive sput­ters. Where the story wants to go — and Gold­berg holds it back too long — is to In­dia to see how a naive young woman ef­fected a trans­for­ma­tion that would turn her into In­dra Devi, and later “Mataji” (Mother), to spir­i­tu­al­ists and yoga en­thu­si­asts around the world.

Devi’s first real teacher was J. Kr­ish­na­murti, the hope of the Theosophists and the Star Or­der, and Gold­berg gives a stir­ring ac­count of his ex­hor­ta­tion to fol­low­ers to be their own star. Kr­ish­na­murti was that rare, hon­est teacher who told his fol­low­ers: “You have the idea that only cer­tain peo­ple hold the key to the King­dom of Hap­pi­ness. No one holds it. No one has the au­thor­ity to hold that key. That key is your own self, and in the de­vel­op­ment and the pu­rifi­ca­tion and in the in­cor­rupt­ibil­ity of that self alone is the King­dom of Eter­nity.”

In 1936, Devi re­turned to In­dia to at­tend the wed­ding of the nephew of the Maharajah of Mysore. Dur­ing this visit, she tried to be­come a dis­ci­ple of a leg­endary yoga teacher, Kr­ish­na­macharya, who led a school founded by the Maharajah. Kr­ish­na­macharya was hes­i­tant to take her on and only did so at the re­quest of the Maharajah. He taught her a gen­tle form of hatha yoga, which he thought was ap­pro­pri­ate for a mid­dle-aged woman. This style of yoga seemed to have served Devi well. She would spend most of the rest of her long life teach­ing it or writ­ing self-help books about it.

B.K.S. Iyengar was a stu­dent (and brother-in-law) of Kr­ish­na­macharya’s at the same time as was Devi. Gold­berg men­tions this fact, but she doesn’t give any ac­count of how or why Iyengar’s name has come to be tied to yoga in the West to­day. In her ac­knowl­edge­ments, Gold­berg writes that she showed up unan­nounced at Iyengar’s yoga in­sti­tute in Pune, In­dia, and that he had the “im­mense kind­ness” to an­swer her ques­tions. It’s pos­si­ble that Gold­berg’s de­sire to stake Devi’s name in yoga history causes her to min­i­mize Iyengar’s con­tri­bu­tion. Iyengar, who re­cently died at ninety-five, ad­mit­tedly has had more than his share of pub­lic­ity. Still, not ad­dress­ing how he fits into the story of yoga com­ing to the West is a ma­jor omis­sion.

Later, Devi be­came a se­nior dis­ci­ple of the In­dian guru Satya Sai Baba. The book de­scribes Sai Baba’s ashram in South In­dia, his petty “ma­te­ri­al­iza­tions,” and his count­less devo­tees. It also has a brief but chill­ing ac­count of un­in­ves­ti­gated al­le­ga­tions of abuse and the un­ac­counted-for killings of six peo­ple in the ashram in 1993. Devi, an im­por­tant and long­time devo­tee of Sai Baba, even­tu­ally broke away from the ashram, though she didn’t speak pub­licly about her de­ci­sion.

The book is rich in de­tail with his­to­ries of the Nazi era, of pre-in­de­pen­dence In­dia, and of Nor­iega-era Panama, but it can also stretch too thin. Gold­berg makes a sim­pli­fi­ca­tion, for in­stance, based on Feuer­stein’s trans­la­tion of the Yoga Su­tras, that its au­thor Patanjali is ni­hilis­tic and pos­si­bly “pes­simistic.” In reach­ing this con­clu­sion, Gold­berg ig­nores the meta­phys­i­cal con­text in which the Yoga Su­tras ex­ist; she con­flates yoga phi­los­o­phy with the Yoga Su­tras, dis­re­gard­ing that yoga phi­los­o­phy pre­dates Patanjali.

Gold­berg goes on to write that it is “his­tor­i­cal irony” that Devi helped change our view of yoga as a path to­ward “in­di­vid­ual de­vel­op­ment.” This claim lacks per­spec­tive, as Devi’s work was fo­cused on the asanas, which are only one limb of the eight limbs of yoga. Gold­berg also over­looks a ro­bust strand of thought, more re­cently ad­vanced by Gandhi, and Iyengar, that one can be a “yogi” (metaphor­i­cally or lit­er­ally) and still par­tic­i­pate in the world.

Devi ab­sorbed In­dian-ness at least to the ex­tent that she was quite prac­ti­cal. She didn’t like to dwell on the past. She can­not be de­scribed as be­ing nos­tal­gic. Her strat­egy was to al­ways move for­ward. She had an al­most fre­netic energy and a life of travel and teach­ing com­mit­ments suited her well. A long­time veg­e­tar­ian, she’s a good model to em­u­late for those seek­ing longevity. When she was in her nineties, she was dis­em­bark­ing from a flight when she was of­fered a wheel­chair. Devi liked to con­found peo­ple’s ex­pec­ta­tions. She ac­cepted the wheel­chair, but, at one point, she jumped out of it and be­gan to run glee­fully. She lived al­most to her 103rd birth­day. — Priyanka Ku­mar

Body of Truth: How Science, History, and Cul­ture Drive Our Ob­ses­sion with Weight — and What We Can Do About It

by Har­riet Brown, Da Capo/Perseus Book Group, 273 pages Weight, far from be­ing a sin­gle num­ber on an in­di­vid­ual per­son’s scale, takes on all sorts of ma­jor im­pli­ca­tions. Weight ma­nia drives a $60-bil­lion diet in­dus­try in the U.S., and weight-re­lated dis­crim­i­na­tion seeps into ev­ery facet of life (try watch­ing TV and not hear­ing a fat joke). It is also po­lit­i­cal: the core of, among other ini­tia­tives, Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! cam­paign to fight child­hood obe­sity.

It is even a sub­ject bur­dened by moral over­tones. Har­riet Brown writes, “The di­vide be­tween thin and fat” sym­bol­izes “a line be­tween good and bad, virtue and sin, suc­cess and fail­ure, beauty and ug­li­ness, health and sick­ness.”

Brown, an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor of jour­nal­ism at Syra­cuse Univer­sity, has writ­ten Body of Truth: How Science, History, and Cul­ture Drive Our Ob­ses­sion with Weight and What We Can Do About It

— to scru­ti­nize weight ma­nia and find out why we have it, why it can threaten the very thing that pur­port­edly drives it — our health — and how we can try to re­solve it. This is not an easy-fix topic, nor does Brown of­fer a so­lu­tion akin to those promised by diet com­pa­nies hawk­ing tips and drugs. (Just do this and ev­ery­thing will get bet­ter!) The prob­lems gen­er­ated by our ob­ses­sion with the scale are much too in­grained for that.

So are our as­sump­tions when it comes to weight, health, and beauty — they be­come en­trenched with ev­ery re­it­er­a­tion in the media and among friends and fam­ily. One such as­sump­tion is that obe­sity is, sim­ply put, not good. Obe­sity is un­healthy, a dan­ger, an epi­demic. It is linked to heart dis­ease, di­a­betes, breath­ing prob­lems, and high blood pres­sure. It is thus a gen­uine shock to read Brown’s stance on obe­sity: Maybe we should re­think ev­ery­thing we think we know. Brown de­scribes it as a “chicken-and-egg ques­tion.” “We as­sume that weight gain comes first and causes di­a­betes and other ill­nesses,” but “no one truly knows which comes first.”

This may make you wish to write Brown off as a med­i­cal skep­tic with­out a med­i­cal de­gree. But while she is highly crit­i­cal of the “med­i­cal ma­chine” and its fi­nan­cial in­cen­tives to la­bel and di­ag­nose dis­ease, she has done ex­ten­sive re­search, which cu­mu­la­tively starts to take hold. Not that Brown ad­vo­cates stock­pil­ing tubs of ice cream; rather, she asks us to re­con­sider what a healthy lifestyle re­ally means. Does it mean calo­rie re­stric­tion, which has proven time and time again not to work — 95 per­cent is the wide­spread stat on diet fail­ure — and which, as she puts it, makes us “fat­ter, sicker, more de­pressed and more ob­sessed”? (Brown par­tic­u­larly em­pha­sizes the psy­cho­log­i­cal ef­fects of en­cour­ag­ing weight loss in chil­dren, es­pe­cially when fear and shame are used as sup­posed mo­ti­va­tors.) Or does it mean fo­cus­ing in­stead on well-be­ing, in­clud­ing through good eat­ing and reg­u­lar ex­er­cise?

A book about weight with “ob­ses­sion” in the ti­tle must ad­dress not just our as­sump­tions and stereo­types about obe­sity and obese peo­ple. It must also con­sider the tan­gle of is­sues sur­round­ing body im­age. It is here that is most com­pelling. Brown weaves in history, fem­i­nist the­ory, and stud­ies into the na­ture vs. nur­ture ar­gu­ment about beauty ideals to give a well-con­sid­ered look at why it is that we so of­ten hate the bod­ies we’re in.

Brown also in­ves­ti­gates the of­ten-detri­men­tal in­flu­ence of advertising and so­cial media. Among the stud­ies she cites, one is es­pe­cially telling. Psy­chi­a­trist and an­thro­pol­o­gist Anne Becker stud­ied body im­age among teenage girls in Fiji, both be­fore tele­vi­sion was in­tro­duced in 1995 and three years later. None of the girls had vom­ited to con­trol weight be­fore TV was in­tro­duced; three years later, 11 per­cent of them had. Although in the Fi­jian tra­di­tional cul­ture, di­et­ing was rare (there had only been one re­ported case of anorexia in Fiji), now 69 per­cent of the girls said they had dieted.

Brown’s writ­ing is rous­ing, and at times — par­tic­u­larly in cri­tiques of doc­tors and the weight-loss in­dus­try — it can read as ve­he­ment. There is no ques­tion that she is com­mit­ted to a cause; this is not a tepid, guarded book. It makes its ar­gu­ments and makes them with force. Some of those ar­gu­ments may ag­gra­vate. One ex­am­ple is Brown’s crit­i­cism of Let’s Move! “The im­pli­ca­tion,” she writes, “is that if [kids are] thin­ner, they’ll be health­ier”; the cam­paign “falls into the same diet-and-ex­er­cise traps as ev­ery other weight-loss pro­gram, no mat­ter how well-dis­guised or well-in­ten­tioned.”

Brown’s book de­mands re­con­sid­er­a­tion of weight-based be­liefs and prin­ci­ples, of how we fun­da­men­tally per­ceive and talk about weight. In our media-sat­u­rated, judg­mentsoaked cul­ture, that is un­de­ni­ably a good thing. — Grace La­batt

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