In Other Words
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