21st Century Yoga brings into a single volume ten fresh and unique essays from modern American yoga practitioners. To someone who does yoga the facts in the essays are as invigorating and familiar as tadasana. But like asanas, these essays beguile and intrigue because they reveal so much about the practitioners, about us 21st century yogis, and about the experience of anyone who works to deepen their own life.
The book begins with a few words by co-editor Carol Horton. She says soliciting the essays was an experiment and then describes her findings, the common themes among the essays. Her words are a brief and engaging homily, full of insight and respect for her authors and wonderment about yoga’s progress in western culture. It is a delightful read for any yoga practitioner who enjoys thinking about what he or she does.
The essays themselves are eminently readable – no academic jargon or Sanskrit-heavy spiritualism, not a word of New-Age-ese here. Instead, a kind of down-to-earth honesty infuses them: imagine a hard-nosed Yankee farmer describing his experience of samadhi. Their topics range from the movingly personal (an addict and an anorexic describe yoga leading them away from the brink of death) to innovative musings on the roots of American yoga (think English poetry, not Sanskrit mantras), to the telling parallelisms between western zen and western yoga (the former favoring male and mind-over-body, the latter favoring female and body-over-mind.) Almost without exception, every essay lit up a corner of my heart or brain I hadn’t seen clearly before.
A critic could find flaws with the book. Though it is full of cool ideas, Julian Walker’s essay on American yoga’s roots is a bit thin on facts. Manifesting a curious editorial decision, the book doesn’t contain a single mention of yoga’s compelling overlap with modern medical research and practice. The title is also a bit misleading, purporting to cover all of 21st century yoga while the editors and authors explicitly limit their scope to North America, with a steep geographic slant toward California. For me, these are tiny features in a book that goes down so easily, and provides such a huge dose of an innovative and interesting ideas about a practice I love.
The editors have given us an colorful and telling snapshot of yoga as it appears in America this year. But time will move on. Yoga will change, and America and the essayists will, too. As that happens I hope Ms. Horton and her co-editor Roseanne Harvey will take up the editor’s mantle again. I’m keeping my fingers crossed for a new edition – a “Best American Yoga Essays of 2013” with the same crisp editorial insight as the current book.
Reading 21st Century Yoga has sharpened my perception of the yoga culture I’m in. As a result, it has taken me incrementally deeper into my own practice. For my money this is the greatest gift anyone can receive from an assembly of words about yoga.