The Subtle Body by Stephanie Symons

Book Review by Marcus J Freed and

If you feel the yoga came to America in the 1960s with the summer of love, then think again. Our story begins with the arrival of Swami Vivekenanda, a little known yogi who is possibly the first recorded teacher of asana in America.

Symon’s compelling book begins with the first Indian guru’s USA arrival in the 1870s, at the height of a conservative era when America was cautious about Indian mysticism. We learn how the Swami was initially supported by wealthy women from the upper class elite and soon decided it was time to set up shop in the heart of New York City. He rented a small apartment on the lower east side, began teaching classes, and America’s first yoga studio was born.

The Subtle Body is a powerful biography of yoga itself, complete with intrigue, drama and the requisite scandals. Skeptical westerners didn’t know what yoga was, they were concerned about the possibilities of ‘Hindoo [sic] magic’ and didn’t have much spiritual exposure beyond their Christian upbringing.

As the book progresses, it becomes clear that the story of yogis in America tends to follow something of a regular pattern. It goes something like this; yogi arrives in America, yogi gains the following of wealthy women/famous actress/Hollywood-type personality, yogi achieves widespread fame, yogi preaches celibacy and financial austerity….yogi gets busted in sex (and possibly finance) scandal.

Those who don’t learn from history are destined to repeat it, and the publication of The Subtle Body reminds us of the not-so-subtle mistakes of so-called yoga giants. The recent demise of contemporary yoga giant and Anusara Yoga founder John Friend is yet another reminder of the fraught tensions between spirituality, beautiful female followers and extreme wealth; a dangerous combination indeed.

Stephanie Symons provides a long and rewarding read for anyone who spends several hours of their week on the yoga mat, as it really gives a solid overview of their practice. The story of yoga in America is to a large extent the story of yoga in the western world and she has given us a superb context in which to place the current practices of Ashtanga, Iyengar, Bikram, Power Yoga and so much more.

Most importantly, the author reminds us of the overall goal of yoga, which is something far more holistic and ultimately esoteric than many high-street teachers would have us believe. Yoga is a pursuit that aims to unite us with nothing less than our soul, the part of us that is untouchable and unseeable, our inner essence that is ultimately discreet and subtle.

If we are to truly tune with our subtle body it will demand regular practice, sustained listening and frequent bouts of switching off our cellphone to create much-needed silence. This is Yoga.