The Book Club

Attending to the Abdominal Core vs. a Political Cause

Why do I think yoga is a religion, or at least that Dederer’s writing about it is a kind of writing about religion? Well, first of all, yoga is a “spiritual practice,” even if during its century-long sojourn in America it has been repackaged as a sort of very slow aerobics. (I’m using quotation marks because I’m getting this from Dederer herself, who wrote a typically charming review of two histories of yoga in Slate.) We go to yoga studios on weekends because that’s when we’re free—I don’t think yoga substitutes for the Sabbath or anything like that—and I buy Dederer’s theory, expounded in that review, that we do yoga for no grander reason than that it feels good and it’s fun. That’s why I do it, too; also, it helps me calm down, which has allowed me to dispense with that other, much more costly, shamanistic healer in my life, my psychopharmacologist.

But yoga’s still a set of ritual practices performed in a collective setting and designed to alter our consciousness, not just to tone our bodies. According to Dederer, yoga gave her a community and mentors and emotional discipline—a better way to live—and in her book, yoga poses become tools of self-reflection and self-transcendence, partly because she cleverly exploits their rich metaphoric potential, but partly because that’s what happened to her in real life, in her “practice.” (For the three Slate readers who don’t do yoga, I should clarify that “practice” is a fancy term for the yoga you do, whether in the studio or at home.) God need never come up in the yoga studio for it to function socially and psychologically as a church. Though I do agree that there’s a deep critique of Christian dualism in there somewhere—maybe in the shoulder stands.

Would football in Texas be a religion, by my definition? You betcha. And I’d have the same admiration for anyone who could write as well about a Hail Mary pass as Dederer does about crow.

So why were we both loathe take a yoga memoir seriously, at least before we’d opened it? Are we self-hating mommy-critics? Yes! Absolutely! We’ve both admitted it! So’s Judith Warner, by the way. Actually, she’s worse. We didn’t snark once we’d actually read the book. We acknowledged that a writer as good as Claire Dederer can write about any damn thing she wants to write about, and that we had made some sexist assumptions. Though sometimes, when I’m teetering into Warrior I and trying to keep my arms from smacking someone in the face before I can yank them up, I wonder Warneresquely whether we warriors would be better off packing ourselves into a room not to increase our personal well-being and strengthen our abdominal core but to conduct a political meeting. It might not even matter what our cause was. I’d go for health care reform or paid parental leave or increased government regulation of chemicals, but you might prefer something else. I’m pretty sure I’d feel a hell of a lot less stressed out if I lived in a society that helped me raise my children, rather than endlessly preaching at me to do this or that for them while giving me precious little material support.

OK! Got that out of my system. On the liberal bubble question, I think you answered it yourself. Social obligations will always conflict with individual accomplishment, and more women than men will do the work of fulfilling them for a good long while because women have been writing those little notes and monitoring whatever infant sleeping regime happens to be in vogue for centuries now. Are there more demands on a mother in Park Slope, Brooklyn, or Montclair, N.J., or North Seattle, just because those neighborhoods are so relentlessly progressive and the parents who live in them so ferociously meritocratic? Maybe, though there are also more collective institutions in places like those, such as Dederer’s baby co-op, so I figure it all evens out in the end.

I brought up my babies in a lovely but very uncool suburb of New York, and I regarded these hipster-parent-heavy zones with envy. There were no food co-ops or baby co-ops or mommy-hangout-cafes for me to frequent when my kids were very young, so they beckoned as amenities. They didn’t look like a means of enforcing hipster conformity. I did have a synagogue, which became my children’s out-of-the-house destination instead, but being involved in a synagogue or church is just as big a drain on your time. That’s the nature of communal life, and would we really want to do without it? I for one would not. But if the tasks required to maintain communal equilibrium were divided more equally among men and women—well, that would be nice.


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