In her new book, The Goddess Pose, Michelle Goldberg documents the story of Indra Devi, who helped bring yoga traditions from India to the United States. We spoke with her about Indra Devi, International Yoga Day in India, and her recent article about the decision to have children.
Your book The Goddess Pose takes a look at the life of Indra Devi, a woman who was instrumental in bringing yoga to the West. How did you choose to write about her?
I've been practicing yoga for a long time - since spending six months in India in my mid-20s. While I love it and rely on it to stay (relatively) sane, I also long suspected that a lot of what my teachers were telling me about its origins and powers was bullshit. While searching for a cultural history of yoga, I came across Indra Devi's New York Times obituary, which outlined an astonishing life that spanned the entire 20th century. I went to Amazon to buy a book about her, and discovered none had been written. For years, I told my agent he should get someone to write one. In 2009, I was feeling a bit burned out on politics, my usual subject, and decided to tackle it myself. I thought it would take 18 months. It took five years.
Sometimes Westerners have an underlying anxiety that we're appropriating yoga or corrupting it as a spiritual tradition. After looking at its whole history, how would you address that anxiety?
I'd say that, when it comes to postural yoga, there's no authentic tradition to corrupt! What's known as yoga today - a system of poses designed to relax the nervous system and tone the muscles - is a relatively modern phenomena, and a mash-up between Eastern and Western traditions. To continue to innovate and adapt it to contemporary circumstances is to be part of a tradition of sorts.
The Indian government recently decided to celebrate International Yoga Day, which some Muslims say is disrespectful to their religion. What do you think about the controversy?
There's an irony at the heart of what India's right-wing Prime Minister Narendra Modi is trying to do with International Yoga Day. On the one hand, he's a religious nationalist who wants to assert yoga's Hindu roots, and the move to integrate yoga more fully into Indian culture is a chauvinistic one, particularly in the context of his party's longstanding hostility to Muslims. At the same time, by declaring International Yoga Day, and getting so many countries to sign on to the UN resolution establishing it, the Indian government suggests that yoga can in fact be separated from Hinduism, and that it's an entirely ecumenical practice.
This tension isn't unique to India; there was recently a lawsuit over whether yoga classes in a California school district violated separation of church and state. An appeals court ultimately ruled that they didn't, because the yoga was "devoid of any religious, mystical or spiritual trappings."
Is your book being released in India?
There are no plans right now, but I hope it will be! There was a very nice piece about it in The Times of India.
You write about the different strains of culture that created what we call yoga today, and how its meaning has changed over time. Do you think the practice of yoga will continue to change and adapt to different circumstances?
Undoubtedly. Its ability to do so is part of what makes it so vital.
You also wrote recently for New York Magazine about having children after decisively not wanting them for most of your life. What has the response been like to your article?
I was worried, because I don't often write about my private life, but it's been incredibly sweet. In fact, I've never written something that's elicited so many kind words. Still, I'm a lot more comfortable writing about other peoples' lives than my own.
Interview by Molly Long