As part of a book club for my “home” yoga studio, I recently read First There is a Mountain: A Yoga Romance by Elizabeth Kadetsky. In the post below, I expand upon the response to the book that I presented as part of the book club discussion, and ponder the reasons for some of my own reactions.
The book, theoretically a memoir of the author’s yoga experience discusses the life events that brought her to yoga, and then primarily focuses upon the time she spent learning with legendary yoga guru B.K.S. Iyengar. The novel reads like a combination of personal journal and historical account of yoga lineage. The “romance” mentioned in the title is not a romance in the boy-meets-girl sense, but (I suppose) her romance with yoga.
As I read this book, I found myself frequently conflicted about it. On one hand, I basically enjoyed the read and at times I thought the writing was compelling. At other times, I found it confusing or felt like the organization made it difficult to follow. The time-line in the book jumped forward and back in a non-linear fashion, which is not particularly problematic for me in most cases, but here I found it a challenge due to the writing. Time was also handled inconsistently, with long periods skipped so completely that I didn’t have a good sense of how old the author was in each segment, or what she had experienced in between the events discussed. Because so much of the book is about her evolution as a yoga practitioner, being able to understand how long she had practiced, and in what way, at various points of the book was rather crucial to understanding the work. I had similarly mixed feelings about the issues discussed.
Much of the book was about B.K.S. Iyengar, and his relationship with his students – including the author. His role as guru is addressed in some detail, with descriptions of students prostrating themselves at his feet, following his commands (and those of his family who taught in the institute) without question, and continuing their studies with him for years. In U.S. culture, I don’t think we are as likely to accept a guru in the way discussed here. We are too individualistic. I think that probably informs my reading of the book. I felt uncomfortable with some of the characterizations of relationships between Iyengar (and his family) and the students. I can’t really imagine finding that sort of treatment acceptable in a student/teacher relationship, but then again we live in a culture that tends to prioritize the power and rights of the student over those of the teacher in many ways. Because so much else about the author’s psyche here, I wondered that she didn’t do more to explore and unpack her own acceptance of the relationships.
The same contradictory response was there for me in regard to her discussion of eating disorder (or anorexia), which appeared briefly in her discussion of college experience, and was referred back to infrequently through the remainder of the book. While I appreciated her willingness to engage the topic, I feel like the presentation of it (because so much time was compressed between her college years and her trip to India), made it read as if that experience was a short blip on the radar that was easily overcome as soon as she realized what she was doing to herself. That, to me, does a disservice to the women who struggle for years, or their whole lifetime, with eating disorder – even knowing that the behavior isn’t healthy or isn’t what they want to be. There was also a little bit of glorification of the state of starvation in her discussion of how it made her feel. I certainly get what she means there, but there wasn’t enough working through it to re-problemetize those feelings. Overall, I wasn’t sure what the discussion of her eating disordered period was adding to our understanding of here experience, and that – in combination with the brevity of the discussion of recovery – made it seem a little gratuitous to me.
A final issue that I wish had been worked through a little bit more related to the male/female relationships in the text. The relationships in India overall, and at the institute specifically, were definitely presented as male-dominated and female dismissive. The misogyny issue was another thing that the author sort of did a hit and run on. With as much personal reflection as she did, there was virtually no reflection on the connection between the position of women (in either culture) and the relationships she saw and experienced, her eating issues and the eating issues of others, the breakdown experienced by her peer student, her own responses to the relationships she saw, etc.
Basically, I am left unsure how I feel about the book and whether I got anything out of it (or even whether she did) beyond an interesting tale of Iyengar training. It’s not that I think a book has to be about everything, but it seemed like she wasn’t sure what it was about, so it would touch on something and then scamper away from it without really developing her point. When the book was over, I found that I could not succinctly say what it was “about” or the main point that it made, and to me that is problematic writing.
So, overall, it’s not a book I would recommend you go out and buy for a lot of money (particularly since it’s out of print and a little hard to find). But, if you can pick up a used copy cheap (amazon has them) or someone gives you one, it’s worth a read. In fact, I have a copy you can have! If you would like my copy of the book – please note, I bought it used, so there are markings in the margins and some underlining – let me know in your comment below and I’ll select a “winner” next Sunday and ship it out!