Reading between the lines of a new global literary genre.
After a period of intense research on the heavy subject of humanitarian crisis and mass violence in literature, Dr Shameem Black discovered her next research topic during children’s story hour at the public library.
“I went back to the US for a visit with my parents in a small city in a provincial part of the country, and I took my daughter to the public library. One of the things they read at story hour was these kids’ books about yoga practices,” Black says.
“And this is a part of the world that does not have a big Indian community, and is not generally thought of as an internationally-minded kind of place.
“Yet the five-year-olds in the class were completely fluent in the practice of yoga.”
Black says that she wanted to know how this novel position came about.
“I am Indian-American and I grew up in the 1980s in the US and at that time, India was nowhere to be found on the radar of American society.
“How, in 30 years, did we move into this completely different world, and what does that say about the changing status of India in the age of globalisation?”
Her experience at the library was Black’s first taste of a new literary genre.
“As yoga has become extremely mainstream in the last decade or two, there has, all of a sudden, arisen a really interesting – and kind of crazy – body of writing around that.
“I was really amazed to find that there are not just yoga novels, but yoga memoirs, yoga murder mysteries, and yoga chick lit. It really reflects the significance that yoga has, and takes it to these very surprising places.”
Black is now immersed in books with titles like Stuck in Downward Dog, Fear and Yoga in New Jersey and Dial Om for Murder. In all of these page-turners, she’s noticed what she calls an “amplified Indianness” – making India paradoxically both more and less visible at a global level.
“Unlike other practices that might have origins in Asia, but which lose those connotations the more they travel and the more they penetrate into Westernised spaces, the farther yoga gets from any traditional connection to India, the more it wants to assert those connections.
“So you find, for example, a British novel about a white British woman who wants to quit her job as a pharmaceutical rep and become a yoga teacher. And every chapter is prefaced not only by a pose with a diagrammatic drawing, but the Sanskrit name for that.”
The salute to the sun, though, may not have had its dawn that long ago, contrary to what many may be led to believe.
“This is, in many ways, an invented tradition,” says Black.
“The kinds of poses that are most common in contemporary practice are not ones that have been practiced in India for millennia, as is often presented, but were in fact developed in the 20th century, often in dialogue with Western discourses of body building and gymnastics.”
According to Black, the timing of India’s reimagining by the West is particularly telling.
“Representations of India via yoga are happening at the same time we see in Westernised spaces the rise of a very different representation of South Asia – the Islamic terrorist,” she says.
“In some ways, increased interest in yoga is creating a very safe, domesticated sense of Indianness that can be very easily incorporated into Western lifestyles, into capitalist proceedings, and all sorts of religious practices.
“This is in opposition to the demonised conflation of the Middle Eastern and South Asian terrorist. The larger picture seems to be a concealment of anxieties with Indianness.”
And when it comes to juxtapositions, Black is probably the only reader of yoga chick lit that sees a comparison to The Economist. But the connection, she says, is there.
“In the 20th century, yoga has often been positioned as the alternative to capitalism, but in chick lit, it is completely and 100 per cent embedded in that.
“Going to your power yoga class is something you do just like shopping for handbags.
“It’s very unapologetic about that conflation: it’s a factor of success in a capitalist corporate environment.
“That narrative seems to be in some way related to the way India is presenting itself as being part of a capitalist, globalising economy –like in the rise-of-India narratives that are emerging on the covers of Newsweek and The Economist.”
So if you find a copy of Downward Dog, Upward Fog with comments in the margins about India’s newly-found neoliberal tendencies, you’ll know Dr Black’s been reading it.
This article forms part of the Australian National University’s Asia Pacific Ideas series. Read more ideas and vote for your favourite at http://asiapacific.anu.edu.au/research. Vote for this idea here.
Article by Tabitha Carvan.