"Going to yoga was part of my goodness project," writes Claire Dederer in her memoir, "Poser: My Life in Twenty-Three Yoga Poses." In the liberal Seattle community where she begins that project, it's also the thing to do: Doctor, neighbors, even a homeless guy tell her to get on the mat, in part to heal a bad back after having a baby.
But goodness as it turns out is elusive and not terribly interesting for the same reason most books about yoga are unreadable: No one wants to hear about how good you are. We want to hear about how you tried to be good and fell short. And by doing just that, "Poser" achieves something rare: It's a contemporary book about yoga that doesn't leave you squirming, suspect or bored.
A significant part of "Poser's" readability comes from Dederer's willingness to own up to trivial but self-exposing details — how her belly went soft after two cesareans, how she struggled not to resent her husband's expansive writing career, how one night she denied her two children a peek at the falling snow because "I didn't want to deal with their joy." She frames each testimonial with a yoga pose: She convinced herself she was too weak to do chaturanga, the slow descent from push-up to the floor, just as she had believed her marriage "was too fragile to hold up to the rigors of the truth." Hanumanasana, or splits, represents Dederer and her family's return from a two-year sojourn in Boulder, Colo., and the "feeling of energy, and connection, and difficulty and joy as I leaped over mountains toward my old life."
The yoga analogies aren't all airtight: There's something reckless about Dederer having shoehorned a reverie about foehn winds — those hot breezes that rip down mountain slopes — into a chapter named for seated forward bend, which is perhaps the least windy of all yoga's asanas. But the fact is, foehns are fun to read about, and so is Dederer's over-examined life: "Poser" is the output of a curious, vivid mind, one that opens every box and asks questions about its contents. Sometimes the answers are confounding. Often they're maddeningly simple.
I flatter myself that I enjoyed Dederer's book so thoroughly because we have so much in common — I too had a feminist-influenced mother who defected from married life in the 1970s; I share her suspicion of American yogis who suddenly embrace all things Eastern. I've also followed her same rough yoga path — from discovery (when the poses deliver "a dossier of information you're not sure you really want") to goal-seeking (I will get this leg behind my head if it kills me!) to the humble acceptance that yoga makes fools of goal-seekers ("The longer I do yoga, the worse I get at it," Dederer admits. Oh, yes.).
But factually speaking, many other women will locate themselves in Dederer's words much more precisely than I do, and people who never do yoga will too. The illusion of commiseration here is really just a triumph of truth-telling, of a writer having the courage to confront her limits and sit, uncritically, in the messy present. Like a yoga pose, it doesn't have to be perfect to be exquisite.
Lewis Mernit is a freelance writer living in Venice.