Is yoga so popular in America because it can "turn mere human flesh into a vehicle for the divine?" Or because it eliminates all the worst things about exercise?
That "divine flesh" comment is author Stefanie Syman's explanation for the American ascendancy of yoga, but Slate reviewer Claire Dederer has another theory: yoga is fun. It certainly can be — but for this novice practitioner, yoga's appeal comes from what it's not: gym class. My hatred of all things gym started in first grade, when I was forced to take remedial PE (yes, they have that). I quickly realized that I sucked at all things physical — but not so much from my peers, who somehow still allowed me play tetherball with them at recess. No, I learned that my body sucked at life from adults, who missed no opportunity to tell me I was doing everything wrong. From the President's Challenge (a multipart physical skills exam in which I failed everything but running) to junior high school tests on throwing a ball (on which I got repeated Fs), I was frequently evaluated and pretty much always flunked. I never really got much instruction beyond the initial humiliation, so I stumbled into high school convinced that I was irrevocably physically inept — and promptly quit gym for marching band.
The interesting thing about band was that it was actually a great workout, and in high school I started to really enjoy physical activity of the non-graded sort. I biked, I walked, I swam, and despite my supposed failure at everything, I become pretty active and remain so to this day. With one glaring exception: I refuse to do anything that requires specialized skill, because I assume I'll totally suck at it. Enter yoga. You'd think I'd hate it because of its sometimes-complex poses and its various intimidating accoutrements. But actually it's the best thing that ever happened to me — or my muscles, anyway. At least at the studio I visit, nobody ever tells me I'm doing stuff wrong. Instead, the teacher calmly instructs me to straighten my legs or lift my ribcage — specific directions I can actually follow. What's more, I'm never graded, there are no winners, and we're actually discouraged from comparing ourselves to others. Yoga is anti-competitive, which is one thing that makes it so calming.