Like Camphor in Fire: Elizabeth Kadetsky’s First There is a Mountain

First There Is a Mountain: A Yoga Romance
Elizabeth Kadetsky
Little Brown and Co.
Jan 2004

*****

First There is a Mountain is a dark horse in the world of non-fiction. Even if you practice Iyengar yoga, even if you crave a profound first-person narrative, and even if you are an avid reader of biographies or a kind of ratcheted up literary journalism, this book is a hybrid ­ in so many ways – that it is likely to slip past you and a wide audience. And this would be tremendously unfortunate since Elizabeth Kadetsky’s book offers readers something that they should be expecting more often.

In her first book, Elizabeth Kadetsky, who teaches in the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University and is currently at work on two novels and a collection of short stories, presents a tightly woven rendering of a quest in which, as she describes it, the “seeker kind of knows there is no object and proceeds both with skepticism and the open knowledge she must proceed.” This is the line running wildly and quietly through a book in which – except for periodic ranting of Iyengar – nothing is loud. There is no extraordinary mystery solved. But Kadetsky, through the lens of her time with B.K.S. Iyengar at Pune, does lead readers through a more apparent quest to understand the man and his philosophy of yoga.

Through her, Iyengar is charismatic, difficult, deeply affecting and likewise shaped by deep rifts and splits within the world of yoga as they have played out in India and the West. Of his success, Kadetsky writes, “Iyengar’s transgression was that by publishing his book ­ in English for a Western audience ­ he had revealed an exclusive Indian code: ‘It should be kept secret very carefully, like a box of jewelry,’…..Iyengar had let the West into the family home, in a very literal sense.” Turns like this, throughout the book, indicate that Kadetsky’s history with yoga, work as a journalist, and experience as a woman deeply intent on recording – honestly ­ her reactions to the India she inhabits and help her to make resonant claims about how culture and language and tradition are exported. Taken outside the home, traditions and languages and practices do not necessarily become wrong, but they absolutely become another animal.

*****

I told someone at work, a university – and generally a book-hungry crowd – that I was reading First There is a Mountain: A Yoga Romance. She seemed almost unwilling to ask, but she did: what kind of book is it? I waited and thought. Don’t say it’s a history of Iyengar yoga; I knew that would not be right. Don’t say it’s a biography of B.K.S. Iyengar. That would be skewing things, too. Don’t say it’s a memoir or, certainly, the woman might walk away. The woman could see me struggling. Well, she tried, again, what would you say it’s about? I paused, thinking: not about yoga or Iyengar, the east, or the west, or the narrator, or fads, or starving. The book is not one of these things really. It is ­ by its example ­ a true weave, some sort of godsend to a readership that wants (though we never know to ask for it) content, to be shown the surface and what resounds underneath, to find what can never be understood even with the necessary tools: research, a tape recorder, and a writer’s own reflection.

******

In more ways that one, the book is an autobiography pulled far from its subject. Kadetsky lets her family history and her control over food find its way into the pages. But in another light, it is a biography interrupted by the writer’s focus on herself. These two impressions are not wrong. The truth is that the book is both; it is about the way a writer – who, admittedly, has a hard time taking in food -ingests the world. In fact, Kadetsky’s rendering of Iyengar’s speech, his life, and politics present themselves as having been radically internalized within her. Kadetsky’s story reads as a constant taking in, both metaphoric and physical. She’s nourished first through her understanding of Iyengar, and then through her search for a practice that suits her. The book is as much a lesson in how to absorb the world as it is informative.

By the end of the narrative, as Kadetsky has worked her way through the life of Iyengar in order to uncover not only how compelling yoga is in the West but also what it is in India, she uncovers, too, a story about culture. True to the kinds of understanding she arrives at, she tries ­ again, venturing out to learn ­ Ashtanga yoga with a group that harkens back to one of her first yoga experiences in Santa Cruz. One does not sense that the writer is hungry or deprived or pulled, as she recalls she once was, by her family in such a way that pressure seems tangible, wracking. Her encounter with Ashtanga, the yoga of Pattabhi Jois forces ­ as it must, a separation from Iyengar. But it is an aperture, too; her research now ended, she must tell Iyengar that she has chosen, for herself, something with which she is sure she can be nourished.

****

After ending up bed-ridden with back pain three times in two years, my husband began ­ now five years ago ­ to practice Astanga. As you have, no doubt, heard, from more people than you care to remember, yoga miraculously heals people. My husband encouraged me to go. I balked. In the middle of what I perceived to be an overwhelmingly publicized yoga craze, my husband was asking me to do something everyone else was doing. I told him I hated exercise. I told him it was too crowded. I told him I didn’t know how to be quiet. He said I didn’t know what I was talking about. We fought about it. I walked the dogs. He continued to develop his Ashtanga practice. He stopped complaining about his back. I remained, as usual, plagued by stomach-problems and insomnia. Some weeks ago, I bought First There is a Mountain for my husband’s 52nd birthday. And it would probably pain him to know that a yoga romance and not his testimonial may have changed my mind. As I have learned from Elizabeth Kadetsky’s debut, each of us finds her own way.

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