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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