Poser: My Life in Twenty-Three Yoga Poses
(Farrar, Straus, and Giroux)
US: Dec 2010
Imagine that you’re the daughter of a ‘70s suburban mom who leaves her husband for a hippie tugboat captain, but chooses to never officially divorce her husband. You, the daughter, and your adored brother travel with mom from residence to residence. Through the lens of years, some of these places you’ve lived gather a kind of macramé and alfalfa sprout charm.
You grow up safely nestled inside an earnest triangle, with Mom and tugboat captain Larry making two sides of the triangle, and Dad the third, but Mom’s lifestyle choice flummoxes you. As you grow up, marry, and become a mom yourself, you feel inflexible about what’s right and what’s wrong in your life. What can you do to regain your balance?
This is Claire Dederer’s story. She is that daughter who becomes a woman determined to do everything right by her husband and daughter. She buys organic meat, mills the baby food by hand, lives in a leafy and eco-friendly neighborhood, and shuns chemical household cleansers in favor of vinegar. And it’s that quest for perfection—along with a bad back and a nervous tremor—that drives Dederer to take up yoga. In Poser: My Life in Twenty-Three Yoga Poses she writes that yoga “was an attempt to fix something…wrong with me.”
Poser is only partially about yoga, although Dederer, an essayist and book reviewer, writes well about the physical challenges of a consistent yoga practice. Poser is really about motherhood; those who are good at it and those less good, about striving for the good life, and, as Dederer reminds her pregnant belly, that “mommies are protagonists, too.”
Dederer’s memoir recounts her tentative approach to yoga, first with a videotape at home (not a good idea, she learns) then at an austere studio peopled with the ultra-fit, and finally, among newcomers at an unpretentious storefront manned by a fellow with a dorky hairdo. Along the way, she frets about her young daughter, grows distant from her husband, turns an overachiever friend on to yoga with alienating results, has another baby, relocates from Seattle to Colorado with her husband and daughter and comes back again, and always ruminates, with simmering anger and periodic bemusement, on the repercussions that her shape-shifting, pot-scented childhood has on her identity as a woman and as a mother.
Dederer knows that a yoga pose is called an asana . She learns –- and tells us—about meditation, breathing, and drishti –- the point on which you focus your gaze to help you concentrate in a challenging pose. She discovers the balance and power of crow pose and headstand. But Dederer and her memoir are both troubled by the meditator’s worst enemy, the monkey mind. She can’t seem to find a balance between her fine writing about yoga (she explains yoga’s history beautifully) or the culture shock of divorce on ‘70s children, and her pervasively flippant, chatty tone. When a woman on the path to becoming a yogini, or at least a calmer, more confident person, describes “the homeless guy selling the homeless guy newspaper,” one of the eight limbs of yoga withers. That’s the limb called Yama , the one where you employ kindness toward others.
Both she and her husband earn their living as freelance writers, necessitating periodic belt-tightening. Her efforts to cut costs by shopping at Trader Joe’s rather than Whole Foods Market is laudable, but comes across here as disingenuous. (Poser is rife with brand names. Since much of the story takes place on the grown-up end of Seattle’s hipster scene, you’ll recognize a few band names, too.)
It’s in Colorado, where the family moves during her husband’s environmental journalism fellowship, that Dederer realizes her life doesn’t have to be a performance. And it’s in her yoga practice, on a mat in a dusty gym, where she wonders to herself “what if the opposite of good was real?”
This is Dederer’s Aha! moment, a streak of personal clarity in a clamorous search for self. Reading Dederer’s honest tale of integrating her topsy-turvy daily life with the peace and solitude of a yoga practice leaves one feeling as comfortable as talking easily with someone you know.