After following the blogs of Carol Horton and Roseanne Harvey for quite some time, I was pleased to learn that they were collaborating as editors on an anthology of essays dealing with contemporary yoga in N. America. Both think body electric and it’s all yoga baby grapple with the tensions we find in N. American yoga and I was looking forward to reading 21st Century Yoga, which I hoped would give writers the room to delve deeper into the nuances and complexities that shorter blog posts cannot accomodate.

No matter what your stance is regarding contemporary yogic debates, all of the essays will likely help spark new ideas in your mind about yoga, especially if you are already thinking about issues that have crop up frequently on the blogs of Horton and Harvey. The essays are also written in a very accessible manner; I read the whole book in one sitting!

The strongest essays are based primarly on personal experiences and offer conclusions drawn from them. I would highly recommend reading Chelsea Roff’s personal story about her struggle with anorexia. It is a moving, brave and thoughtful piece that demonstrates both the power and the limits of yoga practice in regard to a very modern affliction. I’d also recommend Matthew Remski’s observations regarding the lack of community in contemporary mainsteam yoga. Drawing on his experiences in community organization, he offers an interesting list of calls to action for studio owners/community leaders. Whether you agree with his suggestions or not, it’s heartening to see practitioners and studio owners being critical of on the ground operations and sharing their thoughts in print.

Other essays provide an interesting contextual background to modern yoga, such as Be Scofield’s discussion of the role of spirituality in warfare (yes, even religions like Buddhism and Hinduism that we consider “peaceful” can advocate for violence and extreme fundementalism), or Nathan G. Thompson’s comparison of Zen and Yoga communities which ties differences between these communities to the mind-body divide.

The essays are weaker when they attempt to present more sweeping theses about the nature of yoga, or the nature of reality. The constraints of a fairly short essay format/style make this challenging to pull off well. Not all essays do this, or if they do, only in part. I found Julian Walker’s piece about Western discourse about the body particularly problematic. It adopts a more objective voice as it weaves together cherry picked examples from a very wide range of cultures and time periods to reach generalized conclusions. For example, Walker claims that “there is nothing bigoted or prejudicial in pointing out that in cultures that have embraced post-Enlightenment Western values, life is infinitely better for individual human beings than in those where this is not the case.” The oversimplification of this idea shows the danger in making sweeping claims in a thesis that only has a few pages to flesh out such claims. (Not only are there many ways to demonstrate that life is infinitely better in communities that have not embraced post-Enlightenment Western values, this statement completely ignores the fact that the greatest instances of human suffering in known human history – systemic genocides like the Holocaust and what have you – have all been perpetuated by societies that fully embrace post-Enlightenment Western values.)

Overall, this volume definitely delivers on what I had hoped for: to pick up threads of discourse from the yoga blogosphere and to develop them with a greater richness in detail. If there is one thing I would have liked to see more of, it would be greater diversity in terms of how N. American yoga is represented. Carol Horton mentions how yoga has moved beyond a primarily white, new age practice to reach marginalized populations, at risk groups, etc. and I would love to see more content along this vein. Cultural appropriation is also a major topic of discussion in the yoga blogosphere that was not picked up on in this volume. I would be curious to read essays from people who identify as standing in the margins as yoga grows in accessibility in N. America. Perhaps this could be a focus for a second volume of 21st Century Yoga?