Poser: My Life in 23 Yoga Poses, By Claire Dederer

Free the spirit, but don't get carried away
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The Independent Culture

I can't be the only person who found Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat, Pray, Love off-puttingly smug, but there's no denying its vast international success.

Despite Gilbert's endorsement on the cover ("I absolutely loved this book"), Poser is no EPL copycat. Claire Dederer's yoga journey is humbler and more tentative.

For a start, she doesn't travel very far, only from Seattle in Washington to Boulder, Colorado, and back again. She doesn't even get to India like other recent yoga memoirists such as Lucy Edge (Yoga School Dropout). Dederer has a toddler and a withdrawn husband, money worries and a bad back. This being Seattle, even the local homeless man recommends yoga. She instantly adores it, but moves from teacher to teacher, secretly terrified by the yoga hardbodies and perplexed at the way the trendier teachers use strange, Indianesque grammar when they give instruction.

Instead of pursuing the yoga chimera to its supposed source, she makes shrewd observations about yoga in America, where it has developed and transformed so rapidly that – for all the ostentatious chanting and use of Sanskrit – it barely resembles the Indian model. An emblematic figure is the "vaguely eastern" teacher Rodney Yee: "[He was] many people's idea of what yoga ought to look like. Never mind that Yee was of Chinese descent and yoga was of mostly Indian descent ... [he was] an embodiment of the mash-up that characterised yoga-studio spirituality."

Undaunted, Dederer starts reading the Hatha Yoga Pradipika and the Yoga Sutras to find out more about this strange form of contortionism with supposed spiritual benefits. Each chapter is loosely linked to a pose, or asana. So, for example, the Child's pose takes us back to her hippyish childhood on Puget Sound, and the groin-opening Cobbler's pose unlocks memories of childbirth. Just as fascinating as the yoga bits are Dederer's descriptions of being a "mom" in happening Seattle, where organic fascism and competitive breastfeeding are the norm.

A memoirist can be forgiven for being self-obsessed, but it does take Dederer a while to work out that her husband is sliding into depression; he melts into the background, a much less vivid figure than her troubling "frenemy", Lisa. The lack of glib life lessons makes the book feel real and rough-edged. Through yoga, Dederer soothes her back, reconnects with her husband, figures out a few things. Julia Roberts isn't likely to want the film role, but this low-key, thoughtful book is full of grace.