Learning To Embrace Mess And Chaos Through Yoga Writer Claire Dederer thought yoga would make her a better person, a better mother and maybe even all-around perfect. What she found was something deeper, messier and much more real.

Learning To Embrace Mess And Chaos Through Yoga

Learning To Embrace Mess And Chaos Through Yoga

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Woman in a yoga pose.
Poser: My Life in Twenty-Three Yoga Poses
Poser: My Life in Twenty-Three Yoga Poses
By Claire Dederer
Hardcover, 352 pages
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
List price: $26

Read An Excerpt

Claire Dederer is a freelance journalist and fourth-generation Seattle native. Her essays, criticisms and reporting have appeared in publications such as The New York Times, Vogue and The Nation. D'Arcy McGrath hide caption

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D'Arcy McGrath

Claire Dederer is a freelance journalist and fourth-generation Seattle native. Her essays, criticisms and reporting have appeared in publications such as The New York Times, Vogue and The Nation.

D'Arcy McGrath

When author Claire Dederer first stepped into a yoga studio, she was, to put it mildly, dubious about the whole experience.

"The scene was the very picture of white female self-indulgence," she writes. "There were no Indian people in this room, that was certain. A woman in her late 20s entered and rolled out her mat in front of us. Her thick blond hair was cut in an expensive bob. Her eyebrows were fancily mowed. Her outfit was black and tight. She looked as though she had been a step aerobics teacher until about five minutes ago. She looked like her name was Jennifer. 'I am Atosa,' she said, and I thought, 'Like hell you are, sister.'"

But Dederer stuck with it; yoga appeared to be the answer to everything in her life as a hip young mother in north Seattle. She found a teacher with a down-to-earth name — Fran — but that was just the beginning of her search. Dederer tells the story of her attempt to become perfect at yoga and life in her new book, Poser: My Life in Twenty-Three Yoga Poses.

The Rules of Motherhood

Dederer tells Weekend All Things Considered host Linda Wertheimer that she turned to yoga after her daughter was born, in an attempt to keep up with the hyper-competitive young mothers in her neighborhood.

"There was a list of rules, which kind of surprised me how stringent they were," she says. "You had to eat organic food, breastfeed your baby – well, at least 'til it could talk. [You had to] carry your child in a sling; strollers were completely banned." There were a host of other unspoken maxims for moms, too.

Yoga Doesn't Necessarily Lead to Perfection

Dederer says she hoped yoga would not only soothe the back pain she suffered while breastfeeding, it would make her a better person. "Yoga itself was a path for me to try to become more perfect, more virtuous, completely good."

And she needed to be good, because she was unconsciously measuring herself against her mother, who left Dederer's father in the early 1970s for a much younger lover, taking the children with her. "Our life after that was a much more chaotic and complicated, interesting, adventurous life," she says.

She had promised herself she'd never create that kind of chaos for her children. And yoga was part of the plan: Do the poses and become a perfect, calm, contented mother.

But she found in the end that although yoga helped strengthen her family, it actually led her away from the idea of perfection. "What I found instead was that I would sort of fall down and be a mess and sweat ... and that it was fine. And so yoga really ended up teaching me about loosening up and getting away from some of this perfectionism."

Excerpt: 'Poser'

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

LANGUAGE ADVISORY: This excerpt contains language that some readers may find offensive.

Chapter 1


Creamy and flushed and covered with fuzz, our baby daughter was like a delicious peach. Only much heavier. Even though I fed her on a diet of breast milk and nothing else, she grew fatter and fatter. She was dense with good health.

The story of how I nursed my daughter has a catch-22 ending. The child was thriving on this milky, unending flow of a food designed perfectly for her. When she was ten months old, I began to feel like we might weigh about the same amount. I would haul her onto my lap, and she would gaze up at me with delight, and, in the parlance of the day, latch on. I would gaze back at her, amazed that I could so easily satisfy another creature. She was intent and happy as she suckled away.

Poser: My Life in Twenty-Three Yoga Poses
By Claire Dederer
Hardcover, 352 pages
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
List price: $26

The only problem with the baby was that when I held her in my lap for these marathon feedings, she was crushing something crucial inside me. Maybe my spleen, or possibly something larger. I tried lying on my side to nurse her, but she required so much food, provided in such lengthy sessions, that this wasn't really tenable. The milk was making her so, ah, healthy that it was getting harder and harder to actually deliver the milk to her. (That's the catch-22 part.)

Cast your mind back to the late 1990s for just a moment. Nursing, at least where we lived in Seattle, was a strange combination of enthusiast's hobby and moral mandate. Drive thirty miles to the north, where my husband's cousins lived in suburbia, and you'd find mothers happily plugging a bottle of formula into their babies' squalling mouths. In Seattle, only full-time working mothers gave their babies bottles, or rather their nannies did, and those bottles were filled with the mother's very own milk, expressed through a breast pump.

Weaning wasn't allowed until at least one year. This was by the consensus of who, exactly? Us. We were mothers with books. We looked things up. We knew stuff, like, for example, that the American Academy of Pediatrics said that at least one year of nursing was optimal for the baby's immune system and brain development. For the kind of mothers we were, optimal meant mandatory, and one year meant a few. Seattle at that time was a town where little dudes strolled up to their moms at the playground for a quick top-off, said "Thanks, babe," and rejoined the soccer match.

Lucy wasn't yet ten months, and I wasn't supposed to quit nursing until at least a year. If you think this sounds like a frivolous dilemma, or not worth losing sleep over, then that just goes to show you were not a new mother in a liberal enclave at the end of the last century.

While I debated whether or not to wean her (and Bruce, my husband, feigned interest), the inevitable occurred. My back went out. The middle of my back pinched me all the time, like a salacious old man. I couldn't sit in a straight chair. I couldn't lie flat on the couch. I couldn't lift the groceries. So I weaned her.

Now that I've been doing yoga for ten years, I'm tempted to say something wise, such as: I was ready to wean and my body made the decision for me. But back then I didn't believe in that kind of crap. Instead, I paddled around in a complicated gumbo of guilt and relief. I claimed to feel cheated of my full, god-given, federally mandated year of nursing. I apologized to my husband for my subpar performance. I told my friends: Oh, no! I can't nurse the baby! Inside, I secretly exulted. I had my spleen to myself again.

We lived in Phinney Ridge, a North Seattle neighborhood filled with educated, white, liberal, well-intentioned people. Which pretty much describes all North Seattle neighborhoods. Phinney Ridge is notable for being even more liberal and even better intentioned than most. In Phinney Ridge, people don't have BEWARE OF DOG signs. They have PLEASE BE MINDFUL OF DOG signs.

When I complained about my back, which I did often and with gusto, the people of Phinney Ridge all had the same answer: Do yoga. My doctor said, "There are poses that will strengthen your back." The checker at Ken's Market told me I could buy a good yoga video at a nearby New Age bookstore. The homeless guy selling the homeless-guy newspaper outside Ken's Market said, "Be sure to get a mat! It's really hard to do yoga without a mat."

I had a number of preconceptions about yoga. I thought yoga was done by self-indulgent middle-aged ladies with a lot of time on their hands, or by skinny fanatical twenty-two-year-old vegetarian former gymnasts. I was also unsettled by the notion of white people seeking transformation through the customs of brown-skinned people — basically, to my mind, a suspect dynamic.

Despite these sloppily thought-out but strongly held reservations (my specialty), I had suspected for years that I probably ought to do yoga. I was a nervous kind of person. A self-conscious, hair-adjusting kind of person. A person who practically burned with worried energy. I had a constant tremor in my hands, so that the whole world knew how anxious I was. Just a couple of weeks earlier, I had been hanging out at a coffee shop, feeding Lucy bits of cracker and navigating the coffee cup from the saucer to my mouth with trembling hand. A gentleman approached and introduced himself to me as an "energy shaman." Before I could think of a way to get rid of him, he took my shaking hand in his and pronounced gravely, "You could use a lot of work."

"Oh!" I said, grinning nervously. "I'm sorry! I just, I have this tremor that I've had since I was a little kid, and I'm not getting a lot of sleep because of the baby. And I guess I've had a lot of coffee," I concluded lamely.

"Do you eat a lot of chicken?" he asked. "That can cause energy problems."

I stood up, spilling my coffee, and swiftly loaded Lucy into her stroller.

"Well, goodbye!" I waved cheerfully, and left the café, fairly thrumming with energy problems.

Yoga seemed like just exactly what I wanted: something to calm me down. It also seemed like just exactly what I didn't want: a place where everyone could see what a mess I was, could see my tremor and my anxiety and my worry. There was something about holding still, about inhabiting a pose, that was scary. What was under all that anxious chatter?

But now things were different. I had a baby. It was imperative that I be able to lift her. I would do anything to be able to lift her. Yoga class, however, was beyond me. Like everyone else, I was terrified of a roomful of people who were good at it. Little did I know then that only very occasionally in yoga do you stumble into an entire roomful of people who are good at it. And when you do, they often turn out to be assholes.

I figured a video would be the best approach; maybe I could get the benefits without all the pesky humiliation. On an Indian summer afternoon I decided to head over to the New Age bookstore. Amid much pinching, I wrangled the baby into her stroller. This engendered another form of mother guilt: recently strollers had come under the North Seattle mother's list of banned substances. Apparently the baby felt alienated so far away from its mother, and preferred to be snuggled up against the mother's back or—there was no escaping its Perón-like hegemony—her breast. You were supposed to strap your baby into a sling or a Snugli (known around our house as a Smugli). There was some theory about the baby wanting to see the world from the same perspective as its mother. Which looks crazy as I type it, but that was the argument. At any rate, putting your child in a stroller was fast becoming yet another way of letting the world know that a) you didn't really love your kid and b) you were an uneducated dumbshit.

That was all well and good for people with those lightweight babies made from balsa wood, but my pleasingly substantial daughter and I were devoted to strolling. And so we made our way through the fall afternoon to the bookshop, the baby graciously tolerating her dumbshit, unloving mother.

I had walked by the New Age bookshop many times but had never gone in. Wrestling the stroller through the door, I was hit with the ecclesiastically grubby smell of incense. Everything in the store was dusty and slightly off plumb. The magazine racks tilted; the books were piled haphazardly; the posters of chakras and mushrooms and stars were at various subtle angles.

I found a teetering wire rack of yoga videos. Some of the people on the covers were orange. Some wore headbands. Some were peeking out from behind swirling, vaguely medieval purple writing. I chose a beginning yoga tape. It looked safe. The woman on the cover was not orange and she wore no headgear. The graphics did not look as if they'd been drawn up in an asylum.

I located a yoga mat, and paid, and then the baby and I got the hell out of there.

That night, Bruce gave her a bottle (to which she had adapted nicely, thanks) and I went into the room with the TV, which, like everyone on Phinney Ridge, we refused to call the TV room. I put on my tape. The blond woman gazed into the camera from her serene world, a place where potted orchids thrived. There was some discussion about not overdoing it and going at your own speed, and then the yoga session was under way. The woman sat there with her eyes shut. I sat there looking at her. Apparently we were warming up.

This pleasant state of affairs continued for a while. Unfortunately, soon it was time to do asana. This had a forbidding sound.

"Jump your feet about three feet apart on the mat," said the blond lady. This I did. "Turn your left foot in about forty-five degrees, and your right foot out." Done and done. Check me out! "Extend the right hand over the right foot, and gently rest the hand on the shin, the ankle, or the foot, wherever is most comfortable." Tippy, but I was on it. "Slowly rotate your torso upward, and extend your left arm toward the ceiling." Aaand I'm out. I sat down with a thud and watched the woman with her strangely unshifting expression. She was a puddle on a windless day. In a calm voice, the way you talk to old people when you're convincing them to take a few steps across the hospital room to use the bathroom, she said, "Tri-ko-na-sa-na." She lingered on the word, obviously enjoying the sound of the...what was it? Sanskrit? "Triangle pose," she translated.

I rewound the tape. I tried again. Right leg out. Feet turned at an angle. Extend right arm. Drop right hand to right shin. I started to worry. How was I going to get that left arm up? How was I going to turn my torso? Oh, shit, now or never. I flung my left arm into the air and twisted my torso maybe a millimeter up. Pinch.

I caught a glimpse of myself reflected in the darkened window. I was hunched up like "It's Pat!" from Saturday Night Live. I rewound the tape again, and followed the directions again, and ended up, again, bunched in an odd shape. I could feel parts of my body bumping together that had never bumped before. Something hurt. I had a feeling it wasn't supposed to hurt.

Excerpted from Poser: My Life in Twenty-Three Yoga Poses by Claire Dederer. Published in January 2011 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright 2011 by Claire Dederer. All rights reserved.