Wednesday, May 4, 2016

WARRIOR, LOVE OF THE GAME, THE GODDESS POSE--Fitness & Spirituality, discipline & self-undoing. Post-feminist Zeitgeist or Campbell's Journey of the Hero(ine)?

WARRIOR (Harper One) is a compelling memoir by Theresa Larson (w/Alan Eisenstock) former Marine platoon commander in Iraq and fitness model. LOVE OF THE GAME (Avon),is a contemporary genre romance by Lori Wilde, whose protagonist is a PT yoga practitioner. THE GODDESS POSE (Knopf): The Audacious Life of Indra Devi, the Woman Who Helped Bring Yoga to the Westis an astounding biography

These very different books appear remarkably similar in story and theme. Each woman suffered a childhood upheaval/trauma and undergoes a journey for self-enlightenment. Each is grounded by discipline that might also be a psychological addiction. Each is confronted by a life-changing challenge she felt unprepared for, despite intensive training. Their quests include men but relationships pose more questions than answers. Alone they faced personal "demons." Whether that led to success or loss, at the end their lives are transformed. 

Are these classic Journeys of the Hero(ines) to update Campbell's quest or products of our post feminist zeitgeist? Culture is full of conflicts about gender, body image, perfectionism, relationships. Add career and family to the brew and you get raw material for a contemporary woman's spiritual search. A high-minded quest in these books, it's also a schizzy celeb archtype in gushing features about female celebrities as paragons of altruism or snarky condemnations as self-indulgent/sluts. Yet the paragons must avoid "unhealthy" self-sacrifice or "masochistic/victim" mentality. So the perfectly groomed deservedly moneyed pop cultural heroine is "spiritual" in her balanced awareness. She does charity, while pursuing lavish recreation--all chronicled by media outlets.

Yet the complexity of female identity doesn't reduce to Instagram. Take WARRIOR, Theresa Larson's gut honest story of a grief-stricken young girl, who remakes herself as a competitor. After her mother's death at age 10, she's raised in an all-male sports oriented household with her father as coach and her two older brothers as competitors. As a gawky teen, preoccupied with performance, rather than clothes and boys, she gladly wore her brothers' cast-offs, knowing she had their respect and was singular in her dad's esteem. 

Toned and muscled from habitual physical discipline, Theresa, who was previously ignored by high school peers, found herself envied. She became an adolescent all star baseball player and a semi-pro pitcher. But when she embraced FIT FOR LIFE and won a photo spread, she unknowingly entered a Faustian bargain. Theresa wanted to always look that good. Too well she learned the winning secret of a Bulimic beauty queen--control your food. 

After college, Theresa entered the Marines, where her incredible strength, A-status, and sense of responsibility made her a leader. But after Basic, she began her engineer training, isolated in a sea of men. Women were few and none to equal her lieutenant's rank. But Theresa's commitment to her marines was total. Despite feeling inadequate, she was a model marine. Deployed to Iraq with the pressure of managing a platoon, she found herself respected as a Warrior. 

In Fallujah, sleep was scarce, while she worked both all night cargos and day duty.  Every day brought fear for the men in her charge. She "sucked it up," until she throwing up made her so weak, she had to recognize the chance of killing herself and endangering her men. The challenge of the war she had beat, but not the war inside. Staying was unsafe for others but admitting her problem meant humiliation. Quitting with an invisible wound, she incurred the contempt of her brother and the perplexity of the Marines. Getting help was Theresa's next fight. 

Fallujah was a challenge she prepared for, yet lost with her identity as a warrior and competitor. Her quest to recover meant unearthing herself. Eventually, she finds a new identity as a healer. Using PT, she enabled other warriors to recover, if not their limbs, their strength. When she marries a good man, it's a chance bonus for her hard-won identity. Few women are raised in a man's world and serve in war not just as physical equals but superiors in prowess and rank. Surprisingly, there are guffaws in the absurdity of gender assumptions and military hierarchies. While Theresa "gets" men, a strength of this memoir is how clearly she understands what women uniquely bring to both the armed services and the planet. 

The fictional Keisha Carlyle, also a PT, lives the dogma of fitness, diet and serious yoga. Constantly in LOVE OF THE GAME, she uses her breath to calm her emotions. Such discipline makes her feel safe and she's both strong and gorgeous, an exotic African American beauty in her small Texas town of Stardust. Yet she has a hard time managing the uncomfortable passions  aroused by her patient, Axel, a famous pitcher with the Dallas Gunslingers. She has to resist, because it could cost her a new job. The larger pay-check will allow her to take over the care of a newly discovered disabled half-sister. This is her challenge, as well as the obvious set-up for a contemporary romance, an innovative "bodice-ripper." There are a lot of fantastic aspects to please Wilde's readers.

Consider Keisha's family values. Raised by a loving white family with adopted sisters (one Asian), she was nurtured through the childhood trauma that led to her adoption. They respect that she's healed herself with yoga and fitness and used it to become an exceptionally effective therapist. This gifted career woman  is a "Superwoman" able to see just by watching Axel that his personal issues have interfered with his recovery from a damaged shoulder. When an operation is put forward as a solution by his manager, Keisha, who's not even his PT, says she can heal him. 

Axel and readers are impressed, though expressing her opinion angered her superiors, who let her know failure means she's fired. The set-up is high stakes but not just for Keisha. Axel, who's aware many women find him irresistible, is unsure of his beautiful therapist. He also realizes her program is working. He can't afford to jeopardize his recovery, but oh, how he burns! Keisha's challenge, and she's unprepared for her own reactions, is to heal him and keep her professional integrity. 

There are many contrived yet funny situations, where they cross professional lines. She gets clues to the underlying reason he can't rest. He ponders why losing emotional control is dangerous to her. For readers of this genre, at last the moment comes! The look but don't touch set-up breaks down. Keisha loses her challenge with the realization winning would not bring happiness. Her family helps her see she would not be doing her half-sister any favors to live with her. With that goal gone, Keisha discovers hot sex and true love. Forget Eastern discipline, as pop psychology saves the day. Her transformation is to become a sexual being on the road to marriage, while retaining her professional status. Better yet, the union ensures she is more connected to her family and her special black half sister. 

The erotic build-up was fun. My problem was descriptive cliches, like "perky breasts." I wanted more women's erotica in the clinch, though it was life-changing for Keisha. I can see why this series will sell in the millions. Keisha is a superwoman you want to succeed in ways she can't imagine. 

Michelle Goldberg's acclaimed biography THE GODDESS POSE: The Audacious Life of Indra Devi, the Woman Who Helped Bring Yoga to the West, tells the life story of Indra Devi, who grew up Eugenia Peterson, daughter of minor nobility in St. Petersberg, Russia. Devi reinvented herself as an evangelist for yoga, when the practice was largely unknown out of India. Her life was the great adventure of a woman in pursuit of her soul. Jung has said transcendence is the primary drive of human endeavor and she makes the argument convincing. Yet the shadow is her philosophy of emotional "non-attachment" which probably began in childhood. 

Her teenage mother, separated from her husband, scandalized her parents by leaving them her baby so she could go on the stage. Devi always yearned for her elusive mother, who throughout her childhood would bring glamour and beauty and then leave. With the Russian Revolution, Devi's comfortable life was replaced with breadlines. Money and property confiscated, she  fled to Berlin, where in the 1920's she acted in a famous cabaret, met the spiritualist and founder of theosophy, Madame Blavatsky and Theosophist Jiddu Krishnamurti, who she followed to India. 

But it was a later trip in the 1930's, as a diplomat's wife, visiting the palace of the Maharaja of Mysore, in the 1930's, where she became acquainted with the discipline of yoga. Krishnamacharya, the in-residence yoga, at first refused to instruct a woman and a Westerner. It took weeks of patient waiting before he agreed. What she learned was a fluid system he had devised based on classical Indian asanas, western gymnastics and military exercises. When he knew she was soon leaving, he told her she was destined to bring this system to the West. He no doubt knew a white woman with access to influential people would be better able to introduce yoga than a Maharaja's retainer. 

Stateless, Devi entered Shanghai in WWII with the passport of a diplomatic wife. She took her Indian name to shield her husband's career and taught popular classes. These ended after the Japanese took over the city but her students taught yogi in detainment camps full of American, British, and Dutch citizens. Toward the end of the war, when her husband lost his country, she was strangely indifferent to his suffering. She had other options, as a yoga celebrity. Devi decided to go to America, where she taught Garbo and other stars in her Hollywood studio.

Like a Zelig character, Devi was everywhere geographically and in history. She meets lots of famous people, such as Nehru In India, Noriega in Panama, counterculturefigures in Mexico in the 1960's.Yet for all her renown, she remains a seeker. Devi became transfixed by the guru Sai Baba, a "miracle worker" she believed touched by the divine. As she got more involved with promoting him and his organization, she left California, taking with her, far from his family and friends, another husband. Then she left him, seriously ailing, with caretakers in India and then Thailand.

Devi's challenge was perhaps to integrate her "detached" emotions and spiritual disciplines and become the "saint" she longed to follow. Instead, her fervor to believe in Baba's transcendence meant she ignored her saint's "feet of clay." The emotional detachment she treasured, as a "discipline," was her undoing. She turned a blind eye to sexual abuse she knew was happening, until she could not. Accusations against Sai Baba and then another of her saints were excused by their followers. Avoiding confrontation when evidence became irrefutable, she  "detached" again, disappointed but with her spirit intact. 

Yet this time the cost of her emotional distancing was significant. Devi who worked years to promote her beloved guru lost money and friendships invested in building a primary place in his organization and a home among his flock--the security of a lifetime. She failed in her challenge by not confronting herself. Instead, she just moved on, in her 80's accepting an invitation to Buenos Aires from an infatuated rock star. 

Michelle Goldberg wisely doesn't spend much time on psychology in this biography, since the point of it is what Devi actually did. Her actions and movement were who she was. Psychology can fail to see how the ineffable force of time and destiny can mix or mature a personality. The flowering of a soul can take a lifetime. Devi, who died at 102, was radiant and charismatic in her 90's. Her story provides a bridge between the fit mostly upper class female followers of yoga in the U.S. and the wild male yogis in the streets of India.