First There Is a Mountain: A Yoga Romance by Elizabeth Kadetsky

Little, Brown.

B.K.S. Iyengar towers over the contemporary yoga world as arguably the figure most responsible for the discipline’s current popularity in the West. But although countless thousands of modern yogis have learned his style of yoga and read his books—including the classic Light on Yoga (Schocken, 1995)—relatively few have encountered the man himself. Journalist Elizabeth Kadetsky spent many months in the late 1990s studying at the yoga master’s Iyengar Institute in Pune, India. The resulting book is a fascinating account of her time there, her encounters with the fierce but brilliant man whose devoted students call him Guruji, and the unraveling of her own complicated psychospiritual journey.

Treated like a favored daughter by Iyengar, Kadetsky spent many hours in his private library (on top of the four hours a day she spent studying and practicing asana). In their frequent conversations, he spoke warmly (addressing her as “my friend”) and candidly. Those discussions, interviews with many other students and habitués of the Iyengar Institute, and Kadetsky’s own journalistic instincts and dogged research have yielded a rich portrait of the yoga master’s life as it unfolded in the eternal political and cultural mystery that is India.

Kadetsky reveals many biographical and historical details—about Iyengar’s long years of study with the legendary T. Krishnamacharya, about India’s progression from precolonial to colonial to postcolonial state—absent from most books that attempt to define the recent history of yoga. She fearlessly explores Iyengar’s troubling relationship with India’s Hindu nationalist party, which has fomented Hindu-Muslim violence. (Iyengar, a lifelong proponent of ahimsa, or “nonviolence,” argues that he merely supports the party’s advocacy of integrating yoga into school curricula.) And throughout, she notes her own deepening understanding of and love for the practice of yoga. There are certain puzzling factual errors (for example, citing Swami Vivekananda’s age in the year of Iyengar’s birth as 55, when the swami died at 39), but on the whole, First There Is a Mountain is a highly readable and unusually informed look into a milieu that many regard romantically but few know firsthand—and even fewer have described so engagingly.