I’ve finished Geoff Dyer’s Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It, and let me say, first of all, that it’s not about yoga. At least, it’s not about the poses people think of when they think about yoga. It does have something to do with the philosophy that lies behind yoga, but more on that later.
Let me say, second of all, that I enjoyed this book very much. It’s uncategorizable, which is my favorite kind of book — it’s part travel narrative, part personal essay, part memoir, and part philosophical meditation, although the more philosophical sections are short. What philosophical meditations we get are moments in the midst of the stories, moments that come out of the stories and lead back into them.
Many of the blurbs on the book mention how funny it is, but except for one or two moments when I laughed out loud, I didn’t find this book very funny. But it was so many other interesting things, I didn’t miss the humor. There are ten chapters, each one set in a different location, including New Orleans, Rome, Libya, Cambodia, the Burning Man festival in the Black Rock Desert, and others. Dyer tells stories about the people he meets, the parties he attends, the love affairs he has, the drugs he does — at this point you may be wondering why I like this book, since I’m a boring, stay-at-home kind of person who wouldn’t know how to find drugs if I wanted to.
But the persona here is appealing. He’s got an open attitude toward life; he’s willing to try just about anything. He’s frequently depressed and despairing, but also capable of finding moments of peace, and his meditations about himself and his life are always interesting. He’s thoughtful but also reckless, hard on himself but also forgiving. He’s brutally honest about himself and the world:
… I looked up from my notes and was confronted, in the mirror above my desk, with the awful reality — grey hair, bulbous nose, scrawny neck — of my appearance. I have often been disappointed by my appearance, but I have never looked so utterly repulsive as I did then … “Life,” said the face in the mirror, “is taking its toll. All the disappointment and regret, all the bitterness and rage that you have tried to keep hidden, is now breaking out, eroding the last patina of handsomeness, and hope. You are no longer a handsome man. This is the fate of all those who place an undue value on physical attractiveness. You will become one of those people — one of the hundreds of people to whom you paid the bare minimum of attention simply because you did not like the way they looked.”
Maybe his attitude can be best summed up in this conclusion to a chapter spent describing a visit to Roman ruins:
… at some level I knew I had been kidding myself: that all the intellectual discipline and ambition of my earlier years had been dissipated by half-hearted drug abuse, indolence, and disappointment, that I lacked purpose and direction and had even less idea of what I wanted from life now than I had when I was twenty or thirty even, that I was well on the way to becoming a ruin myself, and that that was fine by me.
Ultimately, the book is about what to do after you realize you’re turning into a ruin. Do you despair, or accept it, or both? Dyer’s travels seems to be a response to this realization — he’s traveling as a distraction from pain, seeking out new people and new experiences to pass the time as comfortably as possible, and yet he’s aware at the same time that everywhere he goes, he finds only himself. There is no escape. Travel as distraction and escape leaves him all the more burdened with the weight of himself:
I felt disappointed, cheated. As the gloom settled I saw that I had spent the last fifteen years dragging the same burden of frustrated expectation from one corner of the world to the next.
And so the only thing to do is to try to make peace with yourself, even if only for a moment. And here we come to the meaning of the book’s title, because yoga’s true meaning is not the poses you might do in a yoga class, but has more to do with the search for insight and enlightenment. The term “yoga” comes from a word that means “yoke” or “union”; it’s really about finding unity with God or with something larger than oneself, or, perhaps, finding unity within oneself.
So, in the midst of the sometimes manic movement from place to place, Dyer is looking for a sense of unity and coherence of experience, for moments when he can just be where he is:
“What I want,” I said, “is a place where we can sit down, where we can just chat for a couple of hours before we go to Matt and Alexandra’s lavish suite. A place with nice music, comfortable seats, and nice tea, and so forth.” I went on and on about this, and as I did so I had a dim sense that I was working through something, some neurosis that refused to manifest itself plainly. And then it came to me.
“D’you know,” I said, “I have just described exactly the place we’re in. I’m already in the place I want to go to.”
“Well done, darling,” said Dazed. “You’ve escaped from samsara.”
This exchange (Dazed is Dyer’s current girlfriend) sums up the book beautifully — it’s about learning to want to be in the place you’re in, and it’s an insight expressed with a little bit of self-mockery and mild sarcasm. Dyer takes up some heavy subjects in this book, but he never takes himself — or anything else for that matter — too deadly seriously.