Those Yoga Poses May Not Be Ancient After All, And Maybe That's OK

Those Yoga Poses May Not Be Ancient After All, And Maybe That's OK

2:02pm Jun 02, 2015
Michelle Goldberg is a senior contributing writer for The Nation.
Michelle Goldberg is a senior contributing writer for The Nation.
Matt Ipcar

That yoga pose you've been practicing may not be as ancient as you thought. In fact, journalist Michelle Goldberg says that most of the poses that we do in modern yoga classes have no antecedent beyond 150 years ago.

"Probably the greatest myth is when you do these poses, when you do sun salutations or the warrior poses, that that there's some sort of continuity to what yogis were doing 3,000 years ago on the banks of the Ganges, and that's just not true," Goldberg tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross.

Michelle Goldberg is a senior contributing writer for The Nation.

Michelle Goldberg is a senior contributing writer for The Nation.

Matt Ipcar

Goldberg is the author of The Goddess Pose: The Audacious Life of Indra Devi, the Woman Who Helped Bring Yoga to the West. Her book traces the modern Western practice of yoga to a Russian woman named Indra Devi, who was born in 1899 with the birth name Eugenia Peterson. Devi became interested in yoga after reading about it in a book written by an American new-age thinker. She studied the practice in India before introducing it to political leaders in Russia and Shanghai and, in 1947, bringing it to America, where her students included Hollywood celebrities like Greta Garbo and Gloria Swanson.

"[Devi] was the one who took yoga from being what people in the West tended to imagine as sword-swallowing and circus tricks and domesticated it," Goldberg says. "The idea of yoga as a system of wellness for modern women that helps you [to] better equip yourselves for the many challenges of the modern world, that all comes back to her."


Interview Highlights

On the book 14 Lessons in Yogi Philosophy and Oriental Occultism, by American William Walter Atkinson, which sparked Indra Devi's interest in yoga

Indra Devi discovers this book in the library of a Russian aristocrat. ... This was the sort of book you would find in the library of a bohemian Russian aristocrat. She finds this book, she thinks that it's a sort of dispatch from this otherworldly land. It kindles a fascination with India that will carry her throughout almost a century, but really it's Indian wisdom as refracted through a sort of American self-help writer, and I think that exemplifies, again, the sort of mashup that we see both in her life and her thinking, but also in yoga as it has come to us today.

On why yoga is aerobic

Krishnamacharya was the yogi-in-residence at the Mysore Palace, and the Maharajah of Mysore was this very progressive nationalist figure who really wanted to unite the best of the East and the best of the West. And so he sponsored Krishnamacharya to run a yoga school in the palace. Krishnamacharya — because a lot of his students were young, royal boys — created a system that would sort of capture the animal energy of an 8- or 9- or 10-year-old boy. So he put in things that if you do yoga now are really familiar to you — the jump backs and the chaturanga, which is the sort of half-pushups and these very fast, flowing movements that we call vinyasa — he created a lot of those things.

On Krishnamacharya teaching Devi

She was a woman in her 30s by the time she came to [Krishnamacharya]. At first he wanted nothing to do with her. ... He said, "I don't teach women and I don't teach Westerners." He wanted her to go away and she basically went over his head. She went to her friend the maharajah. She had this lifelong talent for cultivating people, for getting people to want to do her favors. Probably the most supernatural thing about her was her astonishing charisma. She went over his head, she went to the maharajah. The maharajah basically said, "Krishnamacharya, you have no choice, you have to teach her." He finally gave in, he grudgingly started giving her lessons. And when he saw how dedicated she was, he sort of relented and eventually developed enormous affection for her. And after he had taught her many of his secrets, he kind of came around ... and saw that yoga had a lot to offer people outside of his own purview and he charged her with teaching a lot of what he had taught her.

On Devi teaching yoga in the U.S. in 1947

First she goes to Shanghai and she has a yoga studio in a villa that had been owned by Madame Chiang Kai-shek, and she's there during the Japanese occupation. After the war, she sails for Hollywood and she opens up one of the first yoga studios. There had been a couple of yoga teachers here and there in the United States. There was a brief yoga panic in the United States in the 1920s. ... You can see a lot of tabloid news stories about lecherous yogis luring women away from their marriages and families, but there hadn't really been very many yoga teachers in part because the Alien Exclusion Act kept South Asian immigrants from coming to the United States. So she opens a studio in Hollywood. She has some connections from her Shanghai days, people who are now in California who introduce her to various figures in Hollywood. They introduce her to Aldous Huxley, who is a famous writer who has kind of a longtime interest in Eastern spirituality. And so she opens this studio. And soon she has all sorts of famous actors and actresses as clients who are doing headstands on the sets or sitting in lotus pose, and she becomes a sort of minor celebrity.

On the idea of the "self" and yoga

One of the transmutations that's happened as yoga has made its way from East to West and back again is that idea of "self." In most interpretations of classical yoga philosophy or Hindu philosophy "self" means the connection to the divine, the things that transcend the ego or the things that transcend individual subjectivity. But "self" in the Western interpretation obviously is understood very differently and is understood as kind of the ultimate in individual subjectivity. So classical yoga, which had originally been about obliterating the "self," obliterating individuality, obliterating everything that connects you to the world, becomes — as Indra Devi teaches it and as it's gradually assimilated to the West — a way of having greater efficacy in the world and kind of developing your own personality. It's a complete inversion of how it would be understood in classical Hinduism, but anyone who has any familiarity with American self-help culture will know what I'm talking about right away. This has become so much a part of the culture you barely even notice it.

On how modern yoga compares with ancient yoga

There's no mention of warrior poses or sun salutations in any ancient text at all. That might be a little disillusioning to some people, [but] what I hope and what it ultimately meant to me is we don't have to feel so anxious about the authenticity of our modern practices because like anything ... it's a modern adaptation and that might, I hope, let people feel a little less anxious about adapting it for their own needs.

Copyright 2015 Fresh Air. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/programs/fresh-air/.

Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Americans have had a long fascination with Eastern spirituality and practices, including yoga. But students of yoga may not be aware that this practice is really an example of how the West has influenced India, as well as how India has influenced the West. These surprising crosscurrents are described in a new book about the history of yoga called "The Goddess Pose: The Audacious Life Of Indra Devi, The Woman Who Helped Bring Yoga To The West." Devi was born in Latvia with the birth name Eugenia Peterson. After reading about yoga, she studied it in India. She traveled around the world and introduced yoga to political leaders in Russia and Shanghai. In 1947, she came to America, where her students included Hollywood celebrities like Greta Garbo and Gloria Swanson. My guest is the author of "The Goddess Pose," Michelle Goldberg. Her previous books were about the rise of Christian nationalism and about reproductive rights around the world. She's a senior contributing writer for The Nation, where she recently published an article about how she went from being an adamant non-breeder to having two children. We'll talk about that a little later.

Michelle Goldberg, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Why did you decide to focus your book about the history of yoga and how it came to the West on Indra Devi?

MICHELLE GOLDBERG: Mostly because her story is so extraordinary, and I couldn't believe that nobody had done it before. Although once I started digging into it, I kind of realized why nobody had done it before. You know, I'm interested beyond just the origins of hatha yoga or the origins of postural yoga. What interested me was - well, first of all, this woman whose life had spanned the 20th century and who, you know, kind of was this sort of "Zelig" figure or as, you know, some people would sometimes describe her to me as a kind of female Forrest Gump, you know, who just sort of pops up everywhere. And also beyond just yoga, I'm really interested and have been since I spent a lot of time in India in my mid-20s, I've always been interested in this sort of Western fascination with the, quote-unquote, "mystic East" and all of the things that Westerners project onto India and all of the things that India projects back onto the West and this kind of incredibly rich and fruitful relationship.

GROSS: So Indra Devi was born in 1899 in the Latvian city of Riga. Her mother was 16 when she gave birth. She was an aristocrat. And the first time that Indra Devi hears about yoga was in Moscow in 1914 after World War I had started, when she found a book about yoga in the library of one of her mother's actor friends. What was the book and who wrote it?

GOLDBERG: Well, the book was "Fourteen Lessons In Yogi Philosophy And Oriental Cultism." And although Indra Devi, or, as she was then-known, Eugenia Peterson, had no way of knowing it, the author was not an Indian yogi, he was an American New Thought pioneer. He went by the pen name Yogi Ramacharaka, but his real name was William Walter Atkinson. And he had been part of the New Thought movement at the turn of the century in the United States, which was sort of the grandparent of many different strains of American sort of mind-over-matter thinking. Probably the most famous descendent of it is Christian Science. But a lot of New Age thinking, a lot of ideas about how the mind controls reality and how kind of harnessing our thoughts will allow us to harness our destinies originated in New Thought. And then, you know, there's elements of that in yoga philosophy as well, and the two sort of merge. The New Thought writers were very, very interested in yoga. Some of them, like William Walter Atkinson, passed themselves off as Indian yogis. And so what's fascinating to me is that Indra Devi discovers this book. She thinks that it's a sort of dispatch from this otherworldly land. You know, and it kindles a fascination with India that will carry her throughout, you know, almost a century. But really it's Indian wisdom as refracted through a sort of American self-help writer. And I think that exemplifies, again, the sort of mash up that we see both in her life and her thinking, but also in yoga as it's come to us today.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Michelle Goldberg, who writes for The Nation. She's covered the Christian right, but her new book is about the history of yoga. It's called "The Goddess Pose: The Audacious Life Of Indra Devi, The Woman Who Helped Bring Yoga To The West." So in part because of this yoga in a cultish book that was actually written by a Chicago lawyer who's taken on the name of an Indian yogi, Indra Devi decides to go to India and eventually goes there, spends a lot of time there. She's not Indra Devi yet. She's still Eugenia Peterson, her birth name. So when she first discovers yoga, this is a period when occult practices and esoteric spiritual practices were flourishing in Russia, where she was living. And another, like, really fascinating connection that you make in this whole period between all of these, like, esoteric practices is Theosophy. And I've always heard of Theosophy; I've always heard of Madame Blavatsky, who was one of the founders of Theosophy, never quite understood what it was. And it's got a fascinating connection to yoga. So let's start here with - so what was Theosophy?

GOLDBERG: Sure. Well, Theosophy you can really see as the grandmother of all modern New Age movements. Madame Blavatsky was this fascinating - you could call her a charlatan or you could call her an innovator or you could call her both. But she was, like Indra Devi, she was a Russian woman who fled an arranged marriage, had all sorts of adventures throughout Europe, some of them surely embellished. And she, together with an American lawyer named Henry Steel Olcott, founded this movement, the aim of which was to bring together the essential truths of all major religions and to unite religion and science. And this was a time, you know, when there was a lot of crisis in the West over the fact that evolution and geological discoveries had undermined basic faith in Christianity, and people were looking for spiritual alternatives. And Theosophy, for a time, was embraced by all sorts of establishment figures. You know, Thomas Edison went to Madame Blavatsky's salons. Theosophy was founded in New York, but eventually they went and they settled in India. And in India, Theosophy had, you know, a number of adherents among the higher reaches of the British Raj, a British colonial society. But it also found a lot of adherents among elite Indians who were really pleased to hear Westerners, who tended to really disparage Hinduism and tended to really disparage Indian traditions, saying that not only was Hinduism, you know, the equal of Christianity, it actually had a enormous amount to teach Christianity. You know, so Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of India, his father was a Theosophist. He was a Theosophist for a time. You know, Gandhi said that he first found his way back to Hindu scriptures through Theosophy. It really was this sort of bridge for secularized Indians, in some cases, back to their own spirituality and their own traditions. And so Theosophy, you know, it kind of grew and grew through the end of the 1800s, the beginning of the 1900s. And it was through Theosophy that Indra Devi, or Eugenia Peterson, finally made her way to India. She followed a very charismatic, young guru named Krishnamurti, who, for a time, Theosophy posited as the great savior of the world. And she ended up following him to India, where she kind of - where Theosophy sort of gave her entree into Indian colonial society.

GROSS: That's just so interesting that this Western (laughter) Theosophy ends up being exported to India, where it influences Indian teachers and then that gets exported back to the West.

GOLDBERG: Yeah, and I think that this, again, is the pattern that we see over and over and over again. So that, you know - and I certainly don't mean to imply that yoga or that the teachings that, you know, that kind of the Americans are searching for in India are inauthentic, just that there always been a dialogue between the two traditions, you know. And I think that that's true of any sort of religious or spiritual tradition. It's true of almost any cultural tradition.

GROSS: Let's take a short break here, then we'll talk more about the history of yoga and how it came to be so popular in the United States. My guest is Michelle Goldberg, and her new book is called "The Goddess Pose: The Audacious Life Of Indra Devi, The Woman Who Helped Bring Yoga To The West." Back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Michelle Goldberg, who's written a new book called "The Goddess Pose: The Audacious Life Of Indra Devi, The Woman Who Helped Bring Yoga To The West." Michelle Goldberg is also a senior contributing writer for The Nation. So let's get back to the story of Indra Devi, who goes to India in part because she wants to learn more about spiritual practices and about yoga. She studies in India with Swami Krishnamacharya, and he brought together breathing and movement in yoga, is that right?

GOLDBERG: Well, there was a number of people who were working along the same lines. I mean, basically, this was a time when there was a worldwide craze for what was then called physical culture - you know, essentially physical exercise. And there was a number of people in India who said, well, we have our own traditional Indian version of physical culture. And, you know, this was during the Indian nationalist movement. They said, you know, we have this in our own tradition. We have a superior version of physical culture called yoga.

And what they did is they took some practices that had been part of the kind of mystical yogic tradition going back to medieval times. They combined them with physical practices that came from Indian wrestlers, you know, particularly kind of what they called dands or push-ups. They took elements from a gymnastics system that had become popular with the British Army - so kind of British Army calisthenics and gymnastics. And they took elements of traditional Indian gymnastics, things that had not before been seen as part of any sort of a religious or spiritual tradition. And there was a number of innovators who were kind of mixing all of these things together.

Now, Krishnamacharya was the yogi-in-residence at the Mysore Palace. And the maharajah of Mysore was this very progressive nationalist figure who, you know, really wanted to unite the best of the East and the best of the West. And so he sponsored Krishnamacharya to run a yoga school in the palace. And Krishnamacharya, because a lot of his students were young, royal boys, created a system that would, you know, sort of capture their - you know, the animal energy of an 8- or a 9- or a 10-year-old boy. And so, you know, he put in things that if you do yoga now are really familiar to you. You know, the jump-backs and the chaturangas, which is the sort of half push-ups, and these very fast, flowing movements that we call vinyasa. He created a lot of those things, and...

GROSS: But he created them for 8-year-old boys and not for adults.

GOLDBERG: (Laughter) Well, yes. Part of the reason that Ashtanga yoga, which is probably the sort of purest version of his system, which was taught by one of his students named Pattabhi Jois. You know, part of the reason that it's so aerobic and so challenging, again, is because it was made for - it was made for young boys who had that sort of animal energy to challenge. And that's not the kind of yoga that he taught Indra Devi because she was, you know, a woman in her 30s by the time she came to him.

She - and at first, he wanted nothing to do with her. You know, she ended up there. She was invited to this really splendid wedding at the Mysore Palace. She wanted to study with this yoga master. She showed up in the shala, and he said, you know, I don't teach women, and I don't teach Westerners. And he, you know, wanted her to go away. And she basically went over his head.

She went to her friend, the maharaja. She had this lifelong talent for cultivating people, for getting people to want to do her favors. You know, probably the most kind of supernatural thing about her was her astonishing charisma. He gave in. He started giving her - he kind of grudgingly started giving her lessons. And then, when he saw how dedicated she was, he sort of relented and eventually developed, you know, enormous affection for her. And after he had taught her, you know, many of his secrets, he charged her with teaching a lot of what he had taught her.

GROSS: So when does she come to the United States and start teaching yoga here?

GOLDBERG: Around 1947. So first, she goes to Shanghai, and she has a yoga studio in a villa that had been owned by Madame Chiang Kai-shek, and she's there during the Japanese occupation. After the war, she sails for Hollywood, and she opens up one of the first yoga studios. There had been a couple of yoga teachers here and there in the United States. There was a brief yoga panic in the United States in the 1920s. You can see - or even before that, you can see a lot of, you know, these kind of tabloid news stories about lecherous yogis luring women away from their marriages and families. But there hadn't really been very many yoga teachers, in part because of the Alien Exclusion Act - kept South Asian immigrants from coming to the United States.

So she opens a studio in Hollywood. She has some connections from her Shanghai days, people who are now in California, who introduce her to various figures in Hollywood. They introduce her to Aldous Huxley, who is, you now, a famous writer who has, you know, kind of a longtime interest in Eastern spirituality. So she opens this studio, and soon she has all sorts of famous actors and actresses as clients, you know, who are doing head stands on the sets or, you know, sitting in lotus pose. And she becomes a sort of minor celebrity.

GROSS: So among her celebrity students is Greta Garbo.

GOLDBERG: Right. Greta Garbo, who - it's very interesting. She meets Greta Garbo. One of the things that I loved about researching this book is that I kept finding all of these sort of strange connections and strange lessons about the way that meeting somebody in one part of your life could change your life 30 years later. And so when Indra Devi - or Eugenia Peterson - was fleeing the revolution, for a time she was acting...

GROSS: In Russia.

GOLDBERG: In Russia, correct. For a time, she was acting in this small town where a lot of white Russians were kind of trying to stay ahead of the Red Army. And she meets this kind of very aloof, beautiful ingenue and a Russian cabaret performer, who's pursuing her, named Aleksandr Vertinsky. And then much, much later she's in New York and this ingenue has now become an extremely famous fashion designer named Valentina, who is in a sort of romantic threesome with her husband and Greta Garbo. And so that's how Indra Devi meets Greta Garbo. And, you know, having Greta Garbo as her student obviously brings her in a lot of cachet. But even more important than Greta Garbo was Gloria Swanson, who's just come off "Sunset Boulevard" and who has a lifelong interest in sort of healthy living and who becomes a big, big exponent of Indra Devi's.

GROSS: You know, it's interesting how yoga, especially probably in the '60s and '70s when it was really starting to catch on as part of, like, countercultural pursuits, was seen as this, like, alternative to both exercise and spirituality. But its roots are so much in, like, royalty, whether it's, like, the Indian literal royalty or, like, the American royalty, which is Hollywood (laughter).

GOLDBERG: Yeah, I mean, one of the fascinating things is that, you know, well before hippies and countercultural types were practicing yoga, you know, kind of rich Republican housewives were doing it at Elizabeth Arden spas, where Indra Devi was teaching in the 1950s and early 1960s .

GROSS: So Indra Devi not only promotes and teaches yoga, she has what you describe as a mashup of Hindu practices - Western esotericism, health food, showbiz glamour and back-to-nature femininity. So what are some of the other beliefs and practices that accompanied her approach to yoga?

GOLDBERG: Well, a big one is healthy food, and, you know, the diets that she prescribed would be, I think, really familiar to people today - you know, no white sugar, no refined grains, raw fruits and vegetables. She promoted natural childbirth. She promoted breast-feeding. Those sorts of things were not, you know, were not mainstream practices in the 1950s and 1960s by any means. You know, she promoted sunbaths and also just a sort of orientation towards the world - positive thinking, self-development. When - one of the kind of transmutations that's happened as yoga has made its way from East to West and back again and back again is that the idea of self. Which in most kind of interpretations of classical yoga philosophy or Hindu philosophy, self means the kind of connection to the divine - the things that transcend the ego or the things that transcend individual subjectivity. You know, but self in the Western interpretation obviously gets - is understood very differently and is understood as kind of the ultimate in individual subjectivity. And so classical yoga, which originally had been about sort of obliterating the self, obliterating individuality, obliterating, you know, everything that sort of connects you to the world, becomes, as Indra Devi teaches it and as it's, you know, gradually assimilated to the West, a way of having greater efficacy in the world and kind of developing your own personality. I mean, it's a complete inversion of, I think, how it would be understood in classical Hinduism, but anyone who has any familiarity with American self-help culture will know what I'm talking about right away. You know, this has become kind of part of - so much a part of the culture you barely even notice it.

GROSS: My guest is Michelle Goldberg, author of the new book "The Goddess Pose: The Audacious Life Of Indra Devi, The Woman Who Helped Bring Yoga To The West." After a break, we'll talk more about yoga and we'll talk about Goldberg's decision to never have children and why she changed her mind, which is the subject of her recent personal essay. And we'll hear about the pros and cons of the Apple Watch from our tech contributor, Alexis Madrigal, who's been wearing one. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with journalist Michelle Goldberg. Her new book "The Goddess Pose" is about how yoga was brought to the U.S., and how it represents the West influencing India as well as India influencing the West. The book focuses on Indra Devi, the Russian woman who helped popularize yoga in the U.S. Goldberg says the lifestyle Devi promoted was a mash-up of Hindu practices, Western esotericism, health food, showbiz glamour, and back-to-nature femininity.

Another belief that Indra Devi had, which you write about in the book, she thought that you could bring on a late period - or to put it another way, an abortion - with a douche of coffee and olive oil. That I have to say is kind of odd.

GOLDBERG: Yes, and I don't recommend trying it (laughter).

GROSS: No.

GOLDBERG: But to me, what's interesting about that is that she really had no politics. She was extremely concerned about staying, you know, and partly because she was a stateless person who had really lived through a number of terrible cataclysms. You know, she had been imprisoned by the Cheka. She had, you know, really gone through hell both in Russia and then again in Shanghai. And a lot of what she taught was about staying above and aloof from the changes of history, you know, from politics. She just kind of almost never took a position except about abortion. She was an adamant supporter of a woman's right to choose and in part because she was so passionate and committed to the idea of personal freedom and, you know, obviously to the idea of women's freedom. And so she used to kind of make these weird little pamphlets with this recipe that she believed would bring on a late period, and she would write them out in various languages and tell people to photocopy them and distribute them as sort of chain letters with the idea that if women knew how to end their own pregnancies, they wouldn't be subject to the vicissitudes of politics.

GROSS: So in summing up Indra Devi's importance to yoga as it's practiced now, how popular is the style that she taught today?

GOLDBERG: The style that she taught has been a little bit eclipsed by more vigorous systems, the kind of systems that Pattabhi Joyce and other of Krishnamacharya's students have created and popularized; but I think yoga culture, the idea of yoga as a system of wellness for modern women that helps you better to kind of equip yourselves for the, you know, many challenges of the modern world, that all comes back to her. You know, all these things that we assume go together - you know, kind of prenatal yoga, yoga and healthy eating, yoga and, you know, whole grains, this whole - you know, yoga and celebrity - this whole matrix of things, she put them all together; and, you know, she was the one who kind of took yoga from being what people in the West, you know, tended to imagine as, you know, sword swallowing and, you know, kind of circus tricks and made it and domesticated it.

GROSS: She died at 102. Did she stay committed to her beliefs?

GOLDBERG: She did to the very end, and she was practicing yoga, you know, almost to the very end. And one of the things that's really remarkable about her is that, you know, I read a lot of biographies of astonishing women, and often there's this sort of, you know, I guess as there is in anyone's life, there's a sort of sadness towards the end, you know. There's a diminishment, you know, people come to terms with the things they've lost or the things that they've failed to accomplish. She really had, you know, she was doing just amazing thing in her 80s and 90s. She was visiting old people's homes in her 90s to comfort people who were younger than she was. You know, she was visiting prisons. She was the spiritual advisor to Noriega's second-in-command and played an enormous role in the history of Panamanian politics and ultimately Latin America. You know, she - in a lot of ways, she embodied the promise of yoga in that if, you know, yoga kind of promises to keep you vital and relevant and able to sort of flow with the changing world, you know, and she's really - she was an advertisement for that.

GROSS: When you were first learning yoga and as you continued to learn and practice it, were you exposed to history that turned out after doing your research to not be true?

GOLDBERG: Well, I think the - probably the greatest myth is that when you do these poses, you know, when you do sun salutations or the warrior poses that these, you know, that there's some sort of continuity to what yogis were doing 3,000 years ago on the banks of the Ganges, and, you know, that's just not true. Most of the poses that we do in modern yoga classes, you know, have no antecedent really beyond 150 years ago. You know, there's sort of no mention of warrior poses or sun salutations in any ancient text at all. And, you know, that might be, like, a little bit disillusioning to some people. What I hope and what it ultimately meant to me is that we don't have to feel so anxious about the authenticity of the practice - of our modern practices because, you know, like anything - like the reformed Jewish tradition that I grew up in which has probably, you know, very - which doesn't really resemble at all anything that priests were doing in the deserts of Palestine 2,000 years ago. You know, in the same way, it's a modern adaptation and that might, I hope, let people feel a little bit less anxious about adapting it for their own needs.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Michelle Goldberg, and she's the author of the new book "The Goddess Pose: The Audacious Life of Indra Devi, The Woman Who Helped Bring Yoga To The West." Let's take a short break here, and then we're going to talk some more. And what we're going to talk about is why you decided to go from an adamant non-breeder to having two children...

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: ...Which you've just written about. So that's after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Michelle Goldberg. She's written extensively about politics and women, about the religious right. She's a senior contributing writer to The Nation and author of the new book "The Goddess Pose: The Audacious Life Of Indra Devi, The Woman Who Helped Bring Yoga To The West."

Michelle, you recently wrote an article called "I Was A Proud Non-Breeder. Then Changed My Mind."

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: You write about how when you were in your 20s, you were really adamant in not wanting children. And then once you reached your, I guess, mid-30s, you changed your mind. So before we get to the changing your mind part, why were you so certain you didn't want to have children when you were younger?

GOLDBERG: I mean, partly I had - I never pictured my life with children. You know, when I was a little girl, I never played with dolls. I never imagined myself with a family. I, you know, dreamed of having an apartment in New York City and dreamed of being a writer. I never really even thought about getting married. And then once I was in my 20s, you know, I was - I actually got married quite young for, you know, kind of people in my cohort. But we were very happy, you know, with all of the freedom that being in your 20s without children brings. You know, I wanted to travel. I wanted to write. I was terrified about what children would do to my relationship, you know, that it would change it from a sort of intrepid, romantic partnership into something, you know, into something dreary and laborious. And, you know, I think - from the outside, having children, especially in your 20s, just seems sort of grim, and a lot of the great pleasures of it, I think, are invisible to outsiders.

GROSS: You write that people would say to you - people who had children would say to you, you're going to change your mind. And if they didn't say that, they'd say, you'll regret your decision to not have children. What was your reaction to the people who said that to you?

GOLDBERG: Well, I was terrified that they were right. You know, and I worried about that quite a bit. And I would - I used to look all over the place for stories about women who regretted having had children, you know, which seemed the sort of ultimate rejoinder. And what worried me about regret wasn't so much, you know, kind of my own genes living on into the future. My great fear - and I think that became more acute as I got into my 30s - is that something would happen to my husband, and then I would have no piece of him.

You know, I was working on a story in Israel about posthumous reproduction. It's, you know, this campaign to allow people whose sons had died - had died young - to extract their sperm and create grandchildren. And I thought, you know - it was this sort of bizarre story. But I remember thinking, if my husband died, I'm going to do that to him. And that was what sort of put in my mind the idea that maybe children could be something that I wanted. Although I was still - you know, it still took many, many years and sort of twists and turns before I actually decided to act on that.

GROSS: So let me just back up a second. You went looking for stories of women who had children and then regretted it. Did you find any such stories?

GOLDBERG: Well, there's a very famous Ann Landers column or series of columns from the 1970s, when a couple, in much the same position that my husband and I were in, write to her and say that all of their friends are having children, but they're so happy with their lives as a couple, and they're really afraid that having kids will ruin it. And they want to know what her readers think and whether if they could do it again, they would have children. And she gets all of these letters, and she's shocked to find out that 70 percent of them say, no, they regret it. They wouldn't do it again. And so, you know - and that really stayed with me. You know, she published some excerpts of them. You know, people who say, I was a happy, fulfilled, career woman and now I'm, you know, kind of harried and anxious, and my husband's having an affair. I think that, you know, in retrospect, it's pretty obvious that this was, you know, not a representative sample, that, you know, it's pretty self-selecting. But nonetheless, that regret is out there, and it's unspoken, and it, you know, again, it makes the decision even more difficult. You know, and it's a decision I think in some ways I kind of tried not to make by saying, well, let's just see what happens.

GROSS: Well, in terms of the decision to not to have children sometimes being unspoken, you know, I can't imagine, you know, a man or woman writing publicly an article or a book that says, I really wish I didn't have children because their children, one day, are going to read that. I mean, it would just be a horrible - no matter what you feel...

GOLDBERG: Right. So you have to...

GROSS: ...It would be a horrible thing to put out there in terms of how that would affect your children.

GOLDBERG: Right. So I think you have to assume that there are probably more people who feel that way than who actually admit it, right. There's a couple of people who admit it. And so years ago, I wrote this piece for Salon about how, you know, I was 27, and I didn't think I wanted to have children, and I was worried that I would regret it. And I actually did get a couple of, you know, anonymous emails from people saying, I regret it. You know, and so certainly those people are out there. And it's one reason why I think, you know, as much as I am, you know, kind of - I'm a convert now. I'm besotted with my two kids. And I would still never ever pressure someone the way people used to pressure me or try to, you know, proselytize the way people used to proselytize to me because it's one of those things that's, you know, exquisite when you're ready and willing and, you know, can be pretty awful for everyone involved when it's, you know, gone into unwillingly.

GROSS: So what was the trigger where you said, OK, we're going to go for it?

GOLDBERG: You know, part of it I think - you know, it's a really old story, right. I was getting to be 35. I was worried that the, you know, that the chance was escaping us. You know, the travel that had been so important to me was, you know, slowly becoming less exciting and sort of wearying. I remember my husband was 39, and we were planning his 40th birthday and thinking let's go somewhere we've never been before. And, you know, we had traveled to a lot of countries by then, so were thinking, well, we would go either to Indonesia or Sri Lanka. And it was just, you know, it was just not that exciting planning your, you know, sixth or seventh trip to Asia as opposed to your first trip to Asia. And, you know, again, like I said, I also - just there was something about taking a piece of him and making sure that that was preserved at all costs.

So I went off the pill, and we sort of figured we would see what happens. And there was part of me that really didn't think anything would. And after a few months when I didn't get pregnant, I thought, you know, maybe I can't get pregnant and that's just biology is taking care of this for me. And then, you know, kind of surprising no one except for myself, one day I found out I was pregnant. And I was so shocked and realized, or thought I realized, that I had made the worst mistake of my life.

GROSS: So you thought you'd made the worst mistake in your life, but then you ended up having a miscarriage. And...

GOLDBERG: I did and...

GROSS: You could have thought when you had the miscarriage, well, this is fate determining for me that I shouldn't have a child and you - but you tried again. So what changed in you?

GOLDBERG: Sure. Well, what I - I expected that that's how I would've felt if I'd had a miscarriage. There had been some ominous signs throughout the pregnancy, and we initially weren't sure what was going to happen with it because of my progesterone levels. And I had really thought, you know, like you said, maybe this wasn't meant to be and this is just my body, you know, showing me that I was never meant to be a mother, and now I know for sure. And throughout the whole thing, I kind of - even though I was incredibly anxious about the pregnancy and was doing everything I could to save it, was, you know, taking the hormone supplements that my doctor had prescribed. I wasn't sure, you know, which way I really wanted things to go until I had the miscarriage. And then I was just floored by how devastated I was. I mean, I just couldn't believe it. I was just, you know - I remember lying on the couch, being curled up and kind of moaning, I want it back. And I just couldn't think about anything else. It was, you know, as if a kind of trigger had been pulled and, you know, when all that sort of animal longing for a baby that had always puzzled me when I saw other women talking about it, you know, kind of suddenly flooded over me. And I was desperate to get pregnant again.

GROSS: And you did. You did get pregnant again.

GOLDBERG: Yes. I was very, very, very lucky, you know, because I think a lot of people go through that. You know, I went through it for months. Other people go through it for years. And I did get pregnant again and, you know, was still sort of, you know - I really - then I knew that I wanted that pregnancy to - you know, I knew I wanted a baby, but I wasn't sure - you know, I certainly wasn't sure I was going to be a good mother, and I certainly wasn't sure I was going to enjoy it or enjoy it as much as I'd enjoyed my life before. You know, I spent the whole pregnancy in a panic both about, you know, whether the pregnancy would continue and then kind of, you know, what my life would be like afterwards. You know, sometimes I thought I would be kind of overwhelmed and curled up in the corner while this baby screamed its head off. And then my son appeared, and I was again - I mean, I really kind of won the lottery, both in terms of my reaction to the postpartum hormones and just getting such a sweet and easy, you know, little, cherubic little boy. And I just couldn't believe how much I loved - I loved him certainly but how much I loved having him.

GROSS: One of the things you were worried about regarding having children was that it would change the nature of your marriage, that the marriage would become more laborious and less romantic. Can I ask how having two children has changed your relationship with your husband?

GOLDBERG: Well, I think - I mean, certainly that that is true to a certain extent, right. As I write in the piece, you know, there are nights when we, you know, both get home from work and kind of, you know, tag-team putting two kids to bed and then collapse in front of the television and, you know, eat takeout and, you know, barely get to say a few words to each other. What I would say is that we have a slightly unusual situation in that we were married for 13 years before my son was born and so we got to do most of the things - all of the things that I could think - that we would've wanted to do as a couple. And so I don't - we don't - I at least don't feel like we're missing out on a great deal because we did so many of those things, and I feel like we will do them again. And one of the things that's lovely about having children is that when you are able to get away and go out for dinner, you know, it's special after all the thousands of dinners that we've had together that were just sort of, you know, routine.

GROSS: Michelle Goldberg, it's been great to talk with you. Thank you so much.

GOLDBERG: Oh, thank you so much.

GROSS: Michelle Goldberg's essay "I Was A Proud Non-Breeder. Then I Changed My Mind" is on the New York Magazine website. Her new book is called "The Goddess Pose: The Audacious Life Of Indra Devi, The Woman Who Helped Bring Yoga To The West." Coming up, our tech contributor Alexis Madrigal tells us about some of the pros and cons of the Apple Watch, which he's been wearing. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Support your
public radio station