My Difficultly with Cope’s Yoga Memoir

It took me awhile but I finished Stephen Cope’s Yoga and The Quest For the True Self. Then it took me awhile to write about the book because I didn’t like it as much as I had hoped.

Stephen Cope was a psychotherapist who in his midlife faced “a serious crisis of meaning…triggered by devastating disappointment in love” and found himself practicing yoga three or four times a week. He then felt compelled to stay for a four month retreat at an ashram, Kripalu Center. Four months turned into a year and a year turned into a decade. This book narrates his “quest for the true self.”

Stephen Cope’s strength in the book is his knowledge of yoga philosophy and psychology and his ability to draw the parallels between the two and make what is abstract, both accessible and compelling to the reader. If you’re just interested in a concise, introduction to yoga history and philosophy, I highly recommend reading the Appendix. Since he draws links to psychology and yoga, I felt inspired to read Jung and Marion Woodman.

I think a challenge for him was writing believable scenes with students and friends. The scenes seemed contrived, the dialogue felt constructed. It was too transparent that these scenes were a means to an end, a build up, an introduction to his abstract point which would take up the rest of the chapter. Stephen Cope is not alone in this challenge. I see it constantly in self-help books and books on spiritual matters. While reading this scenes, I wanted to rush out and read some short stories, personal essays, anything where well-crafted scenes and dialogue are my favorite parts and aren’t leading to a point, they are the point.

The ending was another difficult thing for me. Cope spends a long time exploring and explaining the conscious and unconscious reasons why he came to Kripalu and why he stayed. He also spends a long time describing people’s visits and their underlying motivations and personal journeys. In the beginning, he carefully outlines what makes an “effective transformational space.” Apparently for him and for many, Kripalu was a safe space that allowed personal transformation to occur. Throughout the book, he speaks highly of the space and details his own transformation and various other people’s transformation in the ashram.

Then the reader gets to part 5, chapter 16 titled “The Rose in the Fire” and we learn that the main yoga teacher who founded the ashram, who was an idealized and admired guru, one of the most influential and powerful figures in this community, was having many affairs with female students. Everything falls apart. “We’re in meltdown,” community member tells Stephen in room where senior members are basically hiding.

I took issue with the fact that so close to the end of the book, the reader discovers there was much turbulence happening in the community. Apparently had been “several turbulent years in Kripalu’s history.” Because he did not make this apparent in the bulk of the book, I found myself losing my trust in him as a reliable narrator, especially when he writes, “Even in the midst of the ‘path of the reality,’ the faint odor of unreality and inaunthenticity was unmistakable.” Why not make the stench unmistakable to the reader before shit hits the fan?

What is more is that there isn’t much analysis about the fact that everything fell apart. The analysis is not in depth, which is disappointing because that is clearly his strength as a writer. Compared to most other parts of the book,  his analysis is much more general. He briefly talks about orphan archetypes and gurus and  disillunsionment. He mentions that some people leave, some are very wounded, and some stay but doesn’t really give concrete examples of any of this people. Instead he insists, “Everyone was interested in integrity. We were standing in the best traditions of yoga. We had learned something. This was good.”

Maybe. I believes he believes what he’s writing and I keep in mind that he never left Kripalu and continues to teach there. Maybe it’s hard to write so critically about a place that he is clearly invested in. Maybe not.

What is certain is that I wanted a more critical analyis about the fact that Kripalu, which was supposed to be a safe transformational space, wasn’t for many people, people who invested their time and trust within the community. I wanted more analysis about the idealized, influential and powerful spiritual leader (also a father figure) who is unable to adhere to his own moral code. It’s the shadow side of the spiritual life, especially in a culture rooted in patriarchy.

I’ll tell you what line I love, that keeps popping up for me. Marion Goodman sips a glass of wine and says, “You know, Stephen, trying to be a god or goddess all week long can flip us into wanting to be an animal on the weekend.” Of course I love the line. Of course I agree.

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