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All Body, Mind & Spirit Coverage

In the introductory essay of Yoke: My Yoga of Self-Acceptance, Jessamyn Stanley relates the time a reader, who happened to be a freelance editor, found a mistake in the early pages of Stanley’s first book, Every Body Yoga. Stanley was attempting to define the Sanskrit word for yoga, which means “to yoke” or “to join together the light and dark of life, the good and the bad . . . to marry breath, thought, and movement, to connect the body, mind, and spirit.” Instead of writing the word yoke, however, Stanley had inadvertently written yolk. Oops.

Anger and shame ensued—a welter of feelings that propelled Stanley to her yoga mat for some calming breaths. Thus, Yoke was born, a collection of 13 autobiographical essays that are brash (with salty language aplenty), outspoken, funny, insightful, honest and occasionally spiced with dashes of self-deprecating melodrama.


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Jessamyn Stanley shares how her guide to the ancient practice of yoga turned out to be deeper and more demanding than she ever imagined.


The essays in Yoke explore Stanley’s belief that “everything is yoga, every day,” and that fully entering yoga/yoke means integrating the light and dark of life with the hardscrabble work of everyday living. “My yoga has many intersections and edges,” she writes, “because like the universe, I’m always unfolding. My yoga is finding out what it means to be a Black queer woman in a world that doesn’t want me to be.” Her reflections on topics such as meditation, imposter syndrome, wealth inequality, racism, cannabis use, sexual abuse and the sacredness of music are heartfelt and often searing. She is strongly declarative, and this makes for a narrative that allows readers to really know this author, which is, after all, what many readers want: connection.

While the writing occasionally meanders or goes a bit off point, any discomfort readers might feel in response to Stanley’s blunt-edged anger can give rise to self-reflection and stir compassion for our collective human frailty and suffering. But this honest chronicle of a journey toward self-acceptance and purpose wraps on a bright note. As Stanley writes, "I’m enough. Exactly as I am right now. I don’t need to know more or do more or be different at all."

The 13 autobiographical essays in Yoke are brash, outspoken, funny, insightful, honest and occasionally spiced with dashes of self-deprecating melodrama.

Acclaimed writer Michael Pollan, author of several notable books including In Defense of Food, The Omnivore’s Dilemma and most recently How to Change Your Mind, returns with This Is Your Mind on Plants, which delves into the deep relationships humans have with three mind-altering plants: opium, coffee and mescaline.

Pollan begins this book with an updated version of his Harper’s essay from 1997, in which he writes about attempting to grow poppies to make opium tea for his personal enjoyment—and about the intense anxiety over planting the poppies in his own garden. Confused over whether or not it was legal to grow poppies, Pollan conducted research that led him into a morass of penal contradictions, not to mention the philosophical puzzle of why certain drugs and not others are illegal to begin with.

Next Pollan describes his monthlong detox from caffeine, his preferred drug of choice. During this experiment he experiences mental dullness, lethargy and an intense inability to focus—a writer’s nightmare. Caffeine is a legal drug, of course, but Pollan can’t help but notice how it has a much stronger effect on him than his opium tea did. The relationship between humans and coffee is centuries deep, and Pollan helpfully connects the history of coffee-drinking to our modern-day reliance on caffeine.

The final section is devoted to the study of mescaline: its uses but also who gets to use it. Pollan explores some interesting history involving Aldous Huxley, author of Brave New World, and after taking mescaline himself during a Native American peyote ceremony, Pollan makes fair observations about the recent cultural appropriation of mescaline.

Readers of How to Change Your Mind will recognize Pollan’s thoughtful and scientific approach to the subject of psychedelic drugs and altered states of consciousness. This Is Your Mind on Plants is an entertaining blend of memoir, history and social commentary that illustrates Pollan’s ability to be both scientific and personal. By relying on contextual history and focusing on three popular, if misunderstood, drugs, Pollan challenges common views on what mind-altering drugs are and what they can accomplish.

Acclaimed writer Michael Pollan delves into our deep relationships with three mind-altering plants: opium, coffee and mescaline.

Jessamyn Stanley's guide to the ancient practice of yoga turned out to be deeper and more demanding than she ever imagined. The author of Every Body Yoga shares the revelations that shaped her second mold-breaking book about yoga, Yoke.


When I pitched Yoke: My Yoga of Self-Acceptance to my publisher, I thought I knew what it would contain. I knew I would have to talk about internalized racism, sexual assault, capitalism and cultural appropriation. Mind you, this was in 2017, before George Floyd and Breonna Taylor were murdered for all the world to see and before white people were forced to stop pretending racism doesn't exist. But when I actually started tickling the keys, the book became about much more than what a marketing pitch could contain.

I definitely thought Yoke would be about offering tips and tricks for navigating an ancient practice in modern times. But in the process of writing it, I realized the most important way to teach yoga has nothing to do with other people. The way to teach yoga is by authentically living it. Even the most gifted and inspiring teachers will only lead you to the teacher inside yourself, and they can only do that by being fully themselves.

Writing Yoke led me down a lot of philosophical rabbit holes. I ended up spending a solid year of the manuscript-writing process solely on research. I dove headfirst into American yoga's history and theory, and I was forced to come to terms with the intersection between American history and American yoga history—how both have bloomed in the soil of white supremacy. I gained a deeper respect for the differences between American yoga and Classical yoga, and all the while, I was forced to interrogate myself.


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of Yoke.


For example, I was excited to write about cultural appropriation among yoga practitioners, and if I'm honest, I was excited to tell other people how to best live their lives. I've always been a know-it-all in that way. But once the dust settled, I realized I don't have anything to offer readers beyond being open and honest about the ways that I appropriate other cultures. 

Similarly, I was excited to write about racism and the ways it crops up in the yoga world, mostly because I was excited to air my grievances against all the white yoga people who have annoyed me over the years. But it didn't take long to recognize that I have nothing to say to white people that I don't first need to say to myself. I found that I needed to accept the ways in which I embody racism—first against myself and then against others.

Writing Yoke made me examine parts of myself I've never wanted to acknowledge and generally prefer to ignore. I didn't know what it would take to get real about this shit. I didn't realize there'd be so much crying. I didn't know writing the truth would feel like disemboweling myself. I thought the whole thing would be a little more dignified than bawling into my laptop for weeks on end. But accepting my shame was the price I paid in pursuit of my truth. 

I will say, though: It's one thing to accept that you're a messy bitch. It's completely different to ask other people to read about it.

"I didn't know what it would take to get real about this shit. I didn't realize there'd be so much crying."

Some of Yoke cuts very close to the bone for me. Yoga may be about accepting the truth of yourself, but the truth I tell in Yoke is one I was always told not to tell. The truth that I've been running from. The truth that no one wants to see in the light. And reading the truth without rose-tinted glasses can be painful. 

I think Yoke will be inspiring even to people who have never practiced yoga, people who are not Black, fat or queer and people who've never been sexually assaulted. No matter your background, we all embody contradictions and feel pain. We all find identity at the heart of intersections. But our intersections are also founts of compassion—first for ourselves, then for others. This is true now more than ever, when we're being asked as a society to reckon with the sins of our collective past in order to move forward. Yoke is a microexample of a process that's needed on a very macro level.

I wrote this book because I had to tell the truth, even if I came out on the other end looking like an asshole. That's who I am. I am problematic. I say the wrong thing. I am offensive. But I think that by letting my stank-ass baggage hang out, I can make space for other people to accept themselves as well.

 

Author photo © Cornell Watson

Jessamyn Stanley’s guide to the ancient practice of yoga turned out to be deeper and more demanding than she ever imagined. The author of Every Body Yoga shares the revelations that shaped her second mold-breaking book about yoga, Yoke.

In The Lonely City (2016), Olivia Laing traced a connection from her own experience of loneliness to the work of artists such as Edward Hopper, Andy Warhol, Henry Darger and David Wojnarowicz. The result was a tapestry like no other, a tender exploration of art-making and human experience cast through an empathic prism. 

Everybody: A Book About Freedom finds Laing taking a similar approach as she masterfully shares stories of fascinating artists and historical figures. This time, the psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich is at the cosmic center of an even more wide-ranging inquiry that looks, with hope, at the idea of freedom from oppression related to skin color, sexual identity or gender.

Reich, a protégé of Sigmund Freud, believed that “the past is interred in our bodies, every trauma meticulously preserved, walled up alive.” Later in life he became known for his orgone boxes, pseudoscientific devices that attracted the attention of the FDA and led to his imprisonment. Which is to say that his legacy is a complicated, even tainted one, but Laing treats him with the same gentle perspicacity she extends to her other subjects, which include Susan Sontag, Kathy Acker, sexual liberationists in Weimar Berlin, the artist Agnes Martin, Bayard Rustin and Nina Simone.

Her net, in short, is breathtakingly, ambitiously wide. Her stakes could not be higher—freedom for all bodies, “unharried by any hierarchy of form.” Along with Reich, Laing’s consistent interest here is the human body and its quest for pure freedom. How did each of these cultural and intellectual figures fight to liberate their body? How did the prevailing forces of the time work against them? These questions link Laing’s journey, which is as concerned with bodily freedom as with the way trauma can operate, years past its inception, as a barrier to said freedom. Along the way she peers inward to her past as an herbalist, environmental protestor and child of gay parents in the 1980s.

“I still don’t believe in orgone boxes,” Laing concludes, “but I do think Reich found his way to durable truths. I think the weight of history abides in our private bodies. Each of us carries a legacy of personal and inherited trauma, operating within an unequal grid of rules and laws that depends upon the kind of body we were born into. At the same time, we are porous and capable of mysterious effects on each other’s lives.” Everybody is a nonpareil study that delights the intellect.

Olivia Laing casts a breathtakingly, ambitiously wide net, and the stakes of her subject—freedom for all bodies—could not be higher.

With home cooking on the rise, has there ever been a better time to switch up the energy with a new cookbook?

★ In Bibi’s Kitchen

Perhaps the freshest cookbook of the season is In Bibi’s Kitchen, even though “this is an old-fashioned cookbook that has nothing to do with trends or newness,” as editors Hawa Hassan and Julia Turshen write in their introduction. The book features recipes and stories from grandmothers (bibis) from eight African countries, all introduced through Q&A interviews. Each chapter shares basic information about one of the featured countries, all of which touch the Indian Ocean (two are islands), and “offers a range of perspectives that clearly illustrate how food changes when it travels and how it can also help to keep a connection to home.” Don’t feel the least bit wary of recipes featuring hard-to-find ingredients. Almost all the spices called for are readily available in American supermarkets, and many of the condiments included here (like Somali cilantro and green chile pepper sauce) can be used on nearly anything. A beautiful example of how food is culture, history and one of the most powerful forms of connection we have, In Bibi’s Kitchen feels at once deeply famil- iar and powerfully eye-opening.

Tequila & Tacos

Do I love Tequila & Tacos because it’s compact and bold in color, or do I love it because it’s all about tacos? Yes. Katherine Cobbs’ latest in the Spirited Pairings series is an irresistible tour de U.S. taco joints in points north, south, east and west. Each location reveals the recipe for one signature taco and cocktail, from cauliflower tacos with fennel and ramps (Salazar in Los Angeles) to a Monte Cristo taco (Velvet Taco in Atlanta) to a lamb carnitas taco (Quiote in Chicago), and on and on the delicious armchair exploring goes. You might feel a twinge of grief right now, thinking about all these beautiful restaurants and their brilliant creations—but then you get to make the tacos and agave-spirit libations at home, and you’re sure to feel happier after that.

Jacques Pépin Quick & Simple

Even if you’re not a foodie, you’ve probably heard the name Jacques Pépin. The renowned French chef and TV personality has a wonderful smile, and as such, I take great joy in the many photographs of him sprinkled throughout Jacques Pépin Quick & Simple, which has a pleasingly retro feel thanks to its cheerful illustrations, vintage typeface and decidedly unfussy recipes. These really are quick and simple dishes with common ingredients and instructions that rarely extend past a paragraph or two. In fact, “mix all the ingredients together” is a common refrain. There are even lots of shortcuts, such as brown-and- serve French bread (!) or pre-made pizza dough and puff pastry. If a famous French chef tells you to do it, it’s totally OK, right? Packed with more than 200 recipes, this book would make a great resource for busy young people who are just beginning their kitchen adventures.

The Good Book of Southern Baking

Kelly Fields brings 20 years of pastry chef know-how to the pages of The Good Book of Southern Baking. She developed these recipes in restaurants, including her own New Orleans joint Willa Jean, and her thorough overview of baking ingredients—11 pages’ worth!—signals that honed expertise. But it’s her South Carolina upbringing that provides the bedrock for this sumptuous collection of sweet treats. Fields’ baking is deeply rooted in childhood experience, and she invokes her mama regularly in her treatment of classics like banana bread, haystack cookies and warm chocolate pudding. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a traditional Southern dessert not covered here, and you’ll want to devour every single one. (I’m especially drawn to the bourbon-butterscotch pudding, a twist on one of my own mama’s favorites, and Grandma Mac’s apple cake.) This is the perfect gift for the dessert person in your life. 

The Kosmic Kitchen Cookbook

The Kosmic Kitchen Cookbook cozies up at the three-way intersection of herbalism, ayurveda and seasonality, making it a fascinating, not to mention beautifully designed, guide for thinking about how to support your health holistically. Herbalists and pals Sarah Kate Benjamin and Summer Singletary ground the book in elemental theory, the idea that the five elements—ether, air, water, fire, earth—must be balanced in our bodies. They connect this theory to the four seasons, helping the reader to identify how the elements are at play, inside and out. A section on herbal preps, such as herb-infused ghee, honey and turmeric tahini dressing, begins the culinary exploration, followed by seasonal recipes like lemon balm gazpacho and spiced mulled wine with hawthorn berries. If you’re new to herbalism, it may seem like a lot to take in, but Benjamin and Singletary are wonderful guides, and the book also provides a link to their free online minicourse on the subject.

With home cooking on the rise, has there ever been a better time to switch up the energy with a new cookbook? Here are five that breathe fresh life into kitchen duty.

In this strange and difficult year, we've all learned how to seek out and find silver linings. Here's one: At a moment when we could all use a gift that says "Everything is going to be OK," these five books thoughtfully send that message.

Get Out of My Head

Sized perfectly for a stocking or a shoulder bag, Meredith Arthur's Get Out of My Head is like a soothing visit with a therapist who's there to take your call at any time. This one is for the overthinkers, those of us who let our thoughts take us down the wrong rabbit holes. People can experience physical symptoms like headaches, dizziness, shortness of breath and nausea as a result of stress and anxiety. The challenge, which this little book gently helps us meet, is to recognize the signals of a stress-based physical reaction, then deploy specific moves like visualization, breathing techniques and other thought and sensory controls. Maybe lasting calm is more difficult to achieve, but trust me, this book has the right idea. Leah Rosenberg's cheerful illustrations are the perfect accompaniment to this digestible and portable guide.

The Panic Button Book

Taking a different but no less tidy approach to stress, anxiety and typical relational woes, The Panic Button Book is set up as a series of flowcharts in response to questions like "Do you and your partner have different standards when it comes to housework/ambition/money/other?", "Are you dreading an upcoming event?" and "Are your muscles feeling tense?" The questions, which author Tammi Kirkness organizes into categories such as work, socializing, relationships and parenting, pinpoint both difficult feelings and physical concerns while reminding us that there's a shared awkwardness to being human, and we can take some solace in simply acknowledging that commonality. There's also comfort to be found in paging through this book and thinking, nope, that's not my problem right now. When you find a question that rings true to your current concern, the facing page will guide you, step by step, in coping constructively so you can move on.

★ Wintering

There are times in life, however, when you may just have to sit with the struggle. This is what writer Katherine May calls a wintering, "a fallow period in life when you're cut off from the world, feeling rejected, sidelined, blocked from progress, or cast into the role of an outsider." May tells the story of one such period in her life in Wintering, which begins when her husband falls ill with appendicitis, setting off a chain of events that leaves her sidelined from work and her usual industrious lifestyle. In beautiful prose, she shows us that there are benefits to leaning in to these difficult times, even though our culture is set up to resist them. "An occasional sharp wintering would do us good," she writes. "We must stop believing that these times in our life are somehow silly, a failure of nerve, a lack of willpower. . . . We must learn to invite the winter in."

May's story follows the course of the actual winter months, so that it's about both a time of loneliness and the challenge of the chilliest, most barren season. She is a poetic observer of the natural world, and quotable lines abound. "The cold renders everything exquisite," she writes of a morning frost. "Once we stop wishing it were summer, winter can be a glorious season when the world takes on a sparse beauty and even the pavements sparkle. It's a time for reflection and recuperation, for slow replenishment, for putting your house in order." I want to share Wintering with all my friends who experience the winter blues, and keep a copy close at hand for the inevitable winterings of my own life.

Plant Therapy

One thing that brings me cheer during winter is my collection of happy houseplants, and science backs me up on this. Plant Therapy dives deep into research that shows we could all stand to be more connected to the natural world; indeed, distance from it may be one of the chief causes of our discontent. Bringing some green into our homes is one small but significant step toward nourishing a relationship with nature. Therapist Katie Cooper begins by presenting the environmental, physiological, cognitive and affective benefits of proximity to plants, then shows us how making houseplants part of our indoor lives is a study in positive reciprocity: As we care for them, they will care for us.

Be Water, My Friend

Once you've got your new plant buddies positioned nearby, consider curling up with Be Water, My Friend from Shannon Lee, daughter of Bruce Lee. The martial arts icon is remembered and revered for his philosophy as much as for his physical prowess, and here, readers are given the opportunity to learn from the legend. "The idea of being like water is to attempt to embody the qualities of fluidity and naturalness in one's life," Lee writes. "Water can adjust its shape to any container, it can be soft or strong, it is simply and naturally always itself, and it finds a way to keep moving and flowing." Lee shares stories from her father's life and her own to illuminate how curiosity and a graceful flexibility can serve us all, no matter what life throws our way.

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Love audiobooks? Check out Be Water, My Friend and other nonfiction audiobook picks.

At a moment when we could all use a gift that says “Everything is going to be OK,” these five books thoughtfully send that message.

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