Tales from the Yoga Studio
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The women who take classes at the small but popular Edendale Yoga center in Silver Lake, Californiaand the women who teach those classesare very familiar with the yoga practice of letting go.
Lee, the owner and talented head instructor, has had to let go of her husband, Alan, for what he promises is a trial separation while he clears his head and rededicates himself to his musical career. Katherine, the resident masseuse and a recovering alcohol and substance abuse addict, has had to let go of her old habits and hang-ups in order to become close to a handsome new fireman at the local fire station; Stephanie has had to relinquish her own predilection for alcohol as a means of coping, her feelings for a particularly callous ex-boyfriend, and her old, ineffective, "I can do it myself" attitude in order to get her movie-producer career back on track; Graciela has had to let go of her own independent, perfectionist streak so that she may heal properly before a make-or-break-your-career dance audition; and Imani has had to let go of debilitating guilt and sorrow over a recent, devastating miscarriage.
Letting go is easier for some of them than others. The women who are the most versed in yoga turn out to be the worst at giving up on old emotions and habits. Meanwhile, the novices prove a little more adept at this age-old practice of surrendering control and accepting not only what comes one's way, but one's flawed and imperfect reactions to life's obstacles. As they tackle their problems, however, one thing becomes clear: the friendships they've made at the modest yoga studio in this small, artsy town are beginning to be the most important of their lives.
Part romance, part mystery, part exploration of the social and emotional benefits to yoga practice, Tales from the Yoga Studio is also a testament to the restorative power of friendship. Funny, moving, and thought-provoking, Mitchell's debut novel will enlighten and entertain the most advanced to the least experienced yoginis, as well as those who might simply be curious about what goes on insideand outsidea typical yoga class.
Rain Mitchell began practicing yoga as a teenager, and is currently at work on the second novel in the series. Rain's favorite pose is savasana.
Q. Why did you write Tales From the Yoga Studio?
You can't open up a newspaper or magazine without reading a story about yogathe latest trends, the hottest fashions, the economics of it. My eye always goes to the stories, but it seems to me they never talk about the human side of yoga. They don't talk about the community feeling of a yoga studio, the way it changes your life, and the friendships people form through practicing. I think the only way you can get at that is in a novel. Novels are, first and foremost, about people. The working title was Yoga Friends because so much of the book is about the friendships formed around doing yoga.
Q. Did you do a lot of research?
Only in the sense that every yoga class I go to amounts to research. Every time I go to a studio, I observe or overhear something that is interesting or amusing. I was struggling with a very different, more personal kind of novel focused on one character, and a friend who works in publishing suggested I write about the yoga world. She and I were always discussing classes. So I guess you could call some of that swapping of anecdotes research. Sometimes a small detail she mentioned would spark a whole scene or character.
Q. So this is the first novel about yoga?
There have been lots of novels with yoga scenes in them, but as far as I know, this is the first novel that uses yoga as the center of the book, the core, so to speak, with a teacher and studio owner as the main character. I wanted it to be an insider look at the yoga world, even though I'm not a teacher. The great thing is, we've shown it to yoga teachers and studio owners all over the country, and so far, they've all had the same reaction: "Oh my god! This is about me!"
Q. What's your own history with yoga?
I've been doing yoga since I was pretty young. I was studying dance, and I had an injury that kept me sedentary for a long time. I was on vacation in Florida with my family, and let's just say it wasn't the best time I've ever had in my life. Mid-way through, I noticed there was a yoga class as part of the activities at the resort, and I went. I'm not even sure why. It was me and a couple of women in their fifties. But it was a little bit like falling in love, right from the start. In retrospect, it wasn't the best class I've ever taken, but the practice seemed right for my body somehow. It was a good fit physically and going every day for the rest of my stay helped me put my squabbles with my family (and, to be honest, my own acting out) in perspective. I guess it's fair to say it changed my life.
Q. And you've been practicing since?
Pretty much. But to keep up with the falling in love idea, I'd say there have been periods of separation. At the moment, yoga and I are in another honeymoon phase with a somewhat serious, almost daily practice.
Q. Do you practice a particular style of yoga?
I'm fairly promiscuous. There are so many studios available these days, I pick and choose based on convenient times and locations. But I have a core set of teachers I try to study with at least a few times a month. They challenge me the most and help me grow. Like Lee in the novel, they have a combination of expertise and compassion that's pretty compelling. I think it's good to do different styles because you learn something about your body and alignment and breathing and strength that's different from class to class. My first committed relationship was to Ashtanga. I'm still partial to vinyasa and "power" yoga, but I take Iyengar classes sometimes and even Bikram every once in a while. I hate the expression "it's all good," but in this case it fits.
Q. Do you find it hard to keep to regular practice while writing?
There's nothing better than following up a writing day with a yoga class. If the writing didn't go well, it helps me let go of my disappointment. If it was a good writing day, I can sometimes easily do poses and arm balances that are otherwise a struggle.
Q. So is the book a kind of advertisement for yoga?
Please! It's entertainment for adults. First and foremost, I want people to care about the characters, get caught up in their stories, and have a good time reading it. That said, several people who've read it who don't do yoga have said: "I think I should try a class again." That's gratifying.
Q. You clearly love yoga, but there's a lot of fun poked at certain aspects of the current yoga scene, especially in LA.
True. And I don't see any contradiction in that. There's a lot of behavior in some of the most unabashedly commercial aspects of the yoga world that's ripe for satire. Even the people involved in it are aware of that. So I think it's absolutely possible to love and respect yoga while poking fun at some of the excessive behavior around it. Yoga is about finding balance within yourself. And some aspects of the yoga world are a little out of whack.
Q. You're a fairly reclusive person. What's that about?
I think writers have to be keen observers and really good listeners. It's much easier to listen and observe when you're anonymous and not the focus of anyone's attention. I've always found it easy to blend in and go unnoticed if that's what I've wanted, and it's just what I'm most comfortable with. My goal as a writer is to get inside the heads of my characters. I'm not especially interested in anyone getting inside mine!
Q. This is a projected series. How's the second book coming?
It's every bit as much fun for me as the first. I've come to know these characters pretty well, and in the brief vacation I took between books, I missed them terribly. What's especially fun about the second book is seeing the way some minor characters in the first take on new importance here or have had a life-altering event. And I love seeing how some of the central characters are changing.
Q. Any previews?
Nothing specific, but let's just say that as in real life, things aren't always as they seem at first glance. Also, one tiny preview, I went to a yoga retreat/festival this past summer, and I'm writing it off as research. You may draw your own conclusions!
- Tales from the Yoga Studio opens with Lee finishing up teaching a yoga class, pondering the benefits of the practice, and craving a cigarette. How did this first impression of the main character affect the way you viewed her? What kind of tone does it establish for the novel?
- Lee, like many characters in the novel, comes to yoga during a period of injuryemotional in her case, physical in the case of other students. What do she and the other characters learn from studying yoga that helps them? Is there something different about the practice of yoga, as described in the novel, from running, lifting weights, and other forms of physical exercise? Have you ever experienced some kind of lasting transformation from following any regular practice in your life?
- The point of view shifts between each of the five central women in the novel. Did you find yourself most drawn to the attitudes and observations of one character? Were there specific scenes in the novel you wish you had seen from a different character's point of view? Which character did you end up caring about the most?
- The male characters are much less developed than the female characters. Does this reinforce the stereotype of yoga as primarily practiced by women? To what extent do you think this is true? Why is that, and is it changing? How different would the novel have been if the male characters' points of view had been included?
- How well did you think the yoga terms were interwoven with the dialogue and description in the novel? Did reading the book give a good idea of what it's like to take yoga classes and to be immersed in the world of yoga? Did it make you want to practice more or to start if you don't already?
- There's a considerable amount of satire in the novelthe crowded, sexualized classes, the commercialization and emphasis on appearances. What did you end up feeling were Rain Mitchell's overall attitudes toward yoga?
- Evaluate the various friendships between the members of Lee's yoga studio. What is it about the practice of yoga that lays the groundwork for their friendships? Do you have "yoga friends" you know only from yoga classes or friends you connect with primarily through some other shared interest?
- Discuss the way the book deals with the subject of addiction and substance abuse through Katherine, Stephanie, and to some extent, Becky. What is it about yoga that helps them in recovery? Is there some way in which they're merely replacing one addiction with a different one? What did you think of Katherine's client, the one who confesses during a massage that she developed an addiction to "tinctures" and herbal supplements? Is it possible to be addicted to something healthy?
- Discuss the ways Mitchell deals with the subjects of betrayal and loyalty in the booknot just in the way characters are loyal to one another, or how they betray one another, but also the ways in which characters betray themselves and their ideals (or, conversely, how they stay loyal to their ideals and their sense of self). What are the central messages of the novel concerning loyalty and betrayal? What can we learn through these characters?
- Compare and contrast the resolution of each character's storyline. Whose "ending" was most satisfying? What is left unresolved in each character's storyline? Do you think Lee and Alan will remain separated? Or that Graciela and Daryl's relationship will take a turn for the worse? (Discuss in particular the scene where Darryl is aggressive in bed after Graciela tells him about the tour.) Will Katherine and Connor develop a lasting relationship? Will Imani be a good mother?
- Discuss the penultimate paragraph in the bookwhich are presented as thoughts inside Lee's head but could also be taken as the author's message to her readers: "There are moments in life when you understand with certainty that no matter how difficult the immediate future is likely to be, you are going to be able to face it. You are going to walk into it with calm and conviction. You might not get through it unscathed, but you will get through it. Your life isn't the way you thought it would be, but you know for sure you're not alone." How does this paragraph work as a statement of theme for the entire novel? Do you think this is good advice to live by?