Brian Leaf's Yoga Journey: "Becoming Real" on the Rocky Road to Enlightenment

Misadventures of a Garden State Yogi: My Humble Quest to Heal My Colitis, Calm My ADD, and Find the Key to Happiness. By Brian Leaf. Novato, CA: New World Library, 2012. 243 pp.

Get ready for a brand new American non-fiction genre: the yoga "memoir." Or, perhaps sub-genre would be more accurate. The story of bored, middle-aged divorcees struggling to "get their groove back" has become a well-worn part of our literary landscape. But now, with so many women flocking to yoga studios -- about 20 million Americans total, 80% of them female -- conquering the angst and ennui of post-feminist America no longer requires a lush Caribbean vacation, let alone ego-boosting affairs with a bevy of unavailable men.

For some yoga memoirists, though, including Elizabeth Gilbert in her 2006 best-seller Eat, Pray, Love, the lure of exotic travel and romance endures; it even includes mystical, out-of-body encounters with acclaimed but controversial gurus. But starting with Clare Dederer's lesser-known Poser (2010), and more recently, Downward Dog, Upward Fog (2011), most of the latest yoga journeys seem downright home bound, even pedestrian, by comparison. These women, mostly married suburbanites, attend a weekly yoga class and the occasional retreat but still find time to show up for social engagements and maintain their professional careers. Even as they restlessly crave for deeper meaning and greater connectedness - and appear to find some small measure of it - most wouldn't dream of giving up their comfortable lifestyles to plunge headlong into truly unfamiliar explorations.

Fortunately for us, in Misadventures of a Garden State Yogi, Brian Leaf manages to take the yoga memoir -- or "yogoir," for short -- in a promising new direction. For one thing, he's a man in an industry -- and pop culture movement -- that's distinctly feminine, so his voice, if nothing else, is a fresh one. But Leaf's also a certified yoga teacher, not simply a lay practitioner, and his ambitions for yoga are far more sweeping. He's also been blessed with loving parents and siblings -- and a happy marriage -- and has managed to escape the karma of family dysfunction that leaves so many yoga memoirists consumed with regret and resentment and seemingly lost in a state of perpetual navel-gazing.

Leaf's own ghastly array of afflictions are mostly physical, including the chronic ulcerative colitis he inherited almost at birth, as well as a bad case of Attention Deficit Disorder, and some mysteriously recurring rashes. And yet, ironically, by book's end, while he's managed to shed these various ailments -- thanks to yoga alone, he insists -- Leaf's no longer teaching it, at least not formally. Somehow that makes his earnest "yogi-ness" -- and irrepressible nerdiness -- all the more authentic and compelling.

Leaf's entry into the world of yoga will be familiar to many devotees. He accidentally stumbled upon the ancient Hindu-based mind-body discipline while he was - in the immortal words of John Lennon -- "busy making other plans" -- mainly attending prestigious Georgetown University in Washington, DC and preparing to fulfill his dream of becoming a world-class debater. On a lark, and because he needed a gym credit, he decided to sign up for a yoga class, figuring, if nothing else, it would be easy. He hadn't counted on being the only man among more than two dozen women, which initially threw this socially awkward geek into a panic. But he was also amazed at how deeply relaxed -- and healthy -- he felt once he started engaging the various postures. Months later, when he began his immersion into Kripalu Yoga with a particularly engaging teacher, he notes: "no one had ever invited all of me to be present before." Soon he's eagerly exploring the more esoteric aspects of yoga, including Ayurvedic diet and nutrition practices -- "yoga's sister science," he calls it -- then, over time, adding Reiki, cranio-sacral therapy and massage to his repertoire.

Much of what makes the book such an entertaining read is Leaf's self-mocking wit and humor, as he struggles, for example, through several humiliating episodes of chronic public flatulence that he attributes to his colitis. In rural North Carolina -- of all places -- he decides to hire a yoga "masseuse" who turns out to be a prostitute. (Apparently, he passes on her offer of a "happy ending".) Later, in Northampton, Mass., Leaf tries to visit a licensed body worker but accidentally enters the wrong door and ends up sitting in her private den as she exits the shower nude, and proceeds to gets dressed, blithely unaware of his presence. (He debates whether to come clean, but instead quietly tiptoes away and re-enters through the adjoining public office). The author even has a chance encounter in a locker room with legendary yoga superstar Bikram Choudhury, whom he pretends, at first, not to recognize. After they banter amiably, Leaf concludes -- with characteristic temperance -- that Bikram isn't quite the ogre he's cracked up to be.

The most compelling part of the book, though, is how Leaf comes to accept that yoga isn't so much a spiritual practice or pedagogy but an all-encompassing lifestyle -- a way of being fully "present" no matter what he chooses to do, or become. At the end of his journey, having prepared more than two decades to become a guru of sorts, he's disappointed that his local advertising campaign attracts virtually no one to his new studio. His one regular yoga student turns out to be a lonely septuagenarian who, unbeknownst to Leaf, attends only because he reminds her of a deceased son she sorely misses. When she dies, after just a few months, her children, whom he'd never met, send Leaf a poignant thank-you note. He's stunned.

So what does Leaf do? Wisely, he starts tutoring kids with ADD, something he'd trained for earlier to earn badly needed cash to finance his yoga excursions. And to his surprise, while his yoga business completely stalls, his tutoring business skyrockets. Eventually, he experiences a true "aha" moment: all this yoga training wasn't meant to turn him into a public sage, he realizes, but simply to prepare him to go where he's needed to do the most good. He soon discovers in his tutoring the same drive and enthusiasm that he once imagined his yoga teaching would provide. His own version of Nirvana, it seems, is at hand.

Leaf's no shaman -- and even as a showman, he's decidedly un-showy. In this sense, he seems to have turned the yoga memoir on its head. Like the great Indian guru Yogananda, who wrote the highly influential Autobiography of a Yogi more than a half century ago, Leaf isn't really asking us to admire or acclaim him, or even to follow him. He's simply suggesting that we look at ourselves more honestly and try to live in a simpler, more heartfelt way. "Become real," he says.

Leaf ends his book on a practical note, with advice on how to establish a daily meditation and yoga practice, and a list of "co-listening" techniques to improve your intimate partnerships. His "Eight Keys to Happiness" are so spare and free of spiritual jargon -- "Do yoga, and if you already do yoga, do more yoga," reads one -- that you might actually think he invented them. He didn't, of course, but after reading this delightfully quirky account of one man's road to salvation and grace, it hardly matters who did.