Powerful Photos, Underpowered Yoga: a review of Ulrica Norberg's Power Yoga

Power yoga may have made yoga hot, but don’t read Ulrica Norberg’s Power Yoga expecting to warm up to this intense, physically demanding riff on the ancient technology of melding breath and body in the alchemical bond of awareness.

Ulrica Norberg is a Swedish yoga teacher, freelance journalist, scriptwriter and consultant for personal growth. However in this book, she represents yoga as an exercise regimen, a self-improvement plan, and not only doesn’t distinguish yogic activity from your basic gym routine, but manages to talk about breath and meditation as if they were drill sergeants, or minions for molding our body to our will.

The photography by Andreas Lundberg is thematically inspiring, balanced and striking. Natural settings spark imagination and intensity of focus and muscular energy captivate, while color and light sculpt contours to capture the eye.  But there aren’t enough of these powerful photos for a coffee table book, so best to keep looking.

Power yoga is an intensely physical approach to yoga, so Norberg’s focus on asana is natural and responsive to her audience. Having translated philosophical and poetic ideas myself in the past, I appreciate the challenges in rendering the fullness of an idea under the dual veils of languages and metaphor. Perhaps this is how the language became overly literal, laden with spatial metaphor in the very transitions meant to address the transcendent. She writes,

“The Forehead Chakra covers the wickerwork of nerves in a vein in the skull… [one] said to control both incoming and outgoing thoughts. According to yoga philosophy, the third eye is the vertical eye of certainty that gives you the ability to unite the horizontal physical reality and the vertical spiritual level.” (40)

There are bizarre slips of the pen or blatant misunderstandings that have been noted in other reviews, the most popular of which is “The body has a cellular memory, and everything you have done or experienced is stored inside its DNA.” Maybe DNA stands for something besides deoxyribonucleic acid, or maybe the mixture of metaphor finally exploded. My favorite however comes right before the obligatory sentence long gloss on quantum mechanics explaining the super-consciousness of the universe and turns Aristotle into a New Age Philosopher. Not even in the most pot-sodden freshman Intro to Philosophy student did I ever witness such sloppy elision of meaning.  

In explanation, she equivocates among possible definitions and seems to confuse herself along with the reader.  Explaining prana, she identifies “millions of years of intelligence” with both thinking mind and the intelligence of cellular integration, glossing Aristotle and Einstein in half a paragraph, finally assuring us that although “It is hard to define prana precisely, … it is not just a mysterious power.” Whew!

So it’s not surprising that when she gets around to breathing in the last paragraph on prana, she tells us it’ll help us “clamp down on “monkey mind” – the intense brain activity of a stressed-out mind.” There are certainly times for clamping down, and as a type-A paramedic given to hypervigilance and a deep sense of responsibility, I have spent years cultivating the “clamp down” style. I came, and keep coming, to yoga to ease my knots, pry my little hands off the steering wheel of my life and allow organic transformation.

Although Norberg gives passing acknowledgement to the evolutionary power of daily yoga practice, her specific instructions and metaphor invariably revert to this mechanism of pressing down, controlling, self-improving and striving for perfection. I was surprised to find the language of self-flagellation and reduction of the heart to the hard body alive and well in the Swedish vernacular, but for all the preferatory ink spilled on “What is Yoga?”, “Back to the Roots”, “The Energy System”, and “Breathe for Life” the yoga-as-exercise mentality is a well fed beast at the heart of this unfocused Power Yoga trip.

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