As a young journalist, Elizabeth Kadetsky found herself running for hours every day, eating little, and suffering from a troubling and persistent pain in her chest. On a friend’s advice, she applied to the yoga institute in India where the legendary B. K. S. Iyengar took in Western students for instruction.
First There Is a Mountain is a tale of the longing that brings an American woman to the feet of the aging patriarch Iyengar, one of the first to share the esoteric secrets of yoga with the West. Kadetsky soon learns that the yoga she has practiced for years bears little resemblance to what she finds at the institute. Here, earnest aspirants perform intricate postures and hang upside down from ropes to explore the boundaries between the physical and the sublime.
In Iyengar’s vast library and archives, in travels to his birthplace, and in conversations with Iyengar himself, Kadetsky pieces together the unlikely life journey of her teacher. In the process, she discovers a yoga that is part legend, part sacred scripture, and part historical chimera. She explores, too, yoga’s role in transcending India’s caste system, in nation-building, and as an emerging cultural prize. Finally, she finds herself under Iyengar’s touch, leaving behind a discordant childhood and starvation regimens, and reaching for the subtle wisdom of the body.
What began as a spiritual journey ends as something more: a memoir, a love story, a portrait of a country caught between a mythical past and an ambiguous modernity, and the biography of a man who pioneered the phenomenon of modern yoga.
First There Is a Mountain explores the mercurial and complex Iyengar as a character, as a figure in the crosshairs of post-colonial reckoning—a man born in 1918 who shrewdly connected his yoga crusade to the Indian independence movement, the West’s romance with the East of the 1960s, and, later, the Hindu nationalist movement in India.
Upon its original publication by Little, Brown and Co. in 2004, First There Is a Mountain was quickly censured by the Iyengar family for its candid depiction of the beloved, troubled, angry, and brilliant master. The book meanwhile won admirers and supporters among yoga students and studio owners, Indian literary figures, and writers in the American MFA creative writing world for its unlocking the untold story of rigor and cruelty at the Iyengar school in India.
First There Is a Mountain is a beautifully written and moving portrayal of the endlessly fraught but utterly compelling dance of East and West.