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.
Kadetsky’s story reads as a constant taking in, both metaphoric and physical. She’s nourished first through her understanding of Iyengar, and then through her search for a practice that suits her. The book is as much a lesson in how to absorb the world as it is informative.
—Colette LaBouff, Identity Theory
First There Is a Mountain is a highly readable and unusually informed look into a milieu that many regard romantically but few know firsthand—and even fewer have described so engagingly.
—Phil Catalfo, Yoga Journal
Yoga aficionados will likely be fascinated by Kadetsky’s spiritual renewal—which helped her overcome both an eating disorder and depression—and how that renewal was achieved through months of brutal practice in India. But other readers may be more surprised by her exposé of what she depicts as the cruelty and hypocrisy pervading the Iyengar empire.
“Kadetsky’s book seamlessly combines the emotions of a meaningful personal journey with a journalist’s rigor and scope-I found it both inspiring and educational. Makes you want to get up on your feet and have a body.”
—Aimee Bender, author of An Invisible Sign of My Own
A “luminous account”
—Poets & Writers
Elizabeth Kadetsky brings her fierce intelligence and savvy style to bear on the most intimate and unmapped of literary territory: the body, pulling you into a journey both exotic and achingly familiar.
—Melanie Thernstrom, author of Pain Chronicles
Elizabeth Kadetsky brings a good dose of journalistic skepticism to her own memoir, as well as writerly grace and beauty. The result is a most unusual book, reading at times as a political history, at times as a comedy of manners, at times as a vivid travelogue—but always as a deeply personal and strangely urgent tale of a woman and her body.
—Leah Hager Cohen, author of Glass, Paper, Beans: Revelations on the Nature and Value of Ordinary Things
First There Is a Mountain gives yoga the respect and tough-minded scrutiny it deserves—shedding light on its murky history in India, its curious arrival in the West, and its limber masters who . . . proclaim themselves yoga’s only authentic heir. This is a wonderful book—colorful, honest, smart and wise.
—Martha Sherrill, author of The Buddha from Brooklyn
Like a raga, delicate and beautiful, with an undercurrent that will pull you, feverishly, into a startling world.
— Katherine Russell Rich, author of The Red Devil: To Hell with Cancer—and Back
First There Is a Mountain is an intriguing journey into the sometimes magical, sometimes mystifying world of yoga. I loved this book.
—Maggie Estep, author of HEX
Like an electric lotus, this book dazzles with its hard-won revelations.
—Rachel Resnick, author of Go West Young F*cked-Up Chick: A Novel of Separation
Gonzo yoga—the next time you pull out a yoga mat, you might just see a mirage of the memorable Kadetsky upside-down next to you.
—Edie Meidav, author of The Far Field: A Novel of Ceylon
ABOUT ELIZABETH KADETSKY
Elizabeth Kadetsky, a two-time Fulbright fellow to India and winner of the 2019 Juniper Prize in Creative Nonfiction, is the author of the novella On the Island at the Center of the Center of the World (Nouvella, 2015)—a finalist for the CLMP Firecracker award and a notable book on Vogue.com. Her other books include the short story collection The Poison that Purifies You (C&R Press, 2014)\ and the lyric memoir The Memory Eaters (forthcoming from University of Massachusetts Press in 2020). She is nonfiction editor at New England Review, and associate professor of English/Creative Writing at Penn State University.