I was sitting with a yoga teacher friend the other day, and he was having one of those freak-out moments we all have from time to time. You know the one: “I’m not good enough, I don’t work hard enough, I’m too negative, I’m failing at life,” etc., etc. If you’re a yogi, it’s even worse: “I don’t meditate enough, I can’t hold my crow pose that long, I still have negative thoughts, I am CAUGHT IN THE ILLUSION OF REALITY” and on and on.
My friend does a lot of yoga. He really tries hard: he reads a lot of books, he takes mentorships, he listens to lectures by Alan Watts and Joseph Campbell. In his freak-out moment, he didn’t even feel capable of teaching his next class because he felt that he has nothing to teach and no one should listen to anything he says.
My friend was experiencing something that comes up for so many people in so many contexts that it has it’s own name: the Impostor Syndrome. I first learned about it when I entered graduate school. You’ve somehow made it to a place in life where people listen to what you have to say, where your contributions matter on some level. You think you must have somehow tricked every person who looked at your transcripts and graded your papers and admitted you into the school into thinking you can do this. You look at the incredible, intelligent, fascinating people around you and you just know you don’t belong in this company. The thing about the Impostor Syndrome is that it’s pretty much universal: every incredible, intelligent, fascinating person around you, whether they are about to perform on Broadway, give a lecture on theoretical physics, or teach a yoga class, is probably thinking the same thing. When we get closer to our dreams, pressure’s on: better stand up to it or fail like the miserable wretch you always knew you were.
I took a look around my friend’s apartment. It was littered with yoga books: books on pranayama, anatomy, philosophy, ethical guidelines, and advice on yogic living. My friend was drowning in a pile of yoga self-help books. If there’s one thing I know about self-help books, it’s that they often sell by preying on exactly the kind of insecurity that my friend was having: they are about what you are doing wrong, and all the ways you should be doing it better.
He wasn’t the only one getting insecure, either. I was feeling guilty about not reading all the books he was burning through, and feeling like a bad yogi because I hadn’t made it all the way through my last yoga textbook. The last thing the two of us needed was any more yogic wisdom. We needed a good story.
A good story can teach you so much about the world, human behavior, and your own self. When you read a book about humans who make mistakes, who get scared, who fall in love, run away, and do courageous things, you remember that you are a human too, just like everyone else. A good fiction story can stretch your imagination and your compassion, if not your muscles.
I admit it, I’ve been neglecting my reading chair by the window. Its status as “reading chair” has been more theoretical than literal lately, and a laptop just can’t work the magic of a book that will capture you for hours at a time. It was time for my yogi friend and I to get off our yoga butts and read some good books.
I got up, collected all the yoga self-help books I could see, and hid them in a drawer. I declared my friend on a yoga-book fast for two months. I couldn’t see a single fiction book in my friend’s house, so I went shopping.
I came home with several books for us: science fiction by Michael Crichton, fantasy by Philip Pullman, tongue-in-cheek drama by Miriam Toews, and classics like Peter Pan by J. M. Barrie. We’ve got a good pile to get through now, and a lot of pressure to shake off by getting lost in a good story. My reading chair is about to get a lot less theoretical.
What are your great fiction recommendations?