Tarka #004

On Modern Yoga Research


On Modern Yoga Research

The term “Modern Yoga” coveys a break with past traditions.  Indeed, the practices associated with Yoga today are distinct from those described in historical texts and oral traditions, but is this more so than with other traditions?  We don’t speak of “modern Christianity” or “modern Buddhism” with the same fervent distinction, though, of course, today’s Christianity is radically different from its medieval history.  Yoga has become a global phenomena and the connection of modern Yoga to its historical records and questions of authenticity and authority are hotly contested. Thus, Modern Yoga is the field of study that examines modern practices and their relationship (or lack thereof) to historical texts and traditions of Yoga.

Many scholars and practitioners agree that one of the best working definitions for the term Yoga is discipline, since this term accounts for both pre-modern and modern concepts of what it means to do Yoga.  Elizabeth De Michelis proposes the following working definition for Modern Yoga: “The expression Modern Yoga is used [here] to signify those disciplines and schools that are, to a greater or lesser extent, rooted in South Asian cultural contexts and more specifically draw inspiration from certain philosophies, teachings, and practices of Hinduism.  These teachings and practices, by virtue of export, syncretic assimilation, and subsequent acculturation processes, have by now become an integral part of (primarily) urban cultures worldwide and are usually represented, disseminated, and discussed primarily (though not exclusively) by way of the English language.”  (Elizabeth De Michelis, in “Modern Yoga: History and Forms,” 2009.)

In 2005 members of the community Hindu America Foundation formed a campaign titled, “Take Back Yoga.”  Their premise was that Yoga, in essence, was a Hindu practice and that modern practitioners were not giving due credit to its historical legacy.  Andrea Jain responded to this movement by arguing that there is a long history of interreligious creativity and development of Yoga traditions. She states, “Opponents of the popularization of yoga, who build ridged walls around yoga for the sake of arguing that it belongs in the Hindu tradition and accordingly does not belong in others, cannot withstand historical scrutiny, which points to the fact, when it comes to both meaning and function, yoga is malleable.” (Andrea Jain, “The Malleability of Yoga: A Response to Christian and Hindu Opponents of the Popularization of Yoga.” Journal of Hindu-Christian Studies, Vol. 25, 2012).

Meanwhile, Yoga Studies has taken root as an emerging scholarly, cross-disciplinary, field.  Increasing numbers of early Hatha Yoga texts are being translated and some scholars have argued that modern Yoga postures are largely an invention of the twentieth century.  What all of this means for the on-going development of the Yoga tradition is the purview of Modern Yoga studies.  From where do modern practitioners draw insight, authority, and authenticity?  

This issue of Tarka begins to unpack these questions with a series of articles by some of the leading scholars in the field.  They were initially published along side the lecture series, Yoga Reconsidered: Exploring Modern Yoga Research.  If you are interested in this programing it is available in the “learn” section of the Embodied Philosophy web page.  

~ Stephanie Corigliano, Tarka Managing Editor