ISSUE #004 - Feb 03, 2018

Yoga Body Reconsidered

Mark Singleton

This article was previously published as the preface to the Serbian edition of Yoga Body.

It is a great honour to have this small contribution to the history of modern yoga published in Serbian. I am immensely grateful to Nikola Pešić for undertaking the long task of translating this book, to Professor Nemanja Radulović for checking the translation and offering his reflections on the book, and to Neopress for publishing it. It has now been almost six years since the book’s publication by Oxford University Press, and a decade since I completed most of the research (as part of a Ph.D thesis at the University of Cambridge). However, a research topic like this is never really complete: the work of scholars—historians, social scientists, anthropologists, philologists, scholars of religious studies and others—as well as my own ongoing research, has been constantly adding to, nuancing and altering the way I view the topics presented here, whether directly or indirectly.1 I am grateful for this opportunity, therefore, to offer some retrospective thoughts on Yoga Body. I hope that they may help to bring this edition as far as possible up to date, and to dispel some misapprehensions prevalent among certain English-language readers regarding the book’s premises and conclusions.

Unusually for an academic book, Yoga Body has had a wide readership outside of scholarly circles, particularly (but not only) among yoga enthusiasts, for whom the material has been of interest from the point of view of their own practices and beliefs, and it has generated a significant level of comment in ‘non-scholarly’ forums, such as online blogs and social media. In my introduction, I noted how nineteenth- and twentieth-century scholarship ‘structured and informed practical modern yoga’ (p.10): the same, it seems, has been true to some extent of this book. Certain ideas that can be traced to this research (and to the work of other colleagues) have themselves become something like modern yoga memes, albeit often in radically simplified form, and with significant loss of the original meaning. Some of these notions are examined in what follows.

I am very happy that this book has had a wide and varied range of readers. However, it is worth being clear that I have nothing to say here with regard to how practitioners should go about doing yoga. The book is in no way intended to be programmatic. It is not for yoga or against yoga, it does not recommend that readers take up yoga (nor indicate what kind), nor does it warn readers against doing yoga. It is not a work of confessional or missionary advocacy on behalf of yoga, nor on behalf of any faith-based or spiritual practice or creed. I mention this because of two common, and at first glance apparently diametrically opposed, types of conclusion that are drawn by some on the basis of the material in this book. Both types sometimes have their beginnings in an assumption that the book sets out to ‘bust the myths’ or ‘debunk’ modern yoga (an ill-characterised and reductionist view of its aims, assuredly).

The first type proceeds to assert that we need to get rid of recent, bastardised forms of modern yoga and return to the ancient and authentic source of true yoga. The second type argues that since yoga is simply a construct, we can (and indeed should) be completely free to innovate in whatever way we see fit under the rubric of ‘yoga’. This gives the book the strange and dubious honour of supporting the agenda of, for example, both certain conservative Hindu cultural organizations in the US who attack popular, American yoga forms as inauthentic and call for a return to the original (Hindu) yoga, and some creative yoga teachers (again, often in the US) who believe that yoga is there for the reinventing. While these phenomena are of great interest from a socio-cultural perspective, suffice it to say here that this book is not in itself an endorsement of either of these conclusions.

In spite of the subtitle (‘The Origins of Modern Posture Practice’), the book does not really deal with the origins of yoga, in the sense of ultimate beginnings, but with certain of its contexts.2Faced with a history as dialectically dense, entangled and varied as that of yoga in the modern world, it is unhelpful to think in terms of single origins. For example, if one frames the modern physical culture movement as the origin of popular, global haṭhayoga practice in the early twentieth century, one invites the predictable (and, with certain qualifications, correct) counterargument that such practice originates, in fact, in Indian traditions of haṭhayoga. If one instead frames modern physical culture as one (albeit vital) context in which certain varieties of early twentieth-century haṭhayoga flourished, one finds oneself on rather different ground, where it becomes possible to appreciate that a multiplicity of ‘contexts’ have contributed to the nexus of embodied meanings that find expression in this haṭhayoga—including without a doubt pre-modern forms of haṭha, but also, and crucially, including modern physical culture. The first frame invites polarised, and to my mind sterile, right vs. wrong debates. The second, on the other hand, maintains the possibility of an ongoing, collective, scholarly adumbration of yoga’s contexts, in all their social, cultural and historical complexity.

Philological efforts to identify the earliest instantiations and genealogies of āsanas in yoga texts is of course valuable and significant, both in its own right and insofar as it can amplify and deepen these contexts. Such was not the focus in this book, however, which is a cultural history drawing mainly on twentieth century, English language sources on yoga—a body of literature which provides plentiful insights into certain twentieth-century yoga forms. This does not by any means exhaust the possible sources for the wider development of ‘modern’ forms of yoga, especially insofar as they draw from Sanskrit and Indian vernacular sources during and prior to the period in question. My own broader research efforts prior to publication—which included three-and-a-half years’ study of yoga in India, learning Sanskrit (in India and at Cambridge) and Hindi, and reading Sanskrit yoga texts with both Indian pandits and western Indologists—had made this very clear. Nevertheless, it is worth insisting that the theoretically imperfect category of ‘transnational anglophone yoga’ has had some value in bringing certain important, and previously neglected, features of yoga’s development into focus.

This book focuses almost exclusively on the early twentieth-century rise of āsana practice, and has little to say about other aspects of yoga in the modern world. I am not claiming, however, that recent, globalised yoga forms only involve āsana. In the popular imagination, yoga is indeed commonly identified with āsana, which in many cases is the primary constituent of ‘yoga practice’, popularly conceived. It is therefore a worthy object of study. But I do not have much to say about popular globalized systems which do not foreground āsana in quite the same way, nor systems which emphasize other yogic practices like meditation. That said, I hope my other books (especially my edited volumes of yoga scholarship) speak to my awareness of and engagement with these aspects of modern yoga praxis.

Chapter 2, ‘Fakirs, Yogis, Europeans’, and chapter 3, ‘Popular Portrayals of the Yogin’) illuminate various ideas and prejudices concerning haṭhayoga and the yogi among foreign ethnographers and scholars writing on India, and presents certain attitudes and beliefs concerning yoga among those who were instrumental in spreading its message abroad. In many respects, then, these chapters present a history of transcultural misunderstanding, ideological reclamation, and cultural taste and prejudice, rather than an account of haṭhayoga per se.3 They provide essential background to the consideration of certain developments in yoga that follow.

The first chapter is of a different order, however, concerning itself not with the modern period at all, but with yoga in ‘the Indian tradition’. It is, quite probably, an overly schematic and rather unsatisfactory attempt to squeeze thousands of years of history into a few pages.4 Moreover, recent advances in historical research on yoga offer far better resources for yoga’s broader history, and in some cases challenge certain aspects of the account presented here.5 This chapter’s position at the beginning of the book may also create the impression that my purpose is to compare and contrast ‘Indian tradition’ with the modern developments in yoga described in the rest of the book. It is not: the book should be viewed primarily as a cultural history of certain developments in yoga in the modern age, with relatively little to say about the history of pre-modern yoga forms.

One source for my account of āsana within yoga traditions in the first chapter was an article and a book published near the end of my research by Gudrun Bühnemann (2007a6and 2007b). Bühnemann notes that traditional texts of yoga assign a preparatory and subordinate place to āsanas, and proposes that the primacy accorded to āsana-based practices in many modern schools of yoga does not derive directly from any known textual tradition of yoga—an idea that I refer to also at several other points in the book. In light of more recent studies, such as those referred to above, these statements may require some adjustment. For one thing, it has become clear that between the 16th and 19th century in India (i.e. the period prior to the one examined here) there were considerable developments in the number and status of āsanas being practised, as attested by new textual evidence.7In the period following the composition of the locus classicus of haṭhayoga, the Haṭhapradīpikā, āsana seems to have a more prominent and important position in certain texts than it does in older sources on yoga, such as portions of the Mahābhārata, certain Upaniṣads or the Yogasūtras in which, as Bühnemann points out, āsana clearly most often does play a subordinate role in the larger context of yoga.

However, while these statements regarding the relatively minor position of āsana call for modification in light of this new evidence, it should not be assumed that such evidence obviates, disproves or renders inconsequential the cultural history presented in subsequent chapters of this book. Nor does it invalidate Bühnemann’s observations regarding the changing function and status of āsana in the modern world.8 This brings us to a vital point of understanding. Assessing and presenting degrees of innovation and continuity in contemporary or revived traditions like transnational yoga is always fraught, insofar as modification is typically (although not always) presented as the transparent transmission of ancient and unchanging teachings. This, indeed, is a trope of transmission across Indian religious traditions through time, and should not surprise us: yoga traditions have always adapted and transformed themselves in response to the needs of the age, and in this sense the kinds of transformations I describe here are not new—however, the sheer pace and degree of change observable in globalised modern yoga make its case quite startling and unique.9

Following Bühnemann, then, I claim that “The practice of āsanas within transnational anglophone yogas is not the outcome of a direct and unbroken lineage of haṭha yoga” (33). Taking into account the recent research on the history of āsana mentioned above, I largely stand by this statement.10 However, as I state in the same passage, it would be going too far to posit that contemporary āsana has no relationship to āsana practice within the Indian tradition. Obviously it does. Most if not all of the modern teachers, writers and yogis presented in this study are engaged in recursive interpretative encounters which seek to reconcile the traditional teachings of yoga (in which many of them are steeped) with modern sensibilities, new epistemologies (modern science, for example), and relatively novel cultural habituses (e.g. the rapidly changing face of modern, colonial India).

It is in this important sense that recent yoga movements—operating within and through a modernising, globalising world—cannot simply be considered the outcome of a direct and unbroken lineage. Some, such as Shri Yogendra, are quite explicit and self-conscious about their innovations, while others fold back apparent innovations into the discourse of timeless tradition. What we are dealing with is perhaps helpfully considered in terms of renaissance,11which is not quite the same as the direct, unbroken continuation of a lineage or tradition, but is in practice a reworking of traditions in creative dialogue with new information and technologies. It is, in other words, a response to modernity. As Simona Sawhney puts it with regard to ‘the modernity of Sanskrit’, ‘Cultural modernity itself becomes what it is by way of a confrontation with tradition – that is to say, with various contesting narratives about tradition’.12 The degree and nature of such reworking is varied and variegated, but it is, I think, always there, in one form or another, in the yoga experiments I present in these pages. The encounters that I am describing, and the yoga(s) that I consider, are in this sense a somewhat different case to ‘traditional’ yogi orders which did not undergo the same rapid, massive transformations that so evidently influenced ‘transnational anglophone yoga’ in the late-nineteenth and twentieth centuries.13 On the other hand, yoga’s remarkable modern, global history should not blind us to the fact that premodern yoga is not itself a reified, static or unitary entity, but has periodically undergone enormous transformations as, for example, in the assimilation of haṭhayoga into Advaitavedānta from the sixteenth century.14

While acknowledging the links to the (traditional, yogic) past, then, what I hope to illuminate in the book are processes of dialectical exchange in which developments in an already modern, globalising India shaped the form of yoga’s initial spread to ‘the West’, and where further accretions, commentaries and interpretations in turn influenced the subsequent development of some yoga in India. Indeed, categories of ‘East’ and ‘West’ cease to be functionally useful in this context, at least to the extent that the cultural productions under scrutiny here are already complex amalgams resulting from the accelerating encounter of diverse cultural forces.

Something similar can be said regarding modern textual traditions of yoga. Modern postural yoga teachers, like Swami Kuvalayananda, Shri Yogendra and others, were instrumental in furthering a textual tradition of haṭha yoga. They were also, simultaneously, recasting yoga in the light of physical culture and pedagogical gymnastics, scientific and modern medical understandings of the body, ideas from psychotherapy, the eugenics movement, modern European philosophy, and so on. Sometimes, texts were interpreted in cultural contexts radically different from those of the traditional yogi or pandit, and/or for readers and audiences who knew little of yoga in India. For example, two of the most important players in the modern revival of yoga, Swami Vivekananda and Shri Yogendra, both encountered the Yogasūtras of Patañjali in New York City (in the 1890s and 1920s, respectively), while also closely interacting with—and teaching yoga to—East Coast avantgarde society.15

Such tangled convergences obviously do not impugn the antiquity or the validity of yoga per se, nor do they deny the part that tradition plays in modern formulations. But they should lead us to reflect on how such textual encounters are structured, and how new meanings are generated with regard to the text(s) at hand. Questions that arise from such reflection might include: What is the significance of textual interpretation in the broader context of yoga’s efflorescence in the early twentieth century? In what ways has the text been interpreted according to the hermeneutic standards of the day or for the benefit of the (perhaps limited) understanding of the student? In what ways has its message been revived, renewed, adapted, updated and utilised in the hands of its discoverer? Conversely, we might also ask how this text has been received and understood by those who practice its teachings, how it has been modified, refracted and inflected as the practice spreads beyond the temporal, intellectual, cultural and geographical borders in which it was originally conceived or taught, and how second and third generation practitioners have interpreted its teachings.

One popular misapprehension about this book is that it proposes that āsanas are a recent invention.16 In fact, I write of the invention of postures at only one point, with reference to the veteran New York-based, Brazilian yoga teacher Dharma Mitra’s claim that global yogis invent new postures on a daily basis (152). Invention implies the bringing into being of something that has never been made or used before—which in some cases, as Mitra claims, may indeed be the case for yoga postures (and not just in modern times, either). However, as regards the history I present here, it makes more sense to speak of adaptation, reframing, reinterpretation (and so on) rather than invention, insofar as these terms foreground the on-going processes of experimentation and bricolage that characterise the recent history of globalised yoga, and keeps us away from debates about the genealogies and ultimate origins of particular postures. It is here, in the very work of interpretation and assimilation of tradition and modernity, that the main interest of this book lies. In this sense, of course, such a study may tell us as much about contemporary culture as it does about yoga. Latour claimed that ‘the whole of French society comes into view if one tugs on Pasteur’s bacteria’.17 What, we might ask, comes into view if one tugs on modern postural yoga? One answer might be: a prismatic view of the religious, social and cultural aspirations of contemporary individuals, their metaphysical, cultural and religious politics, their relationship to their nation and to other nations, and so on. Above all, however, this study should not be taken to impugn the validity, authenticity or sincerity of the various figures who play a part in postural yoga’s development and dissemination, nor to deny yoga’s Indian roots.

In order to guide us in our thinking about yoga’s relationship to modern physical culture, it may be helpful to consider another non-yogic discipline that has had a profound effect on how globalised modern yoga has been conceived. Over at least the past century, yoga has had an intimate and enduring relationship with modern psychology, from James H. Leuba’s The Psychology of Religious Mysticism of 1925,18 to Carl Jung’s 1932 seminars on kuṇḍalinīyoga, Geraldine Coster’s Yoga and Western Psychology of 1934, psychosomatic therapy as yoga based on the work of Wilhelm Reich (1897-1957), or more recent psychotherapeutic postural yoga systems like Phoenix Rising. Vivekananda, considered by some to have launched the whole enterprise of modern yoga (De Michelis 2004), was fascinated by psychology and asked the ‘father of American psychology’ William James, to write the preface to one of his books, while James was similarly interested in, and wrote about, yoga. It would indeed appear that in many of its modern manifestations yoga has become entangled with modern psychological systems, and that psychology has often exerted an influence on how yoga has been popularly understood—the converse has also been and continues to be true.

However, we should guard against making false conclusions on this basis. For example, the fact that yoga has drawn on the language, praxis and assumptions of psychology does not mean:

a) that yoga is just the recently invented discipline of modern psychology, nor

b) that psychology is just a form of yoga; nor

c) that traditional yoga teachings do not offer psychological insights or foreshadow some of the insights of modern psychologists; nor

d) that on the basis of (c) that the study of ‘modern psychological yoga’ is pointless since it’s all already in the traditional teachings; nor (a variant of (d))

e) that yoga has always changed, adapted and developed anyway, therefore none of this history is of any real pertinence or interest.

Analogous notions (or, rather, the attribution of such notions to me) regarding the conclusions to be drawn from yoga’s historical relationship to physical culture are also misguided. In short, there is no need to assert that the complex historical encounter of āsana and modern physical culture means that yogāsanas are a recent invention emerging from physical culture (a), nor that physical culture is just a form of yoga (b), nor that that traditional yoga does not in some cases contain or prefigure elements of physical culture (c), nor, on that basis, that we should write off the importance of the historical study of the modern encounter with physical culture insofar as it is at times prefigured and contained in parts of pre-modern yoga which use similar postures or other techniques (for example, mudrā, dynamic movement etc.) (d). Finally, I admit that I am often at a loss as to how to respond to those who voice the puzzling notion (e) that the fact of yoga’s development in pre-modern times makes its modern history ipso facto uninteresting. Perhaps, indeed, this is not the book for them.

During my time in India, and over many years in Europe and North America, I studied yoga as a ‘participant experiencer’,19 i.e. by engaging directly with the practices of yoga rather than just observing them or examining them through books. Long-term, embodied participation in yoga practice, across a very wide variety of cultural, social and religious contexts, was helpful in providing a broader understanding of modern yoga practice and of ’emic’ practitioner experience— especially insofar as such somatic and psychic experience may remain resistant to expression in words, and therefore hidden to text-based scholarship or mere observation. For this reason it is an important tool in anthropological reflection on modern yoga. However, although my work benefited greatly from this ’embodied’ experience (which continues to inform my more recent, text-based research on yoga traditions), the book is not primarily anthropological in its approach, and does not offer any extensive reflection on the theoretical complexities of phenomenology and the anthropological method, nor for that matter on the paradoxes and tangles faced by the ‘scholarpractitioner’ of yoga.20 Instead, it takes as its starting point a corpus of popular, instructional literature on the theory and practice of yoga that was subsequently influential in shaping the way that yoga was understood and practised, in India and worldwide, from the late nineteenth century onwards. In turn, it considers the various contexts which function as prisms for yoga’s modern global refractions, and constructs a cultural history of modern yoga practice on that basis.

It is important to understand that this book considers various manifestations of yoga as human artefacts (albeit ones that characteristically point to states and entities that lie beyond the human) which, to be fully understood, must be situated in particular historical contexts and networks of shared meaning. This is somewhat different from the kind of approach to yoga’s history often found in the teachings of modern gurus, which (broadly speaking) propose that yoga is eternal and immutable, that it has always already been in existence (and is therefore beyond human production), and that in essence it is unchanging. Its transcendental authority and authenticity may flow from the fact that it was originally taught by a supernatural being (such as Hiraṇyagarbha or Śiva) and is maintained by the authority of the living guru. Alternatively, and with a more modern flavour, it may gain its authority from the fact of being the ageless, transcendental spiritual heritage of humankind.21The great nineteenth-century designer of modern yoga’s ‘blueprint’ (according to De Michelis 2004), Swami Vivekananda, gave expression to a related point of view when he wrote that ‘From the time it was discovered, more than four thousand years ago Yoga was perfectly delineated, formulated and preached in India’ (Vivekananda 2001 [1896]: 134).

From this perspective, then, yoga does not change. Of course, the ‘essentialist’ and the ‘constructivist’ positions may vary, and even sometimes meet in the middle. An ‘essentialist’ might not wish to deny that yoga has been expressed differently in different times and different places (the evidence is after all everywhere to see), while nonetheless insisting that these mere epiphenomena do not alter yoga’s essence and purpose. And a ‘constructivist’ historian could be of the opinion that there is indeed a transcendental core at the heart of all (epiphenomenal, historical) manifestations of yoga—or at least they may exercise a kind of agnosticism in this regard. These two positions are clearly not immutably opposed. A ‘hard’ constructivist position, on the other hand—in which there is only terrestrial history, in which the only artefacts available to us (including ‘spiritual’ artefacts) are the products of fallible, earthbound mortals, and in which the transcendental and eternal is a humanspun fiction—is obviously less easily assimilated within the essentialist position, and vice versa.22

A tension may arise, then, when writing from a constructivist, historical perspective about matters that are considered by some to be beyond history: i.e. by those for whom yoga is a synchronous event rather than a diachronic development through time. For example, chapter 9 of this book presents a ‘diachronic’, cultural historicist study of the teaching career of one of the most influential of modern yoga teachers, T. Krishnamacharya. As such, the chapter emphasizes the developments in Krishnamacharya’s teachings that result from on-going adaptation and innovation in the face of modernity, and not the ‘eternal’ features of this teaching habitually foregrounded in hagiographical ‘insider’ accounts.23 Indeed, from Krishnamacharya’s own perspective, such analysis would probably be viewed as secondary and even irrelevant when set beside yoga’s perennial sameness. As he himself puts it: ‘whatever place, whatever time, the ancestors have framed the yoga practices to suit them all. Only the attitudes and circumstances of human beings change. Time and space do not change. The same sun shines as ever’ (Srivatsan 1997: 11). In this perspective, ‘new’ techniques, texts and teachings are never invented, but always discovered, and thus the new is never really new, but a reframing of the ancient and unchanging logos of yoga.24 And therefore, constructivist studies which work from the premise that yoga is the contingent product of the (fallible) human imagination through time, with distinctly different and occasionally irreconcilable expressions at different points in history, may be seen as suspect, insofar as they fail to recognize the transcendent and perennial sameness which always underlies the appearance of difference within the teaching. What the historian may see as revisionism is in fact conservatism: there is nothing new under the sun.

In chapter 9, I suggest that an unusual yoga style taught by Krishnamacharya to groups of youth during an early phase of his teaching career, and which subsequently had an enormous influence on the development of yoga worldwide, can be profitably considered in the context of the physical culture movement in late-nineteenth and early twentieth-century India. To be clear, I do not claim, as some believe I do, that Krishnamacharya ‘invented’ or ‘plagiarised’ his style based on extant systems of physical culture such as that of the Danish gymnast Niels Bukh, or on physical cultureoriented yoga systems like the pedagogic ‘yogic group exercise’ (yaugik saṅgh vyāyam) of Swami Kuvalayananda. There is no proof of this, and any assertions of direct causality remain speculative as far as I am aware. However, the importance of these systems to the culture of the time (Bukh’s system was the second most prevalent form of pedagogical gymnastics in India; Kuvalayananda was the pre-eminent, internationally recognised teacher of yoga in India, at whose institute Krishnamacharya conducted fieldwork in 1933, see p.203) and the suggestive parallels between them and Krishnamacharya’s system, at the very least provide us with an opportunity to consider Krishnamacharya’s teaching in the wider socio-historical context of the time, and in light of the account given in earlier chapters of this book.

But how should one approach the apparent fact that Krishnamacharya did borrow from many sources, some yogic and some non-yogic? For example, what should one make of the new (to me) information that, after witnessing the exercises of a British army regiment soon after his arrival in Mysore in the 1930s, Krishnamacharya seems to have decided that there should be more standing postures in yoga?25 Once again, if this is true, it is not proof of a mechanism of causation, i.e. that Krishnamacharya in fact incorporated these army exercises into his standing pose sequences, rather than similar postures that he knew from yogic traditions. And, should it not be obvious by now, neither is this in any way proof that there are no standing poses in pre-modern yoga (fallacy (b), above), although they do appear to be infrequent in comparison with modern, Krishnamacharyalineage systems like Iyengar Yoga. Therefore, rushing to discover standing poses, or vinyāsa systems for that matter, in pre-modern texts as a means of refuting the evidence presented in this book seems simplistic at best. Not that such discoveries cannot be of tremendous value in and of themselves, and not that they should not be used to enhance our overall understanding of yoga and add contextual depth to its modern history: but they cannot simply obviate or render inconsequential the relevance of a modern historical encounter that may have in some way altered the course of globalised yoga.

I focus to a great extent in this book on the physical culture movement’s interactions with and influence on the development of yoga in the context of the modern colonial encounter in India. However, I do not claim that this represents a straightforward imposition of foreign knowledge and praxis on Indian yoga, nor (as some complain of the book) do I assert that Indian yoga traditions were somehow lacking and therefore had to borrow from abroad. This, it seems to me, is a parody of the history I advance here, and also a convenient straw man for those who would prefer to deal in ideological platitudes rather than historical complexities.

In this regard, it seems important to briefly note here that there has in recent years been an increasingly strident antipathy among some Hindu cultural nationalist movements in India and abroad towards non-Indian scholars working on Indian subjects (as well as towards so-called ‘Marxist’ Indian scholars, viz. those who do not share their cultural nationalist agenda). Indeed, readers not already familiar with this contemporary current, would do well to acquaint themselves with the intellectual origins and recent activities of the cultural-political phenomenon known as Hindutva (lit. ‘Hindu-ness’), insofar as its ideas increasingly effect anyone who is interested in Indian history, including those with anything more than a passing or superficial interest in yoga.26 Recent political developments in India have given a tremendous boost to those who would curtail, censor or silence those who present an alternative viewpoint to theirs (including, sometimes, by death threats or actual physical violence), with potentially devastating effects for scholarship in and on India. In many quarters, including at the highest levels of government, Indian history is straightforwardly being subsumed into the dominant ideology.27

In this hostile climate, where any work by a ‘westerner’ or ‘Marxist’ is likely to be treated with suspicion and disdain, books such as this one (by a non-Indian author who suggests that yoga has a rather mixed recent global history, as well as an ancient Indian one) will inevitably be perceived as an affront, especially if such a stance can be politically expedient. This is more likely to be the case here if—because of one’s political or religious agenda—one is disposed to believe that this book asserts that yoga is only a hundred years old, or yogāsanas originate in European gymnastics or army exercises, or some other such easily comprehensible, but patently false, representation of its conclusions. Such discourse is of a different nature than academic inquiry, being dominated by conspiracy theory, ad hominem attacks and jingoism.

Perhaps the point bears reiteration: it would be a mistake to think that in describing certain aspects of the colonial encounter in India I am asserting that ‘modern yoga’ was somehow a project designed and engineered by colonial power. There is no ‘project’ of modern yoga, in the sense of an intellectually unified movement with a founder, a doctrine, a charter or a mission.28 Furthermore, the spread of somatic nationalism throughout the world during this period rarely if ever represents a straightforward imposition of European knowledge systems upon non-European nations, even in the case of countries like British India, where certain gymnastics techniques were unambiguously introduced as part of the colonial state apparatus for controlling subject bodies.29The dialectic of global physical culture in India not only left room for local variation, but also, crucially, encouraged resistance to unwelcome and antagonistic elements within the predominant discourse, through a return to indigenous forms and expressions of self-sufficiency, purity and strength – over and against racialist colonial narratives which served to demean the Indian body.

Nor should one assume that, because such systems seemingly begin and flourish within the context of European modernity, comparable developments in other regions during the same period can also be satisfactorily viewed as modernities on the pattern of Europe. For one thing, this does not give proper consideration to the importance of parallel and alternative modernities which are not beholden to or derivative of the European model,30 to earlier processes of globalisation,31 nor to the kind of cultural exchange that is not linear but circular and dialectical. As David Shulman has observed, our modernities ‘ramify and exfoliate backwards’, beyond the cultural and chronological boundaries that merely colonial history would impose.32 To take but one intriguing early counter-example to the idea that physical culture knowledge flowed unilaterally from Europe to Asia: perhaps the most influential of all pre-twentieth-century European physical culture techniques, the ‘Swedish gymnastics’ systems stemming from the work of P. H. Ling (1776–1839) – whose work was to change the course of military training throughout Europe and, crucially, in India – may have drawn inspiration from Chinese body exercises.33 These quintessentially European gymnastics systems, in other words, subsisted in a complex web of influence with Asiatic cultures of body discipline. This history, of course, becomes all the more tangled when adapted forms of Ling gymnastics make their way back to Asia as part of the pedagogical and military colonial apparatus in British India, which then exerts its own influence on modern conceptions of āsana as physical training and curative gymnastics. I was not fully aware of this possible influence on Ling (or, more likely, his students) at the time of writing the book (although see p.86 on ‘Cong Fou’), but it seems to me exemplary of the kinds of tangled global histories that we see throughout modern transnational yoga.34Here, as in much of the history of transnational yoga in the modern age, it quickly becomes difficult to discern precise origins and clear genealogies for practices and belief, where borrowing, adaptation, mutation and rewriting are the rule. Like an open source computer code, modern yoga has been altered, adapted and rewritten by specialists and amateurs alike.

Finally, I should note that this book tends to foreground certain currents that have influenced yoga in particular parts of the world (notably urban centres in India, the UK and the US). Different countries have different histories of encounter, dissemination and consolidation with regard to yoga, and it is to be presumed that the same is true of Serbia. The various histories presented here and the conclusions drawn from them, in other words, are not generally true for all forms of ‘modern yoga’, which is inevitably subject to local variation. I hope nonetheless that the book may be of some interest to readers.


  1. I take this opportunity to thank the scholars who participated in a panel dedicated to this book at the 2011 American Academy of Religions annual meeting in San Francisco: Jason Birch, Ellen Goldberg, Andrea Jain, James Mallinson, and Frederick Smith. Their reflections have informed many of the thoughts I present in this preface. I am also grateful to the following people for reading and commenting on this preface: Jason Birch, Gudrun Bühnemann, Ellen Goldberg, Tara Fraser, Elizabeth de Michelis, James Mallinson, and Anita Roy. In this preface, author-date references can be found in the book’s main (2010) bibliography. New references that are not in the original bibliography are given in full in footnotes. Page references to this book are to the original English edition (2010).
  2. OUP did not wish to use the title of the Ph.D thesis out of which this book grew, ‘The Body at the Centre: Contexts of Postural Yoga in the Modern Age’.
  3. It should not need stating (but unfortunately does) that by citing the views of such people I am in no way endorsing them or adopting them as my own.
  4. This chapter was not originally part of my thesis, but was added later, at the behest of my Ph.D examiners.
  5. For a more informed overview of yoga’s history, as well as a summary of recent scholarship on yoga, see introduction to Roots of Yoga, by James Mallinson and Mark Singleton (London: Penguin Classics, 2016). Most significant with regard to this book, perhaps, are Mallinson’s paradigm-shifting studies of traditional haṭhayoga and Jason Birch’s important research on the development of āsana in the period prior to the one examined in this book. They provide a basis for a reappraisal of the wider history of postural yoga—ongoing work which I am currently fortunate enough to be participating in (‘The Haṭha Yoga Project: Mapping Indian and Transnational Traditions of Physical Yoga through Philology and Ethnography’, a five-year research project at the School of Oriental and African Studies (London), funded by the European Research Council). Manmath Gharote’s Encyclopedia of Traditional Asanas, first published in 2006 (updated edition, 2013), was one resource that became available towards the end of my research, but that didn’t come to my attention until after the book was published: consideration of its findings would have added greater depth to the first chapter.
  6. The publishers reprinted the book in 2011.
  7. See in particular Jason Birch (forthcoming), ‘The Proliferation of Āsana in late Mediaeval India’, in Yoga in Transformation: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives on a Global Phenomenon (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht Unipress).
  8. Notwithstanding the need for cautious and careful analysis of the nature and extent of such change, especially in light of our developing understanding of yoga’s history.
  9. The increasing global commerce of ideas, goods and technologies led to enormous societal and cultural transformation, and also to sometimes extreme revisionings of yoga’s purpose and function, both inside and outside of India. It also enabled varieties of yoga to be disseminated rapidly and widely in new ways (for example mass print and photography, examined in chapter 8). On the ‘folding back’ of innovation into tradition, see the conclusion to chapter 9 of this book.
  10. Although this is, in some senses, a rather unremarkable claim insofar as premodernhaṭhayoga itself developed in a multiplicity of contexts, rather than through a single, ‘direct’ lineage (notwithstanding the kind of teacher-to-teacher genealogies that we find in texts like the Haṭhapradīpikā). Here, as elsewhere, the fact of variation, adaptation and change across time and geography is a feature of yoga’s broader history, and is not in itself particular to the modern age.
  11. Shri Yogendra’s Yoga Institute in fact styles itself ‘The Heart of the Modern Yoga Renaissance’ (see De Michelis 2004: xvii).
  12. Sawhney, S. 2009.The Modernity of Sanskrit. London and Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, p.14. Also interesting to consider is the extent to which (as Kavita Singh puts it, in a slightly different context) embracing the modern and locating it within tradition functions to affirm one’s existence as traditional, and defuses the threat that modernity (and particularly ‘western’ modernity) poses to traditional values, in particular religious values (Artibus Asiae,vol. 70, no. 1 (Festschrift in Honour of Joanna Williams, part 2), pp.47-76, available a last accessed 1.9.2015).
  13. This is not to underestimate the damage done to yogi orders as a result of the East India Company’s repressive legislation, mentioned in chapter 2. The contemporary situation of such orders may now in fact be changing: on the way in which some Nāth yogis are beginning to foreground the performance of āsana sequences, likely in response to the global boom in postural yoga and their perceived role as the original teachers of haṭhayoga, see Mallinson 2014 (‘The Yogīs’ Latest Trick’) p.174 n.38
  14. On which see Christian Bouy 1( 994) Les Nātha-yogin et les Upani ads : tude d’histoire de la litt rature hindoue. Paris: de Boccard.
  15. On Vivekananda, see p.71-2 of this book. Joseph Alter offers the following perspective on Yogendra: ‘[Yogendra’s] turn to the Yogasūtras at the end of his career was in fact a return, for in 1922 he ordered a copy from Oriental Publishers of Lahore and had it sent to him in New York. He first read it while staying at the Union League of Philadelphia and found that it “had surprising similarity to his own thinking” and that he knew the content of this classic work before reading it (Rodrigues, 1982 : 222). As Desai’s [i.e. Yogendra’s] biographer suggests—closing the recursive loop of origins, the history of ideas, and Orientalism—an iconic guru in the tradition of classical yoga had identified a true disciple’ (p. 74 of ‘Shri Yogendra: Magic, Modernity, and the Burden of the Middle-Class Yogi’, in Singleton and Goldberg (eds.), Gurus of Modern Yoga, New York: Oxford University Press 2013, pp.60-79).
  16. See, for example,, last accessed 24th August 2015.
  17. Bruno Latour,We Have Never Been Modern (trans. Catherine Porter; Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1993), p.4.
  18. Leuba was familiar with yoga through James Haughton Woods’ 1914 translation of theYogasūtra. As Filliozat points out, ‘The psychologist who was depending on this translation could only get an incomplete idea of the exact content of the Yogasūtras. He made up for it by superficial analogies with Western facts or others furnished by ethnology’ (originally ‘Le Yoga et les substances psychotropes’, in Yoga et Vie, no. 26, Dec. 1980; translated into English as ‘Yoga and Psychotropic Substances’, chapter 32 of Religion Philosophy Yoga (Delhi : Motilal Banarsidass 1991), pp.471-475.
  19. On this term see Elisabeth Hsu (2006), ‘Participant Experience: Learning to be an Acupuncturistm and Not Becoming One’. In Critical Journeys: The Making of Anthropologists, edited by Geert De Neve and Maya Unnithan-Kumar, 149-163. Aldershot: Ashgate.
  20. This is the topic of an article in preparation.
  21. Something like these two positions were articulated in a 2010 online debate in in the Washington Post’s ‘On Faith’ blog regarding ‘who owns yoga’, between Aseem Shukla, president of the Hindu American Foundation, who espoused the view that yoga is fundamentally Hindu, and Deepak Chopra who opined that yoga was the timeless cultural heritage of all humans.
  22. As an aside, note that in general inthis book I am concerned with methods developed under the rubric of yoga. I am also interested, however, in the state of yoga (often identified with samādhi) insofar as, like Jacques Lacan’s ‘master signifer’, though ineffable and empty in itself, it underpins and structures complex networks of symbolic meaning (see chapter 1 of Mallinson and Singleton 2016 on the ambiguities that the dual meaning of yoga-as-practice and yoga-as-state can create).
  23. For example, A.G. Mohan’s biography of Krishnamacharya notes ‘As with the biographies of other spiritual masters, the precise chronology of Krishnamacharya’s travels and studies does not matter. What matters to us now is the timeless wisdom he distilled from his studies and gave to students over many decades….’ (Krishnamacharya: His Life and Teachings, Boston: Shambhala 2010, p. 9). A notable exception to this trend is the writing of T.K.V. Desikachar, Krishnamacharya’s son, which is generally very clear about the developmental phases of his father’s career. The remainder of this paragraph and part of the next is adapted from a passage in Singleton and Fraser 2013 (‘T. Krishnamacharya, Father of Modern Yoga’, in Singleton and Goldberg 2013, pp.83-106.
  24. This viewpoint has certain elective affinities with the current of modern, ‘western’ religious thought (often, however, inspired by ‘the East’) known as perennialism, or the perennial philosophy, in which all religions are seen as essentially one, and in which specific features of individual religions are inessential with regard to the inviolable spiritual essence which gives rise to them. Such a perspective is pervasive within many global varieties of modern yoga. See Mallinson and Singleton 2016, introduction to chapter 11.
  25. See Singleton and Fraser 2013:97: ‘Krishnamacharya never ceased to innovate within this framework, and was presenting new teachings even a few years prior to his death. As T. K. V. Desikachar states in 1982 with regard to āsanas, ‘He continues to discover new postures, in fact I am unable to keep track of his new discoveries’ (32). One of the senior-most teachers in the tradition, Claude Maréchal (who made forty trips to India to study with his teacher Desikachar, and indirectly with Krishnamacharya, between 1969 and 2002) similarly declares: ‘A large number of postures, notably most of the standing postures, no doubt come to us directly from Prof. Krishnamacharya, who developed them in response to the needs of the modern age’ (‘Enseignements’ in Viniyoga 24 (1989): p.47). Although the metaphorical basis of the terms is different in the two accounts (discovery vs. development), it seems clear that a similar process is envisaged here. In a recent interview with Mark Singleton, Maréchal elaborated on his earlier statement, recounting that when Krishnamacharya arrived in Mysore he observed the physical education routines of a regiment of British soldiers stationed there, and ‘saw very clearly that the standing postures should be an important element of yoga’. Krishnamacharya was a ‘renovator’, he borrowed [reprit things, and ‘he himself invented postures’ (Interview 23 June 2012, Singleton trans.).
  26. A good place to start would be Christophe Jaffrelot’sHindutva: A Reader (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2007).
  27. As a case in point, consider the recent appointments to the Indian Council of Historical Research ( and historian Romila Thapar’s analysis of these appointments: Apoorvanand Jha has written of an ‘Ice Age for scholarship in India’ (A. Jha, ‘Wendy Doniger Controversy: Ice Age for Indian Scholarship’, DNA India (14 Feb. 2014) []. See also McComas Taylor (2014): Hindu Activism and Academic Censorship in India, South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies, DOI: 10.1080/00856401.2014.956679. An article by Wendy Doniger recapitulates some of the most important moments of this trend of censorship in recent years, including pivotal political campaigns against one of her books:
  28. Although the organizations of some modern yoga teachers do in fact characterise their work as a ‘mission’.
  29. What follows is adapted from my chapter ‘Yoga and physical culture: Transnational history and blurred discursive contexts’ in Knut A. Jacobsen, ed., Routledge Handbook of Contemporary India (Abingdon: Routledge, 2016), pp. 172-84.
  30. van der Veer, Peter. 2014.The Modern Spirit of Asia : the Spiritual and the Secular in China and India. Princeton, New Jersey : Princeton University Press.
  31. Pollack, Sheldon. 2006.The Language of the Gods in the World of Men: Sanskrit, Culture and Power in Premodern India. Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press), p.10.
  32. Shulman, David. 2012a. The Revenge of the East? New York Review of Books. October 11.‐-east/?pagination=false#fnr-‐-3. Accessed December 2012. We should however be cautious about using the model of ‘alternative modernities’ to suggest that there is nothing specific or particular (or ‘foreign’) about transnational ‘modern yoga’, insofar as the apparent novelties it introduces are all prefigured at other times and at other places and are, ergo, not really new. This approach, it seems to me, quickly leads to a flattening of the kind of specifically modern historical typography which this study examines.
  33. See my chapterY’ oga and physical culture: Transnational history and blurred discursive contexts’ in Jacobsen 2016 , for details. A further example of this two-way flow of influence is the adoption of ‘Indian clubs’ as part of the British Army training regime (see Alter 2004c in main bibliography).
  34. That said, this history should obviously not be taken as an indication that Ling gymnastics is ‘originally’ an Asian technique, no matter how attractive such an argument might be politically.

ISSUE #004

On Modern Yoga Research
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