As I was researching my article on introduction literature on yoga, I was stunned to find so little genuine quality research on the topic. Fortunately, I find that I was a bit premature. The book under review here, Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice by Mark Singleton is just the sort of historical treatise I love reading.
This is not an easy book. In fact, it’s a book that can easily be misread to say things it doesn’t.
For instance, it does NOT say that posture yoga has no historical continuity with the hatha yoga traditions of India. It DOES say that there is clear evidence of the influence of Western physical culture exercises on the yoga practices we know in the West today.
I read the book in less than a day. I put it down to talk to my mother, to have dinner and go to a meeting. That was it.
It’s well written – though I did have to look up a few words. It’s also a scholarly masterpiece. The author succeeds in looking at yoga – and through original research into (mostly English language) sources finds a non-traditional narrative.
One reason I find the book so convincing is the simple observation that western yoga has nothing to do with Hinduism. Sure, there is some talk about chakras and kundalini, food advice and so on, but mostly it’s simply an exercise program.
What about the the relationship between body and mind then? Isn’t that Indian? Well, yes – but the shape that takes in our Western yoga discours is of Western origin. Mark Singleton shows the lines of influence very clearly.
For the non-scholarly reader I recommend a back-to-front approach to reading this book. Start with the conclusion. Follow that up with chapter 6, on the history of Ashtanga Yoga – expect to be surprised. If you’re still game after that, read the introduction and then the rest of the book in the order in which it was written.
Here are a few random observations about Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice:
Although the book deals with a few common misconceptions about the history of Hatha Yoga, it basically deals with the history of modern yoga in it’s formative years: from the 1850’s to the 1950’s.
First we learn that Hatha Yoga proper – the Indian tradition – was in very bad shape by the end of the 19th century. It had a bad reputation with the English rulers as well as with educated Indian ‘natives’. Those Hatha Yogis still around were mostly employed as circus-acts. Literally: showing off the weird postures they could take on.
There is a line of showmanship throughout the history of Modern Yoga – today’s YouTube video’s are really nothing new.
Blavatsky and Vivekananda ‘harbingers of late 19th century taste’ as Mark Singleton calls them – both had a distaste for Hatha Yogis. Black Magic, ritualistic, overly ascetic, parlor tricks – that’s the sort of judgments they had about them.
The translators of Hatha Yoga texts into English (frequently Indian Theosophists) also had to deal with the popular prejudices, while at the same time trying to show off their national heritage. A complicated business that lead – and still leads – to self-censorship.
Men and women in Yoga Exercise History
I really liked that this book is gender-conscious. It doesn’t talk about ‘people’ when it’s really only men. There is a whole chapter on the historical background to the fact that yoga is currently practiced mostly by women. Mark Singleton shows clearly that yoga classes without a further label are – in their actual practices – closer to the physical exercises European women did in the early 20th century than any other of the sources he discusses. I only wish he had backed that up with more illustrations.
Don’t get me wrong: this is a well illustrated book and the publishers have managed to even translate that well, for Kindle use.
For instance, from the chapter on women’s exercise (‘Harmonial Gymnastics and Esoteric Dance) I made this screenshot on my tablet:
Another reader took the following picture, presumably from the hard-cover version:
Such images are probably the most convincing part of the whole study, and the easiest to understand. For people into yoga it would have been interesting to know which asanas can be traced to older Indian sources and which are more likely to have been adopted from originally European examples.
And that is really the only beef I have with this book: I would have liked it to be more extensive.
The purpose of such an overview would not be, for me at least, to purge yoga from it’s European influences. Whatever the origins, I find yoga to be a helpful and healthy type of exercise that offers more than merely physical benefits. The historical origins that brought this practice into being doesn’t change that.
I suppose Mark Singleton would agree: he is a long time practitioner of yoga, so it is clear that he doesn’t mean to discount the value of Yoga – merely some of the narrative around it.
In fact, he is currently working on a book called ‘Roots of Yoga‘ that is advertised as follows:
Despite the immense popularity of yoga today, there is surprisingly little knowledge of its roots among practitioners. This book brings together, for the first time, the core teachings of yoga in the words of their authors, rather than in the secondary versions of modern interpreters. Including key passages from the Upanishads, the Buddhist and Jaina traditions, the yoga sections of the Indian Tantras, and many texts that are being critically translated for the first time, Roots of Yoga provides a comprehensive and immediate insight into the essential texts of the Indian traditions of yoga. This book is a first stop for anyone wishing to learn more than they are told at their yoga class, and an indispensable resource for serious yoga practitioners and teachers.
While in Yoga Body he questions the Indian Roots of yoga exercise practices, in ‘Roots of Yoga‘ he fills the historical void from the other side: translating original Indian texts to show the cultural background of yoga – as the term is (still) understood in India.
I’m looking forward to it.