Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Yoga Body: Guest Book Review by H. L. Richard

Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice

by Mark Singleton
Oxford University Press, 2010, pp. 262 + x

reviewed by H. L. Richard

This book defines the current academic understanding of the origins of modern yoga. It has not (yet?) made much impact on popular understanding, which continues to reflect propagandistic appeals from various quarters (particularly romantic pro-Hindus and knee-jerk anti-Hindus), but even this review is an attempt in the direction of changing that.

The thesis of the book is simply stated; modern postural yoga does not have ancient roots in India; it is a modern creation and the postures are borrowed from nineteenth century European exercises. This rather incredible thesis is meticulously documented, yet the documentation tells a fascinating story that does not get lost in the academic paraphernalia.

In Singelton’s words, it is best

to consider the term yoga as it refers to modern postural practice as a homonym, and not a synonym, of the “yoga” associated with the philosophical system of Patanjali, or the “yoga” that forms an integral component of the Saiva Tantras, or the “yoga” of the Bhagavad Gita, and so on. In other words, although the word “yoga” as it is used popularly today is identical in spelling and pronunciation in each of these instances, it has quite different meanings and origins. It is, in short, a homonym, and it should therefore not be assumed that it refers to the same body of beliefs and practices as these other, homonymous terms. If this is admitted as the basis for further discussion, we are free to consider postural modern yoga on its own terms instead of in negative comparison to other traditions called “yoga.” (15)

This history of both the study of yoga and of yoga itself show that yoga was esoteric and eccentric, never a mainstream practice in Hindu traditions. Swami Vivekananda, one of the great modernizers of Hindu traditions, taught on yoga with a positive slant but was not interested in yoga postures. Yet Vivekananda was influential in the concern to develop physical strength, and it was this interest in physical culture that led to the development of modern postural yoga.

Singleton analyzes the key figures in the development of the modern yoga movement and provides details on various of the famous yoga postures. Among the many interesting tangents in Singleton’s study is the development of photography and the significant role this played in the borrowing of postures from Europe and their adaptation into modern yoga. The postal service played a key role also:

As well as Yogananda and Gherwal, many of the other yoga writers and gurus considered here (like Sivananda, Iyer, Sundaram, Yogendra, and Ramacharaka) reached their public via the postal service. This marks a fascinating intermediate phase in transnational Anglophone yoga’s shift away from an exclusive guru-śiṣya model and toward the self-help model that dominates today. (137)

This study outlines a fascinating chapter in the interaction of “East” and “West.” It should put to death any lingering fears that modern yoga postures are in some way aligned to Hindu philosophy and gods. (Some yoga teachers are so aligned, but certainly not the postures.) This is highly recommended reading for anyone interested in yoga and should be held by libraries where interreligious studies are a concern.