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Group Book Review: Modern Yoga Studies – I

“Whether a Brahmin, an ascetic, a Buddhist, a Jain, a Skull-Bearer or a materialist, the wise man who is endowed with faith and constantly devoted to the practice of yoga will attain complete success.”
Dattātreyayogaśāstra (transl. James Mallinson)

Modern Yoga has been going through some “interesting times” of late. There has been a wave of sex scandals – most recently in Australia and there are growing calls for a Decolonisation of Yoga Practice, including some strident claims that Yoga was banned under the Raj. I thought it’d be timely, then, to review some of the scholarly works on Modern Yoga.

A History of Modern YogaElizabeth de Michelis’ A History of Modern Yoga: Patanjali and Western Esotericism (Continuum, 2004) was one of the first books to introduce the term “Modern Yoga”, which de Michelis describes as “the graft of a Western branch onto the Indian tree of yoga” (p2). de Michelis’ exploration of the birth of this “Modern Yoga” centres around the cross-cultural circuits of knowledge between west and east – particularly in the works of foundational figures in modern yoga such as Swami Vivekananda and B.K.S. Iyengar.

Part one (chapters 1-4) of Modern Yoga begins with an examination of the development of Neo-Vedānta and how it was influenced by Western esotericism (and Christianity), particularly by leaders of the Brahmo Samaj such as Rammohun Roy, Debendranath Tagore and Keshubchandra Sen. As is well known, by the mid-nineteenth century, a romanticised and mythologised image of India as the “spiritual East” had emerged in western esoteric discourse, and de Michelis shows that Indians – particularly members of the Brahmo Samaj played a key role in shaping such constructs. This is something of a backdrop to the advent of Swami Vivekananda, and his foundational role in developing Modern Yoga (chapters 3-4).
Chapter 3 examines Vivekananda’s early life, his relationship with Ramakrishna, travels around India and his reception at the World Parliament of Religions (1893). In reviewing the “occultic” milieu in which Vivekananda moved, de Michelis notes that “the growing membership of Western cultic milieus had developed a strong craving for practices. In an age of swift technological growth and utilitarianism this was, of course, altogether understandable. People wanted techniques and methods to achieve more or less immediate, practical and rational goals. Increasing secularization, on the other hand, meant that lay standards were likely to be seamlessly (and unthinkingly) transposed to the religious sphere” (p118). Interest in yoga seems to have been growing in this period, and Vivekananda held what may have been one of the first Yoga retreats in America in 1895. Chapter 4 turns to themes of Self-Realization in Vivekananda’s writings, and the development of scientistic Yoga concepts – all of which contributed towards Modern Yoga’s alignment with “health” rather than religious activity.

Part Two of Modern Yoga opens with an examination of Vivekananda’s best-selling book Raja Yoga and how Vivekananda combines and interprets Classical Yoga – Patanjali’s Yogasutras and Hathayoga teachings in terms of the eclectic beliefs he shared with his western followers – such as mesmerism, western science, and his Neo-Vedāntic esotericism. In doing so, de Michelis, identifies three overlapping modes of Vivekananda’s thought – the “Prāṇa model” – wherein Vivekananda develops a cosmology of soteriological aims and methods for achieving liberation via the control and accumulation of Prāṇa; and the “Samādhi model” – in which “mind” plays a central role, and, she says, is more influenced by Metaphysical ideas and Functionalist Psychology. The third model is the Neo-Advaitic, which, compared to the other two, is “radically other-worldly” (p153). de Michelis shows how Vivekananda’s thought radically departs from Classical Sāṃkhya – translating Prāṇa as “energy” and ākāṣa as “matter” and affirming that they interact on the basis of “natural laws”. She also discusses Vivekananda’s assertion that Patanjali’s Yoga Sūtras are “the highest authority on Rajayoga” (p178) – an idea which seems to have emerged from Theosophical literature – and has of course remained popular ever since.

Chapter 6 examines “Twentieth-Century developments of Modern Yoga” – in particular, Modern Yoga’s role in the development of New Age healing and personal growth movements. de Michelis presents a typology of 4 types of Modern Yoga Movement – the Psychosomatic, Denominational, Postural, and Meditational. She focuses on the development of Postural Yoga, examining movements such as the British Wheel of Yoga and Iyengar Yoga and from the 1950s on. She identifies three major developmental phases in the development of Modern Yoga: popularisation (1950s to mid-1970s); consolidation (mid-1970s to late 1980s) and acculturation (late 1980s to the present). For the remainder of the chapter, she reviews the development and popularisation of Iyengar Yoga, and continues, in Chapter 7, to analyse B.K.S. Iyengar’s popular Light… trilogy: Light on Yoga (1966); Light on Pranayama (1981) and Light on the Yoga Sūtras of Patanjali (1993) with reference to two interrelated layers – the Neo-Vedāntic layer, which de Michelis explains is “mainly found in the social and ethical, this-worldly orientation of his teachings, and in the occasional attempts to link them to ‘scientific’ knowledge, theories, or similes” whilst the Harmonial layer is “the conceptual filter used to interpret and to elaborate practices” (p208) – which, she comments, become increasingly aligned with New Age ideals. Iyengar also, drawing on his background in Vaiṣṇava devotionalism, brings in elements of the Bhagavad Gītā – presenting a quite different approach to Yoga than that found in the Yoga Sūtras. She sees Light on Yoga for example, as representative of Modern Yoga’s “popularisation” period – drawing on the ethos of self-help, particularly in terms of psychosomatic self-improvement and fitness – the emphasis very much on practice as opposed to theory.

In her conclusion (Chapter 8) de Michelis considers Modern Postural Yoga (MPY) as “healing ritual of secular religion”. She sees the rapid growth in Postural Yoga in relation to body cultivation, the recognition of stress as a psychosomatic syndrome, and growing secularisation, with its emphasis on direct experience of the sacred. She finds the value of MPY to reside in its flexibility to various applications; its “lack of pressure to commit to any one teaching or practice”, and its cultivation of privatised forms of religiosity – all of which make MPY “highly suitable to the demands of contemporary devloped societies” (p260).

Yoga BodyMark Singleton’s Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice (Oxford University Press, 2010) sets out to investigate the predominance of āsana (posture) in modern transnational Yoga. Yoga Body attempts to account for the way that contemporary yoga practice has been – for the most part – equated with physical postures by examining international developments in physical culture and body cultivation in the twentieth century, and how contemporary yoga was shaped by these movements.

Chapter 1 opens with a brief overview of Yoga in Indian history, beginning with the earliest textual evidence for yoga practice as found in some of the third-century BCE Upaniṣads, the Bhagavad Gītā, Patanjali’s Yoga Sūtras, and Śaivatantras such as the eighth-century Vijñanabhairava. As Singleton points out, none of the early yoga texts give much prominence to seated āsanas, and so points out that “Any assertion that transnational postural yoga is of a piece with the dominant orthopraxy of Indian yogic tradition is therefore highly questionable” (p27). He then turns to a brief examination of “Classical” teachings of haṭhayoga which flourished from the 13th century on, and how contemporary Yoga departs from the themes found in texts such as the Haṭhayogapradīpikā.

Chapter 2 begins with a consideration of early European accounts of encounters with yogins – which he finds were mostly coloured by varying degrees of aversion – particularly of yogins’ postural austerities. He then turns to the issue of militarised yogins during the late Mughal and early British administration, and British attempts to curtail their activities (although there is considerable evidence that even before the arrival of the British, Indian kings were equally concerned with controlling militant bands of armed ascetics – see this post for example). He then turns to nineteenth century scholarship on yogins and early translations of Haṭhayoga texts, again finding much condemnation of yogins as evidential of Indian degeneracy and superstition. He also points out however, that the beginning of the long process by which yoga was “medicalised” and reframed in the light of western scientific wisdom had its early beginnings in the late nineteenth century, with the appearance of works such as Navīna Candra Pāla’s 1850 A Treatise on the Yoga Philosophy.

Chapter 3 considers the case of Yogi Bava Lachman Dass – who arrived in London in 1898 to demonstrate his 48 yogic postures at a sideshow in Westminster. Singleton points out that Das’ yogic postures fitted into existing frames of body-contortionism as entertainment, and then moves on to examine the image of the yogi-fakir and their association with magical powers and feats, often of a disreputable nature. He then turns to Vivekananda – and his antipathy towards yogins – making (in Raja Yoga a clear distinction between the “physical” exercises of Haṭhayoga and the spiritual aims of Raja Yoga – again, this distinction between the merely physical and the spiritual can be found in the writings of Theosophists. Mme Blavatsky issued warnings about the dangers of pranayama and characterises the Haṭha yogi as a “common, ignorant sorcerer” (p77). Such anti-Haṭhayoga sentiments were common in the wake of Vivekananda’s work.

So how did this change? In chapter 4, Singleton turns to the International Physical Culture movement – the development of various fitness and health regimes which, beginning in the 1830s, sought in the cultivation of the body the means for national moral regeneration. Linking such movements to the rise of eugenics, Singleton examines movements such as Swedish gymnastics, Bodybuilding, the YMCA’s physical culture programmes – and how – in chapter 5, these movements, particularly in India – came to be seen as a means of countering contemporary degeneracy and national re-invigoration. He examines the key role Vivekananda played in promoting physical culture to Indian nationalist youth. In chapter 6, Singleton reviews some early texts and photographs which recast Haṭha yoga as physical culture, and examines key figures such as Swami Kuvalayananda (1883-1966); Shri Yogendra (1897-1989) and K.V Iyer (1897-1960), all of whom contributed to the spread of yoga-based fitness routines. Singleton then turns his attention to the New Thought Movement (see this post) and the influence of Ramachakara’s books on Yoga – which, whilst recommending sunbathing, fresh air and gentle callisthenic exercise “made it clear at the outset that fundamental practices of kriyā and āsana are the circus tricks of fakirs” (p131). Further innovations were being introduced and early Indian gurus operating in America such as Paramahaṃsa Yogananda, and in India, B.C. Ghosh, who were popularising a new form of Haṭha yoga – a fusion of āsanas, physical culture, and muscle manipulation. In chapter 7, Singleton presents further examples of body regimes in the form of “harmonial gymnastics” and the work of two American women: Genevieve Stebbins and Cajzoran Ali, both of whom developed esoteric systems of harmonial movement – prioritising relaxed movement, breathing, and gymnastics which prefigure – and helped shape modern postural yoga.

In Chapter 8 Singleton shifts to considering the influence of print and photography in shaping the development of Postural yoga – how “specular representation of yoga postures in mechanically reproduced, modern photographic primers laid the “yoga body” out for objective scrutiny (and emulation) in an unprecedented way” (p167). Singleton shows how, in the late colonial period, Haṭha yoga came to represent “the most basic, elemental assertion of self rule” and at the same time, required that traditional principles be validated through scientfic, medical, and physical culture paradigms. It’s not difficult to see how this representation of the yoga body influenced the contemporary image of yoga as offering “an irrestistable commodity of the holistic, perfectible self” (p174).

The final chapter of Yoga Body focuses on the influence of T. Krishnamacharya (1888-1989) who is probably most well-known in Europe as the teacher of B.K.S Iyengar. Singleton argues that the style of yoga practice that Krishnamacharya developed had a foundational influence on Modern posture-based yoga.

Both A History of Modern Yoga and Yoga Body complicate the narratives that Modern Yoga – particularly in America – is simply an instance of cultural appropriation or a continuance of the colonial project. Elizabeth de Michelis’ work is useful in that it highlights the influence of Vivekananda’s Raja Yoga to be the intellectual underpinnings of much of contemporary Yoga thought – and how, from the outset, this was a transnational project. Mark Singleton shows how postural yoga was initially denigrated – and then gradually was reclaimed – and came to be the dominant form of practice – due to the growth in popularity of international physical culture. Both of these books highlight that it is too simplistic to view Modern Yoga movements and practice as “appropriations” of a timeless Indian tradition.

In part two of this review I will examine David Gordon White’s The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali: A Biography and Andrea R. Jain’s Selling Yoga: From Counterculture to Pop Culture.