Skip to navigation | Skip to content

Group Book Review: Modern Yoga Studies – II

But yoga is known to be of two kinds.
The first is considered the yoga
of non-being. The other is the great yoga, the very best of all yogas.

The yoga in which one’s own essence
is known to be empty, free from all
false appearances, is named the yoga
of non-being. Through it, one sees the self.

The yoga in which one discerns the self
as eternally blissful, free from blemish,
and united with me is called
the great yoga of the supreme lord”.
Īśvara Gītā 11, 5-7. (transl. Andrew J. Nicholson)

David Gordon White’s The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali: A Biography (Princeton University Press 2014) – part of Princeton’s “Lives of Great Religious Books” series – may seem a little out of place here. However, given that many contemporary Yoga movements (and commentators) see the Yoga Sūtra as the ur-text from which all yoga springs – and often claim a direct chain of transmission to it – I thought it was worth including.

The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali: A BiographyThe Yoga Sutra of Patanjali: A Biography is a rather dense book – small wonder that the publisher opted to make the full notes and bibliography available online. Although Yoga Sutra does not address Contemporary Yoga practitioners as such, White does come across on occasion as being out to debunk the mythical status of the Yoga Sūtra – in much the same way that his earlier work Kiss of the Yogini took potshots at contemporary neo-tantric practitioners. The core of White’s argument in Yoga Sutra is that Patanjali’s famous text – rather being the foundational text of an unbroken tradition (which is often how it represented in contemporary yoga discourse) – had, for several centuries prior to its “rediscovery” by British Orientalists – been a “lost tradition” (p16).

White begins by locating the Yoga Sūtra within its historical/philosophical context; providing a quick romp through the main tenets of Samkhya and how it is expressed in Patanjali’s text. He also examines five major commentators on the Yoga Sūtra – Vyasa, Shankara, Vachaspati Mishra, Bhoja, and Vijnanabhikshu – giving some background on each, their influences, and discusses how their commentaries reflected changing views of Yoga. He then moves into an exploration of the western “discovery” of the Yoga Sūtra. He situates this “discovery” as a consequence of Orientalist interests in recovering Hindu law codes – and notes that the earliest mention of the Yoga Sūtra by a European is in Sir Charles Wilkin’s 1785 translation of the Bhagavad Gita. it was Henry Thomas Colebrook however, in his (1823-27) three part study – “On the Philosophy of the Hindus” which provided the first European overview of of Patanjali’s Yoga Sūtra. Colebrook, White explains, follows the commentorial tradition in arguing that Yoga is but a variant of the Samkhya philosophy – but – as White highlights – characterises Patanjali’s system as “fanatical”. This negative view of Yogis is a general trend as White shows, throughout much of the nineteenth century. White points out that no nineteenth century account of yogis – either by Europeans or Indians – portrays them as peaceful, meditating ascetics – in the way that we tend to view yogis today – rather, he says, “the overwhelming majority of accounts from the sixteenth century onward depict yogis as either beggars or ragtag mercenary fighters” (p66). White relates the repugnance of Colebrook et al to British problems with armed ascetic bands, as well as incidents such as the Sannyasi rebellion and Nath yogis’ “rulership” of Marwar (see notes here).

White continues, tracing the transnational journey of the Yoga Sūtra – its influence on Georg W.F. Hegel and the German Romantics (chapter 4), and the works of Rajendralal Mitra (chapter 5) – who translated the Yoga Sūtra in 1883. White credits Mitra’s translation as being the first to interest Indian intellectual circles of the period in the Yoga Sūtra. Chapter 6 turns to the “Yoga of the Magnetosphere” – and examines the influence of the Theosophical Society. White credits the Theosophical Society (TS) with “having projected yoga onto the magnetosphere of the late nineteenth ­century Indian and Western consciousness” (p105) via its early translations of the Yoga Sūtra – although he mentions the distinction Blavatsky draws between Raja and Hatha yoga. Both Blavatsky (and later) Annie Besant saw Yoga as “an ancient and authentically Indian science” (p107) and promoted its teachings through lectures and books. Unlike Blavatsky – theosophists, such as Alice Bailey and Ernest Wood identified the Yoga Sūtra as a work of Raja Yoga – taking their cue from Vivekananda. In chapter 7, White takes a look at Vivekananda – and in particular, his book Raja Yoga – a “bold, modern fusion of Yoga philosophy and Western science, religion, and the occult, this earnest and impassioned effort to make Indian thought accessible to Western audiences often succeeded at the expense of accuracy” (p125). White discusses the various influences – both Theosophy and New Thought – present in Vivekananda’s work, and sums up his legacy to modern yoga:

“Over the past century, Vivekananda’s legacy has prevailed in the yoga subculture, where teachers continue to confuse Yoga philosophy with Puranic, Hatha, and Tantric doctrines; to present Western metaphysical and scientistic concepts in Indian trappings; to identify Yoga as a healing tradition; to assert the scientific foundations of Yoga; and to present Raja as the highest form of Yoga” (p141).

Chapter 8 looks at the Yoga Sutra “in the Muslim World”, exploring Sufi connections and Islamic borrowings of Patanjali’s work, and Chapter 9 reviews Jain incorporations of the Yoga Sūtra – for example, Hemachandra’s twelfth-century Yogashastra – and appearances of Yoga Sūtra themes in the works of Abhinavagupta – such as Tantraloka – where Abhinavagupta, in common with most tantric commentators – is critical of the eight-part practice. He also briefly examines the influence of Patanjali in the works of various Shrivaishnava theologians (notably Ramanuja) and a Javanese text, the tenth-century Dharma Patanjala. White points out that the Yogas taught by the Pashupatas and later Saiva orders was quite different than that of Patanjali – although later developments show a tendency to incorporate elements of the Yoga Sūtra. The eighth century Īśvara Gītā (recently translated by Andrew J. Nicholson, SUNY 2014) is a case in point as it incorporates Patanjali’s eight-fold practice but accords it a lower soteriological status to it’s own Śiva-directed yoga.

White also deals with Yoga developments in the early twentieth century. Both Paramahansa Yogananada (“Autobiography of a Yogi”) and Shri Yogendra – both of whom founded early yoga schools in the USA get an early mention – and White characteristically dismisses both Pierre Bernard and “Alistair” (sic) Crowley as “fraudu­lent self­ proclaimed practitioners of Tantric Yoga” (p183). He asserts that in the early decades of the twentieth century, the Yoga Sūtra was more-or-less ignored in India. Aurobindo Ghosh’s (Shri Aurobindo) Synthesis of Yoga (1914-21) ignores Patanjali, relying heavily instead on the Bhagavad Gita. He also mentions two of Aurobindu’s contemporaries – Shri Yogendra and Swami Kuvalayananda – two early “medicalisers” of yoga, who he credits with laying the foundations of modern “health and fitness” yoga. White then turns to Swami Sivananda, his 1935 work The Science of Pranayama and establishment of the Divine Life Society the following year. The fact that none of these luminaries made use of the Yoga Sūtra in their innovations, White sees as further evidence for India remaining a “Yoga desert” (p187) – at least as far as the Yoga Sūtra is concerned.

In the final chapter “Yoga Sutra 2.0” White brings up further knotty problems which have whirled around the Yoga Sūtra – such as the identity of its famous commentator, Vyasa and the Sutra’s relationship with Buddhism as well as the rise in popularity of Guru Ramdev and his transnational “Patanjali Yoga Shrine and Heavenly Yoga Temple”. White points out how far the contemporary context in which the Yoga Sūtra exists differs from its premodern setting: “Its readership is not restricted to an intellectual elite, the persons who debated its teachings in their commentaries, but is rather open to anyone with what is called “a yoga practice.” Furthermore, as we have seen, many in the massive, vibrant yoga sub­-culture have no use for translations or commentaries (to say nothing of the writings of critical scholars), preferring to read — or more properly speaking, recite — Patanjali’s work in the original Sanskrit. Its truth, and by extension the authenticity of their own yoga practice, lies in the simple fact that it exists and that its words are there, recoverable across space and time through the simple act of performance” (p235).

Yoga Sutra is an interesting book – if nothing else, White demonstrates ably that the history of engagement with the Yoga Sūtra – in India and elsewhere – is highly complex and not quite as straightforwards as popular narratives often assume. There is no easy way to chronologise this account, but I did find the way White’s narrative leaps back and forth across the centuries to be slightly irritating. I would also have liked to have seen more discussion of the diversity of yoga schools, and some of the later critiques of Patanjali – for example, that of the eighteenth-century Śaiva Haṃsamiṭṭhu, who (infamously) declares in his Haṃsavilāsa that ““Pātañjalayoga is Nonsense”.

Selling Yoga: From Counterculture to Pop CultureAndrea R. Jain’s Selling Yoga: From Counterculture to Pop Culture (Oxford University Press 2015) examines contemporary postural yoga as a transnational phenomena. Jain argues, in her preface, that popular tropes – such as the view that modern yoga is a transplanted cultural ware from “east to west” – do not take into account how people of all all regions and nations are entwined in the same cultural processes. She also argues that there is no “original” yoga – only contextualised ideas and practices organised around the term yoga. She opens Selling Yoga (chapter 1) with an overview of the wide number of approaches that constitute “premodern yoga” – concluding that although yoga was “culturally South Asian” it never belonged exclusively to any one religious tradition. In chapter 2, she turns to the early history of modern yoga – from the nineteenth to the early twentieth century. She argues that – until the second half of the twentieth century – modern yoga was predominantly made up of controversial, elite or countercultural – and reinforces this argument with a brief examination of the careers of Ida Craddock and Pierre Bernard – two radical, countercultural yogis whose practices drew a hostile response in early twentieth-century America. She then turns her attention to movements which sought to represent yoga as a philosophical or meditation-based tradition whilst scorning its physical practices – a common trend she finds in Transcendentalism, New Thought, Theosophy, Christian Science, Hindu reform movements such as the Brahmo Samaj and the work of scholars such as Max Muller. Drawing on the work of Mark Singleton and Elizabeth de Michelis (see part one of this review), Jain argues that modern postural yoga should be considered as a hybridised outcome of the transnational physical culture movement – where physical fitness was perceived to enhance ascetic & protestant notions of self-control, moral development, and purity.

In chapter 3, Jain explores the processes by which modern yoga shifted from being a countercultural phenomena to a consumer cultural product – a process which accelerated during the 1960s. Jain accounts for this by examining three key factors – the rise in international travel and the lifting of immigration restrictions from India to the USA and Europe; the widespread disillusionment with established religious traditions – and the rise of entrepeneurial godmen who developed spiritual wares for mass consumption; and thirdly, the ways by which postural yoga movements intersected with the values and practices of late twentieth-century consumer culture. She discusses how exponents of postural yoga strove to make their renditions of yoga compatible with the “underlying logic of consumer culture” by stressing individual choice rather than privileging religious or national narratives – how postural yoga gurus such as B.K.S. Iyengar, Bikram Choudhury or John Friend abandoned “rules” such as celibacy, scriptural study or retreating from society as ‘yoga norms’. She makes the point that such processes are instances of how individuals and institutions “continuously construct and reconstruct their wares anew in response to new social, cultural, and historical contexts” (p46).
In chapter 4, Jain turns her attention to the consolidation of “yoga brands” – examining the successes (and failures) of brands such as Iyengar Yoga, Siddha Yoga, and Anusara Yoga – and how yoga brands are mythologised and linked to notions of self-development and health. She argues that whilst change and heterogeneity are not new to the history of yoga – what differs in the contemporary setting is media saturation – which causes yoga products and services to change and develop at a rate never seen before: “Yoga brands are saturated with meaning insofar as they signify what consumers desire and deem valuable, and consumers choose brands based on what they consider the most effective and accessible path to get there” (p82). She argues that although yoga – in its countless varieties – is rightly considered as an “industry” yet at the same time, it cannot be reduced to those commodities – and that scholars should take seriously the insider views of practitioners.

In Chapter 5, Jain turns to the consideration of postural yoga as a “body of religious practice”. Opening with a discussion the state of Texas’ attempt to regulate the teaching of yoga, she observes that “When one looks closely at the opposition to the regulation of yoga, one finds that it is infused with religious discourse” (p97). Although, as she argues, many exponents of postural yoga avoid the category of religion – she finds that there are good grounds for considering postural yoga as a body of religious practice. In reviewing some recent critiques of postural yoga which characterise it as mere “commodification” – notably Jeremy Carrette & Richard King’s 2005 book Selling Spirituality – Jain points out that postural yoga’s concern with mere “fitness and health” for which it has been criticised is not necessarily incompatible with religious concerns with salvation and self-discipline – and that postural yoga classes can be thought of as liminal spaces in which practitioners undergo “physical and psychological healing and transformation” (p112). She argues that “postural yoga as a body of religious practice and commodification are not mutually exclusive; rather, they stand in a symbiotic relationship to one another” (p123) – and that branding products – and making them sacred, are analogous and compatible processes.

Chapter Six turns to further critiques of postural yoga – what Jain terms “Yogaphobia” and the question of “Hindu Origins” – she examines a variety of Christian arguments against yoga that warn against the incompatibility of yoga due to its “Hindu essence”; and advocates of the “Hindu origins” position which denounce contemporary yoga for failing to recognise yoga’s Hindu origins – and sees both positions as reflective of religious fundamentalism. She argues that these positions both share a tendency to perpetuate “divisive representations of yoga” (p132) and suggests that scholars should move away from essentialist conceptions of yoga and instead, try and understand the cultural forces which shape not only modern yoga’s development – but also the protests against it. She suggests that both the Christian yogaphobic argument and the Hindu origins advocates reveal more about their own “fundamentalist and revisionist historical subjectivities” (p153) than about “any reality underlying their representations of yoga” – and that postural yoga is neither “the invasion of a foreign product” into a Christian world, nor is it a corruption or appropriation of authentic Hinduism – but a reflection of dominant trends in consumer culture. She concludes the chapter with the apt point that “In the history of religions, there are no original ideas or practices, and there are no unchanging essences. Religious phenomena arise from continuous processes of syncretism, appropriation, and hybridization. Yoga is no exception” (p157).

In concluding Selling Yoga, Jain draws on recent scholarship in premodern yoga which emphasises the role of social contexts – and highlights its heterogeneity – again pointing out that premodern yoga was “culturally South Asian” but that there was “no homogenous centre around which all yoga proponents and practitioners oriented themselves” (p159). Yet, as she says, as yoga increasingly became a transnational product, there have been persistent attempts to envisage yoga as homogenous and unchanging. Yoga’s very malleability is in itself instructive. She discusses the attempt, in 2002, of the Bikram’s Yoga College of India (BYCI) to enforce copyright over a sequence of 26 yoga postures – and how consequences of this action led to the establishment of the Indian government’s “Traditional Knowledge Digital Library” by which the government seeks to resist attempts to “copyright” Indian yoga postures – and – how the Indian government also produced a legal definition of yoga which stresses “physical health” and Patanjali’s Yoga Sūtra as yoga’s foundational text. Comparing these moves to the trademarking and copyrighting of Islam in Pakistan, Jain points out that such endeavours raise tricky questions as to who bears the authority to define yoga: “If one postural yogi’s center is another’s periphery in the world of yoga, then how should one define it – and should one attempt to do so at all?” (p173).

Selling Yoga is a fascinating and compelling book which will be of interest to both practitioners and scholars alike. Jain’s refreshing approach the intersection of commodity culture and religious phenomena would be applicable to contemporary Pagan or Esoteric Studies – where debates over authenticity and practices’ relationship to commodification are equally often as vociferous as with respect to yoga studies.

Jason Birch has recently published an extensive article on the Yogatārāvalī – exploring some key differences between Rājayoga, Haţhayoga and “tantric” yogas, in the Spring 2015 edition of Nāmarūpa magazine. The article can be accessed online here
A 2011 interview with David Gordon White
Interview with Mark Singleton
Interview with Andrea R. Jain