American Yoga 2011: New Possibilities for a New Decade.

Via Carol Horton
on Jan 18, 2011
get elephant's newsletter

I’m not one to make predictions on how American yoga might develop during this newly inaugurated second decade of the 21st century.

But if I had my druthers, ten years from now I’ll be able to look back and say that 2010 marked the birth of a new era of self-reflection and cultural consciousness in the North American yoga community – one that evolved in exciting and empowering ways over the course of this coming decade.

Information Explosion

At the beginning of 2010, no books on the history of American yoga existed. True, there were scads on yoga philosophy and/or asana practice. But if you were interested in learning about how yoga was first exported from India to the U.S. and subsequently developed, there was nothing to read except a few scattered magazine articles.

Then BOOM. Suddenly, last year, three books on the subject appeared: Robert Love’s The Great Oom, Stephanie Syman’s The Subtle Body, and Philip Goldberg’s American Veda. These meticulously researched, highly informative histories cover similar historical terrain, but without too much overlap. Together, they offer an incredible new resource for those interested in tracking the on-the-ground evolution of American yoga.

Also in 2010, Mark Singleton’s Yoga Body dropped a bomb into the loosely structured but often deeply held set of assumptions that had come to permeate North American yoga culture, e.g.: Yoga is a 5,000-year-old practice. Well . . . depends what you mean by that. But if you’re talking about the type of yoga that we’re doing in gyms and studios today, we now know that there’s a lot of historical evidence suggesting that the roots of contemporary asana practice trace back most directly to the early 20th century.

Whether you agree with Singleton or not, any fair-minded person will recognize that Yoga Body is a substantial work that can’t be dismissed out of hand. Like Syman, Goldberg, and Love’s books, it presents mountains of never-before-assembled information about the history of modern asana practice. Because it analyzes the development of modern yoga in India, however – rather than its subsequent evolution in the United States – its implications are much more far reaching.

This is even more true when you realize that Yoga Body builds on a small but substantial body of scholarly work that’s relatively unknown in practitioner circles: Joseph Alter’s Yoga in Modern India, Elizabeth DeMichelis’ A History of Modern Yoga, N. E. Sjoman’s The Yoga Tradition of the Mysore Palace, and David Gordon White’s Sinister Yogis (just to name my personal favorites). If you’re interested, there’s now a solid body of work detailing the development of modern asana practice that simply wasn’t available several years ago.

Blogosphere Network Map

Blogosphere Buzz

During the same time that this new literature on modern yoga has been developing, the “yoga blogoshere” has been birthed. As a newcomer myself, I can’t give a detailed history. But my sense is that most yoga blogs are only a few years old – or less. Today, there’s more than I can count, discussing everything from cute fashion trends to the possibility of enlightenment.

The blogosphere is amazing in that it allows for as many creative possibilities as people have time to develop. You don’t need to get past an editor. You don’t need an agent. You don’t need a publisher. You don’t need advertisers. You don’t need a fancy job title. You don’t need to go commercial. You don’t even need to check in with anybody else at all before going ahead and just saying what you want to say.

True, you do need access the Internet. And, more problematically, you need that all-too-rare resource today – time. The flip side of the blogosphere being free, open, and noncommercial is that most of us don’t get paid anything to work on it. This of course makes it hard to carve out the time to do it, as we typically have other jobs and commitments. And it means that really substantial work, like the books mentioned above, generally isn’t going to be produced unless supported by some source other than an individual blogger.

Be that as it may, the fact that there is this new space for sharing ideas about yoga is incredible. And there’s new innovations coming down the pike all the time – videos, podcasts, webinars, conferences, courses, etc. All of this allows for the creation of a new online community that’s interested in learning, talking, and yes, even arguing (civilly!) about yoga in a way that simply wasn’t possible only a short time ago.

"East Meets West II" by Liz Jardine

Collective Reflection and Conscious Evolution

Put these two recent developments together, and I believe that we’ve got a potentially powerful equation:

“New Information about Modern Yoga” + “New Ways of Communicating about Contemporary Practice” = ???

What this combination of new resources of information and communication will produce remains to be seen. But there’s no doubt that it presents some unprecedented possibilities.

Personally, I’d love to see this equation producing a new sense of collective self-reflection and self-imagining in the American yoga community. Until recently, we necessarily had a more limited sense of how our contemporary practice might fit into the larger story of yoga’s evolution over time. Therefore, we tended to be stuck in an unconvincing conceptual paradigm: Either we were continuing an ancient Indian practice (which meant ignoring obvious questions, such as how what we’re doing really maps onto ancient practices of ash-smeared ascetics living in caves) or we were corrupting the yoga tradition by allowing Western influences to intrude.

This either-it’s-traditional-or-it’s-corrupted mentality is no longer convincing. If you’ve read the yoga history books that have come out over the past several years, then it seems pretty evident that what we’re doing today is neither a continuation of ancient Indian yoga nor a Westernized corruption of it. Rather, it’s the next iteration of the modern re-creation of yoga that emerged out of early 20th century India.

This is not to say that yoga has no ancient roots – that would be throwing the baby out with the bath water. Rather, the point is that yoga was modernized – and in that process, partially Westernized – even before it was exported from India to America.

Modern yoga was, in other words, syncretic from the beginning, synthesizing ancient and modern, traditional and revolutionary, East and West. This was and is a powerful synthesis, designed to inject the spirit of the yoga tradition into the radically changed conditions of the modern world. Hatha yoga changed from being a secret, radically ascetic discipline for adepts dedicated to achieving Samadhi into an accessible, pragmatic technology of physical, psychological, and spiritual healing and transformation available to all.

As the generation of Indian masters who brought modern yoga to the West is aging and passing, the center of gravity for its continued development is shifting from India to North America. This makes it an important time for serious practitioners to reflect on our collective influence on continued evolution of modern yoga – both where we are now and in what directions we may be going.

Ammonite Fossils

But So What?

This is all pretty abstract, so if you’re still reading this far, you may be wondering: What is there that’s so important to reflect on, anyway?

This of course is a question with no “right answer.” But asking it is an invitation to a conversation that might produce some compelling responses.

Just for now, however, I can provide some of my own ideas. A few issues that I’d love to see a collective conversation about include:

  • What’s distinctive about modern yoga?
  • What’s its connection to the larger yoga tradition?
  • Has yoga shifted into a post-modern phase?
  • Has the explosion in the number of female teachers changed the practice?
  • How does today’s use of yoga for self-improvement compare to more traditional yogic commitments?
  • What’s the status of Samadhi, or enlightenment, in yoga culture today?
  • How much commercialization of yoga is too much, and why?
  • What’s the real and ideal relationship between representations of the body in the mainstream media versus the yoga community?
  • How could yoga be better integrated with mainstream health systems?
  • How could yoga and psychotherapy best inform one another?
  • Can yoga be a resource for political activism? Should it be?
  • Does the yoga “industry” need new forms of regulation?
  • Is it OK to label anything you want “yoga”?
  • Is yoga best understood a means of coping with or changing the world?
  • No matter how much yoga may evolve over time, does it have some essence that’s eternal?

The most fruitful questions can’t be anticipated or dictated. They’ll grow organically out of the soil of collective engagement if and when the time becomes ripe.

The Sacred Tree of Life

Re-imagining Theory as Practice

Patthabi Jois famously insisted that yoga is “99% practice, 1% theory.” And as a practitioner, there’s a part of me that totally gets this – you don’t progress in your practice by thinking about it, only by doing it.

But there’s another part of me that feels like the time is ripe for the North American yoga community to start considering theory as a part of practice – or, to borrow a phrase from Shiva Rea, as part of our engagement with yoga as a project of “conscious evolution.”

Consciousness, as I’m imagining it, involves curiosity, questioning, learning, communication, and thought. That’s why all of the new information that we have on recent yoga history is so valuable, and our new opportunities to discuss whatever we want in cyberspace even more so.

Yoga, it’s often said, involves the integration of body, mind, and spirit. I’m hoping that this second decade of the 21st century will be a time when this integration increasingly occurs on a collective, as opposed to simply individual level. The treasures of modern asana practice can, I believe, be synthesized with our emerging self-consciousness as a community of North American practitioners.

Our charge, I think, is not preserving an unchanging practice, but rather keeping our craft alive by continually re-creating it so that its spirit becomes ever more vibrant in our world.


About Carol Horton

Carol Horton, Ph.D. is the author of Race and the Making of American Liberalism, (Oxford University Press, 2005) and Yoga Ph.D.: Integrating the Life of the Mind and the Wisdom of the Body. With Roseanne Harvey, she is co-editor of 21st Century Yoga: Culture, Politics, and Practice. Carol blogs at Think Body Electric, and enjoys social media via Facebook and Twitter.


28 Responses to “American Yoga 2011: New Possibilities for a New Decade.”

  1. Yoga is truly at a crossroads here in 2011 & nothing but time will tell us where it is headed.

  2. harikirtana says:

    Thanks for initiating this collective conversation, Carol. Taking on your last question: no matter how much yoga may evolve over time, does it have some essence that’s eternal? I think the answer is yes. And I think it's important to preserve the unchanging essence of yoga by continually re-energizing it through adapting modern techniques. A synthesis of the eternal essence of yoga with contemporary knowledge and techniques is possible, but it won't come about by whimsically affixing the label "yoga" to anything we like. That would lead to an egocentric appropriation of yoga in service to the attachments and aversions of the mind, which is precisely what yoga is meant to help us move beyond (if we are to take Patanjali at his word). Similarly, the practices of ash-smeared ascetics living in caves are not suitable for contemporary western yogis; artificial renunciation of the world is the path Krishna advises Arjuna against when he counsels him (and us) in the Bhagavad-gita. Referring to seminal yoga scriptures does not mean adhering to a rigid system or antiquated dogma; the essential core of yoga is self-evident in such texts. I think the challenge for us, as contemporary yogis, is to discover how we can apply the empirical resources of the modern world to the mystical technologies of antiquity to form a synthesis that will neither embrace or reject the temporal world, but would instead engage the elements of the temporal world for a transcendental purpose.

  3. I love this article, Carol. Thank you for honoring Elephant by publishing it here.

    As you know, my own personal Yoga, and hopefully a small helpful contribution to your wishes above, is the back-to-the-roots Yoga of the Bhagavad Gita and the Upanishads. I also embrace most forms of modern Yoga.

    You write that "Modern yoga was, in other words, syncretic from the beginning, synthesizing ancient and modern, traditional and revolutionary…" As far as I can tell, this same statement could be made about Yoga at the time of the Bhagavad Gita and ever since. For all its recorded history Yoga has always been a bubbling pot of many influences, shooting off in a variety of directions.

    Thanks again for this highly thoughtful article.

    Bob W.
    Yoga Editor

  4. Leslie says:

    While I truly enjoyed your thought provoking article and feel you raise excellent questions, I find it interesting that you attribute the modernization of yoga so singly to North American practitioners. Yoga communities abound in many "Western" countries (regardless of their geographic position). New Zealand and Australia should not be ignored for their contributions (for better or worse) to modern yoga, which are in many ways both similar and distinct from "North American" yoga. There is more regular cross-pollination from India, Thailand and Bali mixed with bits and pieces of American influences. For instance, Satyananda yoga is practically unheard of in N.A. yet extremely popular Down Under. On the other hand, good luck finding an Anusara yoga instructor in the southern hemisphere. I think that to do justice to a discussion of 21st Century Yoga, you must acknowledge the separate evolutionary paths yoga has taken in the various corners of the world, otherwise it would be akin to ignoring marsupials in a discussion of land animal evolution.

  5. Ramesh says:

    Carol, I have said most of what I wanted to say about Singleton's Yoga Body here:

    And I think he has done a good job at documenting posture yoga but done a poor job at documenting the rest of the vast universe of yoga. And so here's the rub: If modern yoga is posture yoga, and if that form of yoga is only about a hundred years old, etc. then sure, that's modern yoga for you. That studio yoga. But there are many of us that do not frequent studios and do not just practice posture yoga, yet we are modern and postmodern yogis, and Americans and Europeans and Asians and South Americans. We are often branded the traditionalists by you posture yogis… Labels aside, yoga is so much more than posture yoga and those other forms of yoga which together comprises a very very broad body of knowledge and practice, is alive and well, and yes, for the umpteenth time, this form of yoga is indeed over 5000 years old. It was not invented by Krisnmacharya a hundred years ago, and I find it a lot more interesting and rewarding than Modern Yoga, if by that you mean posture yoga, which is the way I read your article. But Modern Yoga to me, is also Ancient Yoga, indeed based on ancient yoga. What posture yoga has done is largely separate itself from that living tradition, and that is really what Singleton, and you have done–you have documented and celebrated that separation. No harm done. But let's call a spade a spade. And yoga by its proper place and history.

  6. Hi, Ramesh. Very interesting take on this.

    Supporting your point of view, I guess, would be the fact that some knowledgeable observers, including the author of one of the books Carol cites in her article, "American Veda", don't even agree that posture Yoga is the dominant Yoga influence in the U.S.! See the highly relevant:

    True or False? Physical Yoga Has Influenced America More than Spiritual Yoga.


    How Yoga Has Transformed American Spirituality: An Interview with Phil Goldberg, Author of “American Veda”.

    Bob W.
    Yoga Editor

  7. Carol Horton says:

    Point well taken. But I would need collaborators for that – I personally just don't have the information base to say anything knowledgeable about yoga's development in those countries. And my sense is that there is not the same body of written work out there (yet) to draw from – and I can't afford to go myself. Ideally, thinking into these or other questions about contemporary yoga would be an inclusive, international discussion. However I don't see anything wrong with focusing on North America (or anywhere else) either – for example, I would happily read an interesting book about the particular trajectory of yoga in N.Z. if it existed.

    Thanks for commenting!

  8. Carol Horton says:

    Ramesh – I don't have any problem with calling it posture yoga, except that it's an awkward term. And, for better or worse, if you're writing for a general audience, that's what they think of as "yoga" today – so it seems weird to have such qualifiers, at least in a short piece. But that's more of an aesthetic consideration – conceptually, if I'm understanding you properly, I don't disagree.

    Of course you are right that there is a much bigger tradition, and that some practitioners (although I think we'd agree a minority) are currently more involved with other parts of that tradition than modern hatha yoga. And I agree that it's very valuable to point that out. Because those of us who are more into the posture/hatha yoga can learn much from those involved with other practices.

    I think our disagreement has to do with the value of understanding modern hatha better on its own terms. I see it as a very valuable contribution to contemporary society, doing something different from more "traditional" practices. But I see both as valuable in different ways and for different reasons.

  9. Carol Horton says:

    Thanks for your comment! I agree. But referencing Ramesh's comment below, there's also a big question of how far one can go with modern hatha (what he calls posture) yoga as opposed to other practices. I found the Magazine of Yoga's recent interview with Jill Miller interesting on that controversy (because there is a controversy there).

    She says, "There may be those who criticize my focus on tissues and the body, perhaps criticizing it as a distraction from the “higher pursuits” of transcendence and union. But I truly prefer swimming inside my skin as my path. It helps me to gain insight into the movement patterns of others, and assist them to live with less pain." I get this and it makes sense to me completely in terms of how far one can go with modern hatha (even if most don't, which is OK too).

  10. Carol Horton says:

    Thanks, Bob. I agree that yoga has also been evolving and syncretic. I do however think that modernity is a fascinating concept to work with in terms of that process, both because its so central to our lives today and because it has been such a huge world-historical jolt out of the way that most people lived in all previous generations.

  11. Carol Horton says:

    Hilary – great comment. I think that you are so right to say that to date our left brain engagement has been very much with issues of anatomy. Which of course has been incredibly fruitful and a great contribution to the practice.

    I however am interested in adding in a left-brain dimension that thinks about yoga on the historical, cultural, and communal dimensions as well. This is a big paradigm shift and I'm not sure how many other practitioners out there find it the least bit interesting or attractive. But I do think that books like Yoga Body have opened up that possibility in a new way.

  12. Ramesh says:

    Carol, good summary…. I also see modern hatha yoga, or posture yoga, as having many positive contributions, to individuals and society, I do, indeed, even though I did not emphasize it. I think where I take issue is in the characterization that this indeed is Modern Yoga. It's not. Modern yoga in the West started out with spiritual giants such as Vivekananda and continued in the 60s with the various guru movements, many of which are still very active and influential. I know that Yoga Journal keep throwing around statistical numbers of hatha yogis in the 18 million range. I do not have statistical numbers for those influenced by and actively involved in the more holistic and spiritual or traditional yoga movement, but I would argue that this movement from Vivekananda onwards have been at least as influential in changing lives as the posture yoga movement. In other words, modern yoga goes way beyond posture yoga…. How many people have been inspired by and consider themselves yogis in a spiritual sense in the West? Hard to tell. But I do not think that group is a minority.
    That said, what is happening in the posture yoga movement is also interesting; a return to the more traditional aspects of yoga, the more holistic aspects of it, such as meditation and kirtan and study of the Gita and the Tantras.
    That is also modern yoga.

  13. Ramesh says:

    Bob, I would tend to agree with the author of American Veda. See more in my reply to carol above.

  14. Ramesh says:

    Harikirtana, great points. Yes, Krishnamacarya was steeped in te traditional aspects of yoga, so where his students Iyengar and Jois…I also like your friend's hierarchical level.
    I am in an intensive yoga detox training at the moment for one month and since I am able to dedicate nearly all my time in practice, I am acutely aware that my hatha practice is unable to take me to the cosmic depths of transcendence that my meditation practice is. I am also acutely aware that without my hatha practice, I would not be able to sit as comfortable in meditation for so long enjoying the inner cosmos of the spiritual realm. Nor would I be as healthy in general. Mind transcends and includes the body, spirit transcends and includes both. All is important. All is yoga.

  15. TamingAuthor says:

    Bob, not to dog you, but I believe you provide a quintessential example of the tension between the ancient tradition and contemporary practitioners.

    Though you may have changed directions, previously you were quite enthusiastic about redacting anything in the ancient texts that had to do with spirituality or the supernatural. Reincarnation was out, existence after body death was out, out of body experience was out, etc.

    Anything that did not conform to western materialism was treated as metaphor (or delusion) and canned. You ran a track parallel to that of Stephen Batchelor who attempted to gut Buddhism of its foundations.

    So you are a perfect test subject for Carol's musing. How are you going about reconciling contradictory premises and facts? How is the journey coming along with regard to overcoming the tendency to apply western materialism to a subject that flatly denies the truth of that philosophy? Therein may lie some answers for the question of the future of yoga…

    Can we take you into the lab and peer into your psyche? : > )

  16. TamingAuthor says:

    Your passage (below) speaks directly to the question I posed to Bob (above). Key issues.

    "Splitting the physical practices from their spiritual context constitutes a cultural misappropriation in my mind: modernity, by definition, reduces yoga to a form of fancy physicality with temporary benefits that end when the body meets its end. And traditional yoga philosophy begins with the assumption that we persist beyond the short life-span of the bodies we inhabit (see Gita 2.12), likening the healing of the body as an ultimate goal to saving the bathing suit of a drowning swimmer."

  17. Carol Horton says:

    Hilary – great comment, thanks! Somehow my earlier reply was never posted. Don't know why. At any rate, I think that's a very accurate and astute observation – we're thrilled that yoga takes us into the right/extra-rational brain (which we need, desperately, so that's cool), but then so far our primary connection with the left/rational side is with anatomy. Which has been incredibly fruitful. Now I'm wondering how much interest there is in thinking about yoga as a collective practice and also do some left/right brain synthesis in terms of history, culture, philosophy, whatever. It's new and challenges some sacred cows, but I believe that it could be quite fruitful as well.

  18. Carol Horton says:

    Yes, good point – although I would add that posture yoga is to a large extent very much connected with the larger modern yoga tradition that Vivekananda was so key in inspiring. And I think that hatha is the best gateway currently to the bigger dimensions of the practice for most people. On the whole, we need that physicality very much today because we lack it in "normal" life.

    Unlike Vivekananda, later teachers like Iyengar believed that you could incorporate a lot into asana practice that wasn't traditionally there, ranging from connections to Western psychology to pranayama and meditation. I agree.

  19. Carol Horton says:

    HariKirtana and Greg: I agree up to a point, but we have a major divide over the importance of believing in something like reincarnation. I don't see it as central to yogic spirituality today at all – not that I"m against it in any way, but I absolutely do not see it as required. I think Stephen Batchelor is right, insofar as he is just very honestly describing an alternative way of working with a spiritual practice that makes sense to many people today, which simply cannot buy into traditional belief systems that don't make sense to them and don't connect to their own experience – which may be very deep, but differently understood.

    In general, I am very much against doctrine and dogma, whether religious or spiritual or yogic or whatever – the "you must believe this" or else . . . you're not legitimate, or whatever. Certainly today, it seems like a primary value that we must accept the fact that people of good faith will have different beliefs on these sorts of questions.

    Which, I think, is very much what Vivekananda was teaching – so, connecting back to Ramesh's comments, very much in line with the larger tradition of modern yoga.

  20. Ramesh says:

    Hari Kirtana, Taminguthor, there are at least two distinct traditions in Yoga, the vedantic model which views the body, the material as "illusion' and is thus reflected in your "saving the bathing suit" analogy above, and the tantric view which has a more body-positive philosophy that views the body as the temple of spirit and thus absolutely vital in the effort of transcendence. It embraces the body, while vedanta tends to neglect or avoid it. hence Vivekananda was not hot on hatha yoga… and thus some contend he died young because of his neglect of the body….

  21. Ramesh says:

    Carol, while reincarnation is an integral aspect of traditional yogic thinking, it is not as central as in Jainism or Buddhism, and when one consider other important aspects of yoga, such as experiencing oneness, living in the presence, seeing everything as sacred, that enlightenment is to be experienced now and not in the hereafter, then reincarnation, even if one knows it's a reality or just believes in it, becomes peripheral to the whole project of selftransformation. But it is as important to acknowledge that not embracing such tenets is a departure from yoga philosophy as it is common not to among modern western yogis.

  22. Ramesh says:

    Carol, yes the larger tradition of yoga has different views on a host of things, but reincarnation is central to most although not as important as in Jainism and Buddhism. Modern posture yoga, as it is mainly focused on yoga as physical exercise and secondarily, if at all, as spiritual practice, will naturally not subscribe to many of the central philosophical or lifestyle themes of more traditional yoga, which is fine. But, while there were various yoga philosophies, there were central themes to all of them, and karma, samskara and reincarnation are themes throughout and deeply rooted in the whole yogic enterprise. Still, how important are these, when yoga is mostly about realizing unity and balance in the here and now? A more important issue, I think, is the differemce between Vedanta and Tantra, one saying the world is an illusion, the other that is is not. One saying the body is not important, hence Vivekananda did not care much for hatha yoga and consequently may have cause his own premature death at 39. Tantra on the other hand sees the body as a temple, the world as sacred and the body as a vehicle for transcendence,.. Hence, in Tantra, asanas are not goals in themselves but practices to prepare for meditation, for the inner journey.

  23. TamingAuthor says:

    Carol, the problem is that reincarnation is not "optional" and is not a "belief." It is a central concept.

    Both Bob and Batchelor, as well as others on the track of western materialism, do not understand the vital role of reincarnation in the yoga texts and the Gita, and in the Buddhist literature.

    When one guts the practice of this understanding, as Batchelor does, it is not because of increased or better understanding but rather because of a failure in the practice. He sets other people up for failure as well.

    The mistake arises from western cynicism that says reincarnation appears in the old texts as a result of belief. People like Bob then redact these references, gutting the material. This is an error. (Which you are repeating.) Reincarnation appears based on the firsthand experience of the teachers. They do not add it as an "extra" but rather point to an understanding the student must reach. It is not about belief. It is about a state of awareness.

    The essence of reincarnation is a statement about the true essence of the practitioner. If one does not grasp that this is your nature, the practice will hit a dead end. Done. Finished.

    Here is an analogy. A student practices with a black bag over his head. He becomes very good in the studio where four walls provide safety. But then the instructor takes the student out in nature to a meadow. At one end of the meadow is a cliff. One false step and one plummets to one's death.

    Now the student can insist on practicing with the black bag over his head and risk plummeting to his death or he can agree to remove the black bag so he can see. Reincarnation, lack of understanding of, is like the black bag, it is existing in a condition of limited awareness and perception. Okay if one wants to putter around the studio, but a definite liability if one wishes to really practice.

  24. Carol, great article! it is a completely new world 🙂 Especially liked the mention of the blogosphere which is transforming the communication around yoga

  25. […] loved reading Carol Horton’s piece the other day. It was very gratifying to see a big chunk of the recent scholarship of yoga […]

  26. […] innovative and novel sequences of asana practice? Are capitalism and consumerism foes to the evolution of yoga, or are the contributing to greater innovation and opportunity for […]