Is yoga as we know it in North America today really less than 100 years old?
If you’ve been paying attention to the yoga news over the past two years, you’ve most likely heard some affirmative answers to this question. If so, such responses were probably based on a reading of Mark Singleton’s influential Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice (Oxford University Press, 2010).
As one yoga blogger bluntly concluded after studying the evidence presented in the book: “Basically, we’re all just making this sh*t up.”
But is the history of contemporary yoga really that simple?
I don’t think so. For that matter, neither does Mark Singleton himself. Happily, I recently had the opportunity to discuss these and other issues with him—as well as his friend and colleague, Jim Mallinson—in conjunction with learning about their new project, Roots of Yoga: A Sourcebook from the Indian Traditions.
Roots of Yoga will be an edited volume of historic Indian texts tracing the evolution of Hatha yoga from the ancient to pre-modern periods. It’ll contain a carefully made selection of original works (about half previously untranslated) that speak to the development of key practices including asana, pranayama and mudra, along with explanatory historical commentary written for a general audience. The end goal is to create a resource for the English-speaking yoga community unlike anything else available today.
To me, this project is particularly exciting because it bridges the worlds of scholarship and practice so beautifully.
Plus, I can’t imagine two people more qualified to do it than Mark and Jim. Both are accomplished scholars (with Ph.D.s from Cambridge and Oxford, respectively) with years of experience studying and practicing yoga. Not to mention, Roots of Yoga will be perfectly positioned to deepen and extend the history of modern yoga presented in Yoga Body, enabling us to see that while we may indeed be “making this shit up” in some ways, we may still nonetheless be linked to a complex, diverse and profound lineage in others.
I talked with Mark and Jim about their new project last week and found it fascinating. Here are some highlights from our conversation.
Carol: How will Roots of Yoga build on Yoga Body?
Mark: While it’s sometimes misinterpreted, the thesis of Yoga Body is not that yoga as we know it is only 100 years old. Rather, it’s a cultural history of the modern period. But there’s always a history prior to the one in question.
I don’t think that we should make a hard distinction between traditional and modern yoga. While it’s true that enormous new influences came in during the modern age—the Theosophical Society, yoga being exported from India, and so on—those boundaries are not hard and fast.
As soon as I finished Yoga Body, I wanted to extend my research back to the immediate pre-colonial period. This project will allow me to do that and more besides. I think it will complement Yoga Body well.
Carol: As yoga scholars, what motivates you to connect to the world of yoga practice?
Mark: It seems to me that practitioners today have only been exposed to a small part of the spectrum as to what yoga is and has been. The texts that we’ll compile in Roots of Yoga will point to many new possibilities.
There could be great benefit in entering into a conversation with the past through a collection like this. Hopefully, it will enable a depth of connection with it that hasn’t previously been easily available.
Jim: Unlike Mark, I’ve had very little contact with the world of contemporary Western practice. Mainly, I’ve hung out with traditional yogis and ascetics in India.
I’m fascinated, however, by how important the idea of “authenticity” seems to be in the yoga community today. And I think that it’s clear that there needs to be some better grounding in that regard. Some of these crazy controversies that flare up—like the recent claim that “yoga started as a sex cult”—show that there needs to be better, and more accessible information on the yoga tradition available.
Mark: This book will provide easy access to the sort of texts that I would have liked to have had when I first started practicing yoga. It will give practitioners a resource they can use to negotiate the field. It’ll enable them to get reliable answers as to what yoga has been historically by connecting them to original, primary texts.
Carol: Do you consider yourselves to be yoga practitioners?
Mark: Yes, I’ve practiced several schools of modern yoga. I started with Iyengar and Ashtanga, and later studied Satyananda, which is another modern tradition that’s more well-known in parts of Europe and Australia than the U.S. It’s also the method that’s represented in the largest teacher training school in northern India, and possibly in India as a whole.
So that combined with things that I’ve learned from various other places . . . whatever it means to be “a yoga practitioner” . . . yes, I do yoga of some sort.
Jim: Yes. And I find it much easier to say I’m a “yoga practitioner” than to say I’m a “yogi.”
I spent most of my 20s wandering around India with yogis and ascetics, the sort that you’d see at the Kumbha Mela. Most of what they were practicing, I’d try. So, for example, I did the Khecarimudra practice, cutting my tongue away; I did Basti and all that—although it doesn’t actually float my boat that much. (Note: Khecarimudra involves progressively cutting the root of the tongue so that it’s able to be inserted up into the soft palate at the back of the throat; Basti includes squatting in water, drawing it in through the anus, and expelling it.) I learned asana, pranayama . . .
But now, I’ve got small children. And like many yogis in India, who tend to go through a period of intense practice for several years, and then rest on their laurels for awhile—I now just do a short practice everyday, and longer bouts periodically when I can.
Carol: You’re both English, and trained at the most elite universities in Britain. Do you consider yourself to be part of the lineage of British scholars that’s been studying yoga and related practices in India since the 18th century?
Mark: To some extent. There has been a lot of Orientalist bashing, and much is well justified. But there’s also a tendency to extend Said’s diagnosis of the violent, dominating, colonial gaze to include the work of European scholars who were studying Indian religions and making translations of texts in significantly different ways. (Note: If this reference doesn’t make sense, you can read about Edward Said’s seminal critique of “Orientalism” here.)
To some extent throughout my career, I have looked to this early European scholarship on India. And while its often quite flawed, I don’t necessarily see it as representing an Orientalist gaze. There is enormous benefit in cross-cultural study and exchange. And I don’t believe that there’s necessarily a hard and fast separation between cultures. Historically, there has always been learning across regional boundaries. There has always been intercultural exchange.
Jim: I don’t see myself in a direct lineage from Oxford scholars of the past. I do, however, see myself as part of the tradition of study developed by my thesis supervisor, Professor Alexis Sanderson. His work revolutionized study of Tantra, really opening the field up. To a certain extent, I feel that that’s what I, along with several of his other students, are starting to do with yoga – Hatha yoga in particular.
Important note: Mark and Jim won’t be able to write Roots of Yoga unless they raise the funds necessary to cover their work and travel expenses via their Kickstarter campaign, which will be running from July 9th-August 6th. So please consider contributing, and encouraging others in your social networks to do so as well. You can access it by clicking here.
Additional information on images:
Yogi in Kukkuṭāsana on the prākāra wall of the Mallikārjuna temple at Srisailam in Andhra Pradesh, c. 1510. The oldest known image of a yogi in a non-seated āsana. Copyright Rob Linrothe.
R. Schmidt (1908), Fakire und Fakirtum im alten und modernen Indien: Yoga-Lehre und Yoga-Praxis nach den indischen Originalquellen (Berlin: Hermann Barsdorf). The āsana on the left is guptāsana, the one on the right is paścimattānāsana.
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