Ancient Indian wisdom or modern Western gymnastics?
Last year the Hindu-American Foundation launched a campaign to “take back yoga”, arguing against the ever growing trend of denying or at least not taking an interest in the connection between physical yoga and its assumed Hindu spiritual origins. The campaign has got good media coverage, most positively in the New York Times and CNN.
But last year also saw the publication of Mark Singleton‘s book Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice, which goes against all romantic ideas of ancient Hindu roots of the techniques that are usually taught in modern yoga classes all over the world. Instead, he argues, this form of yoga was invented in India in the nineteenth century, as a compound of British body-building and physical culture, American transcendentalism and Christian Science, naturopathy, Swedish gymnastics, the YMCA, and yoga postures adapted specifically for a Western audience. Singleton’s book was given an extremely positive (and informative) review by the grand old lady of Hindu studies, Wendy Doniger, in the Times Literary Supplement, and his viewpoints underlie an article by Meera Nanda in the Indian Open Magazine.
None of the participants in the debate argue that practitioners of yoga need to belong to any specific religious faith, though the Hindu-American Foundation argues that yoga is a spiritual discipline leading to moksha ‘liberation’. There seem to be two central issues. First, the foundation needs to argue for its important role in defending the cultural identity of Indians in America. Second, the conflict over history between spiritual groups and the scholars studying them is no new phenomenon.
Even scholars, however, are by no means always in agreement. For all her praise of Singleton’s book, Wendy Doniger points out that “there are more historical bases for contemporary postural yoga within classical Hinduism than Singleton allows”, and that “the Europeans did not invent it wholesale”, but “changed it enormously”. As always, one may add that yoga, like meditation and other spiritual practices, are most often transmitted from person to person, and many of its variants may have existed for centuries without ever having made it into the after all relatively scarce historical material that has survived into our time.
More than gymnastics
Singleton’s view of the modern yoga arena may also be a little too narrow. I haven’t had the chance to read his book yet myself, but to judge from its list of contents, and from Doniger’s review, it associates postural yoga too strongly with the more gymnastic variants of B. K. S. Iyengar and F. Bois. Several schools of yoga teach postures and breathing with a stronger focus on the inner processes that yoga can bring about. Are Holen and Torbjørn Hobbel’s book on yoga, which was published in Norwegian in 2009 as Yogaboken, is currently being translated into English and will bring a different perspective.