Where does yoga come from?

Ancient Indian wisdom or modern Western gymnastics?

3 yoginis
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.

Indo-Western body-building
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.

Classical sources
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.

Iyengar

BKS Iyengar

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.

 

16 Comments

  1. mh

    This is an interesting perspective on yoga that I did not know about. It fits well with the perception of yoga as an umbrella of very different schools and techniques.
    I have attended a few yoga classes in the local fitness centre at home, only to leave the place rather disappointed, because the tuition was miles away from the meditative yoga that I have practised on and off for many years.

  2. Kaif

    The earliest commentary on Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras (the earliest text on yoga in the Hindu tradition) mentions 11 yoga postures. Some of them – padmasana (lotus posture), virasana (the hero), bhadra asana (don’t know what this is in English), dandasana (the staff), paryanka asana (the couch pose) – are commonly in use in yoga classes, as far as my understanding goes. This commentary is by Vyasa, which is dated to circa, 600 AD, that is 500 years or so after the Yoga Sutras.

    Wendy Doniger suggests that initially, asana merely meant the position in which one meditates. The last of the above is a lying-down asana, so I doubt if Vyasa meant merely ‘meditation posture’ by the term asana. Patanjali, however, could have meant merely ‘meditation posture’ when he used the word asana – we cannot be certain.

    Considering Vyasa’s commentary and subsequent medieval commentaries, it is hard to agree to the idea that physical yoga was invented in the 19th century – if that is actually what Singleton and the article in Open magazine are suggesting. The asanas existed for 15 centuries or more before that. What could indeed have been invented then was the rather aggressive, almost ambitious, way of doing them.

  3. Isn’t Yoga from India? There are many Indians in China who teaches Yoga. They sit silently with eyes closed and legs crossed. I am always confused is Yogo and meditation the same thing or different.

  4. Halvor

    — To relay socket: Both “yoga” and “meditation” are words that cover a number of different activities – some of them overlapping.
    — To Kaif: Very interesting about Vyasa’s asanas. How concrete are his descriptions of the various asanas? If it’s just the names of the asanas, it doesn’t prove a lot, since a name in 600 AD doesn’t necessarily cover the same thing as a name in 2011. And by the way, some forms of meditation may be done lying down, so even that may be a meditation posture!
    — To mh: I think we are witnessing what we often see with phenomena that enter into popular culture: some of their core functions are stripped away, because they don’t fit.

  5. Kaif

    Vyasa doesn’t describe the asanas, but a subsequent commentator, Vachaspati (c. 900 CE), does, in a long sentence on each of them. He basically describes the final posture. For eg., “the dandasana is practised by sitting with thighs, shanks and feet stretched straight along the ground with ankles joined together, but toes kept apart.”

    This could mean a meditation posture too. We cannot be sure. The thesis that these early yoga texts only mean ‘meditation posture’ by the term asana, and the postural yoga we do was invented in the 19th century, and somehow organisations like Acem and some others have found a meditative dimension in this postural yoga which never existed originally – that seems less convincing than the idea that Patanjali, Vyasa, etc. meant postural yoga all along, done in a meditative style, and that the modern forms of postural yoga have lost touch with that meditative style.

  6. Kaif

    Also, Vyasa writes of pranayama (breath work, which is part of postural yoga these days) – “the ‘covering’ hides sattva [clarity, calm – a quality of mind required to see one’s true nature], which is of the nature of light. By doing pranayama, that karma which covers this light loses its strength.”

    This sounds quite cryptic, like much else of the yoga texts, but it does suggest some kind of active work with the breath, perhaps pointing to a system of body work that included working with the body and the breath both.

  7. Halvor

    Thanks a lot to Kaif for his extremely knowledgeable and informative comments. I, for one, will be much more careful about how to speak of the history of yoga after this. (And I will speak of it on the coming Wednesday, in Acem Oslo.)

  8. Kaif

    You are welcome! A useful book on this topic may be Elizabeth de Michelis’s ‘A History of Modern Yoga’. The author has a website that talks a bit about similar issues: http://modernyogaresearch.org .

  9. I got a bunch of books on the topic the other day:

    Joseph S. Alter: Yoga in Modern India: The Body between Science and Philosophy. New Age Press, New Delhi 2009 (originally Princeton University Press, Princeton 2004).

    Karl Baier: Yoga auf dem Weg nach Westen. Königshausen & Neumann, Würzburg 1998.

    Elizabeth De Michelis: A History of Modern Yoga: Patañjali and Western Esotericism. Continuum, London 2004.

    Mark Singleton: Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice. Oxford University Press, Oxford 2010.

    Mark Singleton & Jean Byrne (eds.): Yoga in the Modern World: Contemporary Perspectives. Routledge, London 2008.

    Sarah Strauss: Positioning Yoga: Balancing Acts Across Cultures. Berg, Oxford 2005.

    Stefanie Syman: The Subtle Body: The Story of Yoga in America. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York 2010.

    I guess I may come back to the topic as I crawl my way through these sources!

  10. Kaif

    Looking forward to you coming back to the topic!

  11. Katrina Hamilton

    I totally think that yoga comes from India. Basically, the Westreners have literally stolen our practices and beliefs. It is a main part of Hinduism, where Shiva is shown doing yoga and gurus are alwayus chanting and practicing yoga. It’s ridiculous that yoga could be western gymnastics. I mean surely, I’m proud of my country and I am not going against Americans, oh no. I’m just saying, that’s all.

  12. Anaxamander

    Singleton’s ‘Yoga Body’ book is an academic piece of work. While the larger thesis is correct, that modern posture Yoga mostly practised in the west is far removed from classical Yoga, this is already well known in the yoga world. To make his thesis more interesting Singleton goes further but in doing so makes a number of claims that are inaccurate. Contrary to Singleton’s claims, there are a number of documents and reports demonstrating that Asana’s were a central place in classical Yoga and a Yogi’s practice dating back at least to the 13th century. It is rather the sequencing and flow of Asana that has been systematised in modern times (largely by Krishnamacharya in the 1900s) . Evidence suggests that Yoga Asana (as one of the Patanjali’s eight limbs of Yoga) has developed organically over the last 5,000 years from the original seated postures described by Patanjali, rather than Singleton’s thesis that Asana’s are largely inspired by European and American bodybuilding gymnastics. Singleton goes to far in this central claim and by doing so attempts to take a great Indian practice and artform away from its true source of origin.
    This short ‘Response’ by Dr James Mallinson highlights some of Singleton’s mistakes.
    http://www.academia.edu/1146607/A_Response_to_Mark_Singletons_Yoga_Body

  13. Halvor

    Thanks a lot to Anaxamander for this illuminating comment and interesting reference to Mallinson’s “Response”. But where do the 5000 years come from? There is a great difference between references to texts from the 13th century (or even the probably 2nd century Yoga Sutras) and claims of an organic development over the last 5000 years.

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