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Mark Singleton


The Origins of Modern Postural Practice

Book review by Anthony Campbell. The review is licensed under a Creative Commons Licence.
Yoga is becoming ever more popular in countries outside India and it is claimed to have all kinds of mental and physical benefits. It is also widely believed to be an ancient practice and this is an important part of its appeal for some. But Singleton presents a wealth of evidence to show that modern yoga, with its emphasis on postures (asanas), is not rooted in ancient traditions (whatever these may have been) but instead owes a lot to Western gymnastics and other physical culture techniques. Yoga has also been cross-fertilised with Indian nationalism and New Age spirituality.

These are obviously unwelcome ideas for many advocates of yoga but Singleton wants to disavow any intention on his part to rubbish modern yoga, which he regards as something that should be judged on its own merits. He uses "yoga" as a homonym and not a synonym.

In other words, although the word "yoga" as it is used popularly today is identical in spelling and pronunciation with [ancient usages] it has quite different meanings and origins. It is, in short, a homonym and it should not therefore be assumed that it refers to the same body of belief and practices as these other homonymous practices. If this is admitted as the basis for further discussion, we are free to consider postural modern yoga on its own terms instead of in negative comparison with other traditions called "yoga".
The first three chapters look first at what yoga consisted of during the mediaeval period and then at how physical yoga (hatha yoga) was viewed by Indians and Europeans in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. At that time it was regarded unfavourably as the practice of street entertainers and charlatans. (There is an interesting parallel here with the decline of acupuncture in China at the same period, when its practice was confined to uneducated healers.)

Chapter 4 looks at how Scandinavian forms of physical culture were imported into India in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and were promoted by the Indian YMCA as a means of enhancing national pride and fitness. Chapter 5 shows how these ideas were taken further by Indians themselves and were combined with asanas in the construction of an "indigenous" form of manly body-building that became connected with the independence movement. (Women's yoga was concerned more with suppleness than with strength.)

Chapters 6 and 7 describe the development of this form of yoga internationally in the early decades of the twentieth century, becoming further blended with Western notions of physical development. "As I hope to make clear, the new yogic body is one that is thoroughly shaped by the practices and discourses of modern physical culture, 'healthism', and Western esotericism."

Chapter 8 argues that the wide dissemination of postural yoga was closely bound up with the development of methods of photographic reproduction. Chapter 9 examines the role of an important Indian yoga teacher, T. Krishnamacharya, in Mysore during the 1930s and 1940s. He introduced radically new forms of yoga, blending Western and Indian modes of physical culture, from which much of modern practice descends. But although he was in many ways an innovator, he was also a traditionalist, claiming to have derived much of his knowledge from his guru and from a 5000-years-old text which he had supposedly discovered in a Calcutta library.

For Krishnamacharya and his followers yoga was essentially a method of physical training and bodily perfection, whereas in mediaeval times the emphasis had rather been on spiritual development. This has not been totally lost sight of today, especially by New Age enthusiasts, with the difference that what was once a secret tradition, only passed on from master to pupil, is now available to everyone.

Today, the yoga body has become the centerpiece of a transnational tableau of personalized well-being and quotidian redemption, relentlessly embellished on the pages of glossy publications like Yoga Journal. The locus of yoga is no longer at the center of an invisible ground of being, hidden from the gaze of all but the elite initiate or the mystic; instead, the lucent skin of the yoga model becomes the ubiquitous signifier of spiritual possibility, the secular projection screen of characteristically modern and democratic religious aspirations. In the yoga body—sold back to a million consumer-practitioners as an irresistible commodity of the holistic, perfectible self—surface and anatomical structure promise ineffable depth and the dream of incarnate transcendence.

The passage just quoted sounds rather dismissive of modern yoga, but this does not seem to be Singleton's intention.

[The practice, beliefs, and aspirations of modern practitioners] may indeed be at variance with "Classical Yoga" but it does not follow from this that these practices and aspirations (whether conceived as yoga or not) are thereby lacking in seriousness, dignity, or spiritual profundity.
As the style of the passages I have quoted will show, this is a scholarly study. The text is frequently interrupted by references and there are extensive chapter notes at the end. All this does not make for easy reading (nor does the very small print). Sanskrit terms abound; a glossary would have been useful, but as it is one has to refer to the not very comprehensive index. The illustrations are sometimes murky and difficult to make out. In spite of these remarks, the book is important and should not be missed by anyone with a more than passing interest in the development of modern yoga.


%T Yoga Body
%S The Origins of Modern Postural Practice
%A Singleton, Mark
%I Oxford University Press
%C Oxfor, New York
%D 2010
%G ISBN 978-0-19-539534-1
%P 262pp
%K history
%O paperback, illustrated

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