Can History Save Yoga?

Yoga scholars Dr. Mark Singleton and Dr. Jim Mallinson are on a mission. Their Kickstarter project Roots of Yoga: A Sourcebook from the Indian Traditions plans to trace the earliest expressions of yoga from several thousand years ago all the way up to the 19th century.

They need funding to scour untranslated yoga texts from the”‘old traditions” because “serious reliable research” is needed. And as Singleton recently pointed out in a radio interview – we need to know more about yoga in the past – so we can know where yoga is going in the future.

Yes indeed gentlemen, please help us. Because as far as I can see, yoga is undergoing a crisis of meaning, of relevance, a kind of existential funk. The growing vacuity of the yoga scene (so gleefully skewered by The Babarazzi’s recent juxtaposition between aerobic championships and yogathons) has left me adrift. I can’t find the gumption anymore to engage in internet debate over the appropriateness or inappropriateness of ‘yoga panties’ emblazoned with words like HOT.

Yoga Scholar Mark Singleton

I need direction. I’ve lost faith in the gospel of yoga as currently advertised through teacher training programs, trendy studios and yogic ‘retreats’ – as an ancient mind/body healing discipline. Because as Singleton pointed out in his previous book, yoga as practiced in mainstream studios today has almost nothing to do with history or ancient traditions. Despite the permutations of language, of schools, of breathing and meditation techniques, the bottom line is what we do in the yoga studios of the 21st century is an entirely modern creation serving thoroughly modern paradigms.

And the most fascinating question that nobody seems to asking is -why? Why did we feel the need to ‘spiritualize’ our fitness routines with eastern mystical concepts? Why have we embraced calisthenics with Sanskrit names and gussied them up with new age clichés about the union of body mind and spirit?

In yoga class yesterday, the teacher counseled (as she had us in deep squats balancing on our tippy toes) “to breathe through our resistance, to breathe through burning thighs, to use these sensations to learn about ourselves”. So I ask you, when and how did exercise become seen as a route to self-development?

To me, these are important questions. Because I believe that by paying attention to how and why yoga has captivated our psyche we can better understand where it needs to go in the future. So I don’t get why we are preoccupied with trying to draw links between our modern practice and the past, between pranayama and ancient texts, between obscure rituals of mantras and mudras.  Because if we’re looking for the definitive text, the essential principle that links modern yoga to the past -we might as well be looking for a needle in a haystack. Because it looks like there are as many versions of historical yoga as there are stars in the sky.

Mallinson stated in a recent interview that best as he can ascertain yoga can be historically defined as any practice involving the body. That is pretty wide open and pretty bang on. As far as I can see, it seems to be the only constant link so far as centuries of yoga texts go. And remember, this bodily practice could involve anything from lying on the proverbial bed of nails, rolling your tongue back to touch your tonsils, or holding your arms over your head for hours of mind numbing meditation.

Dr. Jim Mallinson and Yogi

Fact is the more I read and research the history of yoga the more confused I become. Yoga, the actual factual documented yoga, of cakras and seminal fluids, of charnel grounds and fire sacrifices has little to do with me – a woman alive in the 21st century, a woman caught between dominant paradigms of health and beauty, appetite and desire, discipline and denial.

A woman who joins with hundreds and thousands of others in yoga studios across the world to enact modern rituals of magical postures. Rituals whose purpose can be gleaned from the headlines of Yoga Journal covers “10 poses to keep you centered”, “10 poses to find calm admist chaos”, “10 poses to restore body and soul”.

Yoga, in the modern parlance means we can “find strength through arm balances”,“conquer fear through back-bends” and achieve a “healthy body, clear mind”. It seems we’ve agreed that through perfecting our bodies we can perfect our souls.

Which really isn’t a new idea. In fact it goes to the heart of the mystical thinking behind historical yoga – the quest to transform the body into something perfect, incorruptible, even immortal. Yoga may be defined as any practice involving the body, but ultimately it boils down to a process of embodying divine consciousness.

But there is a critical difference between then and now. The holy grail of popular modern yoga is ‘perfect health’ and being materialists, we work on perfecting matter, the body, the posture. But for the yogi of old, the incorruptible perfected body began from the inside out – with consciousness, spirit. An ‘a priori’ we’ve left completely out of the equation, well at least consciously.

Because the rhetoric of modern yoga clearly betrays a modern preoccupation with finding wholeness, finding soul. And in this way we’ve come full circle with ancient mystics and yogis who believed the body is not separate from the world – but a microcosm of the macrocosm.

I believe, as I have written before, that the popularization of ‘yoga’ is being driven by a paradigm shift in consciousness. We no longer believe in the scientific materialist paradigm which that tells us the body is a mere machine, that the physical reality of our bodies is separate from our mind. We believe we are something more.

And isn’t this the trail we should be following? While we can glean wisdom from the past, I find it infinitely more fascinating to ponder what happens if we just let it all go? Forget all the preconceptions of what yoga is and has been and start from here and now. And my first premise, my essential truth, is that whatever the posture, with each breath, my intent is to honour and enjoy the gift of my body, to embody devotion, to express my love for life.

In fact, my view of yoga falls more in line with the shamanic practices of my female ancestors who embraced ecstatic embodiment not only as route to enlightenment, but as way of healing and serving community. Scholars like Monica Sjoo, Vicki Noble and Miranda Shaw believe these practices form the earliest yoga, an ancient female centered practice that preceded the Hindi yogis by thousands of years. (see Did Women Invent Yoga?)

I suspect documentation of these earlier female centered yogic practices (dating to the neolithic) won’t be found amongst the texts Singleton and Mallinson will interpret. Part of this may be due to patriarchal suppression and part of this may be due to the fact there are no words to interpret. These oral traditions (as all great yogic traditions originally were) may well be lost to us now.

And yet what of the centuries of poems and writings by Tantric Buddhist women recently uncovered by scholar Miranda Shaw? Or of the texts of Taoist Women, The Immortal Sisters, who taught the cultivation of Yin, their poetry of enlightenment is nearly forgotten. While these practices may not be considered part of the official traditional yoga canon, I believe (under the definition that yoga is any bodily practice involving the body) they should be. So I am hopeful that Singleton’s and Mallinson’s ambitious Roots of Yoga will choose to illuminate some of this more feminine oriented history as well.

Which brings me back to today, to the rituals of magical postures we call yoga. There is no denying we have cherry picked from ‘yoga’ history what serves us – and made yoga into our own image. And I believe that whatever Singleton and Mallinson translate, we will continue to do so. But ultimately, as I cast out my 25.00 bucks to contribute to their project, I guess I do agree. It’s important to know where we’ve been in order to know where we are going. Lets just not lose sight of where we are now.


14 thoughts on “Can History Save Yoga?

  1. It is quite interesting that Drs. Mallinson and Singleton are both scholars and practitioners. The Kickstarter project reflects this dual role in featuring the testimonies of the same popularizing yoga teachers you wonder about. I’d be interested to see how their approach is viewed in scholarly communities.

    Generally speaking, I’d say where East meets West can be very confusing. Do we cultivate knowledge through scholarship or satsang? In which way do we interact with the texts? What is the place of experiential and bodily knowledge in Western thought? Are there unexamined traditions in the West? In other words, are there things we accept on authority, rather than by subjecting them to critical, dispassionate inquiry? It will be fascinating to see the outcome of the project, not only for its content, but how it will be received by various audiences.

    • Fascinating questions! Yes, yes and yes. And who is writing about this? Recommendations please? I am waiting with bated breath for Carol Horton’s forthcoming ” Yoga Ph.D.: Integrating the Life of the Mind & the Wisdom of the Body” and “21st Century Yoga: Culture, Politics, and Practice” (co-edited with Roseanne Harvey), books I suspect will cover some of this ground….

      • Thanks so much for the book mentions! Yes, there are issues that I have thought much about. Personally, I place more significance on the fact that modern hatha yoga came out of India than you seem to do in this post. I do not see it as a wholly Western creation with Eastern spiritual concepts grafted on. Rather, I see it as an East/West hybrid that was deliberately designed to make yoga accessible to a rapidly modernizing world.

        Therefore, I think that there are some threads of connection to the longer yoga tradition. That said, they are so indirect that I end up in the same place that you do anyway, emphasizing that there have been many technologies of the body developed to shift consciousness, and what we are doing today is (at least in its more serious manifestations) simply one of them that for various reasons (which of course I also theorize on, ha ha – can’t stop) speaks to us in our current socio-historical moment.

        I am a huge supporter of Mark and Jim’s work and could not be happier that the yoga community stepped up to fund it. Because regardless of whether we can find any direct linkages between ancient and medieval yoga and what we’re doing today, we can no doubt find much that will open up our minds to new ways of understanding what yoga has been and perhaps could be. This is, in my view, the underlying purpose of the Roots of Yoga project. I see it as a resource in expanding our current imaginations, not as an excavation of our “true” past. And while Mark and Jim I’m sure have their own view on it, I’m confident that whatever their larger pedagogical project may be, it’s an interesting and sophisticated one – they’re too smart and well-studied to have it be otherwise.

      • Thank-you Carol for taking the time to comment on my post, I greatly appreciate your thoughtful points. But I do want to make clear that I DON’T think that yoga is a wholly western creation, it was an import to our shores after all. Its just by the time yoga arrived, it had unrecognizably mutated away from ancient practices that Singleton and Mallinson plan to excavate.

        I guess the distinction I make is between our thinking about yoga and our practice of it. Our thinking and religious landscape has been greatly shaped by traditional yogic philosophy – as Philip Goldberg’s wonderful book American Veda explores – but the actual postural practice – not so much. As Singleton writes most articulately in the opening pages of Yoga Body:

        “However, in spite of the immense popularity of postural yoga worldwide, there is little or no evidence that asana (excepting certain postures of meditation) has ever been the primary aspect of any Indian yoga practice tradition -including the medieval, body-oriented hatha yoga -in spite of the self authenticating claims of many modern schools…the primary of asana performance in transnational yoga today is a new phenomenon that has no parallel in pre-modern times.”

        I definitely agree that yoga as a “East/West hybrid” was “deliberately designed to make yoga accessible to a rapidly modernizing world”. But how and why did physical posture ‘asana’ (previously just adjunct practices) become the whole she-bang? Because, despite opening our meditation and Oms, that’s what a modern yoga class is, 60 or 90 minutes of physical based postural practice.

        I also want to be clear that doesn’t mean I believe that yoga mysticism (cakras, nadis, mudras and mantras) is mumbo jumbo. Confronted with texts that tell us how yogis through super normal magical powers called Siddhis were able to transcend space and time and manipulate matter -two choices of interpretation are available. A)an example of irrationalism at it’s highest- the superstitions banished by the scientific enlightenment – or B) a barely recognized lost technology of human potential and enlightenment. I take B as it is my personal opinion that historical yoga is actually a “cargo cult”‘of ancient knowledge that has turned to gibberish over the millennium, the disjecta membra of a vanished civilization – but that I leave for future posts.

        The point is that I do think there is great value in the work Singleton and Mallinson have set out to do. And I hope by careful excavation of yogic texts we might begin to more clearly catch the outlines of this earlier, perhaps even pre-diluvian wisdom. And I most emphatically agree that that their Roots of Yoga project will be “ resource in expanding our current imaginations, not as an excavation of our “true” past.”

  2. I feel the same way. I have been trained in the Amrit yoga tradition by YogiAmrit Desai (500hr). the Amrit yoga lineage dates back from Gurudev back to Kripalu(Babugi) to Dadaji to Lakshmi . His teachings are from the ancient yoga tradition. As instructors my husband and I live and teach the Amrit yoga tradition. But people want exercise and exercise yoga,Pilates yoga, hot yoga, etc. We will continue to teach traditional yoga even though we have few students in our classes. This is a crucial year of consciousness and change. We plan on being there when the rest catch up.

  3. Why do you feel that Yoga needs to be saved?

    “The holy grail of modern yoga is ‘perfect health’ and being materialists, we work on perfecting matter, the body, the posture.” is an incorrect statement … if you were to add the word popular as in “the holy grail of popular modern yoga” … you would be more correct and probably doing yourself and Yoga better justice. Popularity is a huge force in modern times and Yoga is another domain that has been effected by it.

    There isn’t one “holy grail” of Yoga and it is wrong to try to define one. Each individual practitioner meets Yoga in a unique & fleeting context and gleams from it different things. What shimmers in Yoga itself is to change as both life-context and the practice itself advance. I was tempted to say that the only true holy grail is practice itself … however I have witnessed people who have practiced incorrectly for 15 years.

    “And my first premise, my essential truth, is that whatever the posture, with each breath, my intent is to honour and enjoy the gift of my body, to embody devotion, to express my love for life.” Good for you … really … but that’s not enough. That may be your current point of origin but you are still going to need good teachings to support your journey.

    Yoga is a contextualized art. It has no sustainable existence outside the context of individual practitioner’s practice.

    History is therefore never enough as it brings with it a theoretical and alien context. It is important that teachers be empowered with quality teachings which are an historical artifact, however they also need to incorporate the context in which those teachings were born and then to caringly migrate those teachings into the context of a modern day practitioner. That last part is where the magic happens and I believe that there are (though) very few teachers who can do that (without making their own ego the primary context).

    I too used to think that Yoga needs to be saved. I believe that to be a misperception. So I converted (still in the process) that belief into a practice to improve my own perception. I believe that like many things in life Yoga is being subjected to degeneracy. Degeneracy is a natural phenomenon … it converts our compost pile into fertilizer.

    • You are right, I stand corrected – “The holy grail of modern yoga is ‘perfect health’ and being materialists, we work on perfecting matter, the body, the posture.” is an incorrect statement … if you were to add the word popular as in “the holy grail of popular modern yoga” … Now amended in my post . Thanks.

  4. I come to yoga, aside from the occassional gym class, after a very severe car accident and have been using it to gain strength and health with a yoga teacher. A book I reccomend is “Health, Healing and Beyond Yoga and the living Tradition of Krishanamacharya” by T.KV. Desikachar with R.H. Cravens. It gives a good idea of all that yoga could be, a practice for health and clarity of mind with different focuses for different ages. It also mentions that that Krishanamacharya was a vegetarian and had very early morning practices. He stated that he lived in a very hot climate with plenitiful fruits and vegetables so it was well suited to him. However, someone in a cold northern clime who tried to emulated him exactly only caused illness in his students. I find some “myths” I originally believed to be true also dispelled by this book.

    There is often a belief that older is better. But if we think of history, where the black plague killed populations, while today it is an infection easily treated by antibiotics, and chlorinated water prevents millions of deatlhs by water borne illnesses, older is not always better. It is good to see where we come from, but we must travel the road forward. Not just copy the past but also try to develop and study and add to the existing traditions. We should bring something to yoga as well as take something away.

  5. While I appreciate and share your interest in putting contemporary “yoga” practice in context, I’m not sure these scholarly attempts actually contribute all that much. Certainly not when they come from Singleton, who is a hack of William Broad-esque proportions. I do have higher hopes for Mallinson though, who by all accounts appears to have some bona fide insight.

    Interestingly, back in the 1930s, Theos Bernard was engaged in a similar project, hunting down rare texts in the Himalayas to try to uncover the “authentic” traditional yoga (and getting murdered for his troubles). Swami Rama reckons that in his cave monastery there are recorded histories of the entire historical lineage of his school, which goes back over 5,000 years.

    When all’s said and done, the “authenticity” of a contemporary yoga practice ought to be measured (if indeed such a measurement is possible) not by its correspondence to some recorded historical set of practices, but by its tangible effects, whether objectively discernible or purely subjective. What would you rather listen to? Bon Iver played immaculately, or Beethoven butchered? Great music is great music, even if the music of the past was in some sense “greater” than anything we have today. The same goes for yoga: better to excel at that which we understand today than perform a parody of practices past.

  6. Pingback: My New Yoga Manifesto | body divine yoga

  7. “Chitta Vrtti Nirodha” -Patanjali

    I am sure most agree… to use our gift, the body, to discover the mind, is the essential principle of yoga.

    If teachers can teach this effectively, what amazing possibilities for conscious awareness for the modern yogin. We must be be able still the body and sit to discover the minds workings; must open the body to be able to sit.

    It is not necessary to “save yoga”, it is necessary to educate, and learning historical references IS where to draw from. Well, only if we wish to honor and represent what yoga HAS BEEN. Adaptability of this information must happen in order to reach students in this modern society. I hope we are able to accept and adapt the findings of Dr. Mark Singleton and Dr. Jim Mallinson to better all our lives. Like we have with all of the other teachings of all lineages.

    “Life is too short for one type of yoga.” -C

  8. You may enjoy reading a wonderful book by the Indian saint and yogi, Sri Aurobindo, whose yoga bridges the past and present. His “Synthesis of Yoga” (published in 1955) puts Hatha Yoga in a wide perspective and opens into a marvelous synthesis of Raja, Bhakti and Karma yoga.

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