Yoga PH.D. Integrating the Life of the Mind and the Wisdom of the Body by Carol Horton


My first reaction upon finishing Yoga PH.D was to ask – what remains to be said? Carol Horton has written the definitive book on the “paradoxical multidimensional” practice that is contemporary yoga.

With one foot in Eastern mysticism and the other in a Lululemon store, Horton’s covered it all – yoga’s history as esoteric tradition, its assimilation into 20th century fitness routines, and its current incarnation as “crassly commercial industry”.

But it is her personal story of transformation from skeptical academic to devout yogini, that brings this sociological history to life. Horton asks “How did I, a scholar dedicated to the “life of the mind” (as it was ubiquitously referred to in grad school) become passionately dedicated to writing a book inspired by the wisdom of the body? Ultimately the answer is simple: I followed the prototypical paradoxical path of yoga today.”

And herein, lies the power of Horton’s narrative, because it is a microcosm of our transpersonal journey. Her story, she reminds us, “is simply an iteration of many others” who began looking for “stretching and stress relief” but soon find themselves disciples of the “contemporary spiritual movement” known as yoga.



Horton describes the path of conversion. “All that talk I’d heard about mind-body-spirit integration – which had seemed woozily New Age-y to me … became more and more compelling”… Yoga was opening new realities to me, taking me places that the purely rational part of my brain, which I had cultivated so assiduously for so many years, couldn’t go on its own.”

And herein lies the heart of the tale. Because like so many of us, Horton was “flush with the astonishing realization that yoga was having a transformative effect on my life” yet she found – she could not even begin to say how or why. What was yoga really? Where did it come from? How did it work?

“The most common explanation I’d hear vaguely invoked by teacher or in yoga magazines was that yoga works because it’s an unchanging spiritual practice developed thousands of years ago by all-knowing seers in India and handed down to us through the ages.”


But Horton found this “fuzzy belief that we’d somehow been initiated into a timeless yet ancient lineage utterly unconvincing. It seemed self-evident that yoga was far too in synch with contemporary culture to have been directly imported from such a radically different time and place.”

And so through this desire to better understand her experience, both as Professor and Yogini – that Yoga Ph.D. is born.

Now obviously, I can’t even begin in this blog post to cover the panoramic scope Horton achieves in these pages (yoga history and mysticism, somatic psychology, alternative medicine, new age spirituality, not to mention powerful economic forces promoting the commodification of the body) so I’m not going to try. But I will (at the acknowledged risk of gross over-simplification) try to share just a few of the enlightening observations she makes on her journey of yogic discovery.

In Part 1. Historical Reflections: Ancient and Modern, Horton begins with the facts. Yoga is no sacred time-worn practice but a secular modernist invention. While the traditions of yoga are indeed ancient (some early precursors going back thousands of years) the postural based practice of today is at best, a distant relation.

Tirumalai Krishnamacharya
Tirumalai Krishnamacharya

But Horton’s insight is not to reject contemporary yoga as a fraud. Horton argues that the core practice of asana, as developed by Indian gurus of the late 19th and early 20th century revolutionized yoga “from an esoteric discipline that could only be learned through a guru-disciple relationship into a spiritual technology available to all.”

No longer about achieving freedom from the karmic wheel of rebirth, or transcending or escaping the body, modern yoga was an “uniquely Indian expression of an international movement” that saw the body “as a potential site of integrated physical, psychological, and spiritual development.”

Teachers like Vivekananda and Sri Tirumalai Krishnamacharya  merged ‘ancient’ yogic wisdom with gymnastics, calisthenics and body building routines, to create a new body based yoga “designed to work with and through the body in ways that responded to the newly self-alienating conditions of modernity”. They forged new accommodations between science and spirituality that Horton contends, made yoga “relevant to our rapidly industrializing, globalizing world.”

B.K.S. Iyengar
B.K.S. Iyengar

In Part II, Personal Reflections: Yoga, Psychology & Spirituality, Horton theorizes “In a society where many, if not most people feel disconnected from their own bodies, asana reconnects us to the multi-dimensionality of our own physicality.”

She explores how yoga, as originated by these 20th century masters and their disciples (such as Iyengar and Desikachar) works to systematically “integrate the life of the mind and the wisdom of the body”.

In the chapter titled Handstand Psychotherapy: Integrating Body/Mind she writes how struggling with Pigeon pose helped release subconscious memories and repressed emotions, and how mastering Handstand encouraged her to move past self-imposed fears and limitations.

In Burning off Karma to Be a Better Mom, she tells how years of continual practice have allowed her to approach a state of witness consciousness. “I can practice letting go of my self structured whirlwind of preoccupations and opening up to the world around me at any time”…”Whether or not we call this deeper experience spiritual is inconsequential. Instead, what’s significant is that it occurs – and quite regularly at that”.

“My yoga practice, I realized was like a strand of pearls threading through my days. In my mind’s eye I saw the slow, ongoing process through which each small moment of internal stillness and spaciousness I’d ever experienced on the mat connected to the next.”… “On good days, I touch it for guidance. On bad ones, I see it glimmering faintly, far away in the dark.”


The power of Horton’s luminous words ring true, I suspect, for many of us. She certainly speaks for me when she concludes that whatever contemporary yoga is – she is amazed to find that “this combination of physical movement, conscious breathing and mental focus featured in contemporary asana practice allows me to experience the magic of the present moment more consistently that anything else I’ve ever encountered.”

In Part III Sociological Reflections: Yoga & American Culture, Horton reflects that “Some people are convinced that yoga works because it taps them into some special source of ancient Indian wisdom. Many attribute its effectiveness to their particular method or teacher, swearing by the rigors of this or that system, or the wisdom of this or that guru like leader. Some, more cerebral types, believe that sooner or later, neuroscience will give us detailed explaining by mapping the complexities of the brain.”

But the way Horton sees it, there is no one answer. Yoga is inherently paradoxical. We can’t reduce it. It is East and West. Ancient and Modern. Traditional and Revolutionary. Physical and Spiritual. Scientific and Esoteric, Rational and Extra-rational.

New York Yogathon

Yoga is a “simultaneously generative mix of the sacred and the profane”…“ a modern invention with ancient roots, a fitness fad with spiritual sustenance, a 6 billion ‘industry” with non material values”. And it has reached millions of people because somehow it “simultaneously speaks to the ordinary concerns of everyday life and offers a bridge beyond them.”

One of my favorite moments in the book is when Horton writes of finding herself in deep meditation with a group of Midwestern woman in a “cookie-cutter conference hotel perched on the edge of two intersecting free-ways”…“After we’d finished I looked around the room of with new eyes. The soulless generic-ism of this corporate space with garish wall to wall carpeting was infused with a new sense of possibility. The women around me glowed with a softer aura, as if lit up from within. And for a moment that felt both long and short, at the same time, there was a deep sense of quiet”.


So to end this post, I reiterate it’s beginning. Really, what remains to be said? Other than this – “I look around, and notice that light looks brighter. Even the shadows are more rich and resonant. I feel a frisson of magic in the air that my everyday mind hadn’t believed to be there. I get a glimpse of the realization that despite everything, the world really is full of richness, beauty and wonder.”

Thank-you Carol Horton, who could have said it any better?


5 Comments Add yours

  1. says:

    Perhaps Anna Forrest nailed it in one sentence when she said:   “We are here to participate in the great mysterious.”                                       Founding Member Fascia Research Society      Your body is more important than any car you will ever drive…you can’t trade it in on a new one!                                                                       

  2. I think the “mystery” is that people are looking at the cultures & practices as the source of what “yoga” is. But yoga is not invented nor created. Yoga is an Inner Process or Function that is uncovered or discovered for those who take the time to look. Yet you don’t find “it” by for looking for “it” because it is not a “thing.”

    I think whatever it is that makes “yoga” to be yoga is that it a process or function emanating from the very foundational structure or beingness of the human bodymind. It is our very essence, or part of it, anyway. … Since the very fabric of yoga is, in great part, the part of us that “Sees What Is,” it is invisible to us. It’s like, you see with your eyes, but you cannot see your eyes. Not without a mirror, anyway. Doing yoga is in itself a mirror of those inner processes. You cannot see what it is, you only see what it does.

    So the reason yoga remains relevant to whatever culture is practicing it that it’s the driving force behind whatever is going on at the moment, whether it was 5,000 years ago or today or 5,000 years after tomorrow.

    The culture any particular yoga practitioners exist in only produces the outer form, the cultural expression, of yoga-ness. The essence of yoga is that it is the Inner Driver of what ever is going on in the outer environment of the Being in question, including their own body & mind at that moment. Yoga seems timeless because time only exists in the projections of mind, emanating from memory. So if you’re paying more attention to Right Now, the mind slows down, and time begins to “evaporate.”

    In a substantially religious culture, their particular expression of yoga will come through the religious practices, principles & mythologies prevalent at the time. In a primarily commercial culture, their particular expression will come through their commercial practices. What’s interesting is a comprehensive Lexicon of the Sanskrit language includes business and commercial activity within the definition of “yoga,” which puts a lie to the terrible idea that somehow yoga should be divorced from business life. That idea is wholly destructive of a culture trying to deny what produces its very existence.

    So yoga is a *function* looking for a *structure* through which it can express itself. What ever is operative in the culture of the people doing yoga is how yoga will look to an outside observer, and to us as we look into our own psycho-spiritual mirror.

    AND YES, I read Carol Horton’s book and it IS definitely a Work of Art & Science & History and of Philosophy & Psychology — all rolled into one.

    I put it right up there with Joel Kramer’s ground breaking articles on American Yoga published in Yoga Journal many years ago. I believe anyone looking to see what American Yoga is today should read Carol’s Yoga Ph.D., then go read Joel’s articles (free PDF downloads) at

    Thanks for Reading,
    David Scott Lynn

  3. sangita roy says:

    This is an excellent write up. Thanks a lot for this informative article.

  4. Yes, couldn’t agree more. This is a terrific book.

    Posting to Best of Yoga Philosophy.

    Bob W. Editor

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