To follow up on Stefanie Syman’s The Subtle Body: The Story of Yoga in America, I have plowed through another ground-breaking historical perspective, Mark Singleton’s Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice (Oxford University Press: 2010). Although the book is about the transformation of hatha yoga from the realm of social outcasts and ascetics in colonial India into a transnational phenomenon that would startle Patanjali. It is far more scholarly in its approach to the subject matter than Syman’s book. That’s good because Singleton challenges many commonly held beliefs about the nature and origins of hatha yoga, and he needs the scholarly buttresses to strengthen his argument. Singleton’s historical context sets the framework for understanding the introduction of yoga into the American mainstream as outlined in Syman’s book.
Reading these two books together has made me re-examine many of my own assumptions about this discipline that I’ve been practicing for five years. It has made me look in a more detached manner at something that come to play a central role in my life. In a sense, this critical exegesis is removing the magical, mythical powers that I imagined yoga had, and replaced them with a more experiential and universal understanding of yoga’s essence. Perhaps, my understanding of yoga has been simplistic or predisposed to accept a neat narrative that endows yoga with a legitimacy gained over thousands of years. But what Syman and Singleton are telling us is that yoga is a dynamic flux that takes new forms in the matrix of body and society.