Singleton interview

Graphic: Cover art for yoga book
Challenging misconceptions about the origins and evolution of transnational yoga

As announced earlier this month, The Magazine of Yoga came out a conversation with Mark Singleton Part One and Part Two Singleton wrote Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice,
an extraordinary study about the contemporary roots of yoga as practiced in the United States (but it’s really about India in the first half of the 20th century):

“Mark Singleton is one of the most valuable, vocal and articulate advocates for yoga practitioners and yoga scholars to put aside their differences and engage the questions that bear upon their shared interests. His writing and teaching provide a bridge between the concerns of academia and those of practice.”

Susan Maier-Moul, the MoY editor, takes advantage of the online format to have an extended chat and dig into the most revealing aspects of Singleton’s studies. The first part is about the concept of “cultural translation,” which is key to understanding the transformation that yoga undergoes as it is transplanted to the United States and Europe. This conceptual framework is needed to decipher the political and cultural forces, both inside and outside India, that change yoga. This is also intellectual process which will offend many who think of yoga in “sacred” terms.

By understanding how we are traversed and constructed by cultural and historical stories about the world, we can open up far richer avenues of meaning within our yoga practice. Especially when we combine this with a study of the other two contexts (the philosophical framework around the text and the traditional commentaries).

Photo: yoginis in a hamstring stretch
Getting into a deep stretch in a Bryan Kest-led class at Thrive Yoga

The second part gets into the nitty gritty of yoga as a cultural phenomenon here in the United States and Europe and how we are changing it, no matter how faithfully we try to read Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. We are going to project onto yoga our own preferences and prejudices. This can affect how we view a particular posture or how we translate a text; Singleton gives examples of each of these facets.

Our own contemporary understandings of yoga are similar kinds of mixtures. It’s for this reason that it’s preferable to speak of plural “yogas” rather than “yoga”in the singular. There is no single body of practices called “yoga” (although there are certainly dominant ones through history). Modern yogas are usually very particular and unique renderings, which often radically depart from tradition. They are, in other words, translations.

As I read the transcript my mind kept jumping back and forth between the interview and the book, and then skipping to the Bryan Kest class this week.  In some respects the interview is a good preface to the book because it strips away the academic scaffolding and leaves. You can also read between the lines of Singleton’s responses to sense some of the critiques that have been made against his conclusions.

Of course, I am actually getting ahead of myself because I have already finished reading the book, and need to record my thoughts here. More to come soon.

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