Yoga Body: the inception of inquiry

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

I have to put something down about Mark Singleton’s book, Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice, because I’ve already announced that I’ve finished reading the book, pointed to an interview with Singleton on The Magazine of Yoga and, today, when I checked my mailbox the November 2010 issue of Yoga Journal contained an article by Singleton about how he came to write the book and its impact on his own personal yoga practice. For anyone hesitant to read a scholarly tome about yoga can easily get a good idea of  the quality of the book by checking out any of the source cited above.

First off, I read the book in electronic format, which was convenient and allowed me to get the book before leaving on vacation. The shortcoming is that when a writer needs to review a book, it’s nice to have a physical copy so that he can leaf through the pages, have a meta-vision of the work and stir his memory with the look  and feel of the book.  So now I have to wing it by flipping back and forth between windows on my computer.

My problem is that the book has churned up a lot of issues  and these are entangled with a lot of trends on the American yoga scene and in my own practice, so I hardly know where to start. So I am going to start with some really simple stuff because most book reviews don’t deal with them.

Singleton is writing as an academic (unlike Stephanie Syman who is a journalist) so that’s what preconditions how he tackles the topic. He needs to present the normal defenses of academia — copious footnotes, long bibliography, hours spent in archives and libraries going through primary sources, interviews with witnesses of yoga’s evolution, and framing his topic with the current crop of debates among scholars. Actually, he probably did the chapters as stand-along monographs that could be published in journals or presented at conferences, while keeping the book as a compass in his research and writing.

I’ve listed below the chapters (numbering is not identical to the book chapters) and they are individually reading on their own.

  1. Introduction: he lays out his research methods, explained what was unique about his inquiry, touched on where his research fit with general academic research. He also deal with the discomfort that many yoga faithful feel when reading his assertions about the dialogue between India and the Anglophone world, especially the issue of what is “authentic” or “classical” yoga. After reading the Introduction, my appetite was whetted for the details. His conclusion is that hatha yoga was not a central tenet within the broader knowledge system of yoga, tantra and ayurveda.
  2. A Brief Overview of Yoga in the Indian Tradition: this chapter goes back in the historical and religious documents of India, and how hatha yoga (the physical practice fit into that context).
  3. Fakirs, Yogins, Europeans: Singleton goes back into the reports from European visitors to India as a way of verifying the real status of hatha yoga  within the society, as opposed to how it was written about in the historic texts. One of the more interesting facets is the existence of “fighting yogins” from 1400 to the early 1800s that were in effect unemployed soldiers banded together to the point that they controlled trade routes. But for the most part, yogins were looked down upon as beggars and sideshow stunt men who got money for doing their tricks.
  4. Popular Portrayals of the Yogin: a study on the popular image of yogins both in India and Europe as portrayed in magazines and other publications. But Singleton points to European contortionists who were doing postures that looked identical to those of yogins.
  5. India and the International Physical Culture Movement:  nationalist physical culture (body builders) in the late 1800s and early 1900s played an important role in both Europe and in India. Even the YMCA rides on the sweep of history.
  6. Modern Indian Physical Culture:  Degeneracy and Experimentation: nationalist leaders began to promote self-improvement as a means of preparing for independence from colonial rule. Some yoga schools were actually fronts for militants to travel around the country teaching in the schools.
  7. Yoga as Physical Culture:  Strength and Vigor — Harmonial Gymnastics and Esoteric Dance: these two chapters explain how the terrain was prepared for the hatha yoga revival that flowed through Mysore, but also illustrates that it was far broader than just T. Krishnamacharya and his disciples. There are other currents that lay claim to more authentic roots: Yogendra,  Kuvalayanada, K.V. Iyer, Yogacaya Sundaram, Tiruka, Aurobindo and others. Singleton’s research also turned up European gymnastic and dance movements that resembled modern-day yoga as practice in the West, frequently with spiritual intentions.
  8. The Medium and the Message: Visual Reproduction and the Asana Revival – I found this chapter intriguing because I have an interest in photography and Singleton explains how hatha yoga could not have happened without print media with illustrations and photography. Self-image of Hindu freedom fights, breaking the esoteric cover for hatha yoga because you no longer need a guru, and more seminal ideas that would be great to explore more fully in a conversation with Singleton.
  9. T. Krishnamacharya and the Mysore Asana Revival: finally, the chapter we’ve been waiting for, why we bought the book in the first place, the story of how the modern posture practice of yoga came into being. But it turns out Krishnamacharya was actually one of several innovators in the employ of the Maharaja Krishnaraja Wodiyar IV (1884-1940) in the state and city of Mysore.
Photo: practicing yoga
Brian Kest master class at Thrive Yoga

As I was glancing through each chapter, I realized that I need to go back, re-read and re-examine each chapter because my perspective has been clarified by the first reading and now I can more fully understand the ideas Singleton is developing. And then I look at the bibliography and see a dozen or so books and articles that I want to read so when am I going to re-read Yoga Body. For anyone wanting to tap into this venue of research, you can find points at Modern Yoga Research, a site that Singleton, Elizabeth De Michelis and Suzanne Newcombe are maintaining.

A compelling feature of the book are the illustrations: drawings, photographs, magazine graphics, posters, all of which allows the reader to better visualize history.

What I have written so far is a superficial skimming. What remains to be told is how this book has altered my vision of what hatha yoga is, how it is practiced in the United States and Europe, and how it will affect my own practice. Reading Syman’s and Singleton’s books has been a liberating experience because I have let go of some of the myths that preconditioned my approach to yoga.

3 thoughts on “Yoga Body: the inception of inquiry

  1. I too have just finished Mark Singleton’s book. As I love history, it brought a deeper understanding for me of where yoga has been prior to coming to the West, why it came to the West and how we now see the practice thru our Western eyes.
    It has profoundly changed me in how I view Hatha yoga, and I am not sure what to do with these feelings and new knowledge. Yoga is not merely asana practice to me, but after reading this book, the practice I have been taught some how doesn’t feel like it fits with the other limbs of yoga.
    I am sure that in time I will figure all this out. I am grateful for this scholarly offering and anyone who can prompt me to do some deeper thinking.

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