Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice

Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice

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Item Code: IHL445
Author: Mark Singleton
Publisher: Oxford University Press, New Delhi
Edition: 2010
ISBN: 9780195395341
Pages: 262 (Illustrated Throughout In B/W)
Cover: Paperback
Other Details: 9.2 inch X 5.2 inch

An Outline of the Project

This book investigates the rise to prominence of asana (posture) in modern, transnational yoga. Today yoga is virtually synonymous in the West with the practice of asana, and postural yoga classes can be found in great number in virtually every city in the Western world, as well as, increasingly, in the Middle East, Asia, South and Central America, and Australasia. "Health club" types of yoga are even seeing renewed popularity among affluent urban populations in India. While exact practitioner statistics are hard to come by, it is clear that postural yoga is booming Since the 1990s, yoga has become a multimillion dollar business, and high-profile legal battles have even been fought over who owns asana. Styles, sequences, and postures themselves have been franchised, copyrighted, and patented by individuals, companies, and government and yoga postures are used to sell a wide range of products, from mobile phones to yoghurt. In 2008, it was estimated that U.S. yoga practitioners were spending 5.7 billion dollars on yoga classes, vacation, and products per year (Yoga journal 2008), a Figure approximately equal to half the gross domestic product of Nepal (CIA 2008).

However, in spite of the immense popularity of postural yoga worldwide, there is little or no evidence that asana (excepting certain seated 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 yoga schools (see chapter 1). The primacy of asana performance in transnational yoga today is a new phenomenon that has no parallel in premodern times.

In the late 1800s, a mainly anglophone yoga revival began in India, and new syntheses of practical techniques and theory began to emerge, most notably with the teachings of Vivekananda (1863-1902). But even in these new forms the kind of asana practice so visible today was missing. Indeed, asana, as well as other techniques associated with hatha yoga, were explicitly shunned as being unsuitable or distasteful by Vivekananda and many of those who followed his lead. As a result, they remained largely absent from initial expressions of practical anglophone yoga. In this study I set out to examine the reasons asana was initially excluded from most modern yogas and what changes it underwent as it was assimilated into them with such unpromising beginnings, how did asana attain the standing it enjoys today as the foundation stone of transnational yoga? What were the conditions that contributed to its exclusion from the vision of early modern yoga teachers, and on what grounds was it able to make its return?

At the time of Vivekananda’s synthesis of yoga in the 1890s, postural practice was primarily associated with the yogin (or, more popularly, "yogi"). This term designated in particular the hatha yogins of the Nath lineage, but was employed more loosely to refer to a variety of ascetics, magicians, and street performers. Often confused with the Mohammedan "fakir," the yogi came to symbolize all that was wrong in certain tributaries of the Hindu religion. The postural contortions of hatha yoga were associated with backwardness and superstition, and many people considered them to have no place in the scientific and modern yoga enterprise. In the first half of this study I investigate the figure of the yogin as he appears in travel writing, scholarship, popular culture, and the literature of popular practical yoga, with a view to understanding the particular status of hatha yoga at this time. This provides the necessary context for the second half of the study, which focuses on the particular modifications that hatha yoga had to undergo to avoid being perceived as a blight on the Indian religious and social landscape.

The book targets an essential, but hitherto largely ignored, aspect of yoga’s development. Studies of modern yoga have tended to elide the passage from Vivekananda’s asana-free manifestos of yoga in the mid-1890s to the well—known posture-oriented forms that began to emerge in the 19205. The two main studies in this area to date, by De Michelis (2004) and Alter (2004a), have focused on both these moments in the history of transnational yoga, but they have not offered a good explanation of why asana was initially excluded and the ways in which it was eventually reclaimed. The present work aims to identify the factors that initially contributed to the shape that transnational yoga has taken today, and constitutes in some ways a "prehistory" of the international asana revolution that got into lull swing with B. K. S. Iyengar and others from the 1950s onward.

That prehistory involves an examination of the international physical culture movement and the ways that it made an impact on the consciousness of Indian youth at the turn of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth. Quasi—religious forms of physical culture swept Europe during the nineteenth century and found their way to India, where they informed and infiltrated popular new interpretations of nationalist Hinduism. Experiments to define the particular nature of Indian physical culture led to the reinvention of asana as the timeless expression of Hindu exercise. Western physical culture—oriented asana practices, developed in India, subsequently found their way (back) to the West, where they became identified and merged with forms of "esoteric gymnastics," which had grown popular in Europe and America from the mid-nineteenth century (independent of any contact with yoga traditions). Posture-based yoga as we know it today is the result of a dialogical exchange between para-religious, modern body culture techniques developed in the West and the various discourses of "modern" Hindu yoga that emerged from the time of Vivekananda onward. Although it routinely appeals to the tradition of Indian hatha yoga, contemporary posture- based yoga cannot really be considered a direct successor of this tradition.

Sources, Methods, and Demarcations

The initial primary sources for this study were popular English-language yoga manuals from the Iate180os to about 1935. De Michelis (2004) has proposed that "Modern Yoga" begins with Vivekananda’s Raja Yoga of 1896, and while there are a few exceptions—such as the Theosophical Society—sponsored works of M. N. Dvivedi (1885, 1890) and Ram Prasad (1890)—it is largely true that the practice—oriented anglophone yoga manual begins to emerge as a genre only after this date. Indeed, J. Gordon Melton credits Ram Prasad’s book with being the first "to explain and advocate the practice of yoga" (Melton 1990: 502). A literature survey of the holdings of the Cambridge University Library and the India Office of the British Library in London revealed that prior to the 1920s the subjects of asana and hatha yoga tended to be absent in popular primers. Subsequent examinations of the collections at Stanford University’s Green Library and the library of the University of California, Berkeley, helped to confirm this impression with regard to American-based yoga authors. These surveys enabled me to consult the majority of available practical, anglophone, book- form yoga primers published in India, Britain, and the United States prior to the 1930s. In the post World War Il years, there was an explosion of interest in yoga and in titles dedicated to the subject, and although I have some familiarity with many of these, they all outside the period under question and I lay no claim to authoritative or comprehensive knowledge of them. However, it is easy to see that after World War II, popular English language yoga manuals tend to give far greater primacy to the postures of yoga than they did before.

The research questions that arose from these literature surveys were the following: why is asana, and hatha yoga more generally, absent from early popular instruction manuals of yoga? What were the conditions where by postural practice could, by the mid-twentieth century, rise to prominence as the single most important feature of transnational yoga, to become, in certain non—Asian contexts, a virtual synonym for yoga itself? Can the modes of practice of postural yoga today, and the belief frameworks that inform them, be considered "modern" in a typological sense? And, if so, how do these modern forms mediate their supposed relationship with the medieval hatha yoga traditions of which they often claim to be heir?

It is well known that the work of Bombay—based gurus Sri Yogendra (1897— 1989) and Swami Kuvalayananda (1883-1966), along with the teachings of T. Krishnamacharya (1888—1989) and his now famous Mysore disciples, were instrumental in bringing hatha yogic asanas into the public eye. It was largely due to their efforts, and those of their disciples, indeed, that postural practice is now so prominent in transnational yoga circles, and these men’s publications do serve as significant primary sources for my investigations of modern expressions of asana (chapters 6 through 9). However, these sources alone do not explain why there was a three-decade gap between Vivekananda’s exposition of yoga for the modern practitioner, and the arrival of hatha yoga as a significant component of yoga practice. What were the conditions that allowed Kuvalayananda and others to bring asana into the field of popular yoga? And conversely, how could Vivekananda see fit to omit treatment of it in his new synthesis?

These questions led me to examine representations of hatha yoga, and yogins themselves, in European travel writing, scholarship, and popular media from the seventeenth to the early twentieth century. Richard Schmidt’s 1908 study of hatha yogic "fakirism" first alerted me to early accounts of yogins by Bernier (1670), Tavernier (1676), J. de Thevenot (1684), and Fryer (1698). These editions furnished further references to the accounts of Mundy (1628-1634), Ovington (1696), Heber (1828), and the compilation of Bernard (ed. 1733-36). What is clear in these works is that the yogin, and the postural austerities he undertakes, are objects of moral and judicial censure, disgust, and morbid fascination. Nineteenth-century scholarship, both by Europeans and English—educated Indians, tends to show similar attitudes to the practitioner of hatha yoga. My sources here include E. W. Hopkins, W. j. Wilkins, M. Monier-Williams, and Max Muller. Also vital to my understanding of the status of the yogin in the last quarter of the nineteenth century are the early hatha yoga translations by S.C. Vasu (from 1884 on) and, to a lesser extent, those of C. R. S. Ayangar (1893), B. N. Banerjee (1894), and Pancham Sinh (1915). Vasu’s translations in particular were instrumental in bringing a modern interpretation of hatha yoga to a widespread public and in creating the conditions whereby "medicalized" hatha yoga could begin to emerge from the 1920s onward as legitimate mode of practice. Once again, scholars have hitherto neglected this crucial stage in the development of modern anglophone yoga.

Sources for the representation of the yogin in popular media include British illustrated periodicals of the nineteenth century, like The Strand, Pearson's Magazine, and Scribner’s Magazine; turn-of-the-century, popular esoteric works which treat the “fakir-yogi" and his methods; later popular ethnographies of India; and some early films featuring fictional Indian yogins. Eighteenth-century newspaper advertisements for performances by "Posture Masters," a European precursor to the “vaudeville yogin" of the late 1800s, were initially found via references in secondary sources and then obtained in either Cambridge or London. These visions of the yogin, from the European travelogues of Bernier onward, through nineteenth-century Orientalist scholarship and popular media representations, show clearly the status of the yogin in early formulations of popular anglophone yoga and go a long way to explaining the absence of hatha teachings in the early practical manuals. The works of Swami Vivekananda and Mme. H. P. Blavatsky, the two most significant arbiters of taste in early modern yoga, have been particularly important sources here, insofar as their writings reflect and rein- force prevailing attitudes to hatha yoga. It is also important to note, however, that the hatha yogin had always been an agent of ritual pollution for caste Hindus, well prior to the kind of European interpretations I consider here. This status is a key factor in the exclusion of the yogin from the Indian yoga renaissance.

The above sources helped to explain the initial exclusion of hatha practice from popular anglophone yoga but did not offer any evidence as to how it eventually made its comeback. Where to look was, once again, suggested by early popular yoga manuals. My initial survey showed that the asanas of hatha yoga were commonly, indeed routinely, compared with gymnastics in these manuals. These interpretations of postural yoga were significantly divergent from those given by "classical" hatha yoga texts, such as those translated by Vasu indeed, the whole somatic and philosophical framework of this new English-language yoga appeared to have been replaced by a modern discourse of health and fitness. An examination of the eighteenth- to early twentieth-century European gymnastics manuals in the British Library and Cambridge University Library showed without much doubt that anglophone yoga authors had grafted elements of modern physical future onto hatha yoga orthopraxy and seemingly excised those parts that were difficult to reconcile with the emerging health and fitness discourse.

Of especial relevance here are Scandinavian systems stemming from Ling, the teachings of Sandow, and the methods of the YMCA. These three were the major foreign players in the shaping of modern physical culture in India and thereby also helped to determine the shape of the new hatha yoga syntheses. My primary sources for YMCA physical culture programs in India come from several places: the archives and special collections of the Babson Library of Springfield College (Massachusetts) where Luther Halsey Gulick pioneered the Y’s first Department of Physical Education in 1887; books and records at India’s pioneer YMCA College of Physical Education in Chennai; and material found at the YMCA College of Physical Education in Bangalore as well as interviews conducted there. Other primary sources for the exploration of modern physical culture in India include the Maharastrian periodical Vyayam, the Bodybuilder and the works of Indian physical culture authors like P. K. Gupta, P. K. Ghose, and, most important, K. Ramamurthy. I also draw substantially on British physical culture periodicals of the early twentieth century, such as Health and Strength and The Superman, for evidence of the dialogue between yoga and fitness in the milieu of international physical culture. Some of the material for chapters 6 and 9, regarding the practices of yoga and physical culture in the Mysore and Bangalore area during the 1930s, was derived from interviews with informants who had either studied or taught these disciplines at the time or who had close relatives who had. All were conducted during a three-month fieldwork visit to the region in 2005. These men were often in their eighties or nineties (one was over a hundred years old) and represent living links between the historical past, which is the subject of this study, and the evolving present of modern transnational yoga. My aim in tracking them down and inter- viewing them was, on the one hand, to obtain firsthand accounts of what it was like to practice yoga or physical culture during this period and, on the other, to garner specific details concerning key figures in these respective fields (particularly T. Krishnamacharya and the "bodybuilding yogins" associated with K. V. Iyer).

The period in question is still—though only just—within living memory, and often these memories are hazy. Indeed, my interviews brought into sharp relief the limits of this method of enquiry: here were old men, struggling to recall the particulars of over half a century ago, when they were themselves mere children, and it is probably inevitable that some details should have faded or been lost. Furthermore, factionalism and vested interests in the management of memory are still alive and well in the realm of modern yoga. In particular, the legacy of T. Krishnamacharya has been, and remains, the locus of power struggles within and among the several schools of postural yoga that stem from his teaching (see chapter 9). Orthopraxy (i.e., what counts as the true and authentic way to practice) is hotly contested in contemporary, transnational yoga, and authority is often established by means of hagiography and the editorializing of memory. This needed to be taken into account in the interpretation of interview transcriptions. In spite of these caveats, however, the interviews provided invaluable and other- wise inaccessible insights into the experiences of those practicing yoga and physical culture in 1930s Karnataka, as well as access to some rare textual sources.

Key informants include three original Mysore students of Krishnamacharya: the internationally famous, and recently deceased, guru Sri K. Pattabhi Jois; the less well-known Mysore asana teacher B. N. S. Iyengar; and Professor T. R. S. Sharma, who was kind enough to share at length and on several occasions his memories and mementos of his time at the Mysore yogasala. Another ex-student, the illustrious pioneer of international postural yoga, B. K. S. Iyengar, refused my repeated requests for an interview on these topics but did allow me to make use of his personal library at his institute in Pune. A fifth ex-student whom I interviewed was the well-known teacher A. G. Mohan, who studied under Krishnamcharya during his later years in Chennai but who had no direct experience of the Mysore period.

Mention should also be made of Sri M. G. Narasimhan, custodian of the administrative records of the Jaganmohan Palace in Mysore, who generously provided me with annual reports from the 1930s and 1940s concerning Krishnamacharya’s yogasala there. His wife, Dr. M. A. Jayashree, and brother-in-law Sri M. A. Narasimhan, were also helpful in developing my understanding of hatha yoga theory, guiding me through a close reading of the Sanskrit text of Brahmananada’s Jyotsna commentary to the Hathayogapradipika. On my return from Mysore, I edited Sri Narasimhan’s translation from the Kannada of Krishnamacharya’s hitherto untranslated and unpublished Yoga Makaranda of 1935. Although the text has quasi-legendary status among contemporary students of Pattabhi Jois, very few have actually seen it. Plans for the publication of the complete text have been temporarily postponed, but part of Sri Narasimhan’s translation, with a discussion of the contexts in which it was written, will appear in Singleton 2009b. This seminal, though unknown work has been, along with Sri Narasimhan’s translation of Krishnamacharya’s asana manual Yogasanagalu of c.1941, a key source for my understanding of Krishnamacharya’s teaching in Mysore in the thirties and forties. The partial translation of Yogasanagalu by Autumn Autumn and R.V.S. Sundaram has also been helpful in cross-checking translations.

Back of the Book

YOGA is so prevalent in the modern world-practiced by pop stars, taught in schools, and offered in yoga centers, health clubs, and even shopping malls-that we can take its presence and its meaning for granted. But how did the current yoga boom happen? And is it really rooted I ancient Indian practices, as many of its adherents claim?

In this groundbreaking book, Mark Singleton questions commonly held beliefs about the nature and origins of postural yoga (asana) and suggests a radically new way of understanding the meaning of yoga as it is practiced by millions of people across the world today. Singleton shows that, contrary to popular beliefs, there is no evidence in the Indian tradition for the kind of health and fitness-oriented asana practice that dominates the global yoga scene of the twenty-first century. Singleton’s surprising and surely controversial thesis is that yoga as popularly practiced today owes a greater debt to modern Indian nationalism and, even more surprisingly, to the spiritual aspirations of European bodybuilding and early 20th-century women’s gymnastic movements of Europe and America, that it does to any ancient Indian yoga tradition. This discovery enables Singleton to explain, as no one has done before, how the most prevalent froms of postural yoga today, like Ashtanga, Bikram and “Hatha” yoga, came to be the hugely popular phenomena they are.

Drawing on a wealth of rare documents from archives in India, the UK and the USA, as well as interviews with the few remaining figures of the 1930s Mysore asana revival, Yoga Body turns conventional wisdom about yoga on its head.

Mark Singleton teaches at St. John’s College, Santa Fe, New Mexico. He is the editor, with Jean Byrne, of Yoga in the Modern World: Contemporary Perspectives.

“Singleton’s radical, meticulously documented, sensitive analysis makes perfectly clear that what has come to be regarded as a veritable icon of Indic Civilization-postural yoga-is, in fact, unambiguously the hybrid product of colonial and post-colonial globalization.”

Joseph S. Alter, author of Yoga in Modern India: The
Body Between Science and Philosophy.

“Mark Singleton’s Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice is an outstanding scholarly work which brings so much insight and clarity to the historic and cultural background of modern hatha yoga. I highly recommend this book, especially for all sincere students of yoga.”

Introduction 3
1 A Brief Overview 0fYoga in the Indian Tradition 25
2 Fakirs, Yogins, Europeans 35
3 Popular Portrayals of the Yogin 55
4 India and the International Physical Culture Movement 81
5 Modern Indian Physical Culture: Degeneracy and Experimentation 95
6 Yoga as Physical Culture I: Strength and Vigor 113
7 Yoga as Physical Culture II: Harmonial Gymnastics and Esoteric Dance 143
8 The Medium and the Message: Visual Reproduction and the Asana Revival 163
9 T. Krishnamacharya and the Mysore Asana Revival 175
Notes 211
Bibliography 225
Index 257
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