The Colonial Roots of Modern Yoga

Wendy Doniger reviews Mark Singleton’s Yoga Body: The Origin of Modern Posture Practice (Oxford, 2010):

Contemporary postural yoga was invented in India in the nineteenth century. This is Singleton’s most provocative assertion. He argues that a transnational, anglophone yoga arose at this time, compounded of the unlikely mix of British bodybuilding and physical culture, American transcendentalism and Christian Science, naturopathy, Swedish gymnastics, and the YMCA, grafted on to a rehabilitated form of postural yoga adapted specifically for a Western audience. The Swedish gymnastics came from Pehr Henrik Ling, the physical culture from a number of people including Eugen Sandow, Bernard MacFadden, Harry Crowe Buck and Charles Atlas. Most influential was the YMCA, in the hands of which physical culture was eventually elevated to a position of social and moral respectability.

There is an ancient Indian yoga, but it is not the source of most of what people do in yoga classes today. That same history, however, also demonstrates that there are more historical bases for contemporary postural yoga within classical Hinduism than Singleton allows. The Europeans did not invent it wholesale. But they changed it enormously. They changed it from an embarrassment to an occasion for cultural pride, and from a tradition that encouraged the cultivation of “aversion to one’s own body” to another, also rooted in ancient India, that aimed at the perfection of the body. The modern Indian and American yogis didn’t take their methods from European physical culture; they took them back from physical culture. What Mark Singleton does prove, with massive, irrefutable, fascinating and often hilarious evidence, is that yoga is a rich, multi-cultural, constantly changing interdisciplinary construction, far from the pure line that its adherents often claim for it.

 

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