Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice

Paperback | March 10, 2010

byMark Singleton

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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 take its presence, and its meaning, for granted. But how did the current yoga boom happen? And is it really rooted in ancient Indianpractices, as many of its adherents claim?In this groundbreaking book, Mark Singleton calls into question many 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 showsthat, contrary to popular belief, 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 it is popularlypracticed 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, than it does to any ancient Indian yoga tradition. This discovery enablesSingleton to explain, as no one has done before, how the most prevalent forms of postural yoga, like Ashtanga, Bikram and "Hatha" yoga, came to be the hugely popular phenomena they are today.Drawing on a wealth of rare documents from archives in India, the UK and the USA, as well as interviews with the few remaining, now very elderly figures in the 1930s Mysore asana revival, Yoga Body turns the conventional wisdom about yoga on its head.

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From the Publisher

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 take its presence, and its meaning, for granted. But how did the current yoga boom happen? And is it really rooted in ancient Indianpractices, as many of its adherents claim?In...

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. He lives in Santa Fe.

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Format:PaperbackDimensions:272 pages, 9.1 × 6.1 × 0.9 inPublished:March 10, 2010Publisher:Oxford University PressLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0195395344

ISBN - 13:9780195395341

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Rated 5 out of 5 by from An elegant construct , but is it also valid? This book is a fascinating read for anyone who is passionate about postural yoga- eg. millions of people should enjoy this work! Singleton presents a historical and cultural analysis of the status of hatha yoga in ancient and colonial times, and then a broad ranging and impressive overview of textual material and interviews to support his view that the transnational asana-based yogas are a modern invention, and cannot claim origin from an ancient lineage. To the extent that all human creations are interdependent, this approach is a refreshing look at an assumption that is mostly unchallenged. However, is it really valid to maintain that the Hatha and Asthtanga Yoga systems of practice presented by Krishnamacarya and others are as dependent on techniques and pedagogy from European and American systems of physical culture as they are on a tradition which already existed in India? I have not had the opportunity to read the citations; I think this would be something only a tenured academic could find time for. I leave it to someone with sufficient resources and energy to debate Singleton on this issue. Here are some possible problems I see with the notion that “yoga” is a modern invention where asanas are added onto European methods of improving suppleness, strength and vigor. 1) The colonial era figures in the book show a group of yogis in various advanced postures. The discussion of this period is rife with observations of a widespread praxis in what we would call yoga amongst disenfranchised hatha yogis in the 19th century. Somehow, in an undoubtedly “secret “tradition the role of oral transmission for certain instructions (upadesha) is mostly overlooked. Systems of practice may not have been written, by design. For example, the text of Yoga Korunta, a source document for the Ashtanga system, no longer exists. In any case, the most influential practitioners in ancient times may have simply been illiterate and therefore off the map for this kind of textual analysis. 2) Ling gymnastics are proposed as one prototype for “western physical culture methods”. Wikipedia shows that Ling himself borrowed heavily from a Chinese friend (Ming) with whom he studied for many years. Does this constitute an independent, western influence on yoga from gymnastics? 3) Delsartism; physical methods used in transnational exposition of postural yoga (animating parts of the body) supposedly originate with Delsarte. However Delsarte left no written legacy, and again Wikipedia attributes to him development of a system of emotional expression for actors- not an exercise system. In America, a variety of techniques came to be called Delsartism, but there was no uniform characteristic among them and no certification was required to teach them. 4) Among the examples of influential European practitioners of esoteric dance , Singleton notes “ X “ learnt asanas from a certain “ Y” (sic) – again raising the question of how this influence can be seen as a non Indian development. 5) Finally the connections between various developments in physical culture systems within and without the Indian subcontinent are easy to make in the information age. I wonder if the propagation of certain ideas across large distances between notable innovators in the pre internet era might be an implausible construct. Having all this source material on hand (at one place and time) the notion that exchanges between Indian and Western physical culturists led to a co development of transnational yoga is possible, but perhaps no meaningful connection existed. 6) Some key authorities on the development of modern transnational yoga, such as Iyengar himself, declined to be interviewed. What the book does for me is to bring an even greater respect for Yoga as a tradition which emerges in forms relevant to the times . It is really fascinating to learn that certain methods of teaching yoga have been used in “ the west “ for nearly 100 years and that statements similar to the Moksha Yoga slogan ( Calm mind , Fit body, Inspired Life ) may have been around for even longer. Singleton increases my respect for the role of early western interpreters of yoga (increasing the accessibility of yoga to the exercise community) in the current spectacular success of this activity. Even so, I reserve the highest respect for the fountainheads of modern practice and these are Indian Yogis from an authentic tradition. Making the European contributors as important as the living tradition is perhaps a modern example of the disdain which yogis have endured throughout time.
Date published: 2011-06-01
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Tough Read The summary of this book sounded very interesting. But reading the book was a real challenge. The author is obviously an academic and all of the references and footnotes really get in the way of the flow of the material. The book starts out with a history of the meditative forms of yoga. Then there are a few chapters on the European influence on exercise in India. There are loose conclusions that leaves the reader wondering about the source of the foundations for Ashtanga yoga. I'm glad I stuck with reading the entire book, but it was a lot more work than I'd bargined for.
Date published: 2011-03-26