Review: Yoga Body – Mark Singleton

yogabodyYoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice – Mark Singleton
Oxford Press. 2010. 262pp. 9780195395341.

When most people think of yoga they get an image of people stretching, and posing, and breathing deeply. If you mention that yoga is a religious tradition most are confused, and some know that and either think that the religion has been stripped out of it, or that the Gods care how flexible you are. If you mention that the idea of yoga as being this physically focused system of stretching is less than a hundred years old then suddenly people get irate. People have a surprisingly vested interest in the historical authenticity of posture yoga, even when they’re doing it strictly for physical purposes.

This book challenges all of that, by examining medieval yoga texts, and modern yoga and fitness texts from the last century and a half Singleton manages to illustrate the best and most comprehensive history of modern Western yoga. He starts with the bold assertion that “there is little or no evidence that āsana (excepting certain seated postures of meditation) has even been the primary aspect of any Indian yoga practice tradition – including the medieval, body-oriented haṭha yoga.” ((3)) He then moves on to show that not only was this posture-based focus not included in traditional yoga, but it was considered backward and superstitious.

The book follows the complex dialectical history of yoga to the modern portrayal. Initially there is focus on the lack of focus (or mention) of physical postures in the traditional yoga texts -including the ones that are often sweepingly claimed to validate posture yoga like Patañjali’s yoga. Then slowly he builds an intricate picture that set the stage for posture-based yoga to arise. He moves into the confusion between fakirs and yogins to the Europeans (largely the British) and how that started a feedback loop. Around the turn of the 20th century there was an international obsession with fitness, various schools of acrobatics, gymnastics, and bodybuilding appeared at that time, and as India was under British rule it was caught up in this craze.

Singleton shows how the name yoga was appropriated or co-opted into this physical culture, starting off as more of a body-building system, and then into gymnastics and stretching, all the while moving farther away from the traditional yoga. I should clarify that Singleton doesn’t consider modern yoga as wrong, false, disconnected, or anything like that -though he may criticize the bad history involved- instead he states that modern yoga is just a natural progression of the system. While I completely agree with all his research and his analysis, I can’t agree with the conclusion. What yoga has become was not shaped by spiritual or cultural progression, but cultural oppression and colonization. What is thought of as yoga was created by an interaction between British laws outlawing yoga, European contortionism, and Swiss gymnastics. I cannot agree with the premise that it is a natural progression or part of the same continuum, I feel it is more of a deviation than a development. This is not to say I have no use for modern yoga, only that I recognize it as a modern system with no basis in historical yoga, and a physical practice. That being said this book is extremely well researched, well documented, and deeply analyzed (a nerd’s dream) and if you’re interested in yoga one way or another, I recommend you pick it up, and draw your conclusions from the research.


7 Responses to Review: Yoga Body – Mark Singleton

  1. kwarren1970 says:

    Thanks for sharing. I like a good read so ill definitely check this one out.

  2. The premises you just laid out is EXACTLY why reading Yoga Journal pisses me right the fuck off. The last two years of my college was learning about the Yoga tradition and specifically Patanjali’s sutras. I never considered that the physical culture movement would have backwashed into India.The whole damn purpose of asana is to be able to stay comfy sitting while you worked on achieving various states of samadhi or siddhis.

    That being said, I’m curious about his sources for his claims that asana was considered superstitious back in the day.

    • Kalagni says:

      It totally did, that’s why you still have a lot of people in or from India teaching the modern posture system, to the point that they claim it was the original. Unfortunately he didn’t do a citation by citation process as he went so I’m not sure where he got that from, but it is dealt with more in the book. It’s in part due to the fact that postures weren’t part of the system, but they were attributed to fakirs.

  3. Anaxamander says:

    While singleton’s larger thesis is correct, that modern posture Yoga mostly practised in the west is far removed from classical Yoga, this is already well known in the yoga world. To make his thesis more interesting Singleton went further but in doing so he overlooks important facts. Contrary to Singleton’s claims, there are a number of documents and reports demonstrating that Asana’s were a central place in classical Yoga and a Yogi’s practice dating back at least to the 13th century. It is rather the sequencing and flow of Asana that has been systematised in modern times (largely by Krishnamacharya in the 1900s) . Evidence suggests that Yoga Asana (as one of the Patanjali’s eight limbs of Yoga) has developed organically over the last 5,000 years from the original seated postures described by Patanjali, rather than Singleton’s thesis that Asana’s are largely inspired by European and American bodybuilding gymnastics. Singleton goes too far in this central claim and by doing so attempts to take a great Indian practice and artform away from its true source of origin.
    This short ‘Response’ by Dr James Mallinson highlights some of Singleton’s mistakes.

    • Kalagni says:

      For your first comment I think that depends on what you consider the “yoga world.” The majority of modern practitioners I’ve encountered (in person, online, and textually) do assume that the modern posture yoga is the classical yoga. It could just be the people I’ve encountered, but it does seem to be the prevalent attitude.

      I’ll definitely look over Dr. Mallison’s response, it would be interesting to see the balancing view, thank you.

  4. […] reader responded to my review of Yoga Body with a small talk countering the text, suggesting there was a posture tradition before the modern […]

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