Yoga 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.