Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Yoga History

Ever since I’ve got my Kindle, I’ve been spending a lot less time surfing around online, and a lot more time, reading -- reading actual books, instead of drifting through snippets of information here and there. It’s a higher quality experience. I’d mentioned in an earlier post that I was curious about the history of hatha yoga, and I’d been unable to find very much online about it, but I’ve just finished reading Mark Singleton’s Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice. This is a scholarly book, published by Oxford University Press, which answered a whole lot of things that I’d found confusing in my own poking around in used bookstores and the Internet on the subject. His main thesis is that there is no evidence of an asana-based yoga practice existing before the 20th century. He says “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.” It isn’t news that today’s yoga practice mixes Hindu tradition with Western ideas, but what’s really fascinating in this book is that the mix of West and East began in India itself, where groups like the YMCA who believed that virtue could be taught through physical exercise sought to enlighten a people they regarded as backward and feeble. It is this mixture that was brought to American shores as “Hatha Yoga”, and explains why, when I bought Yogi Ramacharaka’s 1930 book on the subject I did not find the familiar asanas we know today, but gentle calisthenics. What Indians did was counter this condescension with fitness regimes of their own. The familiar Sun Salutation(Surya Namaskar), that some Christians object to as sun worship, was created by the Raja of Mysore, purely as a fitness regimen that wasn’t even associated with yoga until later.

Now, of course, some of the poses are old, from the hatha yoga tradition. But a close reading of the medieval Hatha Yoga Pradipika reveals that cleansing practices (called kriyas) and pranayama are given more prominence than the physical poses, and half of those described are sitting meditation poses. All of the standing poses, with the possible exception of Tree Pose, are 20th century creations. I’ve noticed that even some older yoga systems created for Westerners have few, or even no, standing poses. You can, however, find standing poses that modern practitioners would identify as yoga asanas, in Western books on “harmonic gymnastics”, which was a spiritualized form of exercise for women in the early 20th century.

Another thing that had puzzled me, when I went looking for the roots of American yoga, was that the first books on yoga, at the turn of the last century, by Vivekananda and Blavatsky, did not so much as mention physical postures, but were books on philosophy and meditation. It turns out that these early yoga teachers distanced themselves from hatha yoga, which was associated with charlatans and ascetics with bizarre practices. This association was quite justified -- hatha yogis in India had, historically been religious fanatics with a penchant for violence. Under the British, they drifted from town to town, gaining money for doing astonishing postures and tricks. One objection Vivekananda had was that hatha yoga was done primarily to gain physical immortality and magical power, which he rightly did not regard as spiritual goals. The picture of the ash-covered disheveled yogi holding one arm up so long that it withered, or the mountebank contortionist was an object of morbid fascination and revulsion in the publications of that era.

Even as late as 1969, Richard Hittleman thought it necessary to distinguish himself from this stereotype in his book Yoga: 28 Day Exercise Plan: “those groups of people of the Far and Near East who do strange things such as walking on hot coals, sticking needles into their bodies, allowing themselves to be ‘buried alive’ and so forth are known as Fakirs and are never to be confused with Yogis.” (p.204) But, in 19th century India, the terms ‘fakir” and “yogi” referred to pretty much the same group of people (Fakirs were Muslim and Yogis Hindu, but these religious lines were often crossed), and there was no such thing as a physical yoga practice that, as Hittleman claims, was “designed solely for the development of human potential.” This also explains why ‘Abdu’l -Baha’ was so disdainful of yoga, and the Indian gurus that taught at Green Acre; he had some solid basis to dismiss yoga as “superstition” in 1912. The irony of it is, of course, that although yoga teachers were shoved out of Green Acre, which remains a Baha’i school to this day, it was yoga -- in its revised form -- that became a major influence in the lives of millions of Americans.