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  • Mark Singletons Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice A Synopsis, Review and Personal Perspective

    By Estian Smit

    July 2012

    Abstract: Mark Singletons Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice

    (Oxford University Press, 2010, viii + 262pp)1 is an investigation into the roots

    and early development of contemporary transnational (anglophone) yoga,

    specifically looking at its curious transformation from a predominantly anti-sana

    philosophical outlook around the close of the nineteenth century into an almost

    exclusively sana-based practice during the first half of the twentieth century.

    Singletons study reveals the decisive role that the ideals and practices of the

    international physical culture movement as well as Hindu nationalism played in

    the reinvention of haha yoga for modern middleclass audiences preoccupied

    with holistic health, fitness, strength and self-improvement. The present essay

    offers a comprehensive synopsis of Singletons Yoga Body, followed by an

    assessment of Singletons findings and a personal perspective (as former yoga

    practitioner) on their broader significance. I also look at the popular and

    academic reception of the work and conclude with a few final remarks on,

    among others, the importance of reflexivity in yoga scholarship.


    Yogas worldwide appeal among eager spiritual seekers and health and fitness

    enthusiasts alike often rests on the uncritical assumption that the practice of sana

    (posture) constituted a central and age-old component of Indian yoga traditions.

    Supposedly intuited by wise enlightened masters during deep meditation and passed on

    to disciples down lineages spanning many centuries (if not millennia), it is thought by

    many to embody a tried and tested method for holistic wellbeing both physical, mental

    and spiritual. True, not all yoga enthusiasts may be equally keen on exploring yogas

    supposed spiritual or esoteric dimensions (that is, its potential as a path to spiritual

    enlightenment), but few would not laud, or at least assent to, its exceptional health

    benefits. Even fewer would question the ancient origins of the plethora of yoga postures

    1 Unless otherwise indicated all page references in this essay refer to this edition of Singletons Yoga Body.


  • and styles we see around us today. Both in India (where the Indian government has

    been trying to protect yoga postures against attempts to patent or copyright them) and

    elsewhere in the world, the belief tends to be that sana practice is a special form of

    knowledge indigenous to Indian soil and possessing roots that reach far back in Indian


    Mark Singletons work, Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice,

    presents us with a fine piece of investigative historical research that challenges many of

    the common assumptions about the evolution and transmission of modern yoga practice.

    He specifically looks at how yoga was transformed into, or rather invented as, a form of

    transnational anglophone postural practice over the past century or so. Singleton shows

    how, far from having developed as a purely indigenous Indian affair, contemporary

    posture-based yoga evolved under the influence of various Western physical culture

    practices which had gained popularity in India under British colonial rule. These included

    the Scandinavian gymnastics systems inspired by P.H. Ling (1776-1839), European and

    American bodybuilding regimes inspired by Eugen Sandow (1867-1925), and the

    physical education programmes of the Young Mens Christian Association (YMCA).

    Moreover, modern yoga was decisively shaped by Hindu nationalist aspirations for a

    uniquely Indian form of exercise in response to British colonialist conceptions of

    masculine health and strength.

    Specialising in the history of ideas of transnational yoga and currently teaching in

    religious studies at St. Johns College, Sante Fe, New Mexico, Singleton is himself a

    long-time yoga practitioner and a former student at the University of Cambridge under

    Elizabeth De Michelis, who is known among others for her work A History of Modern

    Yoga: Patajali and Western Esotericism (2004). In bringing us Yoga Body Singleton has

    been commended by scholars for providing a well-researched and nuanced account of

    some of the hitherto neglected aspects of yogas recent history. By revealing the recent

    origins of much of modern yoga practice, specifically how it has developed under the

    influence of the international physical culture movement, Singleton by implication

    divested modern sana-based yoga of much of its supposed ancient Indian roots and

    founding myths, thereby presenting a perspective that is all but palatable to groups and

    individuals of Hindu nationalist and traditionalist persuasion.

    In what follows I give a detailed synopsis of Singletons book, followed by two main

    observations. The first relates to the nature of sana-based yoga as a modern

    2 For the Indian governments efforts to claim yoga postures as indigenous knowledge and thereby prevent their patenting and copyrighting, see its Traditional Knowledge Digital Library (TKDL) website:; and articles in the press: Nelson (2009), Press Trust of India (2011), Sinha (2009; 2011) and Wax (2010).


  • phenomenon, questioning whether Yoga Bodys neglect of local Indian exercise

    traditions may not have created a somewhat one-sided picture of the influences and

    value systems that helped shaped modern postural yoga. In this regard I consider

    possible implications that Joseph Alters work on the somatic ideologies of traditional

    Indian wrestlers may have for contextualising the emergence of postural yoga. My

    second observation concerns the impact on yoga practitioners of scholarly revelations

    about contemporary yogas youth and hybrid cross-cultural nature. I look at popular

    interviews where Mark Singleton remarks on the reception of his work by other yoga

    practitioners and intimates something of his own response (as committed yoga

    practitioner) to the information he came across during the course of his research. This is

    followed by a personal perspective on how historical and cultural analyses presented by

    research such Yoga Body provided me with one of the means of making sense of my

    own past as disillusioned yoga practitioner and devotee. I then speculate on factors that

    may influence the assimilation or rejection of research findings by yoga practitioners.

    Next follows a look at the reception of Yoga Body in scholarly circles. In conclusion I note

    that although the work may have benefited from a more developed theoretical

    framework, a stronger narrative and greater scholarly reflexivity, it nonetheless

    constitutes a valuable contribution to our understanding of the initial development of

    sana-based yoga, and will no doubt stimulate further research in the various areas it

    touches on.


    Yoga as modern postural practice

    Historically, the practice of postures did not seem to play a prominent role in Indian yoga

    traditions. In fact, as Singleton points out, little over a century ago yogic postures were

    still widely repudiated as unseemly bodily contortions belonging to a repertoire of weird

    practices associated with naked, hashish-smoking, mendicant yogins who were shunned

    by Indian society at large. When Vivekananda (1863-1902) formulated his groundbreaking synthesis of yoga for an international audience in the 1890s, thereby

    setting the scene for a modern universalist Hinduism, it was a decidedly intellectual framework in which the contortions of yogins found no place. Vivekananda and other

    early exponents of modern yoga were careful to disassociate themselves from such

    physical practices which they tended to view as a form of spiritual degradation rather

    than a spiritual aid.


  • Given such unfavourable perceptions of yogic postures at the turn of the twentieth

    century, Singleton finds it interesting that sana, or posture, nonetheless became the

    defining feature of transnational y

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