by Carol Horton

This is an excerpt from the new book “Yoga Ph.D.” by Carol Horton.

PrintWhen it comes to the popular understanding of yoga history today, it seems that modern yoga just can’t get any respect.

This rankles me. Because as I’ve studied the history, tracing yoga as we know it back to its most immediate roots in late 19th-early 20th century India, I’ve come to believe that the modernization of yoga that occurred at that time was, in fact, a really good thing.

Yet from the tone of the recent discussion surrounding the publication of Mark Singleton’s groundbreaking Yoga Body (as well as, to a lesser extent, other recent historical studies) you wouldn’t think this could possibly be the case. Rather than seeing the modernization of yoga as a positive, creative, and even visionary response to a rapidly changing world, most practitioners view it with either indifference or hostility.

Of course, there’re always exceptions to the rule. But from what I’ve seen, the most common response to the compelling historical evidence that asana as practiced today only dates back to the early 20th century is either to 1) shrug off one’s initial disillusionment and not care, or 2) denounce this fact as evidence of the corruption and degeneration of an ancient spiritual tradition.

And this, I believe, is a shame. Speaking as a practitioner, I believe that there’s much wisdom and inspiration to be found in the short but pivotal lineage of teachers who were formative in the making of modern yoga, stretching from Swami Vivekananda in the late 19th century to Sri T. Krishnamarcharya in the mid-20th.


Boiled down to essentials, I believe that these teachers revolutionized yoga by 1) democratizing asana and meditation by making them newly accessible to all, and 2) insisting that science and spirituality are complementary practices, and seeking ways to forge new accommodations between them.

Considered as a historical development, this synthesis of yoga, democracy, and science was new – deliberately modern, and culturally progressive. Most fundamentally, it embodied a commitment to evolving yoga in ways that would make it most relevant to a rapidly industrializing, globalizing world.

Realizing this vision required synthesizing ideas and practices drawn from both Eastern and Western cultures. This fact of hybridization is precisely, I believe, what enabled yoga to become such an important force in the world today. Yet, many serious practitioners remained wedded to the belief that any and all Western influences on the Eastern tradition of yoga are necessarily negative and corrupting.

This, I think, is simply wrong – both in terms of how yoga historically developed, and how it manifests in society today. When it comes to the needs and concerns of the contemporary world, synthesizing East and West opens up critical new space for creative synergy and change. In contrast, trying to keep cultural traditions separate, pure, and isolated is not only doomed to failure, but breeds insularity, defensiveness, and mistrust.

Particularly given the contemporary yoga community’s tendency toward binary East/West thinking, it’s important to emphasize that such processes of hybridization work both ways. Consequently, the development of modern yoga wasn’t as simple as merging a wholly Eastern tradition (yoga) with purely Western ones (democracy and science). Rather, as the process of integration unfolded, each of these categories was hybridized within itself. Concretely, even as yoga incorporated new ideas and practices drawn from the West, the understandings of democracy and science it embodied became partially transformed by the East.

If modern yoga is indeed a partially Westernized practice, in other words, it’s also one that’s played an important role in partially Indianizing the West. Rather than rejecting such syntheses as impure and corrupting, I believe we need to celebrate their creativity, and seek ways to keep them generative and meaningful.


Syncretism as Creative Energy

To the extent that yoga practitioners today recognize that what we’re doing on our rectangular sticky mats didn’t come to us straight from ancient India, it remains commonly regarded as an at-best-discomforting fact.

harmonial gymnastics
In his book “Yoga Body,” Mark Singleton demonstrates that it’s “simply untenable from an historical point of view” to claim that contemporary yoga represents any sort of direct extension of ancient tradition. Rather, “the dynamic system of asana” that we practice today developed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries out of a process of transnational cultural exchange, as practices such as European harmonial gymnastics were reinterpreted in the context of modern Indian culture.

“Well, here’s the million-dollar question,” wrote one blogger after reviewing the historical evidence. “If our practice doesn’t actually have the lineage it’s purported to have, would you continue to practice it?”:

In case you are shy about giving your answer to this question, I’ll help you along by giving my answer first: I don’t care! Really . . . If I were to find out tomorrow (or today) that Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga was in fact put together by a bunch of hippies on some California commune in the 60s, I would continue to do it anyway, just because it works for me.

This defiant “I don’t care” attitude is not uncommon among the more thoughtful subset of practitioners who care to grapple with yoga history. And it’s not a bad view. On the contrary, it stands as an inspiring testament to the efficacy of their practice.

Such allegiance to contemporary practice presents an interesting contrast to the views of self-styled traditionalists who take the same historical evidence that modern yoga absorbed Western influences as evidence of its corruption. As practitioner-scholar Georg Feuerstein explains:

With the transplantation of Yoga to the Western world, which was launched by the well-know Swami Vivekananda in the late 19th century, an eventful development occurred: Yoga briskly encountered the particular cultural orientation, or materialistic bias, of the West. Today, over a century later, we know that if Yoga has made an impact on the West, the West has made an equal impact on Yoga. It is doubtful, however, whether this vigorous mutual influence has been truly beneficial for either party.

The core problem, Feuerstein contends, is that yoga’s deteriorated to the point that it “includes little to no spiritual component.” And this, he insists, “represents a very significant departure from Yoga as traditionally understood and practiced.”

Such viewpoints, however, reject the fact that modern Hatha is supposed to be different from traditional yoga – and that there are legitimate, and even admirable reasons for this. As B.K.S. Iyengar explains in Light on Life, if most people today are initially drawn to yoga for such mundane reasons as curing “a bad back, a sports injury, high blood pressure, or arthritis,” that’s “not a bad thing.” Even if they begin feeling “quite skeptical about the whole idea of spiritual self-realization,” this is simply a sign that they are “practical people who have practical problems and aims – people who are grounded in the ways and means of life, people who are sensible.” It doesn’t mean, however, that yoga’s spiritual benefits won’t become important to them as their practice develops.

And this is certainly the experience of many practitioners (myself included). We begin practicing for relatively mundane reasons. But we find to our surprise that yoga comes to mean much more to us than we ever could’ve previously imagined. Whether or not we call this deeper experience “spiritual” is inconsequential. Instead, what’s significant is that it occurs – and quite regularly, at that.

Traditionalists will counter that such ad hoc spirituality doesn’t lead to enlightenment, and therefore doesn’t really count. But this view refuses to grapple with the realities of modern (and now postmodern) society, where there is no single, shared religious tradition or spiritual compass. Absent this, we’re simply never going to agree on what enlightenment means. It’s inevitable that different practitioners will understand the spiritual dimensions of yoga differently. And the more we’re committed to making yoga democratically accessible, the more we must be willing to embrace such diversity of understandings and experiences within it.

Democratization definitely generates its own frustrations and pitfalls. Yet it also offers much of value. The same, of course, is true of modern yoga’s integration with science. It’s enormously helpful in many ways, but problematic in others. Both, however, rest on a solid historical pedigree and philosophical precepts. They’re not accidental departures or unthinking corruptions. On the contrary, they’re foundational commitments of modern yoga.

If contemporary yoga is to remain vital, its relationship with democracy and science must remain interactive, rather than one-sided. Today, this means that the deeper experience of yoga – in all of its postmodern diversity – must be used to inform, energize, and ultimately change our society’s relationship to democracy and science. If yoga simply follows market trends, that’s not genuinely democratic. If it just conforms to conventional scientific categories, that doesn’t contribute to scientific knowledge.

But if yoga shines needed light on what allows us to flourish as healthy, multi-dimensional human beings in the contemporary world, then it deepens our democratic heritage. And if it opens new investigations into the nature of the mind-body relationship, then it’s actively expanding the frontiers of science. In this sense, the main reason to think about the development of modern yoga is not simply to have a nice history lesson. Rather, it’s to gain a deeper appreciation of the nature of the practice we’ve inherited – and, hopefully, inspire us to work with it as creatively and intelligently as we can.


Carol Horton, Ph.D. is the author of Yoga Ph.D., Race and the Making of American Liberalism and also the co-editor (with Roseanne Harvey) of 21st Century Yoga: Culture, Politics, and Practice. You can follow her onFacebookTwitter, and her blog, Think Body Electric.



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