The real roots of yoga

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Niccolo and Donkey
The real roots of yoga

Times Online UK

Wendy Doniger

March 2, 2011

Some American Hindus have recently argued that Hindus should “Take Back Yoga”. The Hindu American Foundation insists “that the philosophy of yoga was first described in Hinduism’s seminal texts and remains at the core of Hindu teaching”, that yoga is the legacy of a timeless, spiritual “Indian wisdom”. Other Americans agree that the Hindus should take back yoga – from the many Christians who embrace it: R. Albert Mohler Jr, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, advises Christians to abandon yoga if they value their (Christian) souls. This fight evokes for me the Monty Python skit in which Greek and German philosophers compete in a football game (which ends with Marx claiming that the Greek goalscorer was off-side). Declaring the Southern Baptists (or at least the Revd R. Albert Mohler) off-side, we may still ask, why do so many American Hindus care so much whether yoga is Hindu? And is it?

One reason for the Hindu concern is suggested by the capitalist overtones of phrases used by Dr Aseem Shukla, a urologist who is co-founder of the Hindu American Foundation: Hinduism has “lost control of the brand” of yoga and has been the victim of “overt intellectual property theft” by people who have “offered up a religion’s spiritual wealth at the altar of crass commercialism”. In other words, yoga is a sacred cash cow: about 15 million people in America practise (and generally pay for) something that they call yoga, making it a multi-billion-dollar industry.

But a deeper casus belli lies in the two-fold historical claim made by activists of Hindu American identity politics: that yoga (a) was first described in the ancient Vedic texts of Hinduism and (b) has always been the core of Hinduism. Hindu Americans’ deep investment (to continue the financial metaphor) in these claims about history has its own history. For, given the human obsession with roots, those claims generally take the form of arguments about the origins of yoga, a quest for purity of lineage, for undefiled racial descent, here as always a mad quest, since the history of yoga is, like most histories, a palimpsest.

Mark Singleton’s excellent Yoga Body: The origins of modern posture practice sets out to demolish the assertion that the roots of modern yoga lie in ancient India. The Hindu arguments that he challenges, and the evidence for or against them, can be sorted into a chronology of four claims:

Claim 1: Yoga began before 2500 BC, in the Indus Valley Civilization, in what is now Pakistan and northwest India (a civilization that left substantial archaeological remains but no deciphered script). Evidence: There are a few tiny soapstone seals bearing the image of a man seated in what might be either just the way many people sit – knees apart, feet together or legs crossed – or a basic yogic posture, like the “lotus” (padma) or “perfect” (siddha) postures attested in much later yoga texts. Aside from its unverifiability, this claim assumes the position that yoga assumes the position, that the essence of yoga is in its “positions” or “poses” (asanas, literally “sittings”) rather than, for instance, in its philosophical or religious concepts. This assumption is contradicted by the next claim:

Claim 2: Yoga began in around 1500 BC, in the oldest Sanskrit text, the Rig Veda. Evidence: The word “yoga” occurs in this text, but only in the primary sense of “yoking” horses to chariots or draft animals to ploughs or wagons (the Sanskrit and English words are cognate, as is the English “junction”); and then, secondarily, designating the effort of “yoking” oneself to do physical labour. Here we have neither philosophical nor postural yoga. Let’s try again:

Claim 3: Yoga began sometime in the middle of the first millennium BC in the Sanskrit philosophical texts known as the Upanishads. Evidence: The word “yoga” occurs in just a few passages in the early Upanishads, designating a spiritual praxis of meditation conjoined with breath control, “yoking” the senses in order to control the spirit, and then “yoking” the mind, “yoking” the body to the spirit, and the soul to the mind of god, in order to obtain an immortal body “made by the fire of yoga”. This is the yoga that Mircea Eliade’s Yoga: Immortality and freedom (1958) illuminated for a generation of Americans. (Eliade’s personal experiments with yoga, and much else, are recorded in a roman à clef first published in Romanian in 1933 and, in 1988, made into a film, The Bengali Night, in which the Eliade role is played, believe it or not, by Hugh Grant.) Buddhist sources in this same period also speak of techniques of disciplining the mind and the body, and the word “yoga”, owing as much to Buddhism as to Hinduism, soon came to mean any mental and physical praxis of this sort. (Similar disciplines arose in ancient Greece and, later, in Christianity, a subject on which Pierre Hadot and Michel Foucault had a great deal to say.) This is the general sense in which the word “yoga” is used in the Bhagavad Gita, a few centuries later, to denote each of three different religious paths (the yoga of action, the yoga of meditation, and the yoga of devotion). But these texts say nothing about the physical “positions” or “poses” that distinguish contemporary yoga.

Claim 4: Yoga began in India in Patanjali’s Yoga-Sutra, probably in the third century AD. (Some would put it earlier, and it draws on earlier sources.) Many contemporary yoga practitioners cite this text as the basis of their praxis. But Patanjali says nothing about the “postures” other than remarking that the adept should sit in a manner that is relaxed and conducive to meditation and breath control. On the contrary, he speaks of cultivating “aversion to one’s own body”. But he describes magical powers (siddhis, literally “perfections”) that result from the mastery of the mind, which include flying, becoming invisible, walking on water, foreknowledge of death, knowledge of past and future, entering the minds of others, and understanding the languages of animals, claims that were later made by Hindu ascetics who called themselves “yogis” (or “yogins”).

A degree of confusion arises from the fact that Patanjali’s text is foundational for one of the six classical philosophies of ancient India, the meditational school known as Yoga. This philosophy is often called “Raja Yoga” (“royal yoga”) or the Eight-fold (ashtanga) Yoga, to distinguish it from common or jungle varieties of yoga in the sense of any spiritual discipline, as well as from the later “Hatha Yoga” (“the yoga of force”). The word “yoga/yoga/Yoga” thus became a triple homonym, referring sometimes to a physical praxis, sometimes to a mental praxis, and sometimes to a particular philosophical school.

The confusion is compounded by the existence of various ascetics often called “yogis” and connected to yoga in many different degrees. Scattered evidence for these traditions begins in the Rig Veda’s reference to naked ascetics who use (consciousness-altering) drugs and “mount the wind” (i.e. both fly and control their breath); they are associated with Rudra, the antecedent of the god Shiva who is closely associated with yogis, himself a great yogi and Lord of Yogis (Yogeshvara). Some later yogic traditions cultivated “the aversion to one’s own body” in more extreme ways. Texts from the early centuries of the Common Era deconstruct the body (particularly but not only the female body) into its disgusting components of shit, piss, pus, and so forth, while others tell of men and women who, going after a kind of god one could find only by breaking away into madness and horror, subject themselves to extremes of heat and cold, fasting, and other forms of physical mortification, going naked, sometimes eating out of human skulls, or eating carrion or faeces, generally demonstrating their indifference to both physical pain and social conventions, thumbing their nose at the body.

These disciplines often included difficult postures, such as standing on one leg for days at a time. By the seventh century AD, such postures became so notorious as to be subject to satire; the great frieze at Mamallipuram (Mahabalipuram) depicts a cat (a symbol of ascetic hypocrisy in Hinduism) standing on one leg in mimicry of a human ascetic in this posture. Many texts reflect the uneasiness and suspicion with which conventional householder Hindus regarded fringe groups of yogis, depicting them as lunatics or magicians with paranormal powers. Hindus were well aware that power corrupts, and divine power corrupts divinely. There was always a conflict between yogis as idealized superheroes and yogis as reviled super-villains. Yogis were often regarded as ritually polluting or downright dangerous, sinister in both senses of the word, as David White has documented (in Sinister Yogis, 2009).

Yogis also posed sexual threats, through an ancient Hindu belief in their erotic powers, along a spectrum from genuine ascetics, who were said to be able to use their unspent sexual powers to bless infertile women and thus make them fertile, to false ascetics, who were said to use their status as yogis as a mask through which to gain illicit access to women. In the medieval period, the bad sexual reputation of yogis was exacerbated by the overlap between yoga and Tantra, an antinomian and often sexual ritual praxis. One yogic text composed some time between the thirteenth and eighteenth centuries, the Hatha-yoga-pradipika (“Illumination of the Yoga of Force”), describes fifteen yogic postures. It also describes the Tantric technique of raising the coiled serpent power (the Kundalini) up the spine, through the series of chakras (centres of force), to the brain, and a related technique whereby the adept draws fluids (such as the secretions of his female partner in the Tantric sexual ritual) up through his penis (the vajroli process).

By this time, most educated Hindus had nothing but scorn for postural yoga, though there was still respect for yoga as a spiritual discipline. The followers of the great Vedantic philosopher Shankara (c.788–820 AD) rejected the physical discipline and engaged only the philosophy and the meditational praxis. The Hatha-yoga-pradipika became an embarrassment for Hindus, who invented an apocryphal story about Dayanand Sarasvati (1824–83), the founder of the Bengal reform movement called the Arya Samaj, who allegedly pulled a corpse from a river, dissected it to see if the chakras were there, didn’t find them, and threw his copy of the Hatha-yoga-pradipika into the water. Well-born Bengalis considered exercise in general lower-class (a Mandarin attitude that Noël Coward captured well in the line, “In Bengal, to move at all is seldom, if ever, done”).

When the British arrived in India in the eighteenth century, they came to share many of the Hindu anti-yogic biases, compounded by the European horror of the nakedness and self-torture of the extreme yogis. The yogi on a bed of nails became the stock European symbol of India’s moral and spiritual backwardness. In addition to the individual yogis, bands of yogis often posed military threats, using yoga to strengthen their bodies for martial purposes. Warrior ascetics are a very old Indian tradition, going back to the menacing troops of Vratyas mentioned in the Veda. Under the Raj, militant yogis engaged in exercise regimes to make them tough, in order to oppose the British; they were generally indistinguishable from violent militants whose training centres for resistance masqueraded as centres of yogic instruction. In this period, to be a yogi often meant to train as a guerrilla. The British rounded up many of the ascetic mercenaries and broke up their organizations; some yogis became beggars or itinerant carnival performers who displayed as circus tricks the more extreme postures, such as a handstand from the lotus position.

But at this point, something transformative happened, which is the basis of a new claim, not made by Hindus, about the origins of yoga:

Claim 5: Contemporary postural yoga was invented in India in the nineteenth century. This is Singleton’s most provocative assertion. He argues that a transnational, anglophone yoga arose at this time, compounded of the unlikely mix of British bodybuilding and physical culture, American transcendentalism and Christian Science, naturopathy, Swedish gymnastics, and the YMCA, grafted on to a rehabilitated form of postural yoga adapted specifically for a Western audience. The Swedish gymnastics came from Pehr Henrik Ling, the physical culture from a number of people including Eugen Sandow, Bernard MacFadden, Harry Crowe Buck and Charles Atlas. Most influential was the YMCA, in the hands of which physical culture was eventually elevated to a position of social and moral respectability.
Niccolo and Donkey

The British had always considered Indians weaklings, and Indians shamefacedly agreed; Indian children in Gandhi’s day used to chant a popular poem: “Behold the mighty Englishman / He rules the Indian small, / Because being a meat-eater / He is five cubits tall”. The playing fields of Eton had made the English frightfully brave, as Noël Coward pointed out, but so had a regimen of exercise that they now imported into India. Bodybuilding became a religion that resacralized the body, and the British proselytized for this muscular Christianity in India just as the missionaries did for their evangelical Christianity. In Indian schools, the gymnastics instructor was usually a brutal and ignorant retired non-commissioned British officer, most often a sepoy, an Indian who served in the British Army. In an ironic twist, Indian nationalists were able to use this colonial technique, designed to build soldiers to master the inferior races in the Empire, to train their own people to combat and resist the Europeans. Even when they took poses from Hatha Yoga, they renamed them and interpreted them in the language of modern gymnastics. In 1915, the scholar S. C. Vasu, who wanted to make yoga medical and scientific, prepared an English translation of the Hatha-yoga-pradipika for the Sacred Books of the Hindus, but omitted the passage about the vajroli technique.

The British then tried to suppress the Indian physical culture clubs in India because they wanted to do it their way and to control it, to inscribe English physical culture on the Indian body. YMCA leaders in India had made the postures part of the physical programme in service of Christian goals (leading some people to regard yoga as a variant of Christian Science), but the European poses were then reabsorbed into Hindu culture. The British passion for physical culture, spilling over into the Hindu world, rescued physical yoga from the opprobrium into which it had fallen and made it once again respectable. Hindu leaders such as Swami Kuvalayananda developed more rigorous posture work to refute the YMCA types who had insisted that the postures were not an adequate physical regimen. Now the new yoga took the European techniques and couched them in the discourse of the Bengal Hindu renaissance, which is to say the Vedantic language of the Upanishads. Many practitioners combined the more extreme postures, generally associated with the marginalized itinerant yogis, with the more central ancient meditative praxis, and regarded this yoga (now no longer limited to breath control but incorporating the postures) as a path to immortality.

The extreme postures then travelled back to England. Yogis in England, where contortionists had performed in London for hundreds of years, demonstrated exercises such as the Hatha Yoga technique of abdominal isolation (nauli), in which the muscles of the stomach are made to undulate in a separate column. K. Ramamurthy had a three-ton elephant and a motor car driven over his body; he also included in the Indian physical culture system a number of sports that he insisted originated in India, including hockey, cricket, tennis, billiards and boxing.

The emphasis on the physical postures of yoga may have been bolstered by the sensational publication, in 1883, of Sir Richard Burton’s English translation of the Kamasutra, a text that became notorious for its “positions”. The tendency to confuse the teachings of yoga and the Kamasutra may have led to the overemphasis on the “positions” in both, since yoga was always associated with sex in India and came to be eroticized in England, and the general English and Indian ignorance of the cultural content of the Kamasutra was matched by their ignorance of the philosophical content of (classical) yoga. Both yoga and the Kamasutra served the schizophrenic Victorian combination of public condemnation of sex and private obsession with it. Undeniably erotic photographs of naked women and naked men performing yogic postures were published in journals like Health and Science, anthropologizing and orientalizing sex, distancing it, making it safe for English readers by assuring them, or pretending to assure them, that the images were not about real bodies, their bodies, but merely about the bodies of strange, dark people far away. (The same logic allowed National Geographic to depict the bare breasts of black African women long before it became respectable to show white women’s breasts in Playboy.)

The advent of mass photography at the end of the nineteenth century greatly enhanced the erotic appeal of yoga. In 1902, Thomas Edison made a documentary about a “Hindu Fakir” that was circulated along with other early forms of the peepshow. (The erotic view of yoga continues. In March 2003, a hilarious spoof, entitled “Yoga: A religion for sex addicts”, imagined a Christian pastor defining the ultimate goal of yoga practitioners as contorting their bodies into demonic positions so as to be able to place their sexual organs in their mouths.) The pendulum of mutual influence continued to swing, as Hindus reacted against these new European versions of yoga and brought yet another form of yoga to America. In 1896, repulsed by the physical contortions and twisted bodies of the yogic postures, Swami Vivekananda said that he rejected Hatha Yoga because it was very difficult, could not be quickly learned, and did not lead to much spiritual growth, and because the goal of making men live long and in perfect health was not as important as the spiritual goal represented by Raja Yoga, which Vivekananda claimed to be reviving. Yet he believed that physical culture, of the European variety, was essential for Indian youth, and he is said to have held the view that one can get closer to god through football than through the Bhagavad Gita.

But the Vedantic yoga of Vivekananda was not the antecedent of the yoga practised in America today. That came from many sources, but particularly from the invention, by T. Krishnamacharya, between 1930 and 1950, of a novel sequence of movements, partially derived from a royal gymnastics tradition in Mysore; and from B. K. S. Iyengar’s Light on Yoga, published in 1966. Other techniques that we now recognize as yoga were, by the 1930s, already a well-established part of Western physical culture, particularly that intended for women, but were not yet associated in any way with yoga. At the same time, some women promoted “spiritual stretching and deep breathing” which they called “yoga for women”. For now yoga became gendered: postural yoga developed out of a male, muscular, Christian, nationalist and martial context (still practised by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and other Hindu nationalist organizations); while “harmonial” yoga, of the “stretch and relax” variety, was a synthesis of women’s gymnastics and para-Christian mysticism. To this day, women greatly outnumber men as yoga practitioners.

After Vivekananda had expelled Hatha Yoga, the modern Hindu yogis brought it back by rewriting the Hatha Yoga tradition, leaving out the positions that they found repellent or simply impossible, and fleshing out the tradition with diet, relaxation, cleanliness and breathing, all attested in some of the many other forms of ancient Indian yoga. They replaced the unpalatable ancient Indian material with more attractive ancient material, as well as much new material, and claimed that that was what yogis had always used. Ultimately new combinations of Western and Eastern physical culture methods were naturalized as ancient Hindu knowledge.

Yoga came into its own as a national pastime during the 1950s and 60s. But it had attracted celebrities in Europe and America, from Henry Thoreau, the first American yogi, to Aleister Crowley, who published, in 1939, eight lectures about yoga under the megalomaniac pseudonym “Mahatma Guru Sri Paramahansa Shivaji”, using a bit of Patanjali but mostly pseudo-Tantric materials that further damaged yoga’s reputation. In 1921, Fritz Lang made a film about crazy yogis. “Yogi” (Lawrence Peter) Berra picked up his famous nickname from a friend who said that whenever Berra sat around with his arms and legs crossed, waiting to bat, or looking sad after a losing game of baseball, he resembled a Hindu holy man they had seen in a movie. Contemporary yoga practices are a far cry both from the Upanishads and from Hatha Yoga. Most of the new American yogis want to relax after a hard day at the office, tighten up their abs, and reduce their cholesterol and their blood pressure; their yoga of relaxation and stretching may also involve regular enemas, a cure for back pain, a beauty regime, a vegetarian diet with a lot of yogurt (which is not etymologically related to “yoga”) – and a route to God. Siddha Yoga has become “City Yoga”. Never the twain shall meet.

But they can, in fact, meet. For some people, yoga is a religious meditation, for some an exercise routine, and for some, both. A few years ago I met Gwyneth Paltrow, a yoga practitioner who delighted me by reciting a long passage from Patanjali in flawless and melodious Sanskrit. The union of physical and spiritual praxis was possible for ancient Indians and remains a real goal for many contemporary yogis. This sort of combination is affirmed by an old joke about a Jesuit priest who, when his bishop forbade priests to smoke while meditating, dutifully agreed but argued that surely there would be no objection if he occasionally meditated while he was smoking. That one can, however, choose merely to smoke or merely to meditate is denied both by Christians of the Reverend R. Albert Mohler ilk and by Hindus of the Hindu American Foundation ilk, both of whom insist that yoga is only and always a religious system.

Such Hindu Americans, concerned about their image, fear (not without cause) that their religion has been stereotyped in the West as a polytheistic faith of “castes, cows and curry”. They counteract these charges by swinging to the other extreme and arguing that everything in India is, and always has been, spiritual, a blinkered view that makes some people mispronounce Kama Sutra as “Karma-Sutra”. They want to cash in on the popularity of yoga in order to use it as the symbol of a more spiritual “Indian wisdom”. They argue that yoga – more than temple rituals, the worship of images of the gods, or other, more passionate, communal, and widespread forms of Hinduism – is the essence of Hinduism, that yoga has always been entirely spiritual and entirely Hindu.

But this claim ignores the complex history of yoga. There is an ancient Indian yoga, but it is not the source of most of what people do in yoga classes today. That same history, however, also demonstrates that there are more historical bases for contemporary postural yoga within classical Hinduism than Singleton allows. The Europeans did not invent it wholesale. But they changed it enormously. They changed it from an embarrassment to an occasion for cultural pride, and from a tradition that encouraged the cultivation of “aversion to one’s own body” to another, also rooted in ancient India, that aimed at the perfection of the body. The modern Indian and American yogis didn’t take their methods from European physical culture; they took them back from physical culture. What Mark Singleton does prove, with massive, irrefutable, fascinating and often hilarious evidence, is that yoga is a rich, multi-cultural, constantly changing interdisciplinary construction, far from the pure line that its adherents often claim for it.

Mark Singleton
The origins of modern posture practice
262pp. Oxford University Press.
£60 (paperback, £11.99).
978 0 19 539535 8

Wendy Doniger teaches at the University of Chicago. Her books include Siva: The erotic ascetic, 1973, The Bedtrick: Tales of sex and masquerade, 2000, The Woman Who Pretended To Be Who She Was, 2005, and, most recently, The Hindus: An alternative history, 2009.