Photo: Cover Image, Yoga Body, ©Sigrid Olsson, 2010.
Yoga Without Fundamentalism
Praise for “genuine and sustained thinking about the substance of modern yoga.”
BY MAGAZINE EDITOR SUSAN MAIER-MOUL
I wholeheartedly recommend people who practice yoga read Mark Singleton’s book, “Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice.”
Singleton’s thesis is the best effort yet to free yoga from fundamentalism.
Singleton states the premise of his book clearly on the first page of his introduction. “The primacy of asana performance in transnational yoga today is a new phenomenon that has no parallel in premodern times.”
Oxford Press decided to sell this handsome paperback in the mainstream to the growing non-academic audience for yoga studies. However, we’d all be mistaken to read it as a popular history or a cultural analysis. It’s neither.
This is a scholar’s work designed to lay the line and draw the boundaries in a way that gives its writer and his ideas critical authority. Singleton wants the boss’s job, and I want him to have it, too.
Who gets to have a say
Singleton’s first order of business is to distinguish the ideas which form his PhD thesis from those of his Cambridge thesis professor, Elizabeth de Michelis whose own very fine work “A History of Modern Yoga” came to press in 2004.
He does this not out of competitiveness, but because he sees how de Michelis’s argument leaves the validity of contemporary yoga practice vulnerable to power-sapping irrelevance in unnecessary and inaccurate ways.
This is not to say that I take popular yoga today to be necessarily divorced and isolated from other, prior traditions of yoga.
There are often, in short, far more plausible historical explanations for the way yoga is practiced today than the claim of direct, wholesale, genealogical affiliation to a tradition with the same or similar sounding name.
Singleton’s thesis and the materials that support his concept of transnational yoga reassert the contributions and the legitimacy of a constantly evolving global practice, yoga that lives in contemporary bodies and speaks to real life today.
A flawed compromise
In her work, De Michelis described current practice as “Modern Yoga” to set it apart from “Classical Yoga,” dating Modern Yoga from 1896 “when the Indian reaction to Western missionary efforts took shape in the counter-missionary project of a young and influential Swami Vivekananda.”
The expression “Modern Yoga” is used as a technical term to refer to certain types of yoga that evolved mainly through the interaction of Western individuals interested in Indian religions and a number of more or less Westernized Indians over the past 150 years.
Vivekananda carried out a major revisitation of yoga history, structures, beliefs and practices and then proceeded to operate a translation (often semantic as well as linguistic) of this “reformed” yoga into something quite different from classical Hindu approaches.”
Singleton argues against synthesizing a controversial continuity and refutes the need to base relevance within an emphasis on Indian affairs.
Geoffrey Samuel has recently insisted that “modern yoga has become a significant part of contemporary western practices of bodily cultivation, and it should be judged in its own terms, not in terms of its closeness to some presumably more authentic Indian practice” (Samuel 2007:178)
I largely agree with Samuel here: an approach aiming solely to identify the dislocations from “tradition” inherent in today’s global yoga forms is sterile and limited insofar as it fails to give serious consideration to the substance of these modern forms.”
A stronger working definition
Questioning how a topic is defined changes who gets to say what counts. Singleton takes on de Michelis this way:
Can we really refer to an entity called Modern Yoga and assume that we are talking about a discrete and identifiable category of beliefs and practices? Does Modern Yoga, as some seem to assume, differ in ontological status (and hence intrinsic value) from “traditional yoga”? Does it represent a rupture in terms of tradition rather than a continuity?
Singleton instead argues for his term “transnational yoga” and its definition as avoiding the pitfalls of de Michelis while legitimating a more relevant and viable evolution of practice outside India.
Recent studies have made it amply clear that yoga, in its dissemination in the Western world, has undergone radical transformation in response to the differing world views, logical predispositions, and aspirations of modern audiences. These modern forms, it is also evident, were the result of a reframing of practices and belief frameworks within india itself over the last 150 years, in response to encounters with modernity and the West.
The true power of practice
The practice of yoga doesn’t require an uninterrupted lineage to be effective.
Singleton’s thesis gets the practicing community around the thorns, corners and discourses that arrange for the power and legitimacy of yoga to be siphoned away from the person practicing and placed in the hands of the person who says what or how to practice.
Transnational yoga holds deep reverence for the teacher, but maintains the power of the practice is in the body of the practitioner.
Singleton’s hope is that his work will “encourage further careful, intelligent discussion of modern forms of postural yogas and not merely their dismissal or jingoistic defense.”
I hope so, too. I recommend Mark Singleton’s Yoga Body with enormous gratitude and equal enthusiasm.
See also Conversation: Mark Singleton
Recent reviews: Alva Noe Out of Our Heads
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© 2011, The Magazine of Yoga, LLC.