Cover photo: Yoga in Modern India
Joseph S. Alter
The Body between Science and Philosophy
BY MAGAZINE EDITOR SUSAN MAIER-MOUL
Yoga in all of its manifestations is directly linked to Indian modernity.
It was in India that Yoga was modernized, medicalized, and transformed into a system of physical culture.
Significantly this happened in tandem with, and is closely linked to, the modern development of Yoga philosophy as a so-called science of higher consciousness distinct from embodied forms of experience and practice.
It is extremely difficult – and wrongheaded – to make a clear and unambiguous distinction between so-called physical and so-called contemplative Yoga, and yet the history of Yoga is characterized by the seductively modern and simplistic allure of this problematic distinction.
Joseph S. Alter has written a resolutely complex book on an intractably complex subject: the exposition of yoga as science and philosophy. Yoga in Modern India “is concerned with the way yoga can be these two things at once in modern India, and with the historical transmutation of philosophy into physical education, public health, and institutionalized medical practice.”
As a principled anthropologist asking questions of history, Alter is able to limn the practices of yoga without the aggression of oversimplification. He does not need things to make sense, rather, he endeavors to see the sense being made of things. Alter’s methods of inquiry seek to preserve the natural intricacy and instabilities of the recent “nonhistorical” past, a time of “things just past that have not had a chance to settle into history,” as substantive:
It is during this period when orthodoxy tends to take shape, as orthodoxy is dependent on the strategic – if not necessarily conscious or collusive – editing of events to produce coherence, logic, and a sense of systemic progress.
Holistic: the big picture or appetizing blend?
Scholarly writers by necessity describe what they are about to discuss in more rigorous terms than do mainstream writers; their books begin with careful disclaimers and clear boundaries. Alter is among my recent favorites: he begins by describing an entirely different book, not only as a foil for what he is about to unfold of his own thoughts, but as a substitution text for anyone who finds his work annoying.
Those who dislike the fundamental skepticism in Yoga in Modern India will find the holistic model of religious therapeutics much more appealing. It ambiguously reflects many of the patterns of Yoga’s textual – and “spiritual” – popularization and medicalization as both have developed over the past seventy-five years.
Using Gregory P. Fields’s book, Religious Therapeutics: Body and Health in Yoga, Āyurveda, and Tantra, as a topography of popular misconception, Alter describes both the blithe intellectual comforts and the problematic disjunctures of present day spirituality and alternative therapies.
His book tends to uncritically blur the line between New Age perspectives on holistic health on the one hand and what classical texts have to say about biology and the nature of the body on the other.
As a consequence, the meaning of “health” is usefully expanded – at least for those of us living in the holistic New Age – but also expanded to such an extent into the domain of religion and spirituality that one tends to lose sight of the profoundly materialist and empirically grounded structure of the body -
It is wrong to use religion as a frame of reference to understand the way in which Yoga defines the body and nature, particularly since so much that is important about Yoga is not only not religious, but dead set against many of the features of orthodox – and even unorthodox – religiosity.
India’s modernity, science and yoga
Alter cautions us on the anachronism inherent in translating specific Sanskrit words as “science” and then assigning these words a contemporary sense of testable and repeatable results. He terms the confederacy of science and yoga “The Merging of Myths.”
He is at pains to elucidate the erring tendency “to regard science as a transcultural, atemporal, purely objective system of knowledge.”
Far from neutral, “Science as a mode of knowledge and a means of producing knowledge is probably one of the most powerful hegemonic forces of this and the previous two centuries, intimately linked to politics and political power -”
Alter asks us to pause and consider the incommensurability of these systems of meaning.
What does it mean – in terms of embodied experience based on precisely defined procedures – to be able to fly, to be clairvoyant and invisible, and to conquer death and destroy sickness? And how – beyond simple analogy – does this meaning relate to more modest claims, such as being healthy and physically fit?
This presents a further problem as to what counts as Yoga, and whether or not all headstands can or should be counted as the same thing in fact.
In other words, the well-recognized problem that Yoga has multiple meanings is magnified considerably when dealing with different elements of practice – where do you draw the line between deep breathing, pranayama, and certain kinds of rhythmic prayer?
Neither metaphors nor subtle
It is our lived bodies that Alter tracks in Yoga in Modern India, what he refers to as “the gross materiality of the body,” locating us wherever our humanity is obscured by the conflations and constant appropriation of both metaphysics and science.
Commenting on Orientalist apologists of yoga, Alter reviews the positions of John Woodroffe’s The Serpent Power, and Mircea Eliade’s Yoga: Immortality and Freedom, plumbing the elision of the body in texts manifestly concerned with embodied practices.
Even though yogic literature is concerned with the body, it is clear that Orientalist scholars were almost exclusively concerned with philosophy, mysticism, magic, religion, and metaphysics.
There is a great deal of rich detail about the body and yogic physiology in Eliade’s book, but fundamentally it is about the mind, the limits of consciousness, and the freedom of transcendence.
Similarly Woodroffe’s book is full of detail concerning the physiology of Yoga, but in his analysis what is important is not the body as such but its mystical, esoteric, and inherently symbolic value as a good medium through which to think, and – with apologies to Lévi-Strauss – to get beyond thinking.
Metaphysics and a preoccupation with the occult prevented almost all Orientalist scholars from trying to understand the value of the body in terms of what might be called elemental yogic materialism.
Yoga pulp nonfiction
Alter describes the abundance of yoga literature as “Yogic pulp nonfiction,” noting, “Many authors write as though they are the only person writing on the subject with any authority, and that what they are saying is new. Yet if there is one single thing,” characterizing the “massive popular corpus” that extends from Yogi Ramachakra and Swami Sivananda to Deepak Chopra, “it is repetition and redundancy in the guise of novelty and independent invention.”
Rich with detail of scientific studies, Yoga in Modern India addresses everything from measuring the responses of rats maintaining headstand in test tubes to adducing the results of the practice of drinking one’s own urine.
Through it all, Alter examines modernity and transnationalism, arguing for example, against the further reduction of “the local … simply as a passive proxy for that which is not global,” while busily guiding readers through the laboratories and clinics of yoga researchers in India.
Yoga is an inclusive philosophy of Life
In a striking concluding chapter, Alter suggests, “Yoga reflects a fetishistic desire for the experience of something beyond human experience.” And he doesn’t mean that in a bad way.
“My argument is that doubt about the meaningfulness of Yoga as the embodiment of Universal Truth can be extended… into analytical skepticism about the claim… that cultural reality itself is the defining basis of human experience.”
Yoga is, in fact, an inclusive philosophy of Life – with a capital “L” – that extends beyond the range of what counts as human.
There is no agency in Yoga other than that of ātman. There is no theology. No ritual. Gods are disembodied and therefore powerless. The possibility of transcendence is dependent on Life itself, as Life is experienced through the body by a person who practices Yoga.
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© 2011, The Magazine of Yoga, LLC.