Scholar’s Corner: YOGA BODY

singleton

Today’s book is Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice by Mark Singleton (Oxford University Press, 2010). This is one of the first scholarly works on yoga in its modern “postural” form, as distinct from studies of Hindu religions and yoga more broadly conceived. In coining the phrase “modern postural yoga,” Singleton points to the current focus on asanas that dominates discussions of yoga in the United States. He traces the development of this focus to the early twentieth century and shows how the what is now called “yoga” may owe as much to modern European physical culture as it does to ancient Indian religious practice.

Singleton begins by reminding us that

Since the 1990s, yoga has become a multimillion dollar business, and high-profile legal battles have been fought over who owns asana. Styles, sequences, and postures themselves have been franchised, copyrighted, and patented by individuals, companies, and government, and yoga postures are used to sell a wide range of products. (3)

In tracing the development of postural yoga as a modern phenomenon, both indebted to and distinct from a variety of pre-modern forms from India and elsewhere, Singleton reveals yoga as neither a static tradition nor a purely modern invention. Rather, modern postural yoga is depicted as a socially and historically defined area of practice, the borders of which are continually under contestation.

Apart from its specific focus on yoga, the great value of Singleton’s project is that it shows the inadequacy of categories like “religion” or “nationalism” or “fitness” or “art” when it comes to classifying embodied practices. Yoga has been all of these things at different times and in different places. To argue over which is the real or authentic yoga is beside the point. It is far more interesting to see how various techniques have been adapted to function in particular contexts.

Thus, although some of the most basic seated asanas can be found in manuscripts stretching back over thousands of years, many newer ones were developed in the 1920s and 1930s through the interaction of yoga and Western physical culture. According to Singleton, these new asanas (catalogued most comprehensively in B. K. S. Iyengar’s Light on Yoga) drew technically on both “classical” yoga and European gymnastics. It is possible, in other words, to chart the transformations of yoga in the twentieth century across a variety of dimensions: dietary and hygienic practices that have disappeared in much contemporary yoga practice; techniques of pedagogy that differ from one school or teacher to another; sets and sequences of poses; approaches to breath and timing; and of course, the language and objects and images that frame all these practices.

Singleton’s work is important not just because modern postural yoga has now been deeply integrated into dance and theatre training in the United States, but also because it offers a model of how to study an area of embodied practice in depth without reducing it to a single axis of more and less authentic — whether authenticity is defined in religious or scientific terms. I would love to see the same level of scholarly rigor applied to myriad “styles” or “forms” or “methods” of dance, acting, and martial arts, the practitioners of which too often construct a single narrative of achievement in which the form is essentialized and its creator idealized. I would also love to see more attention paid to the borders between all of these forms, which are far more porous and interconnected than is usually acknowledged.

Ben Spatz
Artistic Director
Urban Research Theater
MR-AIR 2010-2012

COMMENTS (3)

  • A nice cogent distillation of the work, and I would agree with your conclusions – we need to celebrate cross-pollination, rather than holding jealously to our idols. I would just quibble with your line that there is textual basis for asana stretching back millenia; in fact there’s very, very little back that far. We can assume from certain images that there were several meditation postures, but a blanket statement like this is misleading. The creativity with asana began in the medieval times, if you follow the evidence. However, this is just a quibble.

  • As a work of fiction, it is outstanding, but in terms of facts, Cherry Picking a way through reams of material Singleton paves the way for millions of Modern Yoga practitioners to prepare a decree nisi ahead of a formal divorce from thousands of years of uncompromising religio-philosophical endeavour.

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