Mark Singleton’s “Yoga Body” /// No This Isn’t a Review /// Just Some Thoughts

dangerous-minds

Last week a certain Babarazzi started getting randy in the comments with regards to Mark Singleton‘s book on the supposed origins of modern asana practice, Yoga Body, taking it a bit to task, to which our illustrious reader, the moment already came, had this to say:

“Why are you hiding the good shit under a bushel in the comments section, Baba?”

Thanks, the moment. We couldn’t agree more. So, in an effort to let the good shit rise to the top we are posting the short but poignant comment thread below. First, The Babarazzi started by saying this:

“Singleton’s book Yoga Body, and the high status it is awarded by contemporary yoga practitioners, is troublesome, as he attempts to locate the emergence of bodily (Ed. yogic) expression and practice in a specific time and place, missing (or, rather, omitting) history that precedes his own investigations in an effort to tighten up what is more or less a published dissertation, which by its nature must prove, rather than simply unpack, some *thing*.

In regards to that book, people should be looking at the cross-conversation between Ancient Greeks, Egyptians and the Indus Valley. Not, fucking, 19th-century gymnastics. ‘Gymnastics’ has a twisted origin as well in the airborne psyche of meandering cultures.

And, when you start unpacking the gymnastics thread, you start to see how Yoga Body becomes a veiled assertion (not necessarily by the author, but by the reading public) of white dominance, attributing (in absentia) the birth of physical yoga practice to “white” people (read: Greeks), since the history of the Western world is traced back through the Greeks (who are psychologically identified as white) and the Egyptians (who are psychologically identified as sorta kinda not really white, but definitely NOT black).”

Then a few readers agreed, followed by Frank Jude Boccio who disagreed:

“Sorry, I think perhaps you and Linda-Sama are over-reading into Singleton. My reading is simply that the approach to yoga as practiced by the contemporary mainstream has more to do with the innovations and syncretism of late 19th and early 20th century “physical hygiene” movements, Indian nationalism and indigenous practices. It’s a pretty narrow thesis he’s arguing. He’s not arguing that all “bodily expression and practice” arose in that specific time period and place. C’mon!”

To which The Babarazzi wrote this:

“Singleton’s book basically proposes that skinny jeans come from, or “have more to do with,” “the mall” ’cause that’s where they are most often found. Not China. Not Bangladesh. The mall.

It’s a silly, and, as you say, “narrow,” thesis. A great read, don’t get me wrong. But, pretty surface and rather pop.

That said, I am a 100% card carrying member of the “All is Syncretism Club.” I don’t believe yoga asana comes only from little skinny India fellows, either.”

And, then none other than jimmallinson (whom we love) wrote this:

“I have to agree with Frank Jude Boccio here. I think you are reading way too much into Mark’s book. Where does he say that “bodily expression and practice” emerged “in a specific time and place”? Isn’t he just talking about certain practices, not the whole shebang? I use texts and fieldwork work to study what I call “traditional” (for want of a better word) yoga—which thanks to TV and the internet I think is slowly becoming indistinguishable from modern yoga—and until I read Mark’s book I had no idea of the origins of much of what I saw in “yoga studios” (sorry, I still haven’t been to enough of them to do away with the scare quotes).

I’m with you on syncretism. Once you start saying things are syncretistic, you have to accept that everything is. Premodern yoga in India certainly was, but some elements of modern yoga really aren’t to be found in any texts or reports of yoga practice prior to the 19th century and until someone comes up with a better explanation I’m with Mark on where they came from.

Re “… the cross-conversation between Ancient Greeks, Egyptians and the Indus Valley.” Sounds interesting. Any details? Then again, they might be tricky to find for one side of the triangle. The I-V civilisation fizzled out a good thousand years before Ancient Greece got going. What interests me in particular is the interaction between Greece and India in the late centuries BCE. India had a tradition of physical asceticism when Alexander got there; Greece’s askesis (now there’s a rhyme) developed a little later. Cultural diffusion?”

So, what’s our view of Yoga Body? Basically, it’s a decent, well-written, and fun read. But, aside from avoiding any real discussion on the origin of gymnastics itself; or the 17th century text known as the “Hatharatnavali,” which details dozens of asanas; or the idea that one of Krishnamacharya’s (and, later, Pattabhi Jois’) main, potentially Western influenced, innovations was to sequence already established Indian asanas rather than simply make spiritual a Western system of exercise; or the cultural exchange between India and other (non-European) countries, (for example China and India’s two-thousand-year-old dialogue); or any real interest in comparing this…

images

…to this….

Yang-single_(restoration)

…basically, it’s a book that helps Western yoga teachers with no ability to engage in a meaningful lineage beyond their own navel feel good about being average.

Know wha’mean? At least BK gets it….

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17 comments

  1. Maha Garuda

    If Yogananda is the Beatles of modern Yoga, then the Beatles must be the saraswati of the late twentieth century. And then I would maintain that Paul McCartney is the Beatles of the Beatles while John Lennon is either the Elvis of the Beatles or the Rolling Stones of the Post Buddy Holly era. Now that I have that all sorted out, why all this hubbub Bub?…For thousands of years we Yogis have been searching for truth while our toast burned. I find the most interesting things hidden in my own naval…just not truth.

  2. crusty critter

    Then there’s the story of Krishnamacharya’s Tibetan teacher and the Tibetan contortionists

  3. I think one of the biggest problems with Singleton’s book is that he doesn’t even do that great a job of arguing for his narrow thesis. He relies very heavily on a few previous scholars and a handful of primary texts. Having hunted down and read pretty much all of them, I can attest that their research is pretty flimsy also.

    Thing is, though, there are references to yogis in headstand in the Mahabharata, and in vrkshasana in the Ramayana (granted, these postures are performed as austerities, not for physical fitness, but that’s only an objection if you assume an overly simplistic account of why people perform yoga poses today). There are illustrations and descriptions of many and diverse yogasana even further back than the Hatharatnavali. There are traceable cross-pollinations between spiritual movements that relied heavily on bodily practices in India, China, Greece, Persia, and beyond.

    Personally, I wouldn’t even care if “modern postural yoga” were a 20th century invention. As far as I’m concerned, it’s just a modality, which makes it no more nor less authentic than, say, sitting in a smashan drinking blood from a skull, or huddling around a fire sacrificing ghee. What determines whether or not any of these things are “yogic” is the depth behind them, not the surface appearance. But the truth is, the narrative of “modern postural yoga” promoted by Singleton, Alter, Sjoman, De Michelis et al. isn’t an accurate description of the role of the body and physicality in the history of the various yoga traditions, or of the genesis how “postural” yoga is practiced today.

    • dfrenk:D Love it. Couldn’t agree more. Especially this:

      “Personally, I wouldn’t even care if “modern postural yoga” were a 20th century invention. As far as I’m concerned, it’s just a modality, which makes it no more nor less authentic than, say, sitting in a smashan drinking blood from a skull, or huddling around a fire sacrificing ghee. What determines whether or not any of these things are “yogic” is the depth behind them, not the surface appearance. But the truth is, the narrative of “modern postural yoga” promoted by Singleton, Alter, Sjoman, De Michelis et al. isn’t an accurate description of the role of the body and physicality in the history of the various yoga traditions, or of the genesis how “postural” yoga is practiced today.”

  4. annikalei

    when i read “yoga body,” it struck me as almost a colonialist take on the roots modern yoga asana practice. as i recall, there was one SMALL mention of indian martial arts, a.k.a. kalaripayyattu, which, to my eyes, seems to be at the root of lots of the asana we do. most of this info comes to me from those who have taught me a little bit of kalari, but from what i understand, kerala, which is the region kalari originates from, was the only region not colonialized by force, because this was an extremely effective fighting system. when you watch someone doing a kalari form, it looks a hell of a lot like an ashtanga practice. then, when i started studying kung fu, i saw even more similarities between what we do in yoga asana and martial arts. and of course, my kalari teacher tried to tell me that kung fu comes from kalari, while my sifu tried to tell me that kalari comes from kung fu. which is the greater point i’m meandering around to: teachers of specific physical modalities always try to “own” them and represent them as the most authentic, having the longest lineage, etc. go to a martial arts blog, and you’ll see dozens and dozens of pedantic arguments over whose sifu is a fraud, which style is actually good for fighting, which is merely performance or dance-based, ad nauseum. singleton’s book basically did the same thing, just from a white european perspective. i always wonder why it’s so important to represent as the most authentic, but clearly, it’s important to people. not so much to me. if you have a teacher you respect, trust, and feel like you can learn something from, then learn from them as much as you can, i say.

    posts like this are why i have a deep and abiding love for your blog, babs. keep it up!

  5. I haven’t read Singleton’s book so I can’t critique fairly but I can say that India, China, Greece, Egypt and the near East were definitely hanging out with each other and influencing each other much more than many colonial and post-colonial history books let on.
    Even the division of “East” vs. “West” is pretty arbitrary. It started with Herodotus because he happened to be in Asia Minor/Turkey. From that vantage point, Greece and all else becomes the “West” and the near East and all else becomes the “East”. The division could have been anywhere in light of that.
    Syncretism also went in both directions. Not long after the Buddhist Emperor Ashoka sent emissaries all over the known world at the time, do you see the emergence of Neo-Platonism in Greece, for instance.
    All that aside, Western academia has a nasty and condescending habit of still holding on to the old paradigms, where knowledge and know-how somehow always goes from West to East and hardly ever talks about the other way around or minimizes it completely.

  6. The main problem with Singleton’s book is that most people who reference it have not read it, but act as if they had.

    In other news, Bab favorite Elena Brower is a “traditional” yoga teacher. I just threw up a bit.

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/12/16/how-the-yoga-industry-los_n_4441767.html

  7. “…it’s a book that helps Western yoga teachers with no ability to engage in a meaningful lineage beyond their own navel feel good about being average.”

    Maybe. By far the stronger impact I’ve seen in my neighbourhoods is that readers have felt relieved of the heavy metanarrative of yoga’s historical cohesiveness, which can be as much an instrument of commodification (used by Westerners and Hindutva alike) as any “innovation” is, and have gained an appreciation for the strangeness of syncretism throughout the history of the interchanges you describe, including the syncretistic talents they themselves bring to the table. Folks relax more into practice when they can contemplate the fact that most lineages contain more improvisation and uncertainty and competing objectives than they let on.

    I think the thesis is narrow as per academic requirement: this is a problem only insofar as it’s a rare scholarly-pop crossover.

    Great discussion, Babs.

    • Love this: “Folks relax more into practice when they can contemplate the fact that most lineages contain more improvisation and uncertainty and competing objectives than they let on.”

      And, this is a great point: “I think the thesis is narrow as per academic requirement: this is a problem only insofar as it’s a rare scholarly-pop crossover.”

  8. cris

    my lineage has been handed down through one of the major ashrams in existence. modern yoga is an inauthentic practice, which was created to sell and manipulate consumers. if it is so authentic, how many of you engaged in these ridiculous over bearing asana classes have anything that resembles a meditation practice. this book is right on, and the practice of manipulating spiritual practices and religious by colonials has been a hallmark of recorded history, incuding Christmas…..columbus…..the easter bunny….and the conversion of native peoples to another relgion using thier local spiritual systems integrated with colonial religous dogma to control the masses. for those of you going to yoga tonight remember it’s nothing more than jazzercise created at best in the 15 th century, and that’s being generous.

  9. yogadas

    Despite yoga’s relatively long-term societal trendiness, whole-hearted, three-Limbed hatha yoga practice (Yamas, Niyamas, Asana) is still a work in progress, so even though the yoga world is already in its decadent phase, there is still hope that hatha yoga’s accessibility and inclusiveness can create worldwide change. I believe that Pranayama is the first real Limb. It’s a new idea, but according to this new ideology, Contemporary Pranayama is hatha yoga. As scholars have also suspected, hatha yogis added the Yamas, Niyamas, Asana idea to the Sutras no more than a thousand years ago. The Yamas, Niyamas, and Asanas can be practiced well enough to create yogic energy experiencing. Hatha yoga is the yoga of energy. Everyone believes in energy so it’s inclusive and accessible. Hatha yoga is Pranayama. The other Limbs already manifested as the other four yogic forms. Pratyahara was karma yoga. Darana was jnana yoga. Dyana was bhakti yoga, and Samadhi was raja yoga. Yoga itself evolved down to hatha yoga, but that evolution progressed in respect to inclusiveness and accessibility (Love). Cris is believing in karma yoga and its old meditative (Buddha-Krishna-Jesus type) ways. Karma yoga was not inclusive and accessible enough. That’s why the last real karma yogis became the first hatha yogis once some tantrics discovered the chakras. Then things kept evolving. Cris’ negatively stated call for authenticity is understandable, but Yoga was ultimately authentic in the beginning. We can’t trace things back to that purity and we shouldn’t try. The world is in trouble. We need hatha yoga to succeed. It’s the only yogic form inclusive and accessible enough to attract enough people to evoke real change.

  10. Anastasia

    This is nice. I read Singleton’s book only a month or two ago and wanted to write out my many thoughts, but it got so involved I wasn’t sure it was worth the time.

    I, too, was troubled by the colonialist takeover of yoga, and was a little surprised to see that the book got great reviews in academic literature. It’s not that the thesis is narrow that troubles me. It’s that Singleton intentionally leaves out information that doesn’t back it. To me, that is historically dishonest. It’s also unnecessary.

    For example, many asana go back at least a few hundred years. If I were to write out my thoughts, I’d need to go back and see which. Maybe someday I will, but is it worth the time? I dunno. I’m sure I’ve seen replications of paintings of dwi pada sirsasana at least a few hundred years old.

    As much research as Singleton has done, and as a seasoned practitioner, he knows this. But he left it out. It would have been more complicated, but more honest and interesting, had he not. As has been said above, modern posture practice came out of a dialogue between India and the west. It was not a total appropriation of Western physical culture.

    I read more than ten reviews of YB, and only came across a very few complaints. Doniger, a Hindu Scholar at U Chicago, said: “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” (YOGA BODY by Mark Singleton reviewed by Wendy Doniger – TLS March 2, 2011).

    Indeed. Like others mentioned, I also wondered about East Asian contortionism. I know Mongolians are somehow renowned, but was not able to find any good history without work.

    And yeah, western academia is insanely condescending toward both physical and spiritual practices. To the point that there is not much accuracy at all. The lack of criticism on this book is telling. It’s all effusively positive, which is odd, as academics generally despise anything that crosses into the popular domain.

    Anyway, yes, thanks for this. I agreed with the moment in those comments and am glad to see this.

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