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…
…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….