Om My Guru
Two authors trace the roots of yoga in the West
It “turned husbands into adulterers, it turned scholars into swindlers, it turned women into lunatics or shut-ins,” writes author Stefanie Syman. It sounds dangerous. It sounds exciting. It certainly doesn’t sound like something you can do at home on your Wii.
That thing is yoga, and Syman’s new book, The Subtle Body: The Story of Yoga in America, traces its path from esoteric to exercise.
“The story goes that the kind of yoga we know today is 1,000, 4,000, even 5,000 years old, and that’s kind of the myth that’s really carried yoga into being.”
Mark Singleton, author of Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice
Every morning, millions of Americans start their day with a sun salutation. Every year we spend billions of dollars on mats, workout clothes, books and videos. But for those unacquainted with asanas (poses), yoga is something done by hippies, New Agers or bored housewives. Syman and Santa Fe’s Mark Singleton, author of Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice (released in February), explore how yoga went from ashrams to the suburbs by way of everyone from 19th-century scholars to rock stars such as The Beatles, Madonna and Sting. Both authors speak this week in Albuquerque and Santa Fe to discuss the cultural history of American yoga.
The story of yoga is the story of British colonialism as well as of the United States in the 20th century. As yoga spread from India to London; from New England to Hollywood, it adapted to the culture around it. That culture, in turn, influenced yoga.
When the Alibi sat down with Singleton in Santa Fe, he expounded on how the common story of yoga, taught in teacher training courses and passed on to students, differs from reality. “The story goes that the kind of yoga we know today is 1,000, 4,000, even 5,000 years old, and that’s kind of the myth that’s really carried yoga into being,” he says. “Actually, the elements of what we know today as yoga are much more recent than that, maybe 100 years or a little more.”
In the The Subtle Body, Syman’s narrative begins with the first seepage of Hindu ideas onto North America and into popular culture. Yoga, as she sees it, begins with Ralph Waldo Emerson and a poem, “Brahma,” in the first issue of the Atlantic Monthly in 1857. Through his words, Hinduism found its way into the consciousness of Americans, although his poem—and its references to the Hindu god Brahma—was controversial. At the time of publication, Hindu practices were not yet widely known to nonscholars. Though labeled by some as a “yogi,” Emerson’s personal practices remain a mystery.
“His practice was private,” Syman says. “We don’t really know what he did, but it certainly wouldn’t have looked like what we call ‘yoga’ today.”
“There’s nothing wrong with him. But we think the system is more important than all the two-bit personality bit.”
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For Singleton, the entrance of yoga into the West was not so passive. Instead, Yoga Body makes the case that what we in the West now think of as yoga was actively cultivated in India and England during the late 19th century. Singleton argues it came in response to British colonization as a form of Indian nationalism and physical strength.
Though these two approaches seem contradictory, together they tell a more complete history through two different perspectives. Both Syman and Singleton write for an audience of yoga practitioners seeking something beyond the poses taken in the studio.
Which book is right for which practitioner probably depends on how a reader sees his or her participation. Those who see yoga as a physically meditative activity and who came to their practice because of a desire to find a workout that didn’t only focus on the body will likely be drawn to The Subtle Body. Conversely, for those who seek an intellectual understanding of why they contort their bodies into such impossible poses, and how those postures came to be, Yoga Body may be a better fit.
Each author focuses on what Singleton calls posture yoga or posture practice, terms that encompass the Western understanding of yoga. The are other schools as well, such as bhakti (devotional), raja (meditative), karma (action based) or jnana (knowledge). These forms are traditional in Hinduism, but they have little to no influence on the modern studio practice. Both authors agree that what we know today comes at least somewhat from hatha (forceful) yoga.
His Yoga Body is a history that began with scholarship and the translations of texts to explain what colonialists found to be bizarre behavior by the Indians they’d conquered. To them, the sadhus (wandering ascetics) of British India, with their contortions and tricks, were considered no better than London street performers. As India fought back and gained a nationalistic movement to expel the British, what was then called yoga incorporated a series of martial exercises to re-masculinize the Indian male. Yoga became part of the bodybuilding subculture. For Singleton, it was in the ’30s, with the incorporation of women’s gymnastics and their associated stretching exercises, that the postures of modern yoga were formed.
Singleton’s closing mentions of the gurus who have had the most impact on modern practice—B.N.S. Iyengar, Bikram Choudhury and K. Pattabhi Jois—barely overlap with Syman’s story. Where Singleton starts with the poses and traces their way to the gurus, Syman’s stories begin with those same gurus and looks at the impact their teachings had on the tradition.
Yoga’s infamous period in recent history is, of course, the ’60s and ’70s—when Swami Satchidananda appeared at Woodstock, when Allen Ginsberg meditated amid riots protesting the Vietnam War and when Timothy Leary inspired thousands of young people to “turn on, tune in, drop out.”
Yoga in England tended to be “a little more staid than it was in the United States,” says Singleton. “It tended to be much more boring, in some sense. The United States had much more of an experimental feel and probably still does.” Because of that, in the American practice, “there’s much more of a sense of freedom that you can do whatever you like within yoga and still call it ‘yoga.’ ”
The Vietnam era probably saw yoga advertised to the mainstream more than any other period in its history. Yet it is the story of Pierre Bernard, an American guru at the turn of the 20th century, that is more interesting and influential. Bernard’s mixture of yogic tantra and the occult paved the way for the movement that later combined spirituality, free love and drugs.
Bernard’s focus in his yoga practices, according to Syman’s The Subtle Body, called attention not only the multiple gods of Hinduism but also the ritual involved in practice. Even worse to the conservative society of his time, he focused on the sexual imagery that is so common in Indian sacred books and temple walls. Bernard’s yoga was such a threat, and so popular, that by 1910 he was arrested in New York City, accused of trafficking women. He, like so many gurus, had amassed a fortune teaching Eastern philosophy and became the cliché cult leader, accused of sexual misconduct and duping the wealthy out of their money.
By introducing danger to yoga, these gurus also injected it with a mystique that remains today. Syman gives The Subtle Body readers the credit to understand that without these men, yoga might have gone the way of Jazzercise, a fad that faded into near obscurity after a period of immense popularity.
These days, yoga is known more for the toned bodies it produces than a search for spiritual enlightenment. Just as yoga offers a way to connect with the ultimate reality, it has always been touted as a way to perfect the body.
In fact, it’s no coincidence that the covers of Yoga Body and The Subtle Body each feature lean, elegant women bending over backward in contortionistic poses. As a result of this journey through Western culture, Singleton says women are the ones who have embraced the physical side of the practice with the most fervor—and are the primary recipients of its marketing. Syman writes that somewhere along the line, yoga no longer required spirituality and instead had “become athletic.” Yoga changed to fit our culture. Like the poses themselves, yoga has proven remarkable at adapting to whatever its practitioners have needed from it. And what we as a nation needed, it seems, was a symbol of American beauty and strength.