The History Of Yoga In America: Part 2
To start from the beginning, click here- The History Of Yoga In America: Part 1
There is general consensus amongst yogic scholars that “modern yoga” began with Swami Vivekananda (1863–1902), the globetrotting Hindu reformer from Calcutta who spoke to great acclaim at the World’s Parliament of Religions in Chicago. Vivekananda’s influential book Raja-Yoga (1896) paired some of his American lectures with his translation and commentary on Yoga Sutras. The swami presented Vedanta as the model for a universal monistic religion—a “science of the soul.” Borrowing liberally from Unitarianism and Theosophy, Vivekananda and his Vedanta Society emphasized the metaphysical and the devotional, not the physical. In concert with most Western-educated Indian elites, Vivekananda scorned Hatha, and with reason: Pantañjali provided little or no support for it. Although Yoga Sutras mentions asana as one of the (lesser) “eight limbs” of yoga, the text does not describe any poses. Vivekananda disparaged Hatha sectarians for narcissistically “clinging” to the body with “mere” physical exercises designed to fulfill base desires for perfect health and unsurpassed longevity. He downplayed the tantric background of his own guru. Despite privileging mind over body, the swami was no wimp. Like many anticolonial figures associated with the Bengali “Hindu Renaissance,” he used his mastery of English to assert the superiority of South Asian traditions even as he diluted them. As Joseph S. Alter writes in Yoga in Modern India, Vivekananda “revolutionized Hinduism by advocating a kind of no-nonsense, self-confidant, muscular—and, therefore, masculinized—spiritualism.”
For the purposes of Hindu nationalism, yoga had to be rescued from the opprobrium of Hatha yogins. Their masculinity was undisputed, but dangerous, even sinister; it called to mind the supposed decadence of medieval India. Like a good Victorian, Vivekananda expunged Hatha from Râja Yoga. Instead of immortality and supernaturalism, he stressed the goals of Samadhi (higher consciousness) and moksha (spiritual liberation). Later figures such as Sri Yogendra and Swami Kuvalayananda mainstreamed yoga by medicalizing it, linking it to Western science, performing laboratory experiments, and rationally demonstrating that yogic disciplines could work as therapies for chronic diseases such as asthma.
Still other Indians tried to directly rehabilitate Hatha on the terms of Western physical culture. These underappreciated figures from the history of fitness are the main subjects of Yoga Body. Mark Singleton ends his book where most histories of modern postural yoga begin: the gymnasia of Jaganmohan Palace in Mysore where instructor T. Krishnamacharya in the 1920s and 1930s codified the praxis that informs every yoga class in the world today. Without denying Krishnamacharya’s seminal role, Yoga Body contextualizes him and dispels his aura of uniqueness and authenticity. Singleton asserts categorically that the primacy of asana is “a new phenomenon that has no parallel in pre-modern times” (p. 3). Yoga Body offers a radically secular and transnational interpretation of modern yoga, or, as Singleton prefers to call it, “Transnational Anglophone Yoga.” In his analysis, posture practice owes more to English bodybuilding star Eugene Sandow than to Pantañjali.
In bibliographic fashion, Singleton guides the reader through seemingly every English-language fitness manual and periodical from the early twentieth century that influenced the curriculum at Mysore, the Menlo Park of modern yoga. He focuses on the South Asian reception of Muscular Christianity, Swedish (Ling) gymnastics, bodybuilding, and the YMCA. Yoga Body describes a process of creative cooptation. The Indian pioneers of postural yoga wanted to break free from the internalized colonial myth of Indian effeminacy and degeneracy. They selectively appropriated from European physical culture—and also American New Thought, with its psycho-physiological pedagogy of autosuggestion—and naturalized it as Hindu. After incorporating gymnastics into Hatha, they touted Hatha as the original gymnastics. Singleton claims that some patriotic Hindus even imagined yoga as a eugenic fast track to a better, stronger nation. Militant nationalists opened martial arts academies to train a new generation of strong, virile Hindu men—remade Hatha yogins who could act as freedom-fighting guerillas. Indians would turn gymnastics—an exercise method adopted by the British for military training—against the colonizers.
K. V. Iyer, the world-renowned bodybuilder from Bangalore, taught sun salutations along with dumbbell lifting. The equally renowned B. C. Ghosh promoted a method of “muscle control” that combined bodybuilding and Hatha. At Mysore, Krishnamacharya’s studio was located next door to a Western-style gym that taught bodybuilding, gymnastics, and also yoga. Building on Norman Sjoman’s The Yoga Tradition of the Mysore Palace (1996), Singleton argues that Krishnamacharya’s innovative vinyasa (a repeated sequence of flowing movements and athletic jumping) was less about lineage than patronage. At the maharaja’s bidding, Krishnamacharya choreographed a spectacular yoga routine for his young male students; the Hatha troupe functioned both as cultural ambassadors and circus-like entertainers. He presents Mysore yoga (Ashtanga) as a modern bricolage of secular influences sublimated into Pantañjali by Krishnamacharya and later sanctified as ancient tradition by his protégés. The main point of Singleton’s excellent book is that Modern Postural Yoga, or the asana practice undertaken in most major yoga studios, is the result of combining Hatha Yoga with modern physical culture practices such as bodybulding and harmonial gymnastics, while simultaneously shifting emphasis away from the complex yoga philosophy. Krishnamacharya sought to combine subtle body physiology, meditation, and asana into one practice that would tackle all three at once. As a result, Ashtanga was born. From that base, the asana practice was gradually stripped of all else as it began to be incorporated and consumerized for the West.
The reception of yoga in the U.S. followed two general trajectories. The philosophy of yoga and the practice of yogic meditation entered American high culture in the mid-nineteenth century and acquired the sheen of respectability by virtue of association with American Brahmins like Emerson. Subsequently, various popular nondenominational metaphysical religious movements subsumed aspects of yogic philosophy. Posture practice, by contrast, encountered substantial resistance in the early twentieth century, despite receiving positive attention from William James in The Energies of Men (1907) as a potential cure for nervousness. Hatha was generally considered strange, cultish, and also sexually dangerous to women. In the second half of the century, these trajectories crossed: physical yoga grew increasingly mainstream, while meditational and devotional yoga contracted—after a spectacular but brief fluorescence—to the domain of sectarian movements led by gurus who frequently fell into sexual scandal.
The Subtle Body, by Stefanie Syman, is the more vivid of two recent trade-market books—the other being Philip Goldberg’s wide-ranging American Veda (2010)—that narrate this complicated history. Syman begins with obligatory vignettes about Transcendental flirtations with yoga philosophy. (Thoreau, in one of his letters, wrote the famously cryptic line, “To some extent, and at rare intervals, even I am a yogin.” The Subtle Body then moves to its real starting point: Vivekananda’s American sojourn, 1893–96, which heralded a twenty-year period of transnational cross-fertilization between meditational Neo-Vedanta and American spiritual trends such as Mind Cure and Christian Science. Finding fertile soil in metaphysical hotspots such as Boston and Brooklyn, and benefiting from the patronage of two wealthy New England women, Vivekananda set up outposts of the Vedanta Society on both coasts. Numerous other disciples from the Ramakrishna Order followed Vivekananda to the States, where they lectured to the spiritual intelligentsia and set up ashrams. Separately, Paramahansa Yogananda, founder of the Self-Realization Fellowship (and author of the widely read Autobiography of a Yogi), settled in Southern California in 1920. About the same time, Sri Yogendra came to New York to spread the gospel of medicalized yoga. The Oriental Exclusion Act foiled a planned return visit. From 1924 to 1965, an era of restrictive U.S. immigration policy, yoga in America evolved largely independent of Indians.
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