Yoga Body -A Review
I've mentioned I'm studying for a Masters right...?
Well here's a review I wrote of the very popular and important book Yoga Body by fellow SOAS academic; Mark Singleton. I really encourage you to read the book (or this post if you're short of time) and start to consider what Yoga is to you... What you think of the industry and... if you'd like to be a part of it! Because I'm working on
my first solo Yoga Teacher Training course.
This is a piece of academic writing so it's err... a bit more formal than my usual style.
Mark Singleton’s ‘Yoga Body’ is an absorbing and informative investigation into ‘the rise of āsana (posture) in modern transnational Yoga’, and the history of the intersection of eastern yoga traditions with western physical culture.
Singleton takes a broadly chronological approach to this vast and complex task, plotting Yoga’s evolution from ancient to colonial era India, and the impact of its exposure to the West. Singleton uses the chronological approach to explore and evidence his central hypothesis that, over time, haṭha yoga has become ‘decontextualized from the system it claims to represent’ and there is an indirect and broken lineage from traditional practices to modern haṭha yoga.
In chapter one, Singleton charts the earliest references to haṭha yoga and explores its origins and artefacts in the Indus Valley dating from c.2500 BCE. The ensuing nine chapters examine the synthesis of Western and what is considered “traditional” Indian postures, and assess how these interactions have shaped and influenced the evolution and adoption of yoga transnationally.
Chapters two to four chart the Yogi’s first encounters with European visitors, who experienced them as ‘renouncers’, known for their disreputable and unusual ‘ascetic practices.’ These ascetic yogis were considered the natural enemy of the true Yogi, as identified by Rai Bahadur Srisa Chandra Vasu, who was one of the first scholars to translate classical haṭha yoga texts.
Singleton demonstrates how Vasu created the image of an ideal yoga practitioner as someone who was informed and influenced by the scientific and rational values of the period. For Singleton, the creation of this image was a key moment in the process of sanitising yoga for Western audiences, and the evolution of yoga from ascetic practices to a form which had greater appeal to the European market.
Chapters five to seven address the colonial context; and how contact with the British and their notions of scientific racism shaped and influenced the discourse around yoga both in India and the West. Interestingly, Singleton also examines the relationship between yoga and Indian nationalism; exploring how narratives of racial and physical degradation, which were internalised by the ‘feeble’ and effeminate Indians, were changed from the 1850s with the rise of nationalism and the growth of the independence movement.
From this period, yoga becomes increasingly bound-up with physical culture, and challenging European notions of racial hierarchy through demonstrations of manliness and images of virility. Singleton illustrates this point through a discussion of Eugene Sandow, who was instrumental in spreading the popularity of body building both in India and worldwide. Singleton argues that the advent of the culture of body building in India, although rooted in āsana and with a quasi-mystical emphasis on the discipline and ritualism of training, contributed towards the alienation of physical yoga practice from its wider spiritual context.
Singleton presents the evolution of yoga largely through the male experience until chapter seven, when we are introduced to Genevieve Stebbins and Mollie Bagot Stack; who helped to popularise a form of gymnastics which shared many similarities with both the forms of āsana and yoga’s spiritual components. The book recognises that, until this point, the practice of yoga had been largely male dominated, which may be indicative of the cultural context of colonialism and its male narrative. Indeed, throughout the book Singleton uses images to show how yoga was used to reinforce traditional gender constructs.
Male practice is depicted as strong, with the purpose of creating vigour and promoting rivalry; in contrast, female yogis are depicted as more modestly dressed, often in supine or seated postures, and demonstrating the gentler stretching āsana which are recognisable in the West as ‘Hatha Yoga’. This is not to say, however, that these gender norms were necessarily harmful to the popularisation of yoga. Indeed, Singleton explores how aesthetics and gender expression appear to have been, and may continue to be, a significant motivation for women to practice yoga.
Reviews of Yoga Body are generally favourable. Coward praised Singleton for making an excellent contribution to the understanding of how āsana evolved, whilst Mallinson chose to highlight Singleton’s work demonstrating the origins of the innovation of linking āsana into sequences. Mallinson argues, however, that Singleton underestimated the importance of āsana in the pre-modern era and contends that Singleton’s conclusion that postural yoga is largely a modern preoccupation may understate the importance of āsana in yoga’s evolution. That being said, Singleton does demonstrate quite convincingly how and why the physical elements of yoga became preeminent from the 19th century onwards, whilst continuing to entertain the possibility that āsana itself can have an implicit spiritual dimension, despite its broken lineage.
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