Heretical histories?

On a few long train journeys recently I have had the opportunity to read Yoga Body by Mark Singleton which is based on his doctoral thesis. There have been two long book reviews of this in the membership magazine of the British Wheel of Yoga and a follow up response in a subsequent issue. The book has caused some controversy in the yoga world because the author argues that most of the asanas that we do in the West in yoga classes are not thousands of years old, but stem from a fusion of European gymnastics, physical body muscle culture phase of the 1920s/30s in India, body-building techniques, and a few other influences (this is a digested review!). He argues that much of what we do today therefore is only about 100 years old and that Krishnamacharya has had a huge influence in this new wave of yoga, partly because of his changing approaches over time and thus the approaches adopted by some of his pupils (e.g. BKS Iyengar, K Pattabhi Jois and TKV Desikachar). Physical yoga became disassociated from other yogic practices that had connotations of religious fanatics, hermits, wandering seers etc. It’s an interesting read.

Does it matter if aspects of what we practice as ‘yoga’ are only c.100 years old and are a fusion of different influences? If people leave the class feeling healthy, mended and happy, does it matter that most of the ‘asanas’ are not 2000 years old?  Should we only be doing the asanas that are clearly listed in the older historical texts e.g. in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika? Big questions and I don’t have the answers.

7 thoughts on “Heretical histories?

  1. I guess maybe what matters is if people attending a class believe they are replicating an ancient tradition when they’re not. I doubt that this is hugely important for most – much more vital is that the practice is safe and effective.

    Personally, I like the idea of things changing and adapting to fit the times! Otherwise you’re left with an anachronism (think that’s the right word!!!)


  2. I think it is important that we do not conform to traditions and beliefs. It is useful to study the history of yoga to see how we have got where we are. But where we are now in our life is the important point to work with.


  3. I think I tend to concur with both these comments. If we tell students that people have been doing X posture for 2000 years it’s probably not true, but, if that posture helps in the process of achieving yoga’s aims, then it’s valid that we do it. I do think things adapt and change over time and we don’t need to be bound by a rule book.


  4. This book Jivamukti Yoga is very different than most yoga books in that it is about Yoga in a more holistic sense. It has some material on asana sequencing (very interesting I might add), but that is the smallest part of the book. I would also agree with others that the photographs have a lot to be desired in their size and the way they are cropped. Not user friendly at all. It seems as they were willing to sacrifice clarity for the sake of being “artsy”. Jivamukti Yoga is more of an overview of the more spiritual aspects of yoga and puts the asana practice in the context of this more complete picture. It truly treats asana as just one limb of yoga practice. While I enjoyed it on many levels, I must also say that there are many times where I felt the authors got very preachy and sometimes seemed a bit off base to me. For example, Gannon and Life’s view of “Ahimsa” compared to other authors on the subject. Most writing on this concept of non-harming that I’ve read also stresses not harming oneself, Gannon and Life don’t give very much importance to this aspect of it which has a bit of a “martyr-like” attitude to it. In Desikachar’s book “The Heart Of Yoga” he says (I’m paraphrasing) that “Ahimsa also means acting in kindness toward ourselves”. and goes on to say for example that ” if one is a vegetarian but are in a situation where one must eat meat in order to survive then one must do what they need to do so they can continue to take care of their family and other responsibilities” and goes on to say that “it would show a lack of consideration and arrogance to become stuck on one’s principles”. Gannon and Life often seem to be stuck on their principles which I found to be a bit of a turn off. Even Buddhist Metta practices start with the idea that one has to love themselves in a healthy way(not in a hedonistic or egotiscal way) before they can truly have space and peace in their hearts for others. Only then can people love in a pure and unconditional way as that love expands outward. How can one give what they don’t have? Anyway, besides occasional somewhat “fanatical” attitudes throughout, I enjoyed this book immensely. I am currently reading it for the second time and can see that I will go back to it and re-read it many many times in spite of my occasional disagreements with the authors. I have read some complain of a lack of “thoroughness” regarding the “yoga philosphy” in this book, but in fairness to the authors, this book isn’t a scholarly book on Yoga philosophy but rather an introduction that will surely open many eyes to Yoga as a broader practice than just the asanas. Most people new to the more philosophical and religious aspects of yoga practice are not going to start with Patanjali but would be better off getting the overview from a book like this. As mentioned above, for those interested, I would highly recommend Desikachar’s “Heart of Yoga”, which does have the “Yoga Sutras” translated at the end of the book. It is preceded by an overview of yoga philosophy prior to presenting his translation of the “Yoga Sutras” (as well as some chapters on yoga “asana” practice) to give the reader some background. Desikachar himself is the son (and student)of the late Sri T.Krishnamacharya. Krishnamacharya himself was also the teacher of Pattabhi Jois (the primary Guru and Ashtanga yoga teacher of Gannon and Life and THE most well known proponent of Ashtanga Yoga). Krishnamacharya also taught BKS Iyengar. That should be enough of an endorsement to convince anyone of Desikachar’s “Yoga lineage” and credibility which would in my eyes put him in a different class than Gannon and Life. Sometimes it seems that some Westerners tend to “romanticize” their experiences in India whereas someone like Desikachar is not apt to do that since he is a native of that land. Still, regarding “Jivamukti Yoga”, I still think it deserves a five star rating and Highly recommend it for those interested in this very interesting approach to yoga. Namaste


    1. [Delayed approval of comment as it went into my spam filter, sorry] Your review of the Jivamukti yoga book by Gannon and Life is interesting, although I disagree with some of your comments. I am very much interested in the Jivamukti approach. My book review above is for a different book which doesn’t focus on modern day styles of yoga. I too have Heart of Yoga by Desikachar and like that book as well.


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