by Ana Laura Funes
It is now well known that nearly 36 million people practice yoga in America for various reasons among which flexibility, stress relief, health improvement and physical fitness feature at the top of the list according to the results of a 2016 study published by Yoga Journal and Yoga Alliance. The most popular styles are the ones that dedicate most or good amount of the practice to physical postures called “asanas”. However, as the practice progresses, some students and yoga practitioners may discover that “yoga” is more than doing streching and challenging poses, or even sitting down in silence to calm down their stress. When scratching beneath the surface, the student finds that there is a rich historical tradition somehow connected to the teacher from which she or he has been learning “yoga” from. The word “somehow” is highlighted because, as the recent scholarly work on the topic of modern yoga has shown, the alleged connection to “the tradition” is highly problematic. On the one hand, teachers and founders of modern yoga schools trace their lineage and style back to ancient yoga practices and gurus (spiritual masters). On the other, what we have come to understand as the ancient practices of yoga seem to have very little if not nule similarity to many of the ways in which yoga is practiced in the West. At least this is what scholar Mark Singleton holds in his book “Yoga Body: The History of Modern Posture Practice” where he proposes to take the word “yoga” as a homonym rather than a synonym of the yoga described in the traditional texts like the Bhagavad Gita, Hatha Yoga Pradipika, Yoga Sutras, etc. (Singleton 2010, 14)
A different take on the continuity of the yoga tradition from its Eastern mother to her Western offspring is found in Philip Goldberg’s book “American Veda: From Emerson and the Beatles to Yoga and Meditation. How Indian Spirituality Changed the West”. In this book, Goldberg understands the word “yoga” in its broader sense as a practice that has taken and will continue to take different shapes and forms along its historical path. Nevertheless, this does not represent for him a rupture with a tradition that is in itself perennial and which once defined Truth as being one but spoken of with different names. Goldberg finds in this Vedic line the spiritual link between Western Modern Yoga and the Vedic part of its roots. But we could certainly find in the Tantric motto to experience the “divine” within the material form a more suitable connection with the many contemporary yoga practices that stress the physical aspect and that are now being subjected to the commodification of that idea or, in many cases, a product of its misunderstanding.
In any case, Goldberg’s approach is very different to the one Singleton takes in trying to understand the legacy of yoga in the West. And we, in our History of Modern Yoga class, as part of the Masters of Arts in Yoga Studies at Loyola Marymount University, are reading them both, along with De Michelis’s “A History of Modern Yoga”, Syman’s “The Subtle Body”, and other books on the matter because we also want to scratch beneath the surface and understand how the yoga that we read about in the traditional books and the yoga that we practice in the West, particularly in America, connect to each other (if at all), in what ways, by what means, and by whom.
This class website is a modest inititiative to contribute to this very recent line of inquiry by uploading content that may be relevant to the understanding of the topic. It is a groupal work in progress where students collaborate with posts that were presented in class. This first phase of the project focused on historical figures that have had a significant impact in the practice of yoga as we know it today in the West and is initially merely expository. The list of figures here presented were chosen based on the interest of the students. A second phase is now being built with the fourth generation of students who are contributing with their thoughts, reflections, and critical perspectives on all sort of issues regarding the current state of yoga practice, in the “East” as well as in the “West”.
It is our hope that this website will eventually grow into a repository of resources and critical analysis that will be helpful and interesting not only for a class in History of Modern Yoga but also for the public in general.
De Michelis, Elizabeth (2008). A History of Modern Yoga. New York: Continuum.
Singleton, Mark (2010). Yoga Body: The History of Modern Posture Practice. New York: Oxford Univeristy Press.
Goldberg, Philip (2013). American Veda: From Emerson and the Beatles to Yoga and Meditation. How Indian Spirituality Changed the West. New York: Harmony Books.