Read a great article today in the Nov 2010 issue of Yoga Journal about the history of asana yoga. Contrary to popular beliefs about asana yoga as a continuation of an ancient indigenous tradition, the article explores how the asana/vinyasa practice that has become practically synonymous with yoga in the west, developed in a modern context of physical culture and nationalism in the early 1900s, borrowing from a style of gymnastics developed – in the west! The article was written by Mark Singleton, author of the book, Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice.

Singleton currently teaches at St. John's College, Santa Fe, New Mexico


In describing his research, Singleton writes,

There was little doubt in my mind that many yoga practitioners today are the inheritors of the spiritual gymnastics traditions of their great-grandparents far more than they are of medieval hatha yoga from India… As syncretic yoga practices were developing in the modern period, they were interpreted through the lens of, say, the American harmonial movement, Danish gymnastics, or physical culture more generally.

He then goes on to describe a period of disillusionment, questioning the authenticity of his yoga practice. The foundations of his beliefs are shaken.

I find this reaction very interesting, because it is precisely this infusion of modern anxieties, colonialism, nationalism, etc. that makes asana yoga all the more relevant and legitimate to me. This is a modern spiritual/somatic practice, a product of modernity! That goes a long way in explaining to me its efficacy, rather than diminishing it.

Perhaps I feel this way because a friend had mentioned to me early on that asana yoga was only one “limb” of yoga practice, and as such, it has always struck me as 1/8th of the whole practice. But I suspect it is also partly due to my ethnic background.

The mysterious Oriental. Photo by Michael Khoe

My ancestry hails from un-modern, non-Western people. Traditional people. Backwards people. Crude, unformed people of a developing nation. We are the homogenized people of National Geographic covers and anthropology text books. We are people of the past, and our uncivilized and superstitious ways should only be preserved in a hyper essentialized frame of being until our cultural identity becomes a performance, sometimes ironically presented, but always defined against the West. Our culture, our narratives, and our history – that spans unbroken for thousands of years – have nothing to teach the superior, modern gods of Science, Capitalism and Normality whom we now capitulate to. My heritage is irrelevant and obsolete unless it modernizes and puts out on the global marketplace, selling our traditions, our philosophies, our resources, our labour and the very lives and bodies of our people. And while my passport is Canadian, my roots are tied to those still wishing, straining, deceiving, fighting and killing to attain whiteness and modernity.

As a diasporic member of this group of obsolete peoples, it’s quite a bit more difficult for me to carry romanticized notions of a mysterious orient or an essential, untainted ancient spiritual tradition. And it’s harder to project purer, lost or traditional spiritual qualities onto another ethnic group, another nation, another past, because I am that Other, excluded from the present, the modern, the developed. So you can very well bet that I’m not looking at my rich cultural heritage to do all the heavy existential and spiritual lifting for me as much as I do learn and benefit and grow from it. There’s no easy traditional spiritual plug to fill the profound wasteland we have in the promise of modern rationality and progress.

All the grasping for spiritual authenticity somewhere else at the cost of denying ourselves and our complicity in the values and power we desire to reject, I don’t entirely understand it. If we continue to traffic in a modern culture that disavows our history, no matter where we go, we will still end up in exactly the same place, where we are today: a neo-colonial, modern world. So why not embrace how we got here in the present, and start thinking about how we are going to create authenticity in the present? Tell me, what makes our present inauthentic to you and what are you going to do about it?

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Thank you for reading if you made it this far! You can learn more about Singleton’s book via a thoughtful review at mayaland.

[edit] Hm, after speaking with other people, it seems the history of asana is not as clear cut as I’ve made it out to be. Which made me think about the idea of ownership and authorship. Having lived in a community with hunter-gatherer roots, I must say that our obsession with enforcing these concepts is partly due to living in a consumer culture…