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.

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The prettily packaged marriage of imported spirituality and capitalism in the age of globalization

Lately, I’ve been thinking about cultural appropriation in the West and how that relates to yoga. But first, I want to preface this post by stating that I don’t find cultural appropriation inherently offensive, and in no way am I suggesting that only certain races can follow certain spiritual practices. Nor am I positing any kind of essentialist framework when it comes to race and culture.

With that being said, culture appropriation in N. America by those with privilege, especially white privilege, is undoubtedly risking disrespect. By commodifying other cultures, cultural appropriation can disavow history, or spectacularize history (e.g. like Che Guevara T-shirts) to benefit the appropriating party in a way that often repeats historical power imbalances.

Usually it reinforces colonialist dynamics under a guise of  cultural exchange (although in other cases, as in appropriating N. American subcultures, it is about normalizing them and strangling their radicalism or challenges to the status quo). And today’s hyper-commercial, mashed up and de-historicized identity gives people an easy method by which to evade or sever all ties to the past and to their responsibility for their use of appropriated signifiers (hipster headdresses anyone?).

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Suzanne Treister's Alchemy series. Click on the image to see more.

It’s another birthday for the O. div and I think it’s high time that I resurrected this blog from its liminal archival status considering how many new posts I’ve written. In any case, O. div archival content is available on waybackmachine, the internet archive. There’s also a more specific reason why I’m prompted to continue blogging: our psychological and philosophical models of mind-body are still evolving and I’m of the mind to record my observations as these movements unfold. Below: continuing thoughts on modernity, cultural appropriation and new trends in psychology…

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