Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice Paperback – Mar 10 2010
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"Singleton's radical, meticulously documented, sensitive analysis makes perfectly clear that what has come to be regarded as a veritable icon of Indic Civilization -- postural yoga -- is, in fact, unambiguously the hybrid product of colonial and post-colonial globalization." --Prof. Joseph S. Alter, University of Pittsburgh. Author of Yoga in Modern India: The Body Between Science and Philosophy
"Mark Singleton's Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice is an outstanding scholarly work which brings so much insight and clarity to the historic and cultural background of modern hatha yoga. I highly recommend this book, especially for all sincere students of yoga." --John Friend, Founder of Anusara Yoga
"I have been reading yoga texts and practicing yoga for 40 years, and I have taught a university-level academic course on yoga for the last 15 years, so it takes quite a good deal to teach me things about yoga I did not already know. This book has done so. It has been extremely informative and is rich with historical details. The quantity of field research is quite extraordinary, the prose articulate, the diction intelligent, and the narrative sound. It is a must-read among yoga teachers and serious students, and has the potential to transform much of the yoga world. This book will echo loudly through the global yoga community." --Prof. Kenneth Liberman, University of Oregon. Author of Dialectical Practice in Tibetan Philosophical Culture
"From the moment I started reading Mark Singleton's Yoga Body I couldn't put it down. It is beautifully written, extensively researched, and full of fascinating information. It stands alone in its depth of insight into a subject which has intrigued me for forty years." --David Williams, Maui, Hawaii. The first non-Indian to learn the complete Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga syllabus.
"Mark Singleton has written a sweeping and nuanced account of the origins and development of modern postural yoga in early twentieth-century India and the West, arguing convincingly that yoga as we know it today does not flow directly from the Yoga Sutras or India's medieval ha?ha yoga traditions, but rather emerged out of a confluence of practices, movements and ideologies, ranging from contortionist acts in carnival sideshows, British Army calisthenics and women's stretching exercises to social Darwinism, eugenics, and the Indian nationalist movement. The richly illustrated story he tells is an especially welcome contribution to the history of yoga, demonstrating the ways in which an ancient tradition was reinvented against the backdrop of India's colonial experience." --Prof. David Gordon White, University of California, Santa Barbara. Author of The Alchemical Body, Siddha Traditions in Medieval India
"Mark Singleton gives us here a groundbreaking, pioneering work. By carefully tracing the key 'missing links' in the development of contemporary notions of hatha yoga, he presents a far richer and nuanced picture than previously known. Quite simply, this is a book that cannot be ignored, destined to be reckoned with in any further study of the topic. Thoroughly researched, extraordinarily well informed, and lucidly argued, I recommended it very highly to all serious practitioners and students of modern yoga who want a deeper understanding of its evolution." --Carlos Pomeda, founder of Yoga Wisdom for Modern Life.
"Mark Singleton's book Yoga Body traces the evolution of the ever expanding practice of asana world-wide. His work offers a much needed historical perspective that will help correct much of the mythology and group-think that is emerging in the modern asana based 'yoga world'. Any serious asana practitioner who wishes to understand the place of asana in the greater tradition of yoga will do well to read it carefully." --Gary Krafstow, the founder of the American Viniyoga Institute, author of Yoga for Wellness and Yoga for Transformation
"Yoga Body by Mark Singleton is a scholarly exploration of how modern yoga, as currently practiced in countless studios, gyms, and schools across the country, evolved [...] In essence, this very popular form of yoga was greatly influenced by modern physical practices, not just traditional spiritual or mystical ones. Singleton makes a cogent argument backed up by references from many studies and sources [...] a work of merit that sheds a great deal of light on the development of modern yoga [...] an important contribution to our understanding of yoga." --San Francisco Book Review
"Mark Singleton [...] asks a big question: Where did modern yoga come from? His reply will no doubt disturb a lot of folks [...] as Singleton clearly and convincingly demonstrates, the physical practice of today is less than 100 years old, and it has very little to do with either Patanjali's or Krishna's teaching. Instead, it's the product of such disparate elements as British colonialist policies in India, 19th century physical health movements in Europe and India, the invention of the camera, and the reformist programs of Indian yoga teachers like Shri Yogendra and T. Krishnamacharya. This book, an invaluable source on modern yoga, should be on the reading list of every serious student and teacher training program." --Richard Rosen in Yoga Journal."
About the Author
Mark Singleton teaches at St. John's College, Santa Fe, New Mexico. He is the editor, with Jean Byrne, of Yoga in the Modern World: Contemporary Perspectives. He lives in Santa Fe.
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It is written by an academic - but an academic who has been a highly dedicated practitioner for more than 15 years. Mark is not only very adept in the physical postures (practising third series Astanga) but a serious student of yoga - he is qualified in the Iyengar school as well as within the Satyananda system - and a long-term meditator. This book might be dismissed by some as a product of "modern scholars who barely dip their toes into the ocean of yoga" - but such dismissals reveal inabilities to honestly consider the circumstances of this yoga which is practised by so many people across the world. Yet although this is an academic book (there are detailed footnotes and the bibliography runs to more than 30 pages) it is without doubt readable and accessible. There is a skilful balancing between the maintaining of academic credibility while ensuring that a good story is told well.
This is a book that made me pause and think. Its subtitle is `the origins of modern posture practice' and the aim is to understand the forming of yoga postures. What so many of us spend so much time doing - where has this come from? What are the influences that structure the shapes that upon which we expend so much effort? This book doesn't unfortunately touch on why so many of us are doing these practices but this wasn't a topic of Yoga Body. Hopefully this will be a conversation that happens afterwards - as an example, there is an academic article soon to be published on why people in London do yoga. The points that are made within these pages of Yoga Body deserve serious consideration by all sincere yoga practitioners.
What is being suggested in Yoga Body is that the physical practices that we do today could owe more of a debt to people such as Eugene Sandow and Genevieve Stebbins than someone such as Swami Vivekananda. Sandow (1867-1925) was a world-famous bodybuilder who had an enthusiastic following in India and Stebbins (1857-1915) was influential in developing a system called `harmonic gymnastics'. It is clear that predating yoga's arrival there was an active culture of stretching and strengthening in the west - and intermingled within this culture were elements of what may be described as esoteric and mystical religious approaches. So the yoga being exported from India (ignoring the fact that this Indian yoga was already western influenced) was landing on ground that had been prepared. Like so much, what was happening - and is still happening - was a blending: a blending of different practices and philosophies to fit the requirements of particular times.
I highly recommend this book to all who are sincerely interested in examining this practice - if you would like read my own thoughts on `Yoga Body' go to
This book goes further in the analysis of modern yoga than three previously published outstanding scholarly books: Joseph S. Alter, Yoga in Modern India (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004), Silvia Ceccomori, Cent ans de yoga en France (Paris: Edidit, 2001), and Elizabeth De Michelis, A History of Modern Yoga (London: Continuum, 2004).
After presenting a brief summary of the development of yoga since its origins to the first contact with Europeans, Singleton explains that postural yoga is a recent development with many sources, particularly from the physical education taught in the British Army. He traces many of the European roots of British gymnastics, including the German "physical revivalism" of J. F. C. Gutsmuth (1793), the "British Manly Exercises" of Donald Walker (1834), "Muscular Christianity" (1857), the Swedish gymnastics of P. H. Ling (1766-1839), and "bodybuilding" of Eugene Sandow (1867-1925). He then examines how physical education began to flourish in India as `drill mastering' with Manick Rao and K. Ramamurthy (early 20th century), Captain P. K. Gupta (Mysore in the 1920s), and H. C. Buck (the American who was YMCA director in India in the 1930s). Further developments were done by K.V. Iyer (1897-1980), and the Rajah of Aundh (aka Pratinidhi Pant, the creator of the modern sequence Suryanamaskar -`Sun salutation' in the 1930s) and many others. Singleton pays particular attention to Shri Yogendra and T. Krishnamacharya (1888-1989), including his students B.K.S. Iyengar, Pattabhi Jois, Indra Devi, and T. K. V. Desikachar. The author gives particular attention to the role played by the expansion of print technology and the availability of photography in the rapid dissemination of postural yoga.
Because of its iconoclastic approach, this book has generated a large variety of opinions. Singleton studied in detail the European and American reception of yoga, examined rare documents from Indian, European and American archives, reviewed numerous yoga manuals written before 1940, and interviewed many of the major figures in yoga today. One of his major conclusions is that "to a large extent, popular postural yoga came into being in the first half of the twentieth century as a hybridized product of colonial India's dialogical encounter with the worldwide physical culture movement."
Many yoga aficionados have found his analyses unexpected and irreverent. Many readers will be surprised and upset by Singleton's findings as he puts into question many of the commonly held beliefs about the origins of modern yoga. While Pattabhi Jois, for example, had many discussions with the author, B. K. S. Iyengar refused to be interviewed on these topics but allowed the author to make use of his library in Pune. For a happy ending, Singleton concludes his survey by emphasizing that many of the yoga masters were innovators and always tried to adapt their "teaching to the cultural temper of the times while remaining within the bounds of orthodoxy."
Modern hatha yoga is only tenuously related to asana practice as described in the Sanskrit texts. Until the eighteenth century, real hatha yogins lived as itinerant petty criminals, despised and feared by Indians and British alike. Even Vivekananda, the great popularizer of Indian religion in the West, viewed hatha yoga as an inferior pursuit, and one that was perhaps not even a spiritual practice at all.
The sanitization of hatha yoga began with the European physical culture movement of the late nineteenth century. Gymnastics and bodybuilding became popular. A Christian man, it was held, should be a manly man. The movement was taken to India by the YMCA and by the British military, who included physical fitness in their training drills.
As Indian national pride developed in the early twentieth century, a desire developed to demonstrate that India had its own system of strength and fitness. Hatha yoga was then reinvented by grafting a careful selection of its elements on to the international culture of the body -- though research has shown that many of its supposedly traditional postures look remarkably like ones from nineteenth-century European fitness books, and many were invented on the spot by Tirumalai Krishnamacharya in Mysore in the 1930s.
Mark Singleton's well-documented research challenges the notion of the modern asana class as an ancient Indian tradition. The many period illustrations add charm to the book.
How much DID the ancient yoga texts discuss physical practice? Why IS it that when most people think of yoga today, they only think of pretzel poses?
I don't want to give much away, because the book is so fascinating to read. ALTHOUGH! CAVEAT: it's very academic and assumes at least some knowledge and understanding of what's been given to us as "yoga history" - e.g., the Sutras, Hatha Yoga Pradipika, and who the heck Patanjali, Pattabhi Jois, and Krishnamacharya are. So... not for beginners.
That said, I believe EVERY YOGA TEACHER should read this, and I'm not kidding. WHATEVER your lineage (or whatever you *think* your lineage is - ha!), it's super-important to understand this history and how modern postural yoga as we know it came to be.
Think: combine every incredible combination of physical training, postural training, **military** training, bodybuilding, gymnastics, plus Protestant New Thought, New Age, and mystical "women's" stretching... and you've pretty much reached a modern lululemon advertisement for yoga pants. NOT that there's anything wrong with modern physical yoga asana practice! Heck, it's how I make my living. But to really understand WHY we do the poses we do and HOW this all came to be... this understandably controversial book opened my eyes to modern yoga practice in ways that MY teachers probably never even knew or understood themselves.
My review, in essence: Wow. WOW. WowowowowOWWWWW!!!
Bonus: incredible, awesome old photos
Yes, extreme-yoga-geekism. Yes, fascinating historical stuff.
Singleton creates the impression that the asana postures and poses that we all know now is a modern creation of the social forces present in the early 1900s. He creates this impression by emphasizing that asana in Patanjali was primarily seated positions for meditation. This is wrong. A Hatha yoga tract of the 1660s, Hatharatnavali, lists a partial list of 89 postures, some of which are well-known to present day practitioners. Asaba plays an important part in yogic practice. It is fortuitous that the world re-discovered these postures in the early 1900s, and other leaders have built on these core postures, but they've always been around, and yoga enthusiasts know that they've been around. Thus, while there is no doubt that numerous social forces and movements took place in the early 1900's as Singleton so brilliantly describes in the book, the fact that asana was the focus of those forces and movements is incidental and in no way detracts from the vital importance asana plays in yoga practice. Singeltgon is all too ready to downplay asana's role.
The great mistake many yoga practitioners make is that they treat asana as only a health regimen. Singleton makes the same error. It is much more. The steps in the Yoga Sutras must be treated as a whole. As Patanjali states, in asana all duality ceases to exist. It is a necessary step to dharan, dhyana and samadhi.