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Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice [Paperback]

Mark Singleton

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Book Description

March 10 2010
Yoga is so prevalent in the modern world - practiced by pop stars, taught in schools, and offered in yoga centers, health clubs, and even shopping malls - that we take its presence, and its meaning, for granted. But how did the current yoga boom happen? And is it really rooted in ancient Indian practices, as many of its adherents claim? In this groundbreaking book, Mark Singleton calls into question many commonly held beliefs about the nature and origins of postural yoga (asana) and suggests a radically new way of understanding the meaning of yoga as it is practiced by millions of people across the world today. Singleton shows that, contrary to popular belief, there is no evidence in the Indian tradition for the kind of health and fitness-oriented asana practice that dominates the global yoga scene of the twenty-first century. Singleton's surprising - and surely controversial - thesis is that yoga as it is popularly practiced today owes a greater debt to modern Indian nationalism and, even more surprisingly, to the spiritual aspirations of European bodybuilding and early 20th-century women's gymnastic movements of Europe and America, than it does to any ancient Indian yoga tradition. This discovery enables Singleton to explain, as no one has done before, how the most prevalent forms of postural yoga, like Ashtanga, Bikram and "Hatha" yoga, came to be the hugely popular phenomena they are today. Drawing on a wealth of rare documents from archives in India, the UKand the USA, as well as interviews with the few remaining, now very elderly figures in the 1930s Mysore asana revival, Yoga Body turns the conventional wisdom about yoga on its head.

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What Mark Singleton does prove, with massive, irrefutable, fascinating and often hilarious evidence, is that yoga is a rich, multi-cultural, constantly changing inter-disciplinary construction, far from the pure line that its adherents often claim for it. Wendy Doniger, Times Literary Supplement This book, an invaluable source on modern yoga, should be on the reading list of every serious student and teacher training program. Richard Rosen, 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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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index | Back Cover
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 3.9 out of 5 stars  38 reviews
51 of 56 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Bodies and Minds in yoga... March 7 2010
By Mr. J. N. Blair - Published on
A new book has just come out into the crowded yoga marketplace: Yoga Body by Mark Singleton. Unlike so many of the other yoga products this is neither full of glossy photographs (though the front cover picture is quite cute) nor making any particular promises. Instead this is a book that seeks to question some of the assumptions underlying our yoga practice.

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
19 of 20 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A highly recommended scholarly book Aug. 11 2010
By G. A. BRAVO-CASAS - Published on
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Yoga Body is an important tool for every yoga scholar, well written and well documented. It is the author's PhD dissertation at the Faculty of Divinity, University of Cambridge, where he worked as Research Assistant to Elizabeth De Michelis. Mark Singleton teaches at St. John's College, Santa Fe (NM), and was one of the main contributors to the recent Encyclopedia of Hinduism (Routledge, 2007). Singleton is a fervent yoga practitioner and has yoga teaching diplomas in the Iyengar and Satyananda traditions. He concentrates on the transition from the classical conception of yoga as a philosophical system to the version we know today as postural yoga. Without denying that some Asanas were mentioned in classical texts (around 450 AD, Vyasa's comments on Patanjali's Yoga Sutra named 12 poses, and the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, around 1350, included 84), Singleton examines in detail why Asanas did not initially receive the same attention that they have in modern times.

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."
31 of 35 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Yoga Body Feb. 24 2010
By Derek (True-Small-Caps.Blogspot.Com) - Published on
Mark Singleton's Yoga Body is a cultural history of asana practice, concentrating on the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

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.
26 of 29 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating!! July 7 2010
By A. Drugay - Published on
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
This is NOT just another yoga history book that focuses on the Yoga Sutras and the Bhagavad Gita and "classical" yoga texts. This is an incredibly documented history of *modern* yoga practice - the practice you get at yoga studios and the JCC ~ or wherever the heck you practice in whatever city you live. Whatever the lineage you practice! Ashtanga, Vinyasa, Jivamukti, Anusara, Iyengar, they ALL owe their historical dues to ... well, to a history that you might not expect!

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.
56 of 73 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Thought-provoking ... but misguided June 9 2010
By The Peripatetic Reader - Published on
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Singleton presents an interesting view of asana and the so-called growth of the "yoga business," but his analysis and presentmenet of the topic is selective and ultimately fails. Hs analysis seems centered on two issues: One, how hatha yoga ascetics were viewed at the time as opportunistic cons and two present day yoga practice is an outgrowth of social movements in the early 1900s of nationalistic, physical and hygenic forces in India and the rest of the world. Regarding the first facator there is no doubt that there exists documentation about the wierd practices of hatha ascetics. For more information a reader is directed to the excellent and frankly better documented book by White, The Sinister Yoga. As White explains in this and his other books, Hatha Yoga evolved as a movement to reform even more heinous practices of certain Tantric cults and was very much conceived as a reform movement. In place of the questionable Tantric practices, emphasis was placed on asana. Hatha yoga ascetics looked to the eight limbs of Patanjali, and the goal of oof the postures and poses was to encourage the ascending of kundalini and the attainment of siddhis or powers. Ths leads to the second factor, Singleton's discussion on asana.

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.

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