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Yoga History 101

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Anyone seriously practicing yoga in the West these days will, in time, find themselves wondering about yoga’s origins and history. For such seekers, there are whole libraries of philosophical and historical texts that provide much fertile material for study. But a recently published book, Elizabeth De Michelis’s A History of Modern Yoga (Continuum), offers perhaps the most comprehensive and authoritative analysis yet of yoga’s evolution.
De Michelis, director of the Dharam Hinduja Institute of Indic Research at Cambridge University, undertook a detailed study of the various religious and sociological contexts in which yoga arose and evolved, in both India and the West. The result of her labors is an exhaustive account of how influential 19th-century figures, texts, and movements reframed the millennia-old yoga tradition and led to its flowering (especially in the West) in the 20th century.

De Michelis defines what she calls Modern Yoga as “certain types of yoga that evolved mainly through the interaction of Western individuals interested in Indian religions and a number of more or less Westernized Indians over the last 150 years.” She ties its birth to the publication of Swami Vivekananda’s book Raja Yoga in 1896, three years after his celebrated appearance at the 1893 Parliament of World Religions in Chicago, which is generally regarded as the historical moment in which yoga was introduced to America. And she points out that Vivekananda “carried out a major revisitation of yoga history, structures, beliefs and practices and then proceeded to [translate]…this ‘reformed’ yoga into something quite different from classical Hindu approaches.”

Vivekananda’s presentation was therefore less a replica of what Ramakrishna, his guru, may have taught him about yoga than a reshaping of the yoga tradition to conform to a more contemporary philosophical outlook then emerging in both India (where Western religious philosophy had gained considerable ground) and the United States. U.S. readers would have been unfamiliar with the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (upon which Raja Yoga is based). And readers in India were experiencing their own permutations of faith as Hinduism responded (in the form of “Neo-Vedantic” movements) to the complexities of colonialism and Western influences, especially Christianity.

Most Hindus would be comfortable with a disciple interpreting a tradition from his own perspective in this case, Vivekananada rearticulating Ramakrishna’s philosophy to reflect his own ideas and address the world he knew. But it may be a surprise to some modern yogis that the philosophy and practice they have embraced may not be a pure, unalloyed form of a tradition that goes back thousands of years.

De Michelis does the important work of recovering the context of social foment in which Vivekananda formulated his Raja Yoga, thereby illuminating a pivotal moment in yoga’s evolution.

Another notable contribution of her book is a kind of organizational chart detailing the various branches of Modern Yoga that, De Michelis says, grew from Vivekananda’s Raja Yoga. She focuses in much of her text on Modern Postural Yoga, which emphasizes asana practice. Most of what is called yoga in the modern world hatha yoga classes taught in studios, gyms, health clubs, and elsewhere—falls into this category. She also identifies three other branches: Modern Pyschosomatic Yoga (typified by Sivananda Yoga, among others), Modern Denominational Yoga (such as Krishna Consciousness and “late” Transcendental Meditation), and Modern Meditational Yoga (Sri Chinmoy, modern Buddhist groups, “early” TM). Although many yogis will never directly encounter these other types, De Michelis’s organizing of the many forms of yoga being taught today into these four broad categories helps us realize how many varieties of yoga there are in the world.

Having devoted the first half of her book to documenting the origins and growth of Modern Yoga, De Michelis then focuses on Iyengar Yoga as a prime example of Modern Postural Yoga, with its emphasis on the practice of poses to improve health. She beautifully traces the lineages out of which Iyengar Yoga emerged and examines its consolidation of extant practices and visions of yoga’s effects on the body. B.K.S. Iyengar’s work (drawing on that of his teacher, T. Krishnamacharya) is famous for its application of yoga as a kind of therapy for various physical conditions. She also offers in this section a very readable account of Iyengar’s life and career and a useful analysis of his three major books (Light on Yoga, Light on Pranayama, and Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali). By the end of this discussion, De Michelis’s definitions of Modern Yoga and its subtypes have become a plausible way of looking at the yoga world around us.

This book is invaluable to practitioners interested in yoga’s history and its relationship to Hinduism. Still, it isn’t for everyone. A highly scholarly work, it is at times a difficult read, especially in the first half. Those who persevere, though, will find it worth the effort. The second half flows well and is relevant to contemporary manifestations of yoga practice, both in the West and in India. But at $130 for the hardcover, this book is expensive. The publisher plans to issue a more affordable paperback edition.

Until then, perhaps the book will become available to interested yogis at libraries and established yoga centers. In any case, serious students should seek this book out. It would be a shame if this historical study did not receive wide attention within the yoga community, because it challenges us to appreciate our history as it is, not merely as we might assume it to be.

Vijaya Nagarajan is Associate Professor of South Asian Religions at the University of San Francisco and the author of the forthcoming Drawing Down Desires: Women, Ritual, and Ecology in India The Kolam.