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Review of Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice by Mark Singleton



Yoga is a global popular phenomenon. The United Nations officially recognizes an annual celebration promoting yoga. Indian government officials motivated by nationalist sentiments stimulated the acknowledgment. Yoga is commonly perceived to be an indigenous ancient tradition of India exported to the world. Mark Singleton’s 2010 “Yoga Body: The Origin of Modern Posture Practice” aims to explain how yoga attained such prominent placement as well as complicate the origin and development narrative that is so widely assumed. Singleton contributes a counterintuitive yet revelatory perspective on the creation of yoga as a “dialogical exchange” (Singleton 5) between Hindu nationalists located in India and western physical exercise culture during the late 19th to early 20th century.


His thesis suggests that anti-colonial romantic nationalist sentiments motivated adherents to formalize their own indigenous culture through various mediums that would be recognized internationally as indications of a strong and sovereign nation. This objective could appear problematic because it attempted adaption to an implicit Eurocentric context. The standards that they tried to be recognized by were necessarily bound to cause some mutation of whatever indigenous medium they sought to formalize. A particular focus was the international platform of physical exercise culture that originated in Europe. New innovations in health and body building spread throughout Europe and subsequently to colonies such as India through transnational institutions like the YMCA or official British administration outposts. These innovations could be seen as largely secular and scientific, however, it was the militant and quasi-religious associations that were most attuned to nationalist needs. As they saw it, western physical exercise could create strong soldiers and thus was necessary. Obviously, the exogenous nature was a contradiction.


While, as Singleton indicates, classical yoga was not mainly or even partly focused on bodily exercises, it was the closest endogenous analog. This was because it contained certain meditation postures, asanas, that could be loosely compared to forms of western postures. The religiosity around the analog also predisposed nationalists to find kindred affiliation in variants of western exercise that emphasized religion as well. Some western exercise innovators suggested that a strengthened body naturally strengthened the mind and spirit. Through the lens of Christianity, these practitioners saw their exercise as a transcendental experience. Institutions like the YMCA, a Christian physical education system, taught young Indian would-be nationalists not only these exercises but also the spiritual connection and often teachers would swap Hinduism in place of Christianity. While unusual to secular and scientific notions of exercise, especially today, the religiosity of exercise was a normative idea at the time. This further indicates why yoga was reshaped into the eventual expression of an Indian nationalist identity through physical exercise.


Singleton’s assertions generate palpable controversy for political, cultural, and business interests. The work is not without criticisms to consider, however, one must appreciate the achievements that Singleton uniquely brings to the historical discussion. Singleton clearly shows the importance of the methods of global history in answering certain questions. One cannot understand modern yoga without understanding the context and influences around its development. Any omission of the global trends discussed clouds a complete narrative and begs the question as to why there would be an international demand at the specific period of time. His evidence reveals admissions of explicit synthesis, adaptation, and equivalency of western and Indian practices by the Indian progenitors themselves.


Inversely, Singleton has shown the problems of national history methods. The adherence to a linear internal Indian development requires an imagined reconstruction of the past. There is no internal causative factor that would stimulate classical yoga, a religious and philosophical tradition, to evolve into the physical practice of modern yoga. Singleton astoundingly points out that the time immediately preceding and contemporaneous to modern yoga’s originators was so devoid of yoga that the only perception of it was traveling fakirs, known as yogins, practicing an unorthodox hatha school of yoga, contorting their body publicly for money and privately for esoteric magic that were reviled by native Indian and English colonist alike. While important to point out the problems generated from this observation, one can still enable the validity of an indigenous yoga but through a new framework of nationalist creativity to reimagine a non-linear utilitarian history.


Universalization of other cultures’ concepts rightly has a downside of potential imperialist and Eurocentric assumptions. Although, Singleton subtly brings to light a category of concept that could overcome the shortcoming. The universal nature of the human body is expressed throughout his work. Unconnected expressions of physical postures evolved convergently to some degree in Europe and India before the dialogical exchange occurred. Singleton explains this as an outcome resulting from the limited amount of postures that can be achieved through the human body. A leg can only bend in so many ways. Similarly, the body building fixation also suggested that exertion will stimulate muscle growth no matter the culture, religion, or race of the practitioner. While there are certainly overlays that are not universal on these exercises, it is wrong to not fully weigh the significance of the explanatory power of a universal concept, like the human body, in further explorations of global history.

Another global trend Singleton captures well was print and photography. Without the visual aid of mass produced photography the complicated descriptions of not only physical exercise but especially modern posture-based yoga would be unthinkable. One can see how crucial the time period is for the creation of modern yoga. Singleton asserts that a non-Indian technology was a critical catalyst for propagandizing yoga. The mass produced physical culture publications relied on photography to reveal unknown techniques to the uninitiated. The nature of this instruction method also was distinct from the traditional method of yoga teaching. A guru would individually and intimately teach a student however these photograph manuals allowed for the commodification of postures and yoga that required no direct guru to convey surface level concepts to numerous unknown practitioners.


Singleton’s focus on medium of transmission additionally explains the histories of non-postural and postural yoga. Many yoga popularizers and apologists of the turn of the century, like Swami Vivekananda or even Europeans leaning towards Orientalism, considered the ancient textual scripts of yoga, that mostly focused on non-postural aspects, as the true yoga. This was at odds with the lived reality of the hatha (posture based) yoga practicing fakirs. The obscure fakirs knowledge transfer methods at a time of no mass produced print photography resulted in an impediment to wide-spread understanding. The preference for textual validation not only distorted the yoga apologist writers, but can distort any current approach to historical methodology. Singleton comments both on his subject matter at hand and the historical discipline. These contributions merit the work as a positive force in better understanding the answers to certain questions around the history of modern yoga, methodologies of global and national history, and the concepts employed within them. This is not to say the work is without criticism.


The most glaring weakness of the work is the lack of in-depth biographical detail of the main subjects. Singleton provides limited and perhaps arbitrary biographical information that advances his argument but leaves the reader wanting. Attributes like class, education, and personal formative experiences would have better explained the motivations and selection of the subjects. Swami Vivekananda’s education in western philosophy and history might have been revealing evidence of his motivation to sanitize and modernize yoga in a Christian reformationist fashion without having to always rely on the circumstantial loose influences. Vivekananda’s wider project of Indian nationalist assertion on an international stage is only briefly commented on as a passing thought. He stood on a stage in 1893 at the Chicago Parliament of Religions, organized to show the unity of the world’s religions, to represent Hinduism. Further information as to why and how he was chosen for this role and how this related to his yoga writing is vitally important. Another example concerns Maharaja Krishnaraja Wadiyar IV of Mysore. He is portrayed as a noble patron of emerging yoga educators yet this is where his story stops short. Wadiyar IV, at the time, was among the richest men of India and the world. He was internationally proclaimed as the wisest statesmen modernizing and progressing Mysore. He was educated by the European, Sir Stuart Fraser. These details and more paint Wadiyar IV with an agenda to push India into the modern era through western technology and ideas. This nationalist modernization and desire for international acclaim, mirrored by anti-colonial global discourse, of this leader would have added substantial context to the work’s argument. Singleton should not be expected to write a biography of every subject but his work would be aided by more inclusion of biographical details that have dependent relationships on his assertions.


Singleton omits details about his subjects and omits important subjects altogether. If his purpose is to explain the rise of popular modern yoga around the world and the nationalist tendencies around it, is it not remarkable to note the absence of India’s first prime minister? Jawaharal Nehru was a central nationalist figure and most importantly, for the considerations of this work, was an avid yoga practitioner. So much so that he supported domestic policy for rearing school children in yoga, officially supported and used yoga teachers as foreign ambassadors, and is even photographed performing advanced asana postures in western media. Although perhaps most concerning, Nehru was taught by Swami Kuvalayananda who is among the prominent yoga creators of Singleton’s work. Any exploration of the origins of modern yoga to an international audience is incomplete without at least once mentioning the most prominent government official of an independent India that enacted hard and soft policies to evangelize it.


Singleton might be accommodated by his caveats of mainly focusing on the late 19th to early 20th century. Although his stated objective is to better explain the history of modern yoga today and not an episode of it. He will casually refer to occurrences outside of his range and to current day but ultimately shies away from expansion. His caveats and parameters extend to his sources. He chooses to mostly examine English language sources because his primary definition of modern yoga is transnational anglophone yoga. This may leave out important sources in other languages. His definition acknowledges the schism of Indian yoga and modern yoga. The internal discussion around the propagation of Indian variants and how they are critical of posture-based and secularized modern yoga could complete the speckled indications we see through Singleton’s chosen subjects.


Incompleteness observed in his empirical evidence can also be shown in his logical assertions. The circumstantial global landscape portrayed by Singleton is useful but not sufficient in conclusive findings. His elaboration on western female harmonial gymnastics is illustrative of convergent physicality, demand for new physical and spiritual customs, and even interesting cameos by Indian yoga popularizers but does not show the definitive connection to what would evolve to be modern yoga. Singleton purports that harmonial gymnastics was intertwined and is a parent of modern yoga but the logic of the evidence he presents indicates it was merely running parallel. For example, Vivekananda does appear in these circles during his trips in America but doesn’t significantly lead any movement to envelope them under yoga. He is merely a bystander and fellow traveler of the global physical culture. This section of the work and Singleton’s emphasized connection it must have to present day yoga is a bit spurious.


A similar weakness in logic is shown by his inability to fully explain why hatha yoga of the scorned fakirs, which was the most associated conception of yoga at the time, was sanitized for Vivekananda’s non-posture and anti-hatha yoga of the 1890s but then revived in the yoga of evangelizers in the 1930s while retaining the sanitized connotation. In only the most elusive ways does hatha posture yoga infuse back into the discourse through individuals that might use its name but see it as simply exercise. Even if these individuals wanted the infusion to occur, its unstated of how the wider population came to forget or accept hatha yoga. Singleton suggests that the militant nature of particular fakir war bands against colonial rule led to nationalists to disguise themselves as fakirs to teach martial strength exercises under the alibi of hatha yoga. This may explain the attraction of a convenient ploy to assist an undercurrent of anti-colonial nationalism but it doesn’t explain why the choice was made, without need of a disguise, to define physical exercise as hatha yoga.

This leads to the infamous controversy around his work. Singleton claims he doesn’t suggest that modern yoga is not Indian or connected to classical yoga, however, while he may provide this shibboleth his chosen evidence and a few of his own commentaries hint otherwise:

Ultimately, Krishnamacharya’s sublimation of twentieth-century gymnastic forms into the Ptañjala tradition is less an indication of a historically traceable “classical” sana lineage than of the modern project of grafting gymnastic or aerobic sana practice onto the Yogastras, and the creation of a new tradition. (Singleton 186)

It is hard for one to interpret that any other way besides an exposure of the disconnectedness of modern yoga from classical yoga. This among other statements by Singleton show that his argument is more caustic than he portrays it to be. An alternative conclusion based on his evidence and logic could very well be that modern yoga was very much an appropriation of western physical exercise. An interesting debate could ensue about the difference between translation and synthesis among cultures. Translation is simply using native language and concepts to explain foreign ideas. Synthesis is the merging of components from both. If the closest native Indian association to western physical exercise were the asanas of yoga, it is not illogical to see why the nomenclature would develop in the path described by Singleton.


“Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice” achieves its objective in uncovering unknown factors that developed modern yoga. It offers a new insight in contrast to narrow linear histories. Its insight illustrates that history can develop like the roots of a tree. The roots might be widely separated, disconnected, intertwining, or even converging from split ends into a unified root. Ultimately, all these roots combine to present the tree that is Singleton’s modern yoga. Further discussion might be best suited to expand upon universal concepts in global history and reevaluation of other national histories. Singleton and other yoga scholars should be encouraged to investigate more time periods and individual persons in shaping modern yoga. Examples to examine might be Nehru’s post-colonial India, the rise of Lululemon’s yoga capitalism, and India’s BJP’s agendas of which BJP Prime Minister Modi has become a yoga avatar.

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