October 25, 2011

Asanas on ice: A History of Modern Yoga

Yoga fascinates me thoroughly; it resonates from the muscles in my feet to the wiring in my skull.  That’s why I gobbled up a copy of  A History of Modern Yoga by  Elizabeth de Michelis as soon as I heard it was out there.  I knew I’d find something tasty inside.

It’s tasty as a Sweet Tart, and just as dry.  The author is a Research Fellow at the University of Cambridge, and her book is a scholar’s analysis of yoga history. Like a skilled vivisectionist, she lays bare each fiber in the body of modern yoga, names it, and shows what it’s connected to.

Like some vivisections, the process quickly extinguishes the soul of the specimen, at least for me. But in place of the soul there’s something interesting and unexpected on the table at the end.  More on that later.  First, here’s what you’ll find if you follow the bouncing scalpel through its pages.

A History of Modern Yoga begins by laying academic foundations: defining terms, describing four periods in modern yoga’s history (since 1800), summarizing the intellectual life of the figurehead of each period.  Then the focus turns to Swami Vivekananda.  Through his charisma and unschooled intuition, the author argues, this man at the turn of the 20th century influenced yoga more than anyone a century before or after him.

Vivekananda’s particular genius apparently lay in his ability to talk about yoga in terms Westerners liked.  The West was full of spiritualism at the time, some of it pretty new-agey.  The author painstakingly demonstrates how Indian thinkers absorbed these western ideas: Mesmerism, Freemasonry, Positivism, Theosophism, Transcendentalism, Christian Science, Unitarianism.  They were all among the luggage deposited by British colonialists; many Indian thinkers picked them up. Some like Vivekananda even embraced them, and modern yoga was conceived in their embrace.

Skipping most of the 20th century, the analysis then leaps forward to shine a light on B.K.S. Iyengar.  It declares him an exemplar of modern yoga, closely analyzes his written works, plots out the evolution of his thinking.  All of this is used to illustrate the book’s broader thesis: that the tradition of yoga has evolved according to the very same patterns as any other collective spiritual pursuit.

This is an interesting point, and it leads the book to an even more interesting conclusion.  Closing with reflections on yoga culture at the beginning of the 21st century, the author presents a clear and inclusive framework for categorizing styles of modern yoga. She then describes the structure of a typical modern yoga session as an embodiment of the classic format of religious rites of passage: separation (centering), transition (the asanas), and incorporation (savasana).  It’s a few pages of fascinating reading; a juicy finish to a dry meal.

As a whole, the work is exquisitely, meticulously researched. The author has a commanding knowledge of her subject matter, and I found her commentary on the work of her academic forbears and peers to be a stunning read.  I had no idea such depth of scholarship existed on the subject of yoga’s recent history.  If this book extinguishes for a few hundred pages the fire of yoga, it also illuminates a sturdy hearth of understanding that surrounds it, which people with this author’s kind of intelligence are building.

A History of Modern Yoga presents the towering figures of yoga not so much as seekers of the Truth, but as cogs in the machinery of culture.  Before reading her book I had understood yoga’s evolution as a movement of the soul.  After reading it I also understand yoga as an interaction among cultural memes. For me this is a new and cold-hearted view to absorb.

But the cold of snowflakes doesn’t keep me from loving their delicate structure, and so it is with this book. This portrait of  yoga may lack heart, but instead it places at yoga’s core a beautiful organic lattice of ideas and cultures.  As with the cold and empty reaches of space, there is profound beauty and deep mystery for me here, too.

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