Mark Singleton’s Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice – A Synopsis, Review and Personal Perspective

Click here for pdf.





Yoga as modern postural practice

Perceptions of yogins during European colonial expansion

India and modern physical culture

Yoga as physical culture

The āsana revival

Two Observations

Is modern postural yoga all modern then?

Coming to terms with yoga’s youth

Crisis of Faith?

Personally Speaking

Assimilation or Rejection of Research Findings?




To cite this article


Printing errors and textual corrections


Click here for pdf.

Mark Singleton’s Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice
– A Synopsis, Review and Personal Perspective

By Estian Smit

July 2012

Abstract: Mark Singleton’s Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice (Oxford University Press, 2010, viii + 262pp)[1] is an investigation into the roots and early development of contemporary transnational (anglophone) yoga, specifically looking at its curious transformation from a predominantly anti-āsana philosophical outlook around the close of the nineteenth century into an almost exclusively āsana-based practice during the first half of the twentieth century. Singleton’s study reveals the decisive role that the ideals and practices of the international physical culture movement as well as Hindu nationalism played in the reinvention of haṭha yoga for modern middleclass audiences preoccupied with holistic health, fitness, strength and self-improvement. The present essay offers a comprehensive synopsis of Singleton’s Yoga Body, followed by an assessment of Singleton’s findings and a personal perspective (as former yoga practitioner) on their broader significance. I also look at the popular and academic reception of the work and conclude with a few final remarks on, among others, the importance of reflexivity in yoga scholarship.

Back to top


Yoga’s worldwide appeal among eager spiritual seekers and health and fitness enthusiasts alike often rests on the uncritical assumption that the practice of āsana (posture) constituted a central and age-old component of Indian yoga traditions. Supposedly intuited by wise enlightened masters during deep meditation and passed on to disciples down lineages spanning many centuries (if not millennia), it is thought by many to embody a tried and tested method for holistic wellbeing – both physical, mental and spiritual. True, not all yoga enthusiasts may be equally keen on exploring yoga’s supposed spiritual or esoteric dimensions (that is, its potential as a path to spiritual enlightenment), but few would not laud, or at least assent to, its exceptional health benefits. Even fewer would question the ‘ancient’ origins of the plethora of yoga postures and styles we see around us today. Both in India (where the Indian government has been trying to protect yoga postures against attempts to patent or copyright them) and elsewhere in the world, the belief tends to be that āsana practice is a special form of knowledge indigenous to Indian soil and possessing roots that reach far back in Indian history.[2]

Mark Singleton’s work, Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice, presents us with a fine piece of investigative historical research that challenges many of the common assumptions about the evolution and transmission of modern yoga practice. He specifically looks at how yoga was transformed into, or rather invented as, a form of transnational anglophone postural practice over the past century or so. Singleton shows how, far from having developed as a purely indigenous Indian affair, contemporary posture-based yoga evolved under the influence of various Western physical culture practices which had gained popularity in India under British colonial rule. These included the Scandinavian gymnastics systems inspired by P.H. Ling (1776-1839), European and American bodybuilding regimes inspired by Eugen Sandow (1867-1925), and the physical education programmes of the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA). Moreover, modern yoga was decisively shaped by Hindu nationalist aspirations for a uniquely Indian form of exercise in response to British colonialist conceptions of masculine health and strength.

Specialising in the history of ideas of transnational yoga and currently teaching in religious studies at St. John’s College, Sante Fe, New Mexico, Singleton is himself a long-time yoga practitioner and a former student at the University of Cambridge under Elizabeth De Michelis, who is known among others for her work A History of Modern Yoga: Patañjali and Western Esotericism (2004). In bringing us Yoga Body Singleton has been commended by scholars for providing a well-researched and nuanced account of some of the hitherto neglected aspects of yoga’s recent history. By revealing the recent origins of much of modern yoga practice, specifically how it has developed under the influence of the international physical culture movement, Singleton by implication divested modern āsana-based yoga of much of its supposed ancient Indian roots and founding myths, thereby presenting a perspective that is all but palatable to groups and individuals of Hindu nationalist and traditionalist persuasion.

In what follows I give a detailed synopsis of Singleton’s book, followed by two main observations. The first relates to the nature of āsana-based yoga as a modern phenomenon, questioning whether Yoga Body’s neglect of local Indian exercise traditions may not have created a somewhat one-sided picture of the influences and value systems that helped shaped modern postural yoga. In this regard I consider possible implications that Joseph Alter’s work on the somatic ideologies of traditional Indian wrestlers may have for contextualising the emergence of postural yoga. My second observation concerns the impact on yoga practitioners of scholarly revelations about contemporary yoga’s youth and hybrid cross-cultural nature. I look at popular interviews where Mark Singleton remarks on the reception of his work by other yoga practitioners and intimates something of his own response (as committed yoga practitioner) to the information he came across during the course of his research. This is followed by a personal perspective on how historical and cultural analyses presented by research such Yoga Body provided me with one of the means of making sense of my own past as disillusioned yoga practitioner and devotee. I then speculate on factors that may influence the assimilation or rejection of research findings by yoga practitioners. Next follows a look at the reception of Yoga Body in scholarly circles. In conclusion I note that although the work may have benefited from a more developed theoretical framework, a stronger narrative and greater scholarly reflexivity, it nonetheless constitutes a valuable contribution to our understanding of the initial development of āsana-based yoga, and will no doubt stimulate further research in the various areas it touches on.

Back to top


Yoga as modern postural practice

Historically, the practice of postures did not seem to play a prominent role in Indian yoga traditions. In fact, as Singleton points out, little over a century ago yogic postures were still widely repudiated as unseemly bodily contortions belonging to a repertoire of weird practices associated with naked, hashish-smoking, mendicant yogins who were shunned by Indian society at large. When Vivekananda (1863-1902) formulated his groundbreaking synthesis of yoga for an international audience in the 1890s, thereby setting the scene for a modern universalist Hinduism, it was a decidedly intellectual framework in which the contortions of yogins found no place. Vivekananda and other early exponents of modern yoga were careful to disassociate themselves from such physical practices – which they tended to view as a form of spiritual degradation rather than a spiritual aid.

Given such unfavourable perceptions of yogic postures at the turn of the twentieth century, Singleton finds it interesting that āsana, or posture, nonetheless became the defining feature of transnational yoga only a few decades later. In Yoga Body he therefore seeks to determine when and how yogic postures underwent the kind of radical transformation that catapulted them from censure and ridicule into the widespread popularity and respectability they enjoy today. In his Introduction (3-23), Singleton formulates the historical questions at the heart of his research as follows:

“[W]hy is āsana and haṭha yoga more generally, absent from early popular instruction manuals of yoga? What were the conditions whereby postural practice could, by the mid-twentieth century, rise to prominence as the single most important feature of transnational yoga, to become, in certain non-Asian contexts, a virtual synonym for yoga itself? […H]ow do these modern forms mediate their supposed relationship with the medieval haṭha yoga traditions of which they often claim to be heir?” (Singleton 2010:6).

Singleton’s research builds on the work of a number of scholars (among others, Joseph Alter, Gudrun Bühnemann, Elizabeth De Michelis, Norman Sjoman and David Gordon White) who contributed significant and pioneering work on various aspects of the history of modern yoga. In trying to explain the curious “passage from Vivekananda’s āsana-free manifestos of yoga in the mid-1890s to the well-known posture-oriented forms that began to emerge in the 1920s”, Singleton claims to focus on a transition not yet sufficiently addressed in previous studies, thereby filling a critical gap in our understanding of the early development of modern transnational yoga (my emphasis, 4).

Given the scope of his investigation, Singleton opts for only a very brief treatment of premodern yoga traditions, devoting himself to the more immediately relevant trends of the seventeenth to twentieth centuries. The bulk of the study deals with developments during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, which represent the crucial period of yoga’s reinvention as postural practice.

As highlighted by Singleton, the comeback of haṭha yoga in the form of modern transnational yoga was mainly an anglophone phenomenon, both in India and elsewhere (9-10). His primary sources therefore include popular yoga manuals written in English and published from roughly the late 1800s to 1935 in India, Britain and the United States (5). This spans the crucial period during which āsana moved from its discredited position at the margins and steadily closer towards the very centre of transnational yoga (which it eventually fully occupied from the 1950s onwards). A hint as to how this surprising move could have taken place, can be found in the early yoga manuals themselves. According to Singleton, the manuals compare yoga postures with gymnastics, revealing the extent to which anglophone postural yoga was embedded in modern discourses on physical culture, health and fitness. As such their authors readily deviated from the belief systems contained in medieval haṭha yoga ‘classics’ – such as the Śiva Saṃhitā, Haṭhayogapradīpikā and Gheraṇḍa Saṃhitā – by omitting elements incompatible with modern discourses (7).

Singleton’s first chapter presents “A Brief Overview of Yoga in the Indian Tradition” (25-33). Regarding āsana in premodern history, it is significant to note that only a small of number of postures figured within medieval haṭha yoga traditions. Standing postures, for instance, which constitute a large part of today’s popular yoga repertoire, were absent. Moreover, the practice and uses of postures were conceived very differently from what we find in today’s modern yoga studios and international ashrams. Singleton points out that (barring certain seated meditational postures such as padmāsana and siddhāsana) there is scant evidence of postures ever having played a significant part in Indian yoga traditions (3, 32).

There is also not significant evidence that any of these postures hail back to an ancient period of Indian history. Contrary to popular belief, it is highly questionable whether a few selected Indus Valley seals (such as the Paśupati seal of a horned seated figure) truly represent evidence of ancient āsana practice (25). According to Singleton, although texts from the subsequent Vedic period mention austerities performed by ascetics, the term ‘yoga’ only starts appearing from around the third century BCE in some of the Upaniṣads.[3] It also occurs in various contexts and with diverse meanings in the Bhagavad Gitā, the Yogasūtras (c. 250 CE?) attributed to Patañjali, the Yogasūtrabhāṣya attributed to Vyāsa (c. 500-600 CE), and the Śaiva Tantras and other Āgamic works (26-7). However, in all of them “not much emphasis is placed on the practice of āsana” (27).

Singleton says it was only from the thirteen century that haṭha yoga thrived in India (27). Under Moghul rule many of its practitioners were militant ascetics who made a successful living as religious trade soldiers. But haṭha yoga started waning in the eighteenth century when the British arrived. Experiencing yogins’ control over trade routes in North India as an economic and political threat, the British increasingly policed their activities and banned their practices – such as wandering naked carrying weapons (39-40). As a result, haṭha yogins had to seek an alternative livelihood in “yogic showmanship and mendicancy, becoming objects of scorn for many sections of Hindu society, and of voyeuristic fascination or disgust for European visitors” (my emphasis, 40).

Singleton also highlights the fact that “militant yogins of all lineages engaged in exercise regimes designed to inure their bodies to the harsh physical conditions of the itinerant life and to prepare them for combat” (my emphasis, 40). Although their military drills might not have overlapped with their haṭha yoga practice, Singleton opines that the association of both elements with a yogic lifestyle does go some way towards explaining how modern yoga could later develop into a “physical culture-oriented practice” (41).

Back to top

Perceptions of yogins during European colonial expansion

Chapters two and three of the Yoga Body investigate representations and perceptions of haṭha yoga and yogins during the seventeenth to early twentieth centuries. Singleton consulted European travelogues, scholarly works, illustrated periodicals, popular esoteric works, ethnographies, newspaper advertisements and early films, illustrating how in this era “the yogin, and the postural austerities he undertakes, are objects of moral and judicial censure, disgust, and morbid fascination” (6).

In the second chapter, “Fakirs, Yogins, Europeans” (35-53), Singleton presents examples of European travellers’ perceptions of the itinerant holy men of India at the time of modern Europe’s colonial expansion. The different orders of Hindu yogins and Mohammedan fakirs tended to be lumped together into a single category by outsiders, who indiscriminately applied the terms “yogi”, “sannyasi” or “sannyasi fakir” to all (36).

According to Singleton, seventeenth-century European observers like François Bernier, Jean-Baptiste Tavernier, John Ovington, Jean de Thevenot and John Fryer all to a greater or lesser extent deplored the appearance and practices of Indian yogins. These included “overgrown nails that pierce the flesh of the hand, dislocated arms, and excruciating postures held for so long that the limbs in question become ossified and shrivelled” (39). Variously described as “madness”, “extravagances”, “difficult and painful”, “contrary to the natural attitude of the human body” and having a “sordid aspect” (37-38), their accounts left no doubt as to how disagreeable, if fascinating, they found yogic practices.

Singleton (41-44) also documents how Western scholars of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (e.g. E.W. Hopkins, W.J. Wilkins, M. Monier-Williams, Max Müller and Max Weber) held much the same attitudes. Haṭha yogins were cast as charlatans and associated with religious decline and a superstitious mindset rather than as true representatives of yoga or Hinduism. Religious legitimacy was reserved for those devotional, intellectual and contemplative strands in Hindu traditions which most closely approximated a European intellectual and Christian paradigm. This resulted in privileging Sāṃkhya and Vedānta teachings, as well as the more sedentary “Vaiṣṇava forms of belief and praxis, over the apparently distasteful religious exhibitions of Śaiva yogins” (42).

As pointed out by Singleton, translators and interpreters of ‘classical’ haṭha yoga texts for English-speaking audiences of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries tended to be equally negative toward haṭha yogins, despite finding the texts of enough interest to translate them (44). English translations in circulation at the time included those of Richard Schmidt, C.R.S. Ayangar, N. Iyer, B.N. Banerjee and Pancham Sinh. More important, however, was the work of S.C. Vasu, who contributed among the most popular and widely available early translations of texts such as the Śiva Saṃhitā and Gheraṇḍa Saṃhitā. His editions helped determine the selection of texts for a modern haṭha ‘canon’. He also influenced the position haṭha yoga would occupy within modern anglophone yoga and within the modern ‘free-thinking’ Hinduism promoted by fellow reformers like his brother and editor, Major B.D. Basu (44-46).

According to Singleton, what was at stake for writers like Vasu was “a redefinition of the yogin, in which the grassroots practitioner of haṭha methods [had] no part. The modern yogin [had to] be scientific where the haṭha yogin [was] not” (47). However, whereas haṭha yogins themselves were seen as irredeemable embarrassments to Hinduism, haṭha texts proved amenable to modernisation and reinterpretation in the light of rational and scientific values (49-50). Recasting haṭha yoga as a scientific and medical project was crucial to its reinvention.

Singleton (52) cites a work by Dr N.C. Paul (Navīna Candra Pāla) in 1850 as possibly the first attempt at a rapprochement between haṭha teachings and modern medical science. Paul explored the degree of correspondence between haṭha yoga’s theory of cakras and Western anatomy, and discussed yogic control over physiology (such as feats entailing suspension of breath and blood circulation) in medical scientific terms. He did not receive his knowledge from haṭha yogins, however, but from texts and a British army deserter (a Captain Seymour) who had escaped several mental institutions to become a yogi! As Singleton observes:

“It may indeed seem ironic that this earliest study of haṭha yoga as medical science is based on the account of a ‘gone-native’ English informant as recorded by an anglicized Indian, but it is nonetheless typical of the way modern, anglophone interpretations of yoga are filtered through apparently disparate cultural lenses, and of the lack of direct ethnographic contact and engagement with lineages of practicing yogins” (Singleton 2010:52-53).

In essays published in 1888 and 1889, Major Basu started “a mapping of tantric body symbolism onto Western anatomy” (50), claiming – despite lack of supportive evidence – that Hindus had historically practiced dissection and were familiar with the brain, spinal cord and central nervous system (50-51).

Singleton concludes the second chapter remarking that the early efforts of people like Vasu, Basu and Paul to get yoga assimilated into the Western scientific paradigm are in part responsible for the fact that nowadays “some fourteen million Americans are recommended yoga by their therapist or doctor (Yoga Journal 2008)” (53).

The third chapter, “Popular Portrayals of the Yogin” (55-80), deals with the yogin as public performer of various weird contortions and austerities in a bid to survive. Yogins began assuming this role from the seventeenth century onwards, and especially so in the nineteenth century when the British made it impossible for them to continue in their role as ascetic mercenaries (55). Images of their performances were widely circulated in the printed media, turning the yogin into “a familiar component of the ‘exotic East’” (21-22; also 56).

Singleton (55-59) points out that prior to the first visits of performing Indian yogins to the West (such as that of Baba Lakṣmaṇḍas to London in 1897), contortion as public display had already been familiar to Europe: For centuries European “Posture Masters” had shown off their abilities to bend and twist their bodies at royal courts, fairs and saturnalia (my emphasis, 58). This phenomenon continued in a modified form in later contortionists. During the 1890s, for instance, the British and American press were regularly entertaining readers with reports and pictures of contortionists like “Ames, the boneless wonder” and “Marinelli, the Man Snake” (57-58). Singleton draws our attention to the fact that

“[t]here is a clear circumscribed vocabulary of postural forms both within the posture-master tradition and among later performers […]. Many of the most common positions are a perfect match with the advanced postures of popular postural yoga today, coincidences that may be at least partially due to the structure and limitations of the human body itself” (Singleton 2010:59).

Singleton (59-63) then provides a fascinating photo-montage comparing eight postures from Thomas Dwight’s “Anatomy of a Contortionist” in 1889 with near identical poses of B.K.S. Iyengar in his Light on Yoga of 1966. Although Singleton is careful not to suggest that modern yoga took its postures from Western contortionists, this does illustrate that many of the poses presented to us today as advanced yoga poses, are not at all unique to India and its yogins.

The third chapter continues with a discussion of European occultists’ interest in yogi-fakirs, mostly dealing with the first half of the twentieth century. European occultists associated the practice of yoga with the attainment of siddhis or magical powers, and frequently claimed that they had experienced or mastered these themselves. Such writers included Paul Sédir (Yves Le Loup), O. Hashnu Hara, Fairfax Asturel, Ernest Bosc, Louis Jacolliot, Aleister Crowley (as Mahatma Guru Sri Paramahansa Shivaji) and Victor Dane, among others (64-68). As Singleton points out:

“These books are full of fortunetellers, sorcerers, and miracle workers and are clearly designed to enthrall and entertain […]. They appeal to an esoteric audience thirsty for stories about the yogic magicians of the mystical East and are rarely reliable when it comes to information regarding the techniques and belief frameworks of yogins” (Singleton 2010:64).

Singleton remarks on the need of modern, educated Hindus of the period to distance themselves from Śaiva yogins – in the interest of gaining respect for Hinduism in European eyes (69). He then dedicates the remainder of the third chapter to anti-haṭha sentiments in Swami Vivekananda, Max Müller, Madame H.P. Blavatsky and the first popular yoga manuals.

According to Singleton, in its initial stages, before its later mutation into a predominantly posture-based practice, transnational anglophone yoga was largely defined by the influential formulations of Vivekananda (1863-1902) in the 1890s. His Raja Yoga of 1896 largely rejected the physical practices of haṭha yoga as not conducive to spiritual attainment, regarding them as similar to the exercises of European teachers such as François Delsarte. In Vivekananda’s view Raja Yoga had a much higher aim, which was spiritual, not physical (70-71). However, as noted by Singleton:

“Clearly Vivekananda thought the haṭha tradition important enough to take these texts [i.e. medieval texts such as the Haṭha Yoga Pradīpikā and Śiva Saṃhitā] into consideration in the concoction of his modern yoga doctrine, but he ultimately rejected the ends and the means of haṭha practitioners as an impediment to and distraction from the real work of the mind and spirit. […I]n his writings before and after Raja Yoga, the haṭha practitioner is consistently qualified […] as essentially deluded with regard to the true meaning of yoga” (Singleton 2010:72).

Max Müller (1823-1900), who was nineteenth-century Europe’s chief scholarly authority on Indian religion, did not approve of the practical aspects of Vivekananda’s modern yoga project. However, his admiration for intellectualist forms of yoga in line with the Vedānta and Sāṃkhya philosophies, his disdain for haṭha yogins, and his praise for Ramakrishna (Vivekananda’s guru) proved useful to Vivekananda in promoting his own vision (cf. Singleton 2010:43, 75-76).

Madame Blavatsky (1831-1891), one of the founders of the Theosophical Society, was an important figure in the shaping of modern yoga. The Theosophical Society published esoteric works on yoga and other subjects, including early translations of haṭha texts. However, like Vivekananda and Max Müller, Madame Blavatsky firmly rejected haṭha practices, portraying its practitioners as persons who are selfish, conversing “with the devil and in whom ascetic practices are ‘une maladie héréditaire’ ([Blavatsky] 1982e:51)” (77).

Early twentieth-century yoga guides published for the popular esoteric market largely followed suit in condemning or altogether omitting the practice of postures as part of yoga (77-80). Singleton for instance quotes R. Dimsdale Stocker’s primer, Yoga Methods, which claimed that “‘attention to diet, regularity in meals and sleep, relaxation, cleanliness, and the art of respiration may be said to constitute the sum total of Hatha Yoga or physical regeneration’ ([Stocker] 1906:29)” (78-79).

Back to top

India and modern physical culture

Chapters four and five of Yoga Body investigate how the practices and exercise regimens of the modern international physical culture movement were assimilated in India. These two chapters prepare the ground for subsequent chapters’ unpacking of the crucial role played by physical culture practices in the development of modern yoga as postural practice.

The fourth chapter, “India and the International Physical Culture Movement” (81-94), presents a brief overview of some of the most prominent British, European and American physical culture systems, which also found their way to India during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This happened against the background of a European zeitgeist increasingly preoccupied with issues of moral and physical regeneration – concerns which were relayed to India under colonial rule. In many circles there was a perceived need to counteract an overemphasis on the intellect and restore the physical and spiritual dimensions of humankind. Singleton indicates that it was this same “individual and nationalist nostalgia for wholeness” that inspired both early physical culture systems and the development of new forms of yoga (my emphasis, 84).

An interest in promoting nationalist, “man-making” exercise routines began developing in Germany towards the end of the eighteenth century and spread throughout Europe and Britain during the nineteenth century (82). At the end of the nineteenth century the term “physical culture” came to refer to various athletic, gymnastic and fitness practices and it also “bound together a cluster of ideological items, including manliness, morality, patriotism, fair play, and faith”, which had come to be known as “Muscular Christianity” (my emphasis, 83). The latter became prevalent in English public schools and universities, as well as in society at large due to bodies like the Young Men’s Christian Organisation (YMCA) and Salvation Army. Muscular Christianity practically transformed the idea of “a sound mind in a sound body” into a new “article of faith” (83).

During the nineteenth century the apparatus-based gymnastics of Archibald Maclaren (1819?-1884) became the physical training method of the British military and public education system. But since the apparatus was expensive, the Maclaren system came to be superseded in the early twentieth century by the freestanding Swedish gymnastics system developed by Per Henrik Ling (1766-1839) and his successors. As was the case with the Maclaren system, it too became popular in colonised India due to the anglicized educational system and military (84-85).

According to Singleton (84), Ling-based gymnastics decisively shaped not only modern physical culture, but also the development of postural yoga. Forming part of an already existing tradition of “medical gymnastics”, its therapeutic focus lent it the name “movement cure” (my emphasis, 84). Ling’s tradition provided the model for modern postural yoga as “a health and hygiene regime for body and mind based on posture and ‘free’ movement” (85). In this regard Singleton (partly drawing on the work of Joseph Alter) notes how āsana was often presented as an Indian form of “curative gymnastics” (86) and later assimilated under modern Nature Cure, thereby greatly contributing to haṭha yoga’s demystification and secularisation (87):

“This widespread understanding that āsanas were essentially medical and curative in function had the effect of relegating the esoteric specifics of haṭha yoga to a subsidiary position” (Singleton 2010:87).

Singleton points out that even where authors insist that āsana surpasses Western gymnastics in its holism and spirituality, they seldom elaborate on what the qualitative difference is supposed to consist of (88).

Another big influence on the development of postural yoga discussed by Singleton (88-90) was the growing popularity of bodybuilding as an international physical culture practice, which extended to India at the beginning of the twentieth century. Although it was the YMCA’s Robert J. Roberts who conceived the term ‘bodybuilding’ in 1881, it was the Prussian Eugen Sandow (1867-1925) who propelled it into a worldwide practice through his magazine and international demonstrations, including in India, where he was a cultural icon (88-89). Sandow’s ideas on exercise as a form of religious practice helped facilitate “Indian nationalistic fusions of religion and bodybuilding, such as the heady blends of patriotic Hinduism and physical culture in the Bengali samitis” (my emphasis, 89). Yoga was often cast

“as a form of bodybuilding, and vice versa, although […] the latter term had a much greater semantic breadth than it does today, connoting a whole range of health and fitness activities that included, but were not confined to, the genre of weight-resistance body sculpting” (Singleton 2010:89).

During the first half of the twentieth century the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) was instrumental in making physical education morally and socially acceptable in India (92). YMCA philosophy consisted of the values and ideals of American Christianity, also coming to include a notion of physical exercise as “a somatic tool of moral reform” and a focus on the balanced development of mind-body-spirit (91) – an approach it shared with the gymnastic systems of the period (92). At first under the pioneering leadership of J.H. Gray (YMCA physical director in India), then under H.C. Buck (founder of the YMCA College of Physical Education, Chennai) and P.M. Joseph (Buck’s successor), an “eclectic vision” was developed for physical education in India, incorporating both indigenous and foreign elements (91-93). Ironically, āsana, among others, also came to be promoted “as a component of the overarching ethos of Christian piety and service at the heart of the ‘Y’ ideology” (92).[4]

The fifth chapter, “Modern Indian Physical culture: Degeneracy and Experimentation” (pp.95-111), starts an investigation into how Indians appropriated the practices and values of modern physical culture in the form of local eugenics and nationalist discourses.

Ideas concerning humanity’s moral and physical degeneration during an age of industrialisation and an urge to reverse this perceived downward trend became increasingly prevalent in the West towards the end of the nineteenth century. These concerns about moral and physical degeneracy were also projected onto the Indian cultural milieu by British colonisers, taking the form of racist stereotypes of Indian effeminacy and inspiring a “colonial man-making project” whereby Indians were to be helped to raise themselves to idealised images of English masculinity and moral conduct (81-82, 95-97). To some extent such concerns resonated with local Indian religious philosophies which held that we are living in an age of decline. According to Singleton (drawing on Sen),

“The pervasive discourse of Indian effeminacy ‘generated an obsessive search on the part of Indian males for properly masculine bodies, and this search led them to the gymnasium, the wrestling akhara, the playing field and the military recruitment office’ (Sen 2004:70). It became vitally important to reverse the debility myth by representing Indian bodies not only as strong in themselves but also as capable of vanquishing the champions of Europe: physical fitness and strength thus became a potent expression of cultural politics” (my emphasis, Singleton 2010:96).

Social Darwinist, Lamarckian and eugenics theories caught the imaginations of Europeans and Indians alike during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, exercising a significant influence on the emerging Indian nationalist movement and leading to the formation of eugenics societies in India from the 1920s. Physical culture was regarded as an important means to bring about racial improvement, which also included a stronger emphasis on physical exercise for women (97-98). Singleton remarks that “many modern transnational anglophone yoga teachers were very receptive to core eugenic beliefs” and “yoga came to be seen in some quarters as a kind of transgenerational fast track to genetic and spiritual perfection” (my emphasis, 98).

Singleton (98-106) then briefly discusses some of the early figures who promoted Indian nationalist ideals with physical culture as important component, among others, Bankimchandra Chatterji, Sarala Debi Ghosal, Vivekananda, Sister Nivedita, Aurobindo Ghosh, B.G. Tilak, Sri Raghavendra Rao (Tiruka) and Rajaratna Manick Rao.

The writings of Bankimcandra Chatterji (1838-1894), particularly his novel Ānandamaṭh in 1882, played a significant role in pioneering a modern religious nationalism for upper-class Hindus. By blending Vaiṣṇava, Śaiva and Śakta aspects, Chatterji offered a way of uniting Hindus from different traditions behind a supposedly non-sectarian sanātana dharma. In the process he also carved out the precise place of physical culture within Bengal’s socio-religious reform movement (Singleton 2010:98-99, drawing on Chatterjee & Lipner 2005 and Wakankar 1995).

Sarala Debi Ghosal (1872-1946) was inspired by the patriotic heroines in Chatterji’s novels and became one of the driving forces behind the development of a “militant nationalist physical culture” (99), among others encouraging martial arts training and the establishment of physical culture clubs (akhāṛas) (100, 101). The men from her gymnasium often worked together with Aurobindo Ghosh (1872-1950), another prominent Indian nationalist and freedom fighter – later turned yoga guru – who had a physical culture agenda of his own (101). In addition, she was in contact with Vivekananda (1863-1902), who made use of rather unorthodox re-interpretations of Hindu religious texts to support his ideas about the necessity of a strong physique for spiritual self-realisation (100-101). As pointed out by Singleton,

“While […] Vivekananda scorned the practices of haṭha yoga and does not seem to have made the link between āsana and physical culture, [his] equation of bodily strength and spiritual merit […] was to become central to the merger between the physical culture movement and haṭha yoga itself” (Singleton 2010:101).

Another campaigner for physical culture was B.G. Tilak (1856-1920), a prominent nationalist and agitator for Indian Independence (101). He assisted the yogic physical culture pioneer, Prof. K. Ramamurthy, and possibly influenced Bhavanrao Pant Pratinidhi (1868-1951), the Rajah of Aundh, who was a dedicated bodybuilder and the creator of sūryanamaskār as a modern dynamic exercise sequence (101-102, 124).

Singleton mentions that some militant nationalists and freedom fighters used yoga practice as a front for instruction in violent methods of resistance. One of them was Tiruka, or Sri Raghavendra Rao, who pretended to be a travelling guru teaching yoga, while in reality training recruits in a combination of exercise and combat practices (103). As Singleton observes:

“To ‘do yoga’ or to be a yogi in this sense meant to train oneself as a guerrilla, using whichever martial and body-strengthening techniques were to hand, and it is thus that the yoga tradition itself, as Roselli [1980:147] puts it, ‘could be used to underwrite both violence and non-violence’” (my emphasis, Singleton 2010:104).

In a way, the violent, institutionalised ascetic of India’s recent past was creatively re-fashioned by nationalists like Tiruka “to fit current needs and future aspirations” (my emphasis, 102; also 101,106). The “close relationship that obtained between nationalist struggle on the one hand and the early formulations of modern (postural) yoga on the other”, is highlighted by the interesting fact of Tiruka’s own teachers – who included Rajaratna Manick Rao, a figure instrumental in the infusion of physical cultural principles in the akhāṛa; yogic physical culture pioneer, Swami Kuvalayananda; the influential modern transnational gurus, Swami Sivananda of Rishikesh and Paramahaṃsa Yogananda, as well as the Rajah of Aundh (103-104).

Depending on the context and discourse at work, the haṭha yogi could either be cast as “reviled other” or held up as “the ideal of embodied power in the world” (106). Regarding the latter, Singleton notes how modern physical culture proponents in India often selectively “combined in themselves the mythos of the medieval siddha[5] with the modern day strong man” (my emphasis, 106). In the early twentieth century, modern yogic showmen such as Deshbandhu and Professor K. Ramamurthy impressed their audiences by breaking iron chains and letting heavy carts pass over their bodies, ascribing their physical strength to yogic science, prāṇāyāma and āsana, and asserting that Indian systems of exercise were superior to Western ones (106-107). This notwithstanding the fact that the systems advocated by them largely comprised a blending with, and appropriation of, Western physical culture ideals and techniques. As Singleton points out:

“This receptivity to foreign (especially British) influences combined with an aggressive assertion of the superiority of the Indian methods, is a common trope across physical culture and modern haṭha yoga” (Singleton 2010:108).

Singleton concludes the fifth chapter by underscoring the fact that early twentieth-century India was a place of eclecticism and experimentation in the blending of indigenous and foreign physical culture practices – a trend largely inspired by aspirations for an essentially Hindu form of physical culture in the face of British political and cultural oppression (108-111).

Mention is made of a few other early syntheses of physical culture and yoga by Indian figures such as Prof. Mohun C.R.D. Naidu, Captain C.P.K Gupta, M.V. Krishna Rao and the wrestler Gama the Great. For a time, however, such efforts were hampered by British repression of physical culture clubs, especially in Bengal after the 1905 partition, as well as by negative attitudes among many Indians towards physical exercise. Nonetheless, these early syntheses functioned as precursors to “the āsana revival of the 1920s and 1930s and created the conditions for later innovators like Krishnamacharya, Kuvalayananda, and Yogendra to seamlessly incorporate elements of physical culture into their systems of ‘yoga’” (111).

Back to top

Yoga as physical culture

In chapters six and seven Singleton addresses yoga as a form of physical culture. The sixth chapter, “Yoga as Physical Culture I: Strength and Vigor” (113-141) takes a closer look at a number of key Indian figures influenced by physical culture and/or the New Thought movement in developing their modern conceptions of yoga. These include Swami Kuvalayananda, Shri Yogendra, K.V. Iyer, Yogācarya Sundaram, Ramesh Balsekar, Paramahaṃsa Yogananda, B.C. Ghosh and Yogi Rishi Singh Gherwal.

According to Singleton (2010:113), it was only in “the 1920s that gymnastics and physical culture really began to establish themselves as a contemporary expression of the haṭha tradition”, with the most productive phase being from 1925 to 1930, so that by “the end of the 1930s […] āsana had definitely taken its place within the yoga renaissance as a whole” (my emphasis, 114). Singleton traces these developments through the popular yoga manuals, magazines and visual presentations of the period.

Singleton first discusses Swami Kuvalayananda (1883-1966)[6], born Jagannath G. Gune in Dabhoi (current Gujarat), who was an important pioneer of modern therapeutical yoga (115). Influenced by the physical culturalist and Hindu nationalist, Rājaratna Manik Rao, from whom he received instruction in athletics, gymnastics and combat methods, and by the Vaiṣṇava ascetic, Paramahaṃsa Mādhavdāsji, from whom he received yoga instruction, Kuvalayananda was inspired to conduct scientific research on the beneficial physiological effects of yoga practices like prāṇāyāma, bandha and kriyā (115). In 1924 he founded the Kaivalyadhama research centre in Lonavla (between Mumbai and Pune), which published an influential journal titled Yoga Mīmāṃsā – intended as “cutting-edge scientific review and practical illustration manual” (115-116). Kuvalayananda also developed “mass ‘yogic’ exercise schemes” that were introduced in schools (my emphasis, 115). According to Singleton, his “influence on the general perception of yoga as physical culture, through publications and initiatives such as these, was enormous at both a national and international level” (115).

Equally important according to Singleton was Shri Yogendra (1897-1989), born Manibhai Haribhai Desai near Surat (Gujarat), who was as avid a physical culture enthusiast and shared the same guru (Paramahaṃsa Mādhavdāsji) with Kuvalayananda (116). When young, he practiced wrestling and gymnastics, earning himself the epithet “Mr. Muscle-man” (116). In 1918 he founded the Yoga Institute at Santa Cruz (Mumbai) and in 1919 the Yoga Institute of America near New York (116). He remained in the United States “for four years, working with a number of avant-garde Western doctors and naturopaths, such as Benedict Lust and John Harvey Kellogg, and giving what may have been the first ever āsana demonstrations in America” (Singleton 2010:116-117, drawing on Rodrigues 1997). Again similar to Kuvalayananda, Yogendra wanted to promote a scientific approach to yoga:

“Yogendra was concerned with providing scientific corroboration for the health benefits of yoga and with creating simplified, accessible Āsana courses for the public. […] As the self-styled ‘householder yogi,’ Yogendra perhaps did more than anyone (barring Kuvalayananda) to carve out the kind of public health and fitness regimen that today dominates the transnational yoga industry – often in explicit opposition to the secretive, mystical haṭha yogi” (my emphasis, Singleton 2010:117).

The “posture-exercises” advocated by Yogendra in his popular yoga manuals owed significant debts to Ling gymnastics, J.P. Müller’s calisthenics as well as the influence of figures like Eugen Sandow, François Delsarte and Bernarr Macfadden (118). Singleton indicates that Yogendra’s criticisms of them notwithstanding, he employed much the same exercise regimen, model of holistic self-development and rhetoric of moral uplift (118-119).

Influenced by the Social Darwinist, Lamarckian and eugenic trends of his time, Yogendra believed like many others that it was Sāṃkhya yoga which first generated the concept of evolution (120). Formulating his own yoga eugenics, he held that yoga could accelerate human evolution both physically, mentally and morally, dubbing the process śīghramokṣasyahetuḥ (“the cause of swift liberation”) (120). As pointed out by Singleton, the way in which Yogendra “equates mokṣa with the evolutionary project of ‘modern science’ and eugenics shows the extent to which his vision of yoga diverges from ‘classical’ yogic conceptions of liberation” (120). Not only did he divest traditional yoga of its magical aspects, but also steered it away from a penchant for individual power and liberation towards a preoccupation with the improvement of the entire human population, including future generations (120-122).

Another significant figure mentioned by Singleton is the famous Indian bodybuilder, K.V. Iyer (1897-1980), who produced a synthesis of bodybuilding and yoga, building on the work of earlier pioneers like Ramamurthy. He incorporated “haṭha yogic exercise as part of a larger, highly aestheticized physical culture regime based on Western models” (122). While strongly influenced by Western physical culturalists and bodybuilders like Bernarr Macfadden, Eugen Sandow, Charles Atlas and Maxick, he additionally believed practice of haṭha yoga was needed for superior health (122-123). His system therefore included “‘yoga’ as medical gymnastics” as well as dynamic sūryanamaskār sequences (sun salutations were not yet thought of as yoga, however) alongside dumbbell and other bodybuilding exercises (124).

As pointed out by Singleton (2010:124, quoting Iyer 1937:3), Iyer’s system represents another striking instance of “the absorption of postural yoga by physical culturalists as well as the cultural fusion this could entail between the yogic ‘saints and Savants of Ancient India’ and the mesomorphic athletes and gods of ancient Greece”. Indeed, Iyer boasted he had “a body which Gods covet” (my emphasis, Singleton 2010:122, quoting Iyer 1927:163) and judging from many of his (admittedly beautiful) poses, he must have been referring to the Greek ones.[7] Iyer had the same patron (the Maharaja of Mysore) as Krishnamacharya, and was widely influential – opening gymnasia, featuring in international physical culture magazines, publishing books and articles, and offering bodybuilding correspondence courses (Singleton 2010:122-125).

Next, Singleton briefly looks at Yogācarya Sundaram, a pupil and co-worker of Iyer, and similarly enamoured of an aesthetics of muscularity. According to Sundaram (1989 [1928]:129, quoted in Singleton 2010:126-127), “a human body is not worth looking at without properly developed superficial muscles”. His work echoes Iyer’s concerns with developing the physical strength of the Indian nation and asserting the superiority of a system supposedly developed and transmitted by the ancient sages of India. However, as noted by Singleton, such “appeals to antiquity […] are undermined by the self-consciously modern departures from, and accretions to, tradition enacted by Sundaram” (my emphasis, 126). For instance, to develop the ideal muscular physique, he acknowledged that āsana practice was not enough, but had to be supplemented with exercises from the physical culture repertoire (127).

Ramesh S. Balsekar (1917-2009) was another of Iyer’s students who continued the legacy of combining bodybuilding with sūryanamaskār and āsana exercises. Like his teacher and other physical culturalists of the period, he was not averse to showing off his body in his publications, which included “glamor shots of the semi- or fully naked author in various heroic postures”[8] (128). While studying in England in the 1930s, he was cast as the “poster boy of Indian bodybuilding” (128). Much later in life, after retiring from the Bank of India, he launched himself into a successful career as transnational advaita guru (although not quite escaping controversy).

Singleton (129-141) then proceeds to the role of the New Thought movement in the development of modern yoga. New Thought emerged in the 1880s in New England as an offshoot of Christian Science – a spiritual health and body cultivation system developed by Mary Eddy Baker (1821-1920), who herself was influenced by Phineas Parkhurst Quimby, a New England healer (130, 138-139). New Thought initially took the form of

“a broad-based para-Protestant movement preaching the innate divinity of the self and the power of positive thinking to actuate that divinity in the world, usually to the ends of personal affluence and health” (Singleton (2010:130).

According to Singleton, yoga began functioning as the repository for such popular esoteric teachings, including the power of auto-suggestion and positive thinking, and the “‘harmonial,’ this-worldly belief framework of New Thought” (130). New Thought’s influence on yoga was already evident in early yoga manuals from the end of the nineteenth century and persisted through transnational yoga’s transition from an initial emphasis on meditation and breathing exercises towards its eventual preoccupation with āsana practice (129-130). What Singleton calls the “‘New Thought’ subgenre of modern yoga” found expression in early twentieth-century authors like Yogi Ramacharaka, O. Hashnu Hara, R. Dimsdale Stocker and S.D. Ramayandas (my emphasis, 130).

Yogi Ramacharaka (presumably William Walker Atkinson, 1862-1932), who made extensive use of Vivekananda’s ideas and shared the latter’s disdain for the actual practices of haṭha yogins, reconstructed haṭha yoga as a blend of New Thought and Nature Cure in writings such as Hatha Yoga, or the Yogi Philosophy of Physical Well-Being (1904), thereby anticipating developments of the 1920s (Singleton 2010:130-131). Ramacharaka’s “essentially romantic Nature Cure approach to bodily well-being” included “the standard prescriptions of sunbathing, fresh air, water bathing, and gentle callisthenic exercise”, without however calling the latter āsana. (131). He also reconceived the use of mantra in terms of the auto-suggestive affirmations typical of New Thought, thereby steering mantra’s meaning away from its traditional Hindu ritualistic function (131).

Paramahaṃsa Yogananda (1893-1952), author of the ever popular Autobiography of a Yogi (1946), was the most prominent among unaffiliated Indian yoga teachers who worked within the New Thought-oriented physical culture genre in 1920s America (Singleton 2010:131). According to Singleton, Yogananda’s technique of yogic muscle control was “heavily influenced by New Thought and European bodybuilding”, his early publications advocating “this auto-suggestive, quick-fix method of apparatus-free gymnastics” as a means to perfecting and spiritualising the body (my emphasis, 132). Singleton says that Yogananda may have drawn from Emile Coué’s fashionable teachings on mental healing and positive thinking, as well as from the physical culture techniques of the internationally known bodybuilder Maxick. He remarks that although these techniques were not new “in Western vaudeville and bodybuilding milieus”, Yogananda may have been the first to sell “such muscle manipulation” as yoga in America (132).

Singleton (132-135) also makes mention of B.C. Ghosh, the younger brother of Yogananda, who was a famous bodybuilder, fervent nationalist and leading physical culturalist in Bengal. He promoted a popular haṭha yoga system that blended āsana, physical culture and the muscle manipulation techniques taught to him by his brother (133). Like Yogananda, Ghosh borrowed significantly from Maxick (133). One of Ghosh’s students at his College of Physical Education was Bikram Choudhury, the founder of Bikram Yoga (134).

Singleton (135-136) briefly looks at important New Thought figures like Jules Payot and Frank Channing Haddock whose teachings were widely influential and helped shaped modern yogic physical culture. Notions of spiritual development through conscious self-mastery and training of the body were central to their philosophy, as hinted by their book titles, for example Payot’s The Education of the Will (1893) and Haddock’s Power of the Will (1909). In order “to create the corporeal conditions for cosmic influx” (136), Haddock used physical exercise together with affirmations such as “I am receiving helpful forces!… Streams of power for body and mind are flowing in!” (my emphasis, Haddock 1909:162 quoted in Singleton 2010:135). Singleton remarks:

“While it may be true that analogous [psycho-physiological muscle control] techniques were used in premodern Indian yoga, the early twentieth-century identification of muscle control with haṭha yoga is more likely to have come about through the close association of yoga with modern ‘alternative’ medicine and New Thought), and the subsequent consolidation of this association by the likes of Vivekananda and Ramacharaka” (Singleton 2010:136).

Singleton concludes chapter six with a glance at other “self-styled Hindu yogins” active in 1920s America who were influenced by New Thought and Nature Cure (my emphasis, 140), such as Yogi Rishi Singh Gherwal, Yogi Hari Rama, Yogi Wassan and Bhagwan S. Gyanee (136, 140). According to Singleton, Yogi Gherwal’s Practical Hatha Yoga, Science of Health of 1923 may have been “the earliest photographic manual of modern, populist haṭha yoga” (my emphasis, 136). Like many other yoga gurus of the time Gherwal offered postal courses in yoga (possibly inspired by the example of bodybuilder Eugen Sandow), signalling the increasing replacement of an exclusive guru-disciple mode of transmission with a contemporary “self-help model” (136, 137). Gherwal mostly used “classical” haṭha postures, but construed them in terms of modern medicine and “‘psychologized’ New Thought” (137).

The exercises advocated by Yogi Wassan as a Hindu system were in fact based on popular physical culture regimes such as the nationalist gymnastics of J.P. Müller (140). Wassan’s ideology was similar to Yogananda’s and like many of his peers he joined religious interest with business savvy, for instance teaching “How to Vibrate Brain, Body and Business” through, among others, chanting techniques (Wassan 1925:5 quoted in Singleton 2010:140). Bhagwan S. Gyanee, who emulates the work of Ramacharaka, is another instance of the marketing of “common regimes of European weights-free gymnastics” as yoga postures (140-141).

In the seventh chapter, “Yoga as Physical Culture I: Harmonial Gymnastics and Esoteric Dance” (143-162), Singleton discusses women’s gymnastics of the 1890s onwards as an important precursor of “the ‘spiritual stretching,’ breathing, and relaxation regimes” so central to contemporary yoga practice (my emphasis, 143). According to Singleton, even though it was not identified as yoga at the time, the harmonial gymnastics of figures like Genevieve Stebbins, Cajzoran Ali and Mollie Bagot Stack “often resemble today’s postural forms far more closely than many of the above-examined [chiefly male-oriented] gymnastic and bodybuilding forms” which actually did self-identify as yoga (143-144).

One of the key influences in the development of harmonial gymnastics was the “spirito-physical exercises” of François Delsarte (1811-1871), an influential French acting and singing teacher, which were adapted by his student Steel Mackaye and taught to Genevieve Stebbins (1857-c.1915), who in turn precipitated “a veritable Delsarte craze” in America, much akin to the current yoga craze (144). Stebbins belonged to an esoteric group (Church of Light) and combined such esoteric influences with aspects of Delsarte, Ling gymnastics and oriental dance (144, 146). Her Dynamic Breathing and Harmonic Gymnastics (1892) included “a good deal of Ling (such as lunging and weight distribution exercises), with an emphasis on spiraling motions and dance-like sequences”, but while she did link her breathing exercises to “Yoga Breathing”, she did not connect her stretching exercises to āsana (Singleton 2010:146). Singleton mentions that her The Genevieve Stebbins System of Physical Training (1898) contained “dance-like flows and transitions between poses that are perhaps prototypical of the kind of ‘flow yoga’ classes” of today (my emphasis, 147). Furthermore, Stebbins’s “rhythmic breathing” provided a local conceptual framework for Vivekananda’s American audience to grasp his “esoteric ‘Indian’ notions about the breath and its relationship to the cosmos” (147). “Rhythmic breathing” became a popular term for prāṇāyāma (my emphasis, 220, n.5).

Among those who followed Stebbins’s lead by devising similar courses, was Annie Payson Call with her “mystical breathwork” and “gentle gymnastics” (147). According to Singleton, such systems played a crucial role in enabling an understanding of “yoga as another means to stretch and relax” (147). Stebbins also influenced the “turn-of-the-century ‘Oriental Dance’ genre” by way of her student, Ruth St. Denis, who was one of its pioneers (144). Singleton draws attention to the mutual inspiration and exchange of innovations that took place between Indian dancers and their Western imitators (both sides insisting that they represented original Indian dance), noting how similar this is to what happened with modern yoga. Moreover, in the West it was often the same white Protestant women who experimented with both mystical dance and yoga (my emphasis, 144-145).

Another American influenced by Protestant esotericism and harmonial gymnastics was Cajzoran Ali (pseudonym, b.1903?) whose system is described in her Divine Posture Influence upon Endocrine Glands (1928) (Singleton 2010:148). Healing herself through prayer and posture exercises (148), she devised a “course of posture training and ‘Breath Culture’” intended to harmonise oneself with God by aligning the “‘seals’ of the Apocalypse”, which latter she equated with yoga’s cakras and the anatomical glands within one’s body (149). Drawing on the work of De Michelis (2004), Singleton (2010:149, my emphasis) notes that this kind of “‘harmonial’ haṭha model” prefigures the New Age yoga forms appearing in the West in the 1970s.

Singleton next looks at expressions of harmonial gymnastics in Britain, more specifically those of Frances Archer and Mollie Bagot Stack. Frances Archer was a student of Annie Payson Call in the 1890s and from around 1910 taught her own “brand of stretching, balancing, and relaxing for spiritual benefit” (150). Mollie Bagot Stack was the founder of a prominent British women’s gymnastic organisation, the Women’s League of Health and Beauty, and started teaching courses in gymnastics and health in London in 1920, including techniques she learned during a 1912 visit to India, but not identifying the latter as yoga (150). Her work, Building the Body Beautiful, The Bagot Stack Stretch-and-Swing System (1931), promoted a trim and shapely ideal of feminine beauty as well as resilient health and inner power brought about by harmonising oneself with the Universe’s rhythm (Singleton 2010:151-152).

Singleton points out that what contemporary yoga enthusiasts in London practice today in the name of “‘hatha’ yoga” is much the same as the “spiritualized gymnastics” of “their grandmothers and great-grandmothers in the 1930s” (152):

“The fitness-oriented yoga available in virtually every health club in London today […] may represent a direct historical succession from those regimes of New Age, quasi-mystical body conditioning and callisthenics devised exclusively for women in the first half of the twentieth century. Although these regimes generally lacked the trappings of ‘spiritual India’ that we find today, the form and content remain strikingly similar” (Singleton, 2010:152).

Similar to the American and British harmonial gymnastics movement, proponents of the German Gymnastik movement, for instance Hede Kallmeyer (1881-1976), provided a holistic, awareness-oriented practice in answer to the militaristic forms of exercise prevalent in schools at the turn of the twentieth century (152-153). Singleton also makes brief mention of the influence exercised on modern yoga by psychoanalytic bodywork inspired by Wilhelm Reich (1897-1957), for instance in Alexander Lowen’s 1970s synthesis of Reichian therapy, āsana and prāṇāyāma as well as the more recent “‘Phoenix Rising’ style of psychoanalytic āsana work, in which clients dialogue with the analyst/teacher while holding supported yoga postures” (153).

Singleton shows that the understanding of yoga prevalent in 1930s Britain – as reflected in the Health and Strength magazine of the national Health and Strength League – mostly boiled down to the practice of prāṇāyāma in a still, seated posture and interpreting “yogic principles” on breath, diet and sexual restraint in terms of the League’s own moral and physical culture ideology (Singleton 2010:154-155). Singleton points out that the reason for the then absence of an emphasis on the “acrobatic and gymnastic potential of yoga” is that “during the 1920s and 1930s the genre of athletic āsana was not yet ‘export-ready’” (my emphasis, 154) – export pioneers like B.K.S. Iyengar and Pattabhi Jois still being in their youth and not yet having arrived on the international scene (154-155). However, the magazine not infrequently featured India’s ‘yogic’ bodybuilders, like Ramesh S. Balsekar and K.V. Iyer, as also the assertion that Western physical culture really had Eastern roots (156-157).

Singleton concludes chapter seven with observations on the historical development of relatively distinct “gendered yogas” geared to women and men respectively – noting that this is not a hard-and-fast division since overlap and mutual influence are common among modern forms of postural yoga (159-160). However, the distinction between “regimens aiming at (masculine) strength and vigor on the one hand and those that sought to cultivate (feminine) grace and ease of movement on the other”, which constituted the relatively enduring legacy of the mid-nineteenth-century physical culture revival in the West (my emphasis, 159), also played a significant role in the historical trajectories of different forms of modern yoga. To wit, masculinised yogas (such as those of B.C. Ghosh, K.V. Iyer, Tiruka, Manick Rao, the early Aurobindo and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) – influenced as they were by nationalist, militaristic and muscular Christian ideals – tended to favour strength, manliness and the “religio-patriotic cultivation of brawn” (160). In contrast, contemporary ‘hatha yoga’ in the West – with its regimen of “gentler stretching, deep breathing, and ‘spiritual’ relaxation” (160) – represents the “cultural successor” of para-Christian “harmonial gymnastics and female physical culture” (154), and continues to draw mostly women practitioners (152).

In terms of ‘gendered poses’ it is interesting to note that British women’s exercise regimens of the 1930s included a number of stretches (without these being called yoga) that later also figured as paśchimottanāsana [seated forwardbend], śalabhāsana [locust pose] and trikonāsana [triangle pose] in Iyengar’s 1966 system (157), while the men were more likely to perform “acrobatic balances” along the lines of Iyengar’s adhomukhavṛkṣāsana [handstand], bakāsana [crane pose] and pincamayūrāsana [feathered peacock pose] (158). Such poses were however part and parcel of Western exercise traditions before the advent of contemporary haṭha yoga in Europe and America (161, 114-115).

In his concluding remark to chapter seven, Singleton (161-162) reflects on modern postural yoga’s curious marriage of Western physical culture ideals with medieval haṭha elements when attributing meaning to physical poses:

“So, for example, a contorted body knot designed to be a component part of the kụḍalinī-raising project of haṭha yoga can, through this superimposition, be reborn as a suppling exercise for health and beauty. […] When the same posture is re-presented in Western postural yoga, the traces of both [haṭha and physical culture/gymnastics] contexts remain, although typically the haṭha context is but vaguely understood (if at all)” Singleton (2010:161).

Back to top

The āsana revival

In chapters eight and nine Singleton considers the conditions of visual reproduction that facilitated the āsana revival and takes a closer look at the significant contribution of T. Krishnamacharya (1888-1989).

The eighth chapter, “The Medium and the Message: Visual Reproduction and the Āsana Revival” (163-174), deals with the central role that visual representations of āsana through photography and art played in the āsana revival. Singleton argues that the emergence of modern transnational postural yoga was dependent on the expansion of cheap printed media and photography. These media did not simply objectively transmit to a mass audience the supposedly pre-existing reality of āsana practice, but rather played an active and creative role in the very invention of the “yoga body” as modern phenomenon (my emphasis, 163). Drawing on the work of John Pultz, Singleton recounts how the advent of photography drastically changed not only people’s perceptions of the human body, but also their very subjectivity by turning them into more self-observing and bodily conscious individuals (163-164). By lending “an unprecedented primacy to the imaged body”, photography moreover precipitated “an overt, widespread concern for [the body’s] cultivation” (165).

Photography also functioned as a powerful imperial tool for Europeans’ cataloguing, classifying and controlling of the people they colonised, and in a manner that appeared empirical, objective and scientific. As such the photographic representation of the human body became a field of contestation between colonial ethnographic and voyeuristic narratives on the one hand and self-defining, self-asserting, nationalist Indian narratives on the other. To disprove the Western projection of “Indian degeneracy”, it became imperative to showcase strong Indian (male) bodies in physical culture books and periodicals such as Vyayam, the Bodybuilder (164-165). Postural yoga became one way of doing so, catapulting it into popularity:

“If new āsana forms began to gain popularity in the mid-1920s, it was as a result of the representation of Indian bodies in the kind of mass-produced primers and journals that flourished alongside comparable physical culture material” (Singleton 2010:165).

Singleton also points out the appeal of books with pictures (as opposed to pure text) in a visual culture and he notes that although Vivekananda’s more philosophical, non-āsana work, Raja Yoga (1896), could successfully make an impact without visual images, the same did not apply to the later āsana-based yogas (165-166). Apart from turning the yogic body into a public phenomenon that could be emulated, photography also played a vital part in making it an object for scientific study and validation (167).

Drawing on the work of Partha Mitter, Singleton distinguishes between two periods in Indian colonial art and argues that these developments were also reflected within the history of modern yoga and Indian physical culture. The first period (1850-1900) was one of optimistic Westernisation wherein Indian art leaned strongly towards European sensibilities – which Singleton equates in the realm of modern yoga with “the assimilation of (Pātanjala) yoga into philosophy from the time of J. R. Ballantyne onward, with Indian scholars and pandits working in close collaboration with Western scholars within the ‘constructive Orientalist’ project” (168).The second period (c. 1900-1922) comprised the “cultural nationalism of the swadeshi doctrine of art”, echoed in modern yoga by Vivekananda’s efforts to present yoga as “the summum bonum of the (authentic, practical) Indian spiritual tradition” in a manner that appealed to educated Indians’ intellectual and religious ideals (168-169). However, as in the case of Indian art, modern yoga manifested a kind of “schizophrenia” in asserting itself as authentically indigenous while at the same time employing Western paradigms of science, medicine and physical culture to supplement and validate itself (169).

Singleton concludes chapter eight with a comparison of two pictorial yoga manuals (separated in time by 75 years) which exhibit distinctly different styles of artistic presentation, analysing how the latter presents a shift in the meaning of and approach to āsana. The first text is an 1830 illustrated version of the Jogapradῑpakā of 1737, and the second Yogi Ghamande’s Yogasopāna Pūrvacatuṣka of 1905.

For his interpretation of the 1830 manuscript of the Jogapradῑpakā with its two-dimensional “paintings of eighty-four āsanas and twenty-four mūdras” (170), Singleton draws on Gudrun Bühnemann’s study of the manuscript as well as Gavin Flood’s work on the tantric body. Depicting one of the Jogapradῑpakā images (171), Singleton points out that the image is not so much concerned with offering a realist, anatomically accurate picture of the human body as with presenting a conceptual, heuristic model for its interpretation along the lines of haṭha yogic beliefs. Accordingly, “the shallow figure […] is inscribed with representations of the kind of haha yogic ‘physiology’ (nādis, cakras, and granthis) outlined in early, premodern texts such as the Goraḳaśataka” (170). This is very different from Yogi Ghamande’s Yogasopāna Pūrvacatuṣka which appeared three quarters of a century later and used a new method of photographic reproduction that yielded images which were at once artistic and naturalistic. Such photographic developments facilitated the eventual assimilation of āsana “into modern (often medical) physical culture” whereby “aspects of the ‘subtle’ haṭha yoga body were selectively dropped, and the naturalistic (or anatomical) body brought to the fore” (my emphasis, 170).

Yogi Ghamande’s manual also represents the significant “shift away from the secretive transmission of haṭha lore from guru to disciple toward an open, public model of dissemination” and he may have been the first to invite readers to visit or correspond with him (my emphasis, 173). Singleton notes that it would be another two decades before others would follow in Ghamande’s footsteps and such manuals would start multiplying, but adds:

“The circumvention of the secrecy edict; the production of sophisticated, naturalistic images of āsanas; and the removal of the guru himself are all indicative of the progression toward the fully formed modern haṭha yoga primers of later decades, in their mode of public, self-evident self-help” (my emphasis, Singleton 2010:174).

The ninth chapter, “T. Krishnamacharya and the Mysore Āsana Revival” (175-210), is devoted to an overview of the life of Tirumalai Krishnamacharya (1888-1989) and his role in the transformation of āsana into a form of modern physical culture – both by way of his personal innovations as well as via influential students like B.K.S. Iyengar, Pattabhi Jois, T.K.V. Desikachar and Indra Devi (Singleton mentions Indra Devi in passing, but does not give further attention to her in his book).

Krishnamacharya was born in Muchukundapuram (Karnataka, India) in a Vaiṣṇava Brahmin family. As youth he studied the orthodox darśanas, after which he spent seven years with a guru, Rāmmohan Brahmacāri, at Lake Mansarovar in Tibet to sate his curiosity about yoga (177). According to Krishnamacharya’s son, his father had learned from his guru “all of the philosophy and mental science of Yoga; its use in diagnosing and treating the ill; and the practice and perfection of asana and pranayama” (Desikachar 1998:43, quoted in Singleton 2010:177). Thereafter Krishnamacharya received a mandate from his guru to teach yoga in India, and with the support of a Mysore official he travelled and lectured in the regional districts. However, in the period shortly after his return and marriage in 1925, he apparently had to work in a coffee plantation to make ends meet (177, 197). Upon his scholarly abilities becoming known, he was employed in 1931 by the Maharaja Krishnaraja Wodiyar IV (1884-1940) to teach Mīmāṃsā philosophy at the Sanskrit Pāṭhaśālā of the Jaganmohan Palace in Mysore, but was soon redeployed to the palace yogaśālā due to student complaints (according to B.K.S. Iyengar) over the difficulty of his teachings (176, 177, 197).

It was on 11 August 1933 that Krishnamacharya opened his yogaśālā at the Jaganmohan Palace (179) and according to Singleton the period until its closure in the early 1950s would prove the most productive in terms of Krishnamacharya’s impact on modern transnational yoga (176, 177). Under the Maharaja the city and state of Mysore had already “become a pan-Indian hub of physical culture revivalism” (176-177) and during his four-decade reign (1902-1940) the Maharaja not only actively promoted Indian culture, but also encouraged innovation and reform on all fronts – educational, scientific, technological and political (178). The Maharaja’s direct interest in the development of Indian physical culture offered a suitable ideological and practical setting for Krishnamacharya to “develop his own system of haṭha yoga, rooted in brahminical tradition but molded by the eclectic physical culture zeitgeist” (my emphasis, 179). Indeed, Krishnamacharya would have had little choice but to comply with his employer’s wishes concerning the contents of the yoga curriculum, which presumably required him to

“teach āsana in keeping both with the strong gymnastic tradition of the palace itself and with the changing face of indigenous physical education programs across the region” (Singleton 2010: 197-198).

Drawing on Norman Sjoman’s 1996 study, The Yoga Tradition of the Mysore Palace, as well as interviews with a few of the surviving individuals having knowledge or experience of Krishnamacharya’s Mysore period, Singleton notes that Krishnamacharya’s yogaśālā was housed in an old gymnastics hall containing suspended ropes and gymnastic equipment – aids he seems to have used in his classes, at least during the early years of his teaching. Moreover, it is likely he used the gymnastics texts available in the palace when devising his own system (198-199). Additionally, not only was he socially acquainted with India’s famous bodybuilder and physical culturalist, K.V. Iyer (another protégé of the Maharaja), but his āsana classes had to compete for the palace school boys’ attention with the popular bodybuilding classes of Anant Rao, a senior student of K.V. Iyer, who also taught at the palace (181, 124, 191). Indeed, although Krishnamacharya attracted some of the “tradition-minded youth” according to T.R.S. Sharma (who was one of the few non-royal students allowed to attend the yogāsana classes), he would have been under pressure to present yoga as a modern and suitably masculine form of practice given the perceptions of some of the palace boys that “yoga was for weaklings, a feminizing force in contrast to Iyer’s manly muscle building, and was moreover the preserve of Brahmins” (191; also 181, 183-184).

Sharma says Krishnamacharya’s focus was on physical exercises aimed at aṇgalāghava or “lightness of limb” with little reference to more internal aspects such as dhyāna or samādhi (197). In fact, one of Krishnamacharya’s talented early students, Śrīnivāsa Rangacār (later Śrῑrangaguru) broke with him in part because he felt Krishnamacharya “had no idea of the real inner bases of [yoga]” (Chanu 1992:18, quoted in Singleton 2010:196), claiming that in those early days Krishnamacharya’s instruction “was considered gymnastics alone” (Singleton 2010:199).

Public demonstrations were an important means for igniting interest in yoga. Drawing on an account by Fernando Pagés Ruiz, Singleton points out how during the years prior to his appointment by the Maharaja, Krishnamacharya performed typical strongman displays such as stopping vehicles and using his teeth to lift objects, as well as common yogic feats like stopping his pulse and doing contortions (193). During his subsequent years at the palace his public āsana displays with students had a similar circus-like quality (for instance lifting up in the air for the audience a boy doing a difficult pose) and his teaching was considered “circus tricks” or “circus work” by some of his students and acquaintances (194). Singleton remarks how contemporary āsana practice largely derives from Krishnamacharya’s early audience-oriented ‘circus’ work:

“The āsana systems derived from this early chapter of Krishnamacharya’s career dominate the popular practice of yoga in the West today, and yet it is largely overlooked that they stem from a pragmatic program of solicitation that exploits a long theatrical tradition of acrobatics and contortionism. This is not to say, of course, that Krishnamacharya approached his demonstrations like sideshows at a mela, but merely that audiences would have recognized the performances as belonging to a well-established topos of haha yogic fakirism and circus turns” (my emphasis, Singleton 2010:194)

As Krishnamacharya’s students, the young B.K.S. Iyengar and Pattabhi Jois had to take part in these displays (177, 192, 195). Indeed, Singleton analyses how “the relatively rapid-fire āsana sequences inherited and developed by Pattabhi Jois” (my emphasis, 196) were most likely originally designed by Krishnamacharya to serve merely as “a coordinated, high-speed showcase” and “‘set list’ for public demonstrations”, with the use of five to eight “audible ‘ujjayi’ breaths” as practical means for synchronising the boys’ movements (my emphasis, 195). In this way one could impress audiences and hold their attention while allowing enough opportunity during the holding of poses for Krishnamacharya to give a running commentary on what the students were doing (195). It was also an easy, practical method Krishnamacharya could give to a novice teacher, such as the young Jois, to whom he delegated the teaching of group classes at the Sanskrit Pāṭhaśālā (189-190).

Singleton speculates that such practical considerations are the most likely explanation of the origins of Jois’s system, certainly far more so than that given in Jois’s own account, which latter not only claims that Krishnamacharya had learned the Ashtanga format from his own guru with the help of a mysterious 5 000-year-old text now lost to ants (namely the Yoga Kurunta of Vamana Rishi), but also that the sūrynamaskār sequences had been referenced in the Vedas (180, 184, 196, 203, 221-223, n.4). Additionally, Singleton presents evidence that Jois’s repetitive system does not represent Krishnamacharya’s habitual way of teaching, which was not limited to rigid sequences and instead tended to be far more varied and individualised (187-190).

Singleton moreover points out that in terms of Krishnamacharya’s own claims as to where his inspiration came from, the Yoga Kurunta was not the only ‘lost’ text to which he appealed for traditional sanction of his teachings. Another was the Yoga Rahasya by Śrῑ Nāthamuni – said by Krishnamacharya to have been transmitted to him during a vision when he was sixteen (185). But no such text has been found either and Krishnamacharya’s varied invocations of it seem to point to the text being his own invention or at least a “patchwork” of other known texts (185). Furthermore, like many of his contemporaries, Krishnamacharya had imbibed Orientalist constructions regarding the centrality of Patañjali’s Yogasūtras to yoga tradition and considered his own teaching as being in accordance with the latter. In this regard Singleton notes how a “talismanic Patañjali” has been and continues to be invoked as “source authority and legitimation” for today’s “radically gymnastic āsana practices” (185-186), arguing that

“Krishnamacharya’s sublimation of twentieth-century gymnastic forms into the Pātanjala tradition is less an indication of a historically traceable ‘classical’ āsana lineage than of the modern project of grafting gymnastic or aerobic ā̄sana practice onto the Yogasū̄tras, and the creation of a new tradition” (my emphasis, Singleton 2010:186).

However, as noted by Singleton, the invocation of “śāstra and guru” to legitimate such far-reaching innovations does not constitute wilful inauthenticity, but rather represents the customary convention among orthodox pandits given the importance attached to working within the boundaries of tradition (my emphasis, 207).

Towards the close of the ninth chapter Singleton argues that Krishnamacharya’s teaching was not particularly unique, but was in fact tuned to “the dominant forms of physical education in late colonial India” and constituted “a variant of standard exercise routines of the time” (199). To substantiate this, Singleton looks at one European and one Indian physical education system widely used in India in the 1930s.

The Primitive/Primary Gymnastics of Niels Bukh (1880-1950) was a Danish system that competed in popularity with Ling gymnastics in India from the 1920s onward, becoming the preferred form of physical culture for children in the mid-1930s (199-201). Singleton (200) notes how at least twenty-eight exercises in Bukh’s Primary Gymnastics (1925 English edition) closely resemble postures taught by Krishnamacharya’s influential disciples, particularly the postures in Pattabhi Jois’s Ashtanga sequence and B.K.S. Iyengar’s Light on Yoga (1966). Moreover, similar to the Ashtanga system, Bukh’s exercises were vigorously aerobic, arranged in “progressive series”, required “deep breathing” and were executed in a drill-like format to a posture call-out and a count (200-201). Drawing on the work of H. Bonde and Norman Sjoman, Singleton points out how these aspects reflect “a modernist fascination with dynamic movement” and notes that Bukh assigned descriptive-functional names to his exercises – again similar to the situation with more recent āsanas (and unlike older āsanas, which were named after animals, gods and sages) (my emphasis, 201). While Singleton hesitates to imply that Krishnamacharya consciously created a direct imitation of Bukh’s system, he does observe:

“While this notion [i.e. the close resemblance of Krishnamacharya’s system with dominant gymnastic culture] challenges the narrative of origins commonly rehearsed among Ashtanga practitioners and teachers today, it is really hardly surprising, given the context, to see elements of Danish children’s gymnastics emerge in Krishnamacharya’s pedagogy in Mysore” (my emphasis, Singleton 2010:201).

Singleton (203-206) also argues that Krishnamacharya’s Mysore teaching style and the ensuing Ashtanga yoga sequences closely matched the Indian physical education system of Swami Kuvalayananda, whose yogic exercise syllabi were widely adopted in Indian educational settings. Early on in Krishnamacharya’s employment at the Jaganmohan Palace, the Maharaja sent him on a visit to Kuvalayananda’s Kaivalyadhama research institute. The system developed by Kuvalayananda was based on a drill format typical of Ling gymnastics (203) and he integrated āsana with callisthenics and “aerobic exercises from outside any known yoga tradition”, in the process utilising āsana as a form of “fitness training” (204). Presumably Krishnamacharya made use of Kuvalayananda’s basic format while adding his own innovations. In fact, Singleton details the almost exact correspondence of the Ashtanga Vinyasa sequence with the “Ashtang Dand” sequence taught in a syllabus based on Kuvalayananda’s work, “even down to the standardized number of breaths for each posture” (204-205). Singleton also observes that this kind of sūryanamaskār is ostensibly “a modern, physical culture-oriented rendition of the far more ancient practice of prostrating to the sun” and suggests that modern use of the designation “ashtanga yoga” does not necessarily derive from the eight aspects of Patañjali’s system, but possibly from the eight bodily parts touching the ground during the prostrating position (205-206).

Singleton concludes his study by acknowledging that it would be impossible to trace all the influences that may have contributed to Krishnamacharya’s system; his main intent having merely been to show “that Krishnamacharya was not working within a historical vacuum and that his teaching represents an admixture of cultural adaptation, radical innovation, and fidelity to tradition” (206-207). Singleton is careful to state that he does not feel his insights and conclusions regarding Krishnamacharya’s incorporation in his teaching of circus-like haṭha yogic displays and international physical culture practices in any way invalidate or detract from his method. He points out that just because a practice constitutes a form of physical training does not mean that it cannot be conceived as spiritual too, as has indeed been the case with much of the physical culture and holistic gymnastics practices he discusses in his book (208-209).

A final remark concerns Bikram Choudhury’s aspirations for an Olympic yoga event and his launch of a Bishnu Charan Ghosh Yoga Asana Championship (named after his own guru, the bodybuilding brother of Paramahaṃsa Yogananda). Singleton briefly comments on how Bikram erroneously claims ancient roots and Patañjalian inspiration for his āsana tournament, while in fact its format is structured much like a modern bodybuilding competition. In this regard Singleton points out that the very possibility of such a yoga competition is dependent on “the early merger of physical exercise and international yoga and its subsequent normalization as the practical substance of yoga itself in the post-World War II West” (209).

Back to top

Two Observations

Not being a scholar of South Asian studies, nor familiar enough with the young, yet rapidly expanding field of modern yoga studies, I am not qualified to give an authoritative review of Singleton’s Yoga Body. However, in what follows I wish to make two main observations regarding the work’s content and impact. The first observation relates to a somewhat disappointing lack of attention (frequent generic references notwithstanding) to those elements of modern postural yoga that could potentially be traced either to premodern haṭha or other yoga traditions, or to other local Indian exercise traditions. The second observation concerns the implications of Singleton’s research for the ideological milieu of contemporary yoga practice, more specifically, a consideration of how yoga practitioners and former yoga practitioners might position themselves in relation to a somewhat iconoclastic perspective on yoga’s history.

Back to top

Is modern postural yoga all modern then?

The scope of Singleton’s study, as mentioned before, did not include premodern yoga traditions. Apart from a handful of brief, tantalising hints, he does not discuss or even really identify which elements of modern anglophone yoga practice – in however diluted, reinvented and transmuted a form – were inherited (‘borrowed’ might be the more appropriate term in some instances) from premodern haṭha or other yoga traditions. In his first chapter, “A Brief Overview of Yoga in the Indian Tradition”, Singleton (25-33) does provide a cursory treatment of older yoga traditions, texts and practices and briefly addresses how modern postural yoga dramatically diverges from these. It is however not an in-depth analysis and he says little about which premodern elements had been retained and why these ones specifically.

As far as premodern postures are concerned Singleton merely briefly mentions the legacy of “seated postures such as padmāsana and siddhāsana, which have played an enormously important practical and symbolic role throughout the history of yoga” (32) and much later in the book points out that contemporary yoga inversions such as shoulderstand (sarvaṇgāsana) and viparīta karaṇī did in fact constitute “a component part of medieval haṭha yoga” (161).[9] As for the non-āsana aspects of modern yoga, Singleton briefly draws attention to the fact that the tantric physiology underpinning “traditional expressions of haṭha yoga” now chiefly survives in the “imaginaire” of modern yoga practitioners in the form of “a general recognition of the three principal nāḍīs, the cakras, and the role that these may play in kualinī-type experiences” (31-32). He remarks on early attempts at the superimposition of “tantric body symbolism onto Western anatomy” which was to become a feature of transnational haṭha yoga (50 ff) as well as the transition from symbolic representations of premodern haṭha texts to “naturalistic representations in modern āsana manuals” (170). Singleton also mentions that prāṇāyāma, mudrā and ṣaṭkarmāṇi are sometimes taught in modern yoga but usually relegated to a marginal role (29, 31; 213, n.13-14) and comments that the abdominal muscle manipulation technique used by Yogananda’s bodybuilding brother, B.C. Ghosh, was emblematic not only of “muscle-control showmanship in Europe and India”, but also constituted “the purificatory haha yoga exercise nauli” (133; 219, n.13). At the close of the book, he offers a passing nod of acknowledgement to “the ‘classical’ procedures of haṭha yoga (viz. mudrā, ̣bandha, ̣di, and prāṇāyāma)” that “so manifestly inform the practice” of modern Ashtanga (207). Yoga Body may contain a handful more such brief, scattered references, but lacks an explicit and systematic treatment that would enable a good comprehension of the legacy of premodern haṭha elements in modern postural yoga vis-à-vis those contributed by international physical culture.

On the one hand, Singleton’s lack of detailed attention to premodern residues in contemporary yoga is understandable given the considerable field he already had to cover and his statement of intent early in the book:

“[…] I have no intention of offering a genealogy of āsana in the modern period. My aim is to examine the cultural contexts of modern haṭha yoga’s emergence, not to trace the derivation of individual postures” (Singleton 2010:17).

Indeed, it would probably not have been practically feasible to expand his research gaze to the veritable maze of premodern yoga, tantra and other traditions of which vestiges may be found in modern (postural) yoga. Singleton does however refer interested readers to a footnote (213-214, n.17) with suggested further reading on “the theory, practice, and history of tantric and haṭha yoga” (33). That said, in the absence of a slightly fuller treatment of surviving premodern haṭha elements and other indigenous Indian influences the book tends to leave one with the overall impression that modern postural yoga is all modern and international – except perhaps for the use of a few Sanskrit terms (and we now know even these were often newly coined to provide names for postural innovations, cf. Singleton 2010:201). Indeed, throughout the book I could not shake the feeling of being presented with only one side of the equation, even if ostensibly a very significant part. In the light of Singleton’s claim that his aim was “to examine the cultural contexts of modern haṭha yoga’s emergence” (17), he did not really have a valid excuse for neglecting Indian cultural contexts that fell within the time period of his investigation.

Notwithstanding Singleton’s insistence that complex cross-cultural mergers took place to give birth to modern yoga, the book’s predominant emphasis on modern international physical culture makes it unclear exactly which aspects of indigenous Indian traditions came into play to help produce modern postural yoga. I am not only referring to surviving elements of premodern haṭha and tantra traditions, but also to local martial, wrestling and other traditions that Singleton seems to imply have made contributions of their own. His desire to paint a balanced picture that recognises local Indian contributions as much as foreign ones, causes him to make numerous references to “home-grown health and fitness regimes” (89), “indigenous Indian exercises” (92), “‘indigenous’ physical culture movements” (97), “indigenous methods of practice” (109), “local [as opposed to foreign…] gymnastics (109), “Eastern [as opposed to Western…] physical culture methods” (111), “various types of indigenous […] physical exercises” (115) and “revived indigenous practices” (199), but nowhere does he really elaborate on what all these exercises and practices looked like.

To give a more specific example, Singleton (drawing on Wakankar, 1995) mentions the prior existence of “traditional physical disciplines like wrestling, stave (lathi), kabaddi, and indigenous martial arts” (111) and also quotes the list of Indian (and Western) exercises learned by the freedom-fighter yogi, Tiruka, from his militant teacher, Rajaratna Manick Rao – who was a famous wrestler, gymnast as well as teacher to Kuvalayananda (103-104; 217, n.9). Singleton however neglects to offer descriptions of what these exercises and their accompanying ideologies entailed or which of their elements may have found their way into modern postural practice. He also makes occasional mention of the role of Indian “physical culture akhāṛas (‘clubs,’ ‘gymnasia’)” in helping to create a milieu conducive to the emergence of modern postural yoga (101, 103, 111), but fails to describe their culture and practices in any detail. This is somewhat surprising given that Singleton draws on the work of Norman Sjoman and Joseph Alter, in which there are ample indications that the physical practices and somatic ideologies of Indian wrestlers may be well worth a close investigation in relation to the emergence of modern yoga.

In his The Yoga Tradition of the Mysore Palace, Norman Sjoman (1999 [1996]:44) for instance characterises vyāyāmaśālās (indigenous Indian gymnasiums or exercise arenas) as places where people perform “exercise routines that are primarily aerobic in nature” and involve “muscular contraction and repetition”. He speculates whether “the distinctive nature of yogic movement” is not perhaps “inherited from an indigenous exercise system” and notes that the term āsana has various uses, among others as a term referring to “positions in archery and wrestling” (Sjoman 1999 [1996]:44, 45). Additionally, Sjoman claims that whereas for instance “[ś]īrṣāsana, the headstand, is not referred to in older texts on yoga”, the pose does feature in a medieval wrestling text, the Mallapurāna, which contains a list of eighteen āsanas (1999 [1996]:67, n.90; 56-57). According to Sjoman (1999 [1996]:56-57), some of these wrestling āsanas also occur in the Śrītattvanidhi, a later manuscript compiled between 1811 and 1868 and attributed to Mummadi Krishnaraja Wodeyar (1794-1868), ruler of the state of Mysore, in whose palace Krishnamacharya would be employed by the royal family almost seven decades after the former’s death (Sjoman 1999 [1996]:35,40-41). Although the Śrītattvanidhi is a compilation that covers a range of topics (e.g. meditation verses on deities; games, animals, music and ragas), it also deals with yoga and it contains 122 āsanas and (possibly wrestler) rope exercises (Sjoman 1999 [1996]:41, 57-58). About the latter Sjoman comments as follows:

“Many of the movement āsanas [in the Śrītattvanidhi] are explained as a movement from one āsana to another and remind one of the vinyāsa movements. A series of āsanas involve repetitions, walking and crawling in particular positions which are reminiscent of the indigenous exercise system used by the wrestlers. The sūryanamaskāra or daṇḍa exercises are found in the text. There is a large number of bird āsanas and a number of āsanas performed on ropes.

The rope āsanas are particularly interesting. […] There is an ancient art connected with the wrestlers called mallakhambha which is basically movements on a pole. Associated with this are āsanas done on a rope. […] The origins are traced to a text MᾹNASOLHᾹS from 1135 AD (unseen by author)” (Sjoman 1999 [1996]:58).

It is important to note that Krishnamacharya listed the Śrītattvanidhi as one of the sources he drew on for his Yogamakaranda (he included it in his bibliography, cf. Sjoman 1999 [1996]:66, n.69). Sjoman also mentions another gymnastics and exercise manual connected with the Mysore Palace with which Krishnamacharya was probably familiar. This manual, Vyāyāma Dīpikā, Elements of Gymnastic Exercises, Indian System (1896) by S. Bharadwaj, is a compilation of various types of exercise and also claimed to revive Indian exercises (Sjoman 1999 [1996]:53-54; 67, n.73). Its second chapter deals with daṇḍa exercises, about which Sjoman comments as follows:

“The daṇḍa exercises are variations of push-ups. […] They can be broken down to include individual āsanas such as tāḍāsana, pādahastāsana, caturaṅgadaṇḍāsana, and bhujaṅgāsana. They appear to be the primary foundation for Krishnamacariar’s vinyāsa-s. They are used by Indian wrestlers and are probably the core of indigenous Indian exercise” (Sjoman 1999 [1996]:54).

In his description of the fifth chapter of Vyāyāma Dīpikā, Sjoman lists a few exercises that approximate various āsanas in the system of B.K.S. Iyengar, Krishnamacharya’s student, and notes that some of these “probably originate from the wrestler’s exercises done on an oiled post” (Sjoman (1999 [1996]:54-55).

In short, Sjoman’s remarks indicate the real possibility of wrestling influences on the development of the āsana systems of Krishnamacharya and his students, an area one would have expected Singleton to explore in his Yoga Body.

Like Sjoman, Joseph Alter (2004:23), in his Yoga in Modern India: The Body between Science and Philosophy, makes a passing reference to the presence of headstand in the exercise regimen of medieval Indian wrestlers. In the hope of learning more about the nature of local Indian exercise forms and their possible contributions to the shaping of modern yoga, I then consulted Alter’s (1992a) The Wrestler’s Body: Identity and Ideology in North India, which deals with wrestling akhāṛas (gymnasia) in North India, a tradition that may have originated in the eleventh century (Alter 1992a:6). Focused as it is on questions of identity and ideology in modern-day akhāṛas, Alter’s study does not provide a detailed visual presentation of the physical exercises practiced by wrestlers, but his descriptions nonetheless prove illuminating. Granted, his fieldwork was done in 1987 – five to seven decades after the crucial developments Singleton investigates – and Indian wrestling would arguably have been subject to much the same influences of modernity, Hindu nationalism and international physical culture that shaped modern yoga. However, Alter’s account of wrestling as a religiously infused “way of life” (Alter 1992a:32) aimed at the realisation of “ideals of religious and physical perfection” under the guidance of a guru (Alter 1992a:58), the akhāṛa ethos of moral virtue, abstinence, celibacy and a strict dietary regimen (Alter 1992a:100-113) in conjunction with the performance of exercises such as dand (“jack-knifing push-up”), bethak or baithak (“deep knee bend”), dhakuli (somersault/flip) and shirshasan (headstand) (Alter 1992a:87-89, 93-94), as well as the importance of “controlled breathing” during wrestling practice (Alter 1992a:81, 90) and other aspects of wrestler lifestyle and practice, made me wonder whether a more explicit and detailed exploration of possible links between akhāṛa culture and the emergence of modern postural yoga was not called for in Singleton’s book.[10] Incidentally, Singleton (2010:204-206) does mention “dands”, but as regards their origins and history merely briefly points to a possible connection with traditional prostrations to the sun.

James Mallinson, in his response to Yoga Body at the American Academy of Religions Annual Meeting in 2011, raised a similar concern regarding possible influences from wrestling and other local practices. Although Mallinson agrees with Singleton that modern postural yoga’s “linking of āsanas into sequences” is unlikely to be the legacy of premodern yoga as the latter tended toward long holds of poses in no fixed order (Mallinson 2011:3), he does not rule out that there may have been precedents within local traditions in addition to the influences from Western gymnastics:

“In order to be sure, however, that there are not Indian precedents for the sequences of postures I suggest that traditional wrestling exercises and the training regimes of militant ascetics need to be examined more thoroughly” (Mallinson 2011:3).

Indeed, the fact that āsana pioneers Kuvalayananda and Yogendra were both students of a famous wrestler (Manick Rao) and Yogendra himself was a powerful wrestler in his youth, should have encouraged Singleton towards an investigation of possible precedents among wrestling exercises of some aspects of modern āsana practice, or at least an acknowledgement that this was an important area yet to be explored.

Other points of interest in Alter’s study include the denunciation by traditional Indian wrestlers of a modern bodybuilder physique (which to them looks like “separate pieces of meat slapped together in a random manner”) and their striving to realise a different kind of physical ideal where “the wrestler’s body is a smooth, integrated whole” or “ek rang ka sharir, a body of one color and uniform texture” (Alter 1992a:49) – an ideal that certainly has its parallels in yoga. In fact, a look at Alter’s (1992a:214-224) pictures of young (often quite thin) and older (often thickset) akhāṛa wrestlers, many of whose bodies do not show a great deal of muscular definition, makes it easy enough to imagine a B.K.S. Iyengar or Pattabhi Jois in an akhāṛa wrestling pit without their physiques looking unduly out of place. Wrestlers may be concerned with developing physical strength and “muscle bulk”, but not unlike modern postural yoga, suppleness and flexibility are also a prime concern (cf. Alter 1992a:82, 97). It would therefore have been interesting to know of specific ways in which the body culture of early twentieth-century wrestling akhāṛas may have influenced the emergence and shaping of modern postural yoga.

Another issue that might be worth unpacking is why it was (haṭha) yoga – and not akhāṛa wrestling culture or one of the other Indian exercise or martial arts traditions – that rose to transnational fame? After all, some of the latter seem to be characterised by enough comparable elements to have qualified for a similar reinvention as preeminent physico-spiritual export product emblematic of India’s claimed ancient holistic health orientation and timeless spiritual wisdom. In this regard it is interesting to note that wrestling has in fact been interpreted by some as “a form of yoga” (Alter 1992a:81).

In sum, Singleton’s Yoga Body left me with a better understanding of the international physical culture movement and its impact in India, but no clear picture of pre-existing local Indian exercise forms and the nature of their influence (whether in terms of ideology or choice of physical practices) on the shaping of modern postural yoga.

Back to top

Coming to terms with yoga’s youth

Crisis of Faith?

It goes without saying that research such as Singleton’s Yoga Body (and equally the work of other scholars like Joseph Alter and David Gordon White) radically undercuts narratives of modern postural yoga’s great antiquity and its putative origins in the consciousness of enlightened sages. This does raise interesting questions as to how contemporary yoga practitioners – particularly those whose interest in yoga extends beyond using it as a purely secular form of stretching exercise – may position themselves in relation to these research findings. After all, for many spiritually inclined contemporary yogis much of the attraction and enchantment of yoga practice are closely tied to notions of its ancient perfection and esoteric Indian origins. If one were to suddenly learn, for instance, that most of the postures diligently and religiously practiced within one’s yoga community had in fact never been intuited by enlightened Indian gurus or passed down via authentic spiritual lineages, but are instead the product of adaptive cultural exchanges and borrowings from modern Euro-American gymnastic and bodybuilding practices, it could potentially precipitate a crisis of faith. But whether or not a crisis of faith actually ensues, or instead any of a variety of other responses, does however depend upon many factors, not least of which is the extent to which one actually takes the findings of academic research seriously, but also the degree of flexibility and adaptability of the belief system bolstering one’s faith in yoga – whether, for instance, assumptions of the purely Indian inspiration and ancient transmission of yoga happen to be vital to it or not.

Such questions could also be put to the author of Yoga Body, who himself seems to have started out as a practitioner – at first of Vipassana and other types of mindfulness meditation, and then of the Iyengar, Ashtanga and Satyananda styles of yoga. In fact, Singleton says he had spent three years in India and two years as a yoga teacher in London before venturing into the scholarly study of yoga that eventually led to the Yoga Body (Thomas 2012). As is evident in an interview that another yoga practitioner conducted with him during the 2011 Yoga Festival Toronto, Singleton is a little evasive about the impact of his own research on any preconceived notions of yoga he may have held and he hesitates to reveal how he currently interprets his ongoing yoga, pranayama and meditation practice. He does say that his practice has not “lost its juice” and nor has it necessarily become “secular” now. He is however wary of applying the term “spiritual” to his practice, since the term tends to bring about an unwarranted elevation of some things above others, which in turn leads to “the whole business of the spiritual […] upon which empires are built” and with which he is “very uncomfortable” (Thomas 2012). Singleton does somewhat reluctantly admit that in the process of his research he experienced moments of questioning regarding the meaning of his practice:

“I think I certainly had those times too, where I was very much questioning what I was doing. And if the research, if the findings were true, then what is it that I was doing? Because it didn’t quite fit with the narrative that was usually given. And that was another motivating factor. What I was told I was doing didn’t seem to match with what I was finding” (Thomas 2012).

He then proceeds to interpret the writing of Yoga Body as “a kind of yogic enquiry” or “Viveka” wherein he did not so much try “to restore meaning” as “to sort things out” and “get the meaning right” (Thomas 2012). He indicates that he has not quite resolved for himself the issue of yoga’s meaning, nor does he know if any final resolution is really possible. As far as Singleton’s approach to his personal practice is concerned, it almost seems like he has settled for a kind of open-ended unpredictability – leaving things a little up in the air, so to speak – perhaps waiting to see where the confluence of dedicated personal practice and academic research takes him.

In an earlier article for Yoga Journal, Singleton (2010b) was somewhat less reticent about the initial impact of his scholarly discoveries on his perceptions of yoga, employing expressions like “shaken” and “crisis of faith”. Recounting his first forays into literature pointing towards foreign influences on yoga, particularly that of Scandinavian gymnastics, he says:

“[…Y]oga asana is commonly presented [by yoga teachers] as a practice handed down for thousands of years, originating from the Vedas, the oldest religious texts of the Hindus, and not as some hybrid of Indian tradition and European gymnastics. Clearly there was more to the story than I had been told. My foundation was shaken, to say the least. If I was not participating in an ancient, venerable tradition, what exactly was I doing? Was I heir to an authentic yoga practice, or the unwitting perpetrator of a global fraud?” (Singleton 2010b).

Singleton’s (partial) answer to these questions is reflected in a sentiment hinted at in his introduction to Yoga Body and reiterated at its close, namely, the offering of an assurance that modern posture-based yoga does not lack “seriousness, dignity, or spiritual profundity” merely because its “modes of practice, belief frameworks, and aspirations” diverge significantly from those of “Classical Yoga” (Singleton 2010:208). This may indeed be so, but one could legitimately ask whether the seriousness and spiritual profundity of contemporary yoga are not completely dependent on and inspired by false notions of its own origins and history (arguably a pervasive feature of religion in general). Accordingly, historical deconstructions of modern yoga’s foundational narratives would inevitably demolish the imagined sources that inspire practitioners’ belief in yoga’s spiritual profundity, and with it the profound experiences themselves.

Much though many yoga practitioners may want to believe in the inherent power of their practices to transform them, the accompanying seriousness, dignity and spiritual profundity hardly derive from the physical practices in and of themselves, but rather from a belief system that imbue such practices with spiritual and esoteric significance. When key aspects of a belief system are undermined or eroded, the practices associated with them also start losing value. One needs only consider the vastly different interpretations occasionally given of the same practices by devoted practitioners on the one hand, and disillusioned former practitioners who have opted out of the belief framework, on the other. What may from within the belief framework constitute a profound, spiritually charged practice and a means to achieve transcendence, may be viewed by apostates as a rather mundane or even harmful practice performed in a mode of self-deception.

The effect of historical research such as that of Singleton certainly contributes to a perspective that much of what is going down in transnational yoga ideologies is suspect, involving a significant amount of self-deception and wishful thinking – at least when it comes to efforts at historical self-validation through appeals to ancient roots shrouded in mystery. Moreover, if it is shown that particular postures or beliefs did not issue from the farseeing powers of enlightened sages (I for instance remember being taught how ancient rishis had spontaneously discovered the yoga poses during deep meditation), but instead from, say, the unenlightened mind of a nineteenth- or twentieth-century gymnastics or bodybuilding genius, then it becomes difficult to sustain belief in the inherent spiritual power of the practices – unless, of course, one readies oneself for a few interpretive somersaults. In this regard it will be interesting to see to what extent the findings of Singleton and other scholars percolate through the ranks of the yoga faithful, which aspects of the research get assimilated and what sort of yoga apologetics might emerge.

In terms of reactions received from other yoga practitioners to his Yoga Body, Singleton mentions that “[s]ome people have expressed a kind of disillusionment or something, a kind of disappointment that they experience when they read the book, followed often by thankfully a kind of resurgence of, I don’t know, hope or creativity or energy or something like that” (Thomas 2012). As former yoga enthusiast I find this response interesting, but not particularly surprising. Some caution is perhaps due, though, whenever there is talk of disillusionment (whether brought about by historical research, a guru’s misdemeanours or other causes) followed by a form of emotional resurgence. It is not uncommon for post-disillusionment resurgence to be either short-lived (sometimes followed by a rather lengthy and harrowing process of renewed meaning-making), or alternatively to fail to constitute a constructive assimilation of disturbing new perspectives, becoming instead a re-immersion in the prior enchanted world where potentially unsettling information is quickly tamed and subsumed without any fundamental change to one’s outlook.

Back to top

Personally Speaking

In my own case, I came across Singleton’s work as an already disillusioned devotee who had only recently become aware of the Hindutva leanings of my former guru and his circle of acquaintances. It had however not been my guru’s politics (of which I had taken little note as devotee) which had set in motion a process of disillusionment, but painful guru-disciple dynamics and learning of similar stories by other former devotees. This had prompted a search for scholarly perspectives in a range of areas, partly to develop a more effective critique of my former guru and his movement, but also to gain a measure of distance from the personal and traumatic nature of past experiences by placing events within a broader socio-historical context – one wherein the guru, his movement and myself became rather insignificant players, all of us swept along by larger socio-cultural trends and acting out roles that were not particularly unique, nor spiritually momentous.

In a way it was the replacement of a guru-centred seeker’s narrative of events with (at least in part) a scholarly narrative of wider cultural and historical patterns. The demise of a seeker’s narrative had brought about a tremendous sense of isolation, rupture and discontinuity – both in terms of space and time: The sense of spiritual belonging and enchanted connectedness to the world at large had been lost, as also a sense of karmic connection to past and future and to a lineage of spiritual masters, and with this the experience of purposefully moving through time (even across incarnations) along a path to enlightenment. My subsequent turning to historical, religious and socio-cultural studies as a means to restore a sense of meaning, continuity and interconnection to the world was therefore a logical choice, if not as lofty and emotionally satisfying as the spiritual narrative it replaced. Scholarly perspectives also served to broaden my horizons beyond the self-enclosed discourses of the guru’s movement – in which even former followers-turned-critics can remain caught up.

In filling in the parts of my new narrative, Singleton’s work proved a valuable aid. It served as an introduction to modern yoga studies, its widely publicised appearance coinciding with a period within which I was busily driving one secular nail after the other into the coffin of my yoga quest. Rather than a disappointment, its findings came as a relief, functioning as yet another act of demystification which helped dispel lingering doubts and grief at having given up what I used to believe a very special practice and spiritual path. For me at least, the book underscored the fact that yoga and its spiritual ideals were not elevated above other forms of religion and spirituality. Like them it proved not exempt from the condition of being a completely this-worldly, historically contingent cultural construction that but attempts to give expression to very human yearnings for self- and world-transcendence, not to mention serving as a vessel for all sorts of contemporary nationalist and other similarly mundane strivings.

The visual images in Yoga Body were particularly effective as tools to contextualise and demystify. Comparing pictures of European contortionists side by side with Indian yogis and fakirs (e.g. 30-31, 38, 57-58, 60-63, 70, 79); or Indian bodybuilding yogis and postural yoga pioneers alongside European bodybuilders, gymnasts and callisthenic regimes (e.g. 119, 128, 134, 137-139, 148, 150-151, 159, 201-202), left a powerful impression that modern yoga’s postures were not at all uniquely Indian. I was particularly struck (having at one point in my yoga journey been a diligent Iyengar yoga practitioner) by the juxtaposition of a selection of B.K.S. Iyengar’s postures with nineteenth-century European contortionist poses (60-63).

It is certainly no secret among Iyengar practitioners that Iyengar is a master innovator who took pains to ‘perfect’ the postures he had learned from his guru, Krishnamacharya. Similarly, Iyengar’s argument that aware and single-minded practice of āsana in and of itself has the potential to encompass all the other limbs of Patañjali’s yoga, clearly constitutes a novel interpretation of ‘tradition’ – which fact Iyengar does not really attempt to hide. As student practitioner, however, one assumes that any such innovations form part of a kind of organic spiritual transmission and are the direct result of enlightened inspiration that runs like a thread through a lineage of gurus. Or alternatively, that they constitute the (re-)discovery of ancient or transhistorical knowledge to which only the enlightened have access. But seeing a nineteenth-century European contortionist perform Iyengar’s poses independently at an earlier date and moreover – as remarked by another Iyengar practitioner to whom I showed Singleton’s book – doing them better than Iyengar, can effectively strip associations of Indian spirituality from the poses. At least it did so for me, but by then I had already done guru-hopping to exhaustion and was at post-practitioner stage eager to explore alternative views. I imagine many yoga practitioners might respond differently, however. Had I still been at the height of my yoga quest I would have dismissed as erroneous, biased and spiritually uninformed any ‘Western’ scholar’s perspective on yoga’s history without even troubling to consider its actual contents (not unlike many creationist Christians who reject any historical and scientific findings that contradict their version of history). With the guru’s viewpoint being the only one that truly mattered, there was scant opportunity for alternative perspectives to find a way in and make an impact. In such a self-enclosed worldview, chances of even just hearing about such research were unlikely, unless the research somehow came to the attention of my guru and he decided to mention it in order to denounce it – in which case single-minded devotees like me would have treated it with the condescension it deserved. In either case, the research would have gone unread. But even if read, such a challenge to insider beliefs about postural yoga’s ancient origins would likely have been viewed by me as one of the many tests of faith or temptations on the path. To avoid turning into a fallen yogi, secular ideas were to be resisted rather than considered or integrated, and doubts overcome by renewed commitment to the path.

Back to top

Assimilation or Rejection of Research Findings?

In more permeable yoga environments where practitioners are less under the sway of a guru, the iconoclastic effect of research findings on yoga’s history might be assimilated to a greater degree. Younger generations of yoga practitioners who are at ease in a virtually connected world of constant exchange and competitive innovation would presumably be less invested in notions of postural yoga’s ancient Indian roots, and relatively comfortable with its newness, hybridity and cross-cultural borrowing. After all, the global yoga marketplace is already filled with individualist New Agey yoga teachers enthusiastically inventing new yoga brands of their own. Even in cases where practitioners have a strong commitment to an Indian guru it would also not necessarily compromise the guru’s authenticity in the eyes of followers if s/he openly admits to using elements of several traditions and cultures in order to spread a universal spiritual message. Osho/Rajneesh (1931-1990) was a powerful case in point (although not so much in the context of postural yoga).

In short, the degree to which Yoga Body and other similar research on postural yoga’s youth and hybridity will have an iconoclastic effect in yoga circles, will largely depend on the kinds of worldview held by various yoga gurus/teachers, practitioners and communities. Reactionary responses like that of the Hindu American Foundation (HAF) with their wholesale rejection of the research findings and vigorous proclamations that Hindus should “Take Back Yoga” since it is the legacy and gift of their own ancient tradition and none other, represent one extreme.[11] Yoga practitioners from non-Hindu religions, on the other hand, may welcome evidence of postural yoga’s physical culture origins as an indication that the postures are not spiritual or religious in nature and therefore do not pose a threat to their own religious persuasions.

Yoga practitioners of a New Agey persuasion, who have an irrepressible faith in the ability of the universe to synchronise and employ anything whatsoever towards a greater spiritual goal, will probably take the research findings in their stride and may equally welcome it as proof of yoga’s non-sectarian nature. Such unbridled optimism is unlikely to even be fazed by White’s accounts of the centrality of ‘sinister yogis’ and their decidedly unspiritual practices in yoga’s premodern history. One could imagine as standard response the way in which Anne Cushman happily announces as follows in the Yoga Journal (this after having considered Norman Sjoman’s study of the gymnastic influences on Krishnamacharya’s teaching at the Mysore Palace):

“[…Y]oga, like life itself, is infinitely creative, expressing itself in a multitude of forms, re-creating itself to meet the needs of different times and cultures.

[…] The poses are just the ever-changing manifestations of our life energy; what matters is our devotion to awakening that energy and expressing it in physical form. Yoga is both old and new—it’s inconceivably ancient, and yet fresh every time we come to it” (Cushman, n.d.).

Singleton (2010b) himself opts for a similar metaphor, viewing modern yoga practices “as simply the latest grafts onto the tree of yoga” (here perhaps alluding to a metaphor used by B.K.S. Iyengar, who authored a book titled The Tree of Yoga, to indicate the unity and interconnectedness of the eight limbs of yoga):

“Our yogas obviously have roots in Indian tradition, but this is far from the whole story. Thinking about yoga this way, as a vast and ancient tree with many roots and branches, is not a betrayal of authentic ‘tradition,’ nor does it encourage an uncritical acceptance of everything that calls itself ‘yoga,’ no matter how absurd. On the contrary, this kind of thinking can encourage us to examine our own practices and beliefs more closely, to see them in relation to our own past as well as to our ancient heritage” (Singleton 2010b).

He adds that this knowledge can reveal not only one’s conditioning, but also “our true identity”, leading to a “true, clear seeing”. For Singleton “modern yoga scholarship” becomes “an expression of today’s most urgently needed yogic virtue, viveka (‘discernment’ or ‘right judgment’)” (Singleton 2010b). Thus co-opting scholarly endeavours in the yogic quest, Singleton manages to reconcile (at least for himself) some of the contradictions inherent in simultaneous pursuance of critical secular scholarship and a spiritual path. This is an interesting move, but not particularly unique, as is evidenced in Joseph Alter’s (2004) Yoga in Modern India: The Body between Science and Philosophy, which reveals the ingenious ways in which modern yogis have been enlisting science for religious ends.

As scholarly understandings of postural yoga’s history start filtering into mainstream perceptions of yoga (which admittedly could take some time), chances are it would begin to erode yoga’s exotic, esoteric and holistic appeal, eventually shrinking its niche in the global spiritual marketplace. Notwithstanding attempts by scholar-practitioners like Singleton to incorporate new research within an enlarged view of yoga, some of yoga’s very special appeal is diluted by loosening its ancient and Indian roots. This may not severely affect those individuals who have a lot to lose by giving up a very committed yoga practice and for whom reframing their understandings of yoga is therefore the more tolerable alternative. But it could lessen yoga’s strong attraction for newcomers, peripheral practitioners and interested outsiders who otherwise might have been more inclined to take up yoga as committed practice.

Back to top


In terms of its reception, Singleton’s Yoga Body comes commended by leading scholars in the history of yoga such as Joseph Alter and David Gordon White and has received a number of popular and academic reviews by other scholars (e.g. Coward 2010; Doniger 2011; Farmer 2012; Jain 2011; Michaels 2011; Pflueger 2011). The work has also sparked interest concerning yoga’s history on research lists[12] as well as featured in the press during debates with the Hindu right about their claims to Hinduism’s ownership of yoga.[13]

Early on in her popular article, “The Real Roots of Yoga”, Wendy Doniger (2011) somewhat misleadingly creates the impression that she will be focusing on Singleton’s Yoga Body. Instead the article liberally intersperses paraphrases of Singleton’s work with other information, including work of other scholars. It is not always accurate in its finer points and occasionally jumps back and forth chronologically, making for a somewhat disjointed and confusing (if interesting) read. Although Doniger’s article does not constitute a serious critical engagement with Singleton’s findings, she does at one point remark that “diet, relaxation, cleanliness and breathing” were “all attested in some of the many other forms of ancient Indian yoga” and concludes her article by saying that “there are more historical bases for contemporary postural yoga within classical Hinduism than Singleton allows” (Doniger 2011).

Axel Michaels, another scholar of Indology, also wrote a popular article, “Auf der westöstlichen Übungsmatte: Yoga als Erzeugnis eines fortgesetzten Kulturaustauschs”, in which he touches on the debate about who owns yoga before briefly summarising the conclusions of Yoga Body. He largely echoes Doniger’s article, but is more coherent and to the point. Similar to Doniger (2011), Nanda (2011a) and Pflueger (2011), Michaels does not critically engage with Singleton’s conclusions, content to declare it a “bemerkenswerten Studie” (Michaels 2011:65).

In a brief one-paragraph scholarly review Lloyd Pflueger (2011:235) gives Yoga Body unqualified praise, calling it a “groundbreaking book” that presents “a nuanced, clear, and well-supported analysis”, adding that it would be a fascinating read for anyone “interested in religion, cultural studies, and India” and that “for students of yoga, it is a necessity”.

Harold Coward gives a chapter-by-chapter overview of Yoga Body and views this work ‑ together with that of De Michelis (2004) – as “the best analysis of modem yoga teaching and practice” (Coward 2010:65). He calls it a work of “focused and careful scholarship” and “an excellent contribution to our understanding of how asana yoga evolved in the decades after Vivekananda”, particularly commending Singleton for his “careful avoidance of the temptation to treat Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras or classical hatha yoga texts as the ‘gold standard’ against which modern yoga may be compared and criticized for its divergences” (Coward 2010:63-64).

Andrea Jain (2011) presents a brief review of Singleton’s book, comparing and contrasting it with three other recent publications on nineteenth- and early twentieth-century figures who had promoted various forms of yoga (e.g. tantric) in America. She is surprised that Singleton has not taken note of some of them in Yoga Body, particularly, Ida C. Craddock (1857-1902) and Pierre Bernard (1876-1955). Jain’s reformulations do not always adhere closely to Singleton’s careful way of stating his findings. She does however rightly point out that whereas Singleton (2010:18) highlights the dangers inherent in an uncritical adoption of De Michelis’s (2004) “Modern Yoga” typology, he on the other hand “lacks consistency in his own use of comparative categories” (Jain 2011:22).

Jared Farmer (2012) reviews Yoga Body together with two of the publications also featuring in Jain’s (2011) review. Like Jain (2011) and Doniger (2011) he is at times careless with details. He says for instance that Krishnamacharya was instructor at the Jaganmohan Palace during the 1920s and 1930s, whereas Singleton (2010:176-177) indicates the period as the early 1930s to early 1950s. He also claims that in Singleton’s “analysis, posture practice owes more to English bodybuilding star Eugene Sandow than to Pantañjali” (Farmer 2012:148), while in fact Singleton (2010:89) merely quoted a remark by Alter (2004:28), who had actually referred to Vivekananda and Aurobindo, not Patañjali (incidentally, Eugen Sandow was of Prussian origin but moved to England as a young man). I however agree with Farmer (2011:149) that Singleton “does not adequately situate his book in the context of postcolonial studies, gender theory, cultural theory, transnational history, imperial history, Indian history, or the histories of athletics, medicine, and religion”. Granted, all this would be too much to ask of a single book, but some of these areas could have been addressed. Farmer (2011:148-149) is also accurate in his observations that Singleton “doesn’t provide a clear narrative and doesn’t assign weights to his manifold causal factors”, remarking that it is possible that “in his endeavor to exhaustively catalog foreign influences, Singleton overlooks certain indigenous contexts”.

In a response to Singleton’s Yoga Body (presented as a paper at the American Academy of Religions Annual Meeting of 2011), James Mallinson (2011:4,1) praises Yoga Body as a “landmark work”, but also highlights a few areas where he believes Singleton overlooked continuities between “pre-modern physical yoga practice in India” and modern āsana practice. Mallinson (2011:3) for instance sees more evidence of premodern āsana practice than Singleton allows for, though he concedes that such postures were viewed in early medieval times as forms of “tapas or self-mortification” rather than yoga. Mallinson (2011:1-2) also suggests that non-seated postures may have developed from the tenth century onwards within Śrīvaiṣṇavism (which happens to be the religious affiliation of Krishnamacharya and B.K.S. Iyengar):

“[…C]ontrary to the received opinion reiterated in Yoga Body, non-seated yogic āsanas appear to have developed outside of Śaivism. Furthermore, and this is something I believe to be worthy of further investigation, these Pāñcarātrika Saṃhitās are canonical works of Śrīvaiṣṇavism, the tradition of which Krishamacharya and some of his pupils were adherents” (Mallinson 2011:2).

As mentioned above (see section, “Is modern postural yoga all modern then?”) Mallinson (2011:3) also questions whether there had not been precedents within local Indian exercise traditions (e.g. wrestling) for the practice of linking postures in sequences.

In a paper, “Modern Yoga Research: Insights and Questions”, Karl Baier (2011:10) intermittently makes mention of Singleton’s work, calling Yoga Body “the groundbreaking study” on “the cultural and historical contexts within which these body-centred Modern Yoga exercises are to be understood”. Baier does offer one or two critical remarks, for instance:

“The history of the medical-scientific foundation of body-based yoga practice does not start with Vasu and Basu, as Singleton believes, but, as already stated, in the first third of the nineteenth century with Mesmerism” (Baier 2011:5, n.17).

However, contrary to Baier’s statement, Singleton does not really claim that Vasu and Basu were the first to link yoga and modern science. Singleton (2010:50) merely indicates that Kuvalayananda believed Basu’s article (in the Theosophist in 1888) had been the oldest effort towards a scientific interpretation of yogic anatomy, but Singleton himself adds a little later: “Perhaps even more than Basu’s work, [N.C. Paul’s A Treatise on the Yoga Philosophy (1850)] might be credited as the first attempt to marry haṭha yoga practice and theory with modern medical science” (Singleton 2010:52). Elsewhere Singleton (e.g. 2010:153) does give a cursory nod to the influence of mesmerism on modern yoga, but Baier seems correct in claiming that Singleton is not aware of early nineteenth-century “German Mesmerist doctors” whom Baier (2011:4) mentions as having already “referred to the cakras as nervous plexuses, interpreted their function as physiological in meditation, and understood the rise up through the cakras to mystical experience as a sort of self-therapy practised by yogis”. Unfortunately Baier himself does not give any further details, nor mention the names of these doctors, but refers the reader to a German work of his (Meditation und Moderne, 2009). He also remarks as follows about the pre-colonial practice of āsana for health purposes and its potential links with other local exercise practices (but does not elaborate further):

“It appears that even before India became a British colony, people had started practising yogic postures and breathing exercises mainly for health benefits, independently of meditation practice. Perhaps body-centred yoga exercises and traditional physical exercise systems such as wrestling influenced each other in this process” (Baier 2011:10).

Back to top


Although neglecting to provide an adequate philosophical and theoretical framework for his study and not always succeeding in pulling together the various threads of his investigation within a clear, coherent narrative, Mark Singleton’s Yoga Body marshalled enough interesting evidence to show that the current international popularity of āsana-based yoga can in large part be ascribed to its relatively recent reinvention as a predominantly physical practice in line with modern international physical culture aspirations.

Yoga Body would however have benefited from a greater degree of reflexivity on Singleton’s part, for instance an acknowledgement of his own background as Western yoga and meditation practitioner who – despite reasonable familiarity with India – may not have been acquainted with various Indian cultural contexts and somatic practices/value systems that could potentially have contributed to the shaping of modern yoga. Yoga scholars (both practitioners and non-practitioners) have a responsibility to enunciate how they are situated in relation to their field of study and how this may be reflected in their findings, including potential gaps or limits in their understanding of the subject matter.

Related to these reflexivity concerns is the fact that Yoga Body is somewhat lacking in systematic theoretical conceptualisation and in-depth analysis in a number of areas. Singleton (2010:11) is for instance at pains to distance himself from the work of Edward Said, Ronald Inden and “Orientalist-bashing” more generally, but fails to offer a strong theoretical position of his own. He does not present a framework for thinking about the emergence of modern yoga in relation to the (re)production of culture, tradition, knowledge and gender/masculinities under conditions of colonialism and modernity, so the nature of the complex cross-cultural mergers that took place remains unclear. This is not to say that he has nothing to say about such matters, but they take the form of scattered, disjointed remarks rather than a fully developed perspective. The work is relatively short (the main text, excluding notes, is 210 pp with numerous images) and it tends at times towards briefly reporting an array of relevant details without fully contextualising them or unpacking their meaning and implications in a nuanced way.

Singleton tries to extricate himself (somewhat unsuccessfully) from the sort of controversies that inevitably accompany the reception of this kind of research within the arena of transnational yoga politics and Hindu nationalist circles. To pre-empt his research being used in attempts to challenge the authenticity and integrity of contemporary yoga, he opts for interpreting the various traditions or types of yoga (old and new) as “homonymous terms” with “quite different meanings and origins” (15). In this way he hopes to grant all yogas independent validity, thereby avoiding negative comparisons regarding which is the most authentic. This move comes across a little facile, however. Deliberately sidestepping the major question of the relationship between past and present by appealing to a linguistic term (“homonym”) is an arbitrary caveat and rather surprising move for a historical study, especially one that aims at uncovering various other socio-cultural connections ranging across time and space. Singleton himself seems ambivalent about links with the past (as also borne out in his popular interviews) – ostensibly oscillating between asserting some kind of link with a (non-specific and unnamed) living, dynamic, self-reinventing tradition through the ages on the one hand, and the complete independence and newness of contemporary posture practice on the other. This may be an issue he has yet to resolve for himself.

Although perhaps lying beyond the scope of the time period that constitutes the focus of Singleton’s study, another question that occurs concerns the factors enabling modern postural yoga to displace (or occupy the cultural space previously filled by) harmonial gymnastics (154, 158). It would have been interesting to have Singleton speculate briefly on how and why āsana-based yoga gained the edge over existing women’s physico-spiritual exercise paradigms which were very similar in nature. Did the former’s greater attraction lie in offering, for instance, a bigger element of spiritual exoticism to middleclass European and American women?

Critical observations aside, Singleton’s Yoga Body has made a valuable contribution towards documenting the confluence of unexpected and diverse influences that had given birth to contemporary postural yoga. The work will hopefully stimulate further research in the various areas touched upon, not only encouraging closer scrutiny of the contributions of different international physical culture practices and philosophies, but also uncovering possible contributions of pre-existing Indian exercise traditions.

Back to top


I conclude with a summary of the ground covered in this essay. We started by observing that contemporary postural yoga owes much of its international appeal to the belief that āsana (posture) is a tried and tested practice of Indian tradition, transmitted by wise sages since ancient times. It was noted that this assumption is being challenged by recent research into yoga’s history, in this instance Mark Singleton’s (2010) Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice, of which a detailed synopsis was offered. We began the synopsis with a look at Singleton’s research questions, namely firstly, how do we explain the initial omission of haṭha practices and teachings from popular yoga manuals of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (which absence had lasted for about three decades following Vivekananda); and secondly, how do we account for the subsequent surprising comeback of haṭha yoga as a legitimate form of practice from the 1920s onwards? We then proceeded to Singleton’s brief overview of yoga in the Indian tradition, noting that (barring seated meditation postures) there is not much evidence of ancient āsana practice, and even in medieval haṭha yoga traditions we find evidence of only a small number of (non-standing) postures, which had moreover occupied a rather marginal place within those traditions.

Singleton’s second and third chapters dealt with European and colonialist perceptions of haṭha yoga and yogins during the seventeenth to early twentieth centuries. We saw how European travellers and scholars had generally held negative views of the physical appearance (e.g. long matted hair, ash-smeared bodies, overgrown nails, dislocated arms), excruciating austerities, unnatural postures and superstitious beliefs of the sannyasi-fakir. These negative attitudes had largely been echoed by late nineteenth and early twentieth-century Indian translators of ‘classical’ haṭha yoga texts into English, who had deplored (like much of the Indian public) the lifestyles of the haṭha yogins, while nonetheless finding the texts worthy of translation. We also saw how from the seventeenth century onwards yogins’ role as ascetic mercenaries had started diminishing and how they had increasingly turned to the public performance of contortions and austerities in order to survive, especially so after the British had begun suppressing their activities in earnest during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. We noted how Indian performing yogins visiting the West in the late nineteenth century had found a ready audience since contortion as public display had also been a regular feature of Europe’s royal courts, fairs and saturnalia for centuries past. In fact, although they constitute independent traditions, some yoga postures look identical to poses performed by European contortionists.

In chapters four and five Singleton covered the way in which India had assimilated the exercise regimens of the modern international physical culture movement. We saw how nationalist, ‘man-making’ exercise routines had spread throughout Europe during the nineteenth century and through British colonialism had also found their way to India. The muscular Christianity of the YMCA, the gymnastics systems of Archibald Maclaren and Per Henrik Ling, the bodybuilding routines of Eugen Sandow, as well as prevalent eugenics theories, had all had an impact on the development of physical culture practices in nineteenth and early-twentieth century India. To oppose the oppressive cultural milieu created by British colonialists – with their idealised images of English masculinity and racist stereotypes of Indian effeminacy – Indians had responded with nationalist (sometimes militant) forms of physical culture. These had been eclectic mergers of international and local practices and ideologies. Freedom-fighter yogis had for instance creatively refashioned the violent ascetic of the Indian past to fit nationalist aspirations, and physical culture proponents had merged the medieval siddha with the modern-day strongman.

In chapters six and seven Singleton traced the development of “gendered yogas” geared to women and men respectively. He first looked at key Indian figures that had played a prominent role in the creation of yoga as a form of masculine physical culture, among others, Swami Kuvalayananda, Shri Yogendra, K.V. Iyer, Yogācarya Sundaram and Ramesh S. Balsekar. Their yoga projects had been characterised by, among others, the incorporation of Western physical culture ideals and gymnastics and bodybuilding exercises; a preoccupation with divesting yoga of its magical aspects; making yoga an object of scientific and medical research (for instance by studying the physiological effects of prāṇāyāma); presenting yoga as an ancient Indian, superior system of health; advocating yoga as a means for building the physical, mental and moral strength of the Indian nation; and/or promoting yoga as a method to attain a particular masculine, muscular aesthetic ideal. Under the influence of New Thought, other early twentieth-century figures (e.g. Yogi Ramacharaka, Paramahaṃsa Yogananda and Yogi Gherwal) had helped to turn yoga into a repository for popular esoteric teachings, including belief in the power of auto-suggestion and positive thinking. We also saw how European and American women’s gymnastics from the 1890s onwards had prefigured the spiritual stretching and breathing exercises of contemporary yoga, and had done so to a greater degree than the male-oriented gymnastic and bodybuilding practices self-identifying as yoga in early twentieth-century India. Discussing the harmonial gymnastics of figures like Genevieve Stebbins, Cajzoran Ali and Mollie Bagot Stack, Singleton argued that some contemporary Western yoga practitioners are now merely practicing the spiritualised gymnastics of their white Protestant grandmothers and great-grandmothers under another name and with the added trappings of ‘spiritual India’, which also explains the continued predominance of women practitioners in yoga.

In chapter eight Singleton discussed how visual representations of āsana through art and photography had facilitated the āsana revival as well as the invention of the modern “yoga body” – both as public phenomenon that could be emulated and as object for scientific study and validation. He analysed the shift in approach to āsana – from a preoccupation with the ‘subtle’ body of haṭha yoga to a focus on the naturalistic, anatomical body – by looking at two pictorial yoga manuals separated in time by 75 years, namely, the 1830 illustrated manuscript of the Jogapradῑpakā (1737) and Yogi Ghamande’s Yogasopāna Pūrvacatuṣka of 1905.

In chapter nine, the final chapter, Singleton gave an overview of the life of Tirumalai Krishnamacharya (1888-1989), who had been instrumental in the transformation of āsana into a form of modern physical culture. We saw how Krishnamacharya had been employed by the Maharaja Krishnaraja Wodiyar IV at the Jaganmohan Palace in Mysore, a hub of Indian physical culture revivalism, and how he had opened a yogaśālā in its old gymnastics hall in 1933, teaching yoga there for the next two decades. During this period his āsana teachings had probably been shaped by the palace’s gymnastics tradition, the physical education systems dominant in late colonial India (for instance, Kuvalayananda’s Ling-based syllabi and Niels Bukh’s Primary Gymnastics), as well as contacts with bodybuilder and physical culturalist, K.V. Iyer and his senior student, Anant Rao (also a teacher at the palace). Close resemblances can for instance be observed between some of the postures and sequences taught by Krishnamacharya’s influential disciples, Pattabhi Jois and B.K.S. Iyengar, and some of Kuvalayananda and Bukh’s exercises. We saw how Jois’s āsana style probably derives from Krishnamacharya’s early audience-oriented public āsana displays which had required “a coordinated, high-speed showcase” in the form of “rapid-fire āsana sequences”.

The main thesis of Yoga Body is summed up in this statement by Singleton:

“Modern āsana practice emerged in a dialectical relationship to physical culture and harmonial gymnastics: it absorbed many of these teachings, claimed them as its own, and sold them back to the Western readership as the purest expression of Indian physical culture (Singleton 2010:154).

Next I made two observations. The first was a comment on Yoga Body’s relative neglect of premodern yoga traditions and Indian exercise traditions more generally when considering the various elements and influences that helped produce modern anglophone yoga. I briefly looked at works by Norman Sjoman and Joseph Alter that seem to point to the need for closer investigation of traditional Indian exercise traditions (particularly traditional Indian wrestling) in relation to the emergence of āsana-based yoga. My second observation concerned the implications of Singleton’s research for the ideological milieu of contemporary yoga practice. I considered how yoga practitioners and former yoga practitioners might position themselves in relation to a somewhat iconoclastic account of yoga’s history. Drawing on popular interviews with Singleton as well as personal experience, I addressed the issue of a crisis of faith as well as factors that may influence the assimilation or rejection of research findings that contradict practitioner beliefs.

An overview of the popular and academic reception of Yoga Body followed. Praised as “groundbreaking” and a “landmark work”, the work received an overwhelmingly positive response from scholars, but few seemed to have seriously engaged with the details of Singleton’s arguments. In terms of its popular reception, the work became embroiled in controversies surrounding Hindu traditionalist claims about contemporary yoga’s supposedly ancient Indian roots.

The conclusion added a few final remarks on areas of Yoga Body that seem to call for more attention, for instance the need to develop a stronger theoretical position to account for the complex cross-cultural mergers the work addresses, and for a more considered position on modern postural yoga’s relation to the premodern and early modern past. The essay closed with the comment that Yoga Body represents a valuable contribution towards documenting the diverse influences that had shaped contemporary postural yoga and that the work’s appearance will hopefully stimulate further research in the various areas explored.

Back to top

To cite this article:

Smit, Estian. 2012. “Mark Singleton’s Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice – A Synopsis, Review and Personal Perspective”.

© 2012 Estian Smit and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Click here for pdf.

Back to top


[1] Unless otherwise indicated all page references in this essay refer to this edition of Singleton’s Yoga Body.

[2] For the Indian government’s efforts to claim yoga postures as indigenous knowledge and thereby prevent their patenting and copyrighting, see its Traditional Knowledge Digital Library (TKDL) website:; and articles in the press: Nelson (2009), Press Trust of India (2011), Sinha (2009; 2011) and Wax (2010).

[3] For a more detailed and nuanced account of the origins, history and multiple meanings of the term ‘yoga’, see David Gordon White’s (2009) Sinister Yogis, particularly the second chapter “Ceci n’est pas un Yogi” (pp.38-82).

[4] For a discussion of the relationship between ‘muscular Christianity’ and ‘muscular Hinduism’, see Joseph Alter’s (2006) “Yoga at the Fin de Siècle: Muscular Christianity with a ‘Hindu’ Twist”.

[5] Historically yoga practices have often been thought to enable adepts to perform extraordinary feats – from absolute control over physiological functions (such as ceasing to breathe for long periods of time, stopping one’s heartbeat or being immune to poison) to bearing physical burdens of tremendous weight, to even more magical and esoteric abilities (siddhis), such as occupying multiple bodies or increasing and decreasing one’s physical weight or size to incredibly large or small dimensions.

[6] For a more detailed treatment of Kuvalayananda, see the third chapter of Joseph Alter’s (2004:73-108) Yoga in Modern India: The Body between Science and Philosophy, titled “Swami Kuvalayananda: Science, Yoga, and Global Modernity”.

[7] For examples of K.V. Iyer in action, see

[8] See Balsekar’s (1940) Streamlines, available online in two parts at and

[9] See Alter (2006:770) for examples of the transformation of static medieval āsanas (e.g. utkatasana, konasana, cakrasana and pascimottanasana) into dynamic forms of exercise by Yogendra.

[10] See also Alter’s “The ‘Sannyasi’ and the Indian Wrestler: The Anatomy of a Relationship”, where he analyses the way in which Indian wrestlers’ sense of self is informed by a “particular conception of ascetic self-discipline” and a striving towards being “a self-conscious paragon of physico-moral health” (Alter 1992b:317). Here again a number of resemblances with elements of modern yoga ideology could be identified, for instance the creative appropriation and reinterpretation of sannyas ideals in the context of a practice that is predominantly a form of physical exercise.

[11] For debates in the press surrounding the Hindu American Foundation’s (HAF) “Take Back Yoga” campaign, see for instance, Shukla (2010), Waters (2010), Vitello (2010), Nanda (2011a; 2011b), Venkatamaran (2011) and Doniger (2011). See also related discussions on the Indo-Eurasian Research list: “Hindu Group Stirs a Debate Over Yoga’s Soul”, 28 November to 1 December 2010 ( and “Yoga Wars and (c) Issues”, 23 August to 6 September 2010 (

[12] See for instance the discussions of Yoga Body on the Indo-Eurasian Research list (e.g. the thread titled, “Wendy Doniger on Mark Singleton in the Times Literary Supplement”, 6-9 March 2011, and the Indology list (e.g. the thread titled, “Yoga Body, a book by Mark Singleton”, 7-10 March 2011,

[13] See for instance Nanda (2011a) and Doniger (2011). See also note 11 above.

Back to top

Printing errors and textual corrections

  • p.20: “Vishnudevananda (The Complete Book of Yoga, 960)” – change publication date to “1960”.
  • p.115: “Paramahaṃsa Shri Madhvadasji (1789–1921)” – change birth date to “1798”?
  • p.118: “MacFadden” – change to “Macfadden” (i.e. change capitalisation to be consistent with other instances in text).
  • p.136: “New Thought)” – change to “New Thought” (i.e. remove unneeded bracket).
  • p.141: “Iyengar’s nomeclature” – change to “… nomenclature” (spelling).
  • p.144: “Francois Delsarte” – change to “François…” (i.e. use ç to be consistent with other instances in text).
  • p.152: “Dharma Mitra” – change to “… Mittra” (spelling).
  • p.153: “Hede Kallmeyer, was, like Stebbins, trained by François Delsarte” – Hede Kallmeyer (1881-1976) could not have been trained by François Delsarte (1811-1871) who died before she was born, but she does seem to have been a student of Genevieve Stebbins.
  • p.153: “Delsarte [229])” – change to “… (229)” (i.e. fix bracket usage).
  • p.163: “MacFadden” – change to “Macfadden” (i.e. change capitalisation to be consistent with other instances in text).
  • p.167: “(1972) [1931])” – change to “(1972 [1931])” (i.e. remove excess bracket in middle).
  • p.181: “… Krishnamacharya’s evening classes (interview, K. V. Karna, September 17, 2005; Goldberg (2006) uses Karna’s assertion…” – change to “… Krishnamacharya’s evening classes (interview, K. V. Karna, September 17, 2005). Goldberg (2006) uses Karna’s assertion…” (i.e. fix punctuation between sentences).
  • p.243: “Mitra, D. 2003.” – change to “Mittra…” (spelling).

Back to top


Alter, Joseph S. 1992a. The Wrestler’s Body: Identity and Ideology in North India. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Alter, Joseph S. 1992b. “The ‘Sannyasi’ and the Indian Wrestler: The Anatomy of a Relationship”, American Ethnologist 19(2):317-336.

Alter, Joseph S. 2004. Yoga in Modern India: The Body between Science and Philosophy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Alter, Joseph S. 2006. “Yoga at the Fin de Siècle: Muscular Christianity with a ‘Hindu’ Twist”, International Journal of the History of Sport 23(5):759-776.

Baier, Karl. 2011. “Modern Yoga Research: Insights and Questions”. (last accessed 2 June 2012).

Balsekar, Ramesh S. 1940. Streamlines. Bombay: Sindhula. Available online in two parts at and

Coward, Harold. 2010. “Book Review: Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice by Mark Singleton and The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali by Edwin F. Bryant”, Journal of Hindu-Christian Studies 23(1):62-65. (last accessed 14 June 2012).

Cushman, Anne. (n.d.) “New Light on Yoga”, Yoga Journal. (last accessed 8 May 2012).

De Michelis, Elizabeth. 2004. A History of Modern Yoga: Patañjali and Western Esotericism. London: Continuum.

Doniger, Wendy. 2011. “The Real Roots of Yoga”, The Times Literary Supplement, 2 March 2011. (Discussed on the Indo-Eurasian Research list:

Farmer, Jared. 2012. “Americanasana”, Reviews in American History 40(1):145-158. DOI: 10.1353/rah.2012.0016

Fillary, Roger & Waldron, Gil (2000-2011). “Bodybuilding and Muscle Control in India”, Online Museum of Physical Culture, (last accessed 13 November 2011).

Jain, Andrea R. 2011. “Mystics, Gymnasts, Sexologists, and Other Yogis: Divergence and Collectivity in the History of Modern Yoga“, Religious Studies Review 37(1):19-23.

Maier-Moul, Susan. 2010. “Mark Singleton, Part Two”, The Magazine of Yoga, 13 October 2010. (last accessed 11 February 2011).

Mallinson, James. 2011. “A Response to Mark Singleton’s Yoga Body”, revised version of a paper presented at the American Academy of Religions Annual Meeting, San Francisco, 19 November 2011. (last accessed 8 May 2012).

Michaels, Axel. 2011. “Auf der westöstlichen Übungsmatte: Yoga als Erzeugnis eines fortgesetzten Kulturaustauschs”, Neue Zürcher Zeitung, Saturday 21 May 2011, nr.118, p.65. Newspaper print version: (last accessed 19 March 2012). Online: (last accessed 22 May 2011).

Nanda, Meera. 2011a. “Not as Old as You Think”, Open, 12 February 2011. (last accessed 19 March 2012).

Nanda, Meera. 2011b. “The Ludicrousness of Taking Back Yoga”, Open, 26 February 2011. (last accessed 19 March 2012).

Nelson, Dean. 2009. “India Moves to Patent Yoga Poses in Bid to Protect Traditional Knowledge”, The Telegraph, 23 February 2009. (last accessed 8 July 2012).

Pflueger, Lloyd. W. 2011. “Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice – By Mark Singleton”, Religious Studies Review 37(3):235.

Press Trust of India (PTI). 2011. “India Videographs 200 Yoga Postures to Prevent Patent Piracy”, The Times of India, 20 April 2011. (last accessed 8 July 2012).

Sinha, Kounteya. 2009. “Yoga Piracy: India Shows Who’s the Guru”, The Times of India, 22 February 2009. (last accessed 8 July 2012).

Sinha, Kounteya. 2011. “India Pulls the Plug on Yoga as Business”, The Times of India, 6 February 2011. (last accessed 8 July 2012).

Shukla, Aseem. 2010. “The Theft of Yoga”, The Washington Post, 18 April 2010. (last accessed 27 May 2012).

Singleton, Mark. 2010. Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice. New York: Oxford University Press.

Singleton, Mark. 2010b. “Yoga’s Greater Truth”, Yoga Journal, November 2010. (last accessed 8 May 2012).

Sjoman, Norman E. 1999 (second edition) [1996]. The Yoga Tradition of the Mysore Palace. New Delhi: Abhinav Publications.

Thomas, Priya. 2012. “A Kind of Yogic Quest for Viveka – Mark Singleton on Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice”, Shivers up the Spine: The Yoga Examiner, 25 February 2012, (last accessed 19 March 2012).

Traditional Knowledge Digital Library (TKDL) website: Collaborative Project of Council of Scientific & Industrial Research (CSIR) and Department of Ayurveda, Yoga & Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha and Homeopathy (AYUSH), India.

Venkatamaran, Swaminathan. 2011. “The Audacity of Ignorance”, Open, 25 February 2011. (last accessed 27 May 2012).

Vitello, Paul. 2010. “Hindu Group Stirs a Debate Over Yoga’s Soul”, The New York Times, 27 November 2010. (last accessed 27 May 2012).

Waters, David. 2010. “Shukla and Chopra: The Great Yoga Debate”, The Washinton Post, 30 April 2010. (last accessed 27 May 2012).

Wax, Emily. 2010. “‘Yoga Wars’ Spoil Spirit of Ancient Practice, Indian Agency Says”, The Washington Post, 23 August 2010. (last accessed 8 July 2012).

White, David Gordon. 2009. Sinister Yogis. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Back to top