My Yoga History Problem

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I first realized I had a yoga history problem back when I was pitching my ideas for what eventually became Yoga Ph.D. to literary agents. My book proposal had gotten some bites, which was exciting. But business-savvy agents weren’t necessarily taken with all of my yoga writer enthusiasms.

“Take all the history out,” one well-established agent instructed. “No one cares about yoga history. Put in more about celebrities, instead.”

I sat on the other end of the phone mulling over how best to respond when she delivered the coup de grace. “Not even yoga teachers care about yoga history,” she added in no uncertain terms.

Now I really felt knocked off balance. Not even yoga teachers care about yoga history? Is that true? I didn’t know and there was no way to find out, conclusively.

From a purely commercial standpoint, however, I believed that this woman knew what she was talking about. After all, she had successfully marketed a number of books on yoga and related topics. I hadn’t . . . and suspected that it wouldn’t be my forte, either.

So, I was faced an unpleasant decision. Take out the history, put in the celebrities, and land this agent? Or stay stubbornly independent – keeping the history, forgetting the celebrities – and lose potentially valuable support?

I chose the latter course, which was almost certainly foolish from a financial standpoint. Without question, however, it made writing the (subsequently non-agented) book more meaningful to me personally. I was interested in yoga history then, and remain so today. Yet in some ways, that interest continues to cause me problems.

Certain problems, of course, are not bad ones to have. For example, you might have the “problem” of desiring more spiritual fulfillment in your life. From a purely pedestrian perspective, this can be most inconvenient, and therefore a problem. From a bigger vantage point, however, it’s probably a very good thing

I believe that my yoga history problem is one of those (at least, most of the time I do). I find yoga history both compelling and vexing. Here’s why.

 

How to Sell History

I think it’s true that yoga history is never going to hit it big on the mass market. It seems way too abstract and removed from everyday life to matter to most people. I’ve observed, however, that certain takes on it can develop something of a cult following. And that’s another part of my yoga history problem: when people do get invested in it, it generally seems to be in ways that I don’t like.

Basically, the more yoga history is turned into a neatly packaged set of claims that supposedly offers “the answer” to the questions and difficulties of life, the more marketable it will be.

True, it may not reach as big a market as something like “yoga for weight loss.” But there’s always a substantial subset of people searching for a direct plugin to some mythic past. You know, back when the gods spoke directly to men (very rarely, it should be noted, to women). When the sages had it all figured out. When the timeless sacred texts were written. When the one true instruction manual for how to live life the right way was easily available.

In other words, if you can turn yoga history into some sort of pseudo-sacred commodity, it will be much easier to sell.

 

In Search of a “Usable Past”

I’m not making this critique to denigrate sacred texts or ancient knowledge. On the contrary, the more I know about yoga history, the more respect I have for the depth of spiritual, physical, psychological, and philosophical creativity and exploration it represents.

Nor is my rejection of prepackaged yoga history due to any lack of desire for what historians call a “usable past” that is, a set of historical referents that provides meaning, direction, and guidance for the present. Personally, I’d love to be able to connect my practice back to some sort of meaningful “yoga tradition.”

I am, however, hostile to anything that turns yoga history into a commodity. And I’ve seen that happen quite a bit.

Not too long ago, I listened to yet another popular yoga teacher spout off with perfect confidence about why his philosophy and method were perfectly aligned with “the” yoga tradition – and thus, of course, uniquely well-equipped to plug students back into the true fount of yogic wisdom.

Yet again, I looked on with a combination of irritation, resignation, and dismay as his claims were seemingly lapped up with relish by perhaps everyone present but me – although really, who’s to say? I can never tell what other people truly think in such situations because there’s never any real space provided for meaningful questions or discussion.

In these sorts of yoga lecture scenarios, it generally feels like it would be horribly rude, if not downright disruptive to break the frame of belief that’s just been so powerfully constructed. So I keep quiet – and suspect that at least some others do, too. There’s no way to know, because there’s never any open communication.

Part of my yoga history problem is that while I want a usable past, by and large I’ve found that popular yoga culture offers quite the opposite.

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History as Creative Resource

The sort of neatly packaged yoga history that claims to deliver all the right answers if you’ll just buy it without question is the opposite of what I want – and believe we need. This is true for two reasons. First, it’s just factually wrong. Even a beginning-level knowledge of yoga history will reveal its enormous complexity and diversity. Any claims to have the “one right answer” represent ideology or religion, not history.

Second, it’s disempowering to be spoon-fed simplistic ideologies, whether yogic or otherwise. We grow stronger by working our minds as well as our bodies. It may feel more soothing in the short-run to have someone hand you a list of “right answers” to memorize. Sooner or later, however, it will be become impossible to hold onto them without engaging in damaging amounts of denial.

I want to engage with yoga history in a way that’s creative, open-ended, and conducive to life-long learning. I want to be able to use it as a resource that offers ideas and inspiration. I want it to spark my imagination. I want to learn about yoga history in ways that challenge me to open my mind, just as asana challenges me to open my body.

Working with yoga history in this way is not necessarily easy. As I’ve intensified my study of it over the past few years, I’ve found myself veering between highs of feeling excited about new insights, and lows of feeling discomforted, alienated, or just plain confused.

Either way, the more I learn, the less I feel I know. The subject is too vast to be thoroughly explored unless perhaps it’s your full-time occupation for years, if not decades. After all, we’re not only talking about thousands of years of history, but multiple schools of philosophical ideas and spiritual beliefs (and more besides).

While this can feel overwhelming, it’s certainly not boring. And it’s enlivening to feel tapped into a well of learning that’s too deep to run dry.

On the other hand, another part of my yoga history problem is that whatever I think I know, I also feel that my knowledge will remain inadequate. This is humbling. And sometimes, I don’t like that.

 

The Problem of Freedom

Then there’s the problem of connecting the past to the present. As anyone who’s been following the discussion knows, the explosion of the “yoga industry” has created a very new terrain and caused much consternation. It can be hard to see how yoga today links back to yoga as it was 20 years ago – let alone, 2,000.

I feel, however, that if engaging with yoga history could be reframed as part of the ongoing journey of yoga practice, it could become newly relevant. Rather than being sold as a neatly packaged commodity, yoga history could be taught as an opportunity to engage with a vast kaleidoscope of alternative, but interconnected ideas and practices in flexible, creative ways. Ideally, yoga history could then be seen as a way of expanding the meaning and depth of the practice, both individually and culturally.

But back to my yoga history problem: I’m not so naïve as to think that this vision of yoga history will sell, either. Without even a pretense of providing the “right answers” to big life questions and difficulties, how marketable can it be? Not very.

Re-narrating yoga history in ways that emphasize its complexity and diversity, while empowering practitioners to ask their own questions, identify their own commitments, and generally think for themselves, however, does offer one thing that’s always been central to the yoga tradition: Freedom.

Of course, freedom itself is a problem. Buying into a prefabricated belief system can provide a seductive sense of security. Freedom is inherently insecure. Many of want security, but crave freedom. We practice yoga to give us the courage to be more free.

It’s a good problem to have (at least, most of the time, I think so . . . )

 


40 Comments

  1. Bravissimo, Carol!

    I first realized the truth of yoga history’s grand and perplexing complexity when I read the great Georg Feuerstein’s “The Yoga Tradition”. It was overwhelming, and Georg was determined to tell the story in all its baffling complexity, well, as much as possible in a mere 700 page book.

    At the same time, in his social action books, like Green Yoga, he took a strong stance on how to interpret the lessons of the ancient texts like the Bhagavad Gita for the present day.

    But he always kept these things distinctly separate–his role as an historian and his role as a social activist. He never wanted to dilute the history, nor dilute the power of his social action message. So he just kept them separate–“Now I’m being an historian and I want you to understand that the Gita is a syncretic text with multiple authors and sometimes self-contradictory themes.” and “Now I’m a social activist, using my personal interpretation of the Bhagavad Gita to compel you to protect our sacred earth from the ravages of environmental destruction, and here are the passages in the Gita that relate to this…”

    I think it works.

    I try to emulate his example in my own writing, in my own small way. I have my own strong personal vision of the Bhagavad Gita, and the intent of the author. But I make of point of always telling people that there are many different competing interpretations of the Gita, and if they really want to go deeper, they should read a variety of them and develop their own personal relationship with the text.

    So, my imaginary interview with Vyasa, the legendary author of the Bhagavad Gita, Vyasa just so happens to agree completely with my personal vision of the Gita! On the other hand, I illustrate the article with eight very diverse versions of the Gita, with links and labels, to encourage the reader to look way beyond my own interpretation.

    ( See “My Dinner with Vyasa–The Legendary Author of the Bhagavad Gita Comes Out of Hiding to Answer All Our Questions (After 2300 Years).” http://bobweisenberg.wordpress.com/my-dinner-with-vyasa/ )

    In my my mind, this two-pronged approach kind of matches what you advocate in your excellent article above. I hope you agree!

    Bob W.

    • chorton

      Thanks, Bob. I agree. Ideally, I would like to see interested yoga practitioners be more actively empowered to craft their own meaningful interpretations of yoga history. I think that requires more encouragement in yoga culture, which in my experience veers towards the “one revealed Truth” approach. That said, some interpretations are certainly more empirically well-grounded and intellectually compelling than others – it’s not like “anything goes.”

      I appreciate your ability to share your own understandings and commitments very forcefully while still remaining open to others – that to me is the most personally and culturally productive place to be.

  2. Carol, I echo Bob’s bravo. In response to a request to teach yoga history in teacher training some years ago I dove headlong into the tsunami of information out there, and found it exhilarating and overwhelming. So many of the received notions are just bullshit. I ended up writing a 30 page condensed account of how I view it which has been pretty successful in the trainings but felt insufficient. I dreamt of expanding it into a book, but came to feel that’s a frightful task. And then the question does become, how many really care? Of course there are those who do, but most people in this corner of the universe are looking not for the ambivalent, dicey truths but the packaged, easily digestible McTruths. So it is a hard sell. Yet certainly we’re not alone in this quest, there are indeed others silently shaking their heads when the nouveau gurus spout their wisdom. And at least there is ‘the discussion’ these days! So thanks for re-framing the dilemma. Carry on and in the meantime, bravo.

  3. Alice Saltzman

    Thank you! Studying and teaching yoga since 2004. Realizing I know so little as I study the philosophy of yoga now and I am often confused and asking questions and re-reading often.
    Thanks for the insight.
    Alice

    • chorton

      Sounds like a real learning process to me, which is awesome. Will be interested to hear at some point what conclusions you’ve drawn about how best to interpret that rich history and how that might inform your practice (and maybe others as well). Thanks for reading and commenting!

  4. Brian Culkin

    Carol-
    This is a great article. I read a book a few years ago, ‘The Origins of Political Order” by Fukuyama. I connected to yoga history in that the political development of India was so so different than our European lineage. I think the far more structured and ordered state/church relationship in the west allowed for a more coherent (even with its ism’s) and easily digestible history of the social, political, and theological forces.

    In the chapters regarding India, I found myself scratching my head often. I think having a full history of yoga would naturally evoke suspicion because the history is so very different than the ‘history’ we are use to.

    Thank you for the wonderful article.

    • chorton

      I really like the idea that writing a compelling yoga history might require reconceptualizing and recrafting the very project of history writing itself. I also think that your observation regarding the relatively structured history of state/church relationships in the West makes a lot of sense. I certainly have a hard time mapping my assumptions about “religious history” onto learning about Hinduism, for example. But that of course is also what makes it so intriguing.

      Thanks for reading and taking the time to share your thoughts!

  5. So good.

    First of all: to hell with second-guessing the market through the agency of anyone who’s looking at a project in primarily bottom-line terms. Had you taken the uninspired advice your research and drive would have languished and you would have produced something that would have connected you with a less engaged and sympatico readership, which would have paid far slimmer dividends in terms of dialogue, and perhaps even future lecture and facilitation work. Sales are only one measure of the quality of a reading community. With the self-pub route you choose, you forgo distribution and perhaps sales clout, but you compromise nothing in initiating the kind of dialogue you envision. And ironically, you stand an excellent chance of earning higher royalties, because the middle-people whose primary interest is in profitability do not need to be paid.

    Second: hegemony in yoga history has been sufficiently deconstructed, catching up with the deconstruction of monolithic views of history in general. More and more students are becoming aware of the plurality of yoga culture, by beginning to realize the obvious: the Vedic, Puranic, Classical, and Medieval texts they’ve been exposed to in very superficial ways so far actually represent vast paradigmatic differences in the consideration of personhood, social order, the good life, and the meaning of the body. The earnest student has no choice now but to recognize herself as an active and creative interpreter and participant within the historical process of yoga and its philosophical evolution. This means understanding that practice is situational and necessitates choices. The biggest casualty of following the agent’s advice would be the loss of this message, and invitation.

    • chorton

      Matthew, certainly the greatest benefit of going the route I did was that it enabled me to connect with people like you. And I mean that quite sincerely.

      I’m less sanguine about the current state of yoga culture re historical deconstructionism, however. I was just talking with the owner of one of our biggest studios the other day and he was saying how he’s been consistently surprised by the reaction to “Yoga Body” – rather than feeling that bursting the balloon of mythical origins is provocative and perhaps even upsetting, he sees most students, even in YTTs, reacting by saying “well, why bother with the history, anyway?” My sense is also that the general pattern is one of polarization between not caring and adhering to some sort of fundamentalism. Of course, there’s big exceptions . . . but, I think that the number of people that are going to want to invest the time and energy to really engage at the level you’re talking about is going to remain quite low.

      I wouldn’t mind at all being proven wrong on that, however!

  6. Totally agree and think it is a pitty people don’t care about History. But I am reaching small groups here in Brazil, little by little, getting interested in History an Phylosophy. I don’t mind if I go teach or write to few, I am doing what I love: reading, studying and writing. With time, things can change if we make these subjects light, interesting, funny.
    I would like to read your book… Why don’t you publish and sell like ebook?
    Namaskar.

    • chorton

      Hi Marcia – I did, in fact, end up publishing the book in question – and it does contain two solid historical chapters! You can find the link to “Yoga PhD’ at the beginning of this post (or via the “Books” tab on the website menu bar). “21st Century Yoga,” an anthology of essays that I co-edited with Roseanne Harvey, also came out of the process of writing that book.

      I agree with you that we need to find ways to make yoga history and philosophy accessible to people; these books were an attempt to do that – they are written for a general audience.

      Since writing them, however, I’ve learned even more about contemporary yoga culture, as well as yoga history and philosophy. It is an ongoing process of learning and interpreting its significance for me. Sometimes that gets frustrating. But, overall it’s been very enriching. Connecting with others who share similar interests is the best part. So thanks for reading and commenting.

  7. paul

    Not to be glib, but doesn’t anyone who has a book for sale, or asks money for teaching, commodifying? I don’t think the selling is usually a problem if the buyer is aware of the risks of purchase (or lack thereof). When reading the history, if i remember that yoga is for peace and not to be yet another stimulus, not for aggrandizement, it helps me be objective and put the angles the writers put into their works into perspective. Though, most people aren’t interested in history, it usually isn’t practical, or necessary; of the truism “Peace! Or else!” history is “Or else!” while “Peace!” is yoga’s promise, and mutes, but does not remove, the latter.

    It is interesting to see the current dynamics of conservative hindus and academics regarding the yoga traditions; they both have agendas, both are trying to create history, and neither like acknowledging these, or each other (except in attack). Yet, the yogin is outside both; the yogin’s actions aren’t colored, so if someone is pushing identity or controversy (even/especially in the name of “honesty and reason”), they are not practicing yogis.

    Yoga/spirituality does have a currency, it is sincerity. When I have been sincere, I have been gives great teachings and practices, which is not to say I am a good student, but that somehow a tradition does seem to appear when sincerely asked for, though it may challenge our notions of what is necessary.. Sincerity can also be a buffer against appropriation, as respect is implicit and so allows participation in a tradition only so far as the tradition allows one to.

    I wonder if there is a plan for exploring or sharing the variety of yogic thought?

    • chorton

      Hi Paul – If I understand your comment correctly, I think that my view would be that if studying, writing about, and/or teaching yoga history and philosophy is driven by what you call “sincerity” – and if that sincerity is grounded in reality rather than self-servingly delusional – then, the result is not what I would call a commodity. Even it is comes up for sale, the worth of the product is first and foremost in the process and substance, which were not harnessed towards conscious or unconscious calculations of marketability.

      To me, commodification means taking something that is inherently resistant to being neatly packaged and sold (like yoga history) and putting it in neat, saleable package nonetheless. This may be done cynically or with a sense of sincerity – but I don’t think that it would be authentically “sincere” in the sense you were referring to.

      Overall, it’s certainly true that the question of what distinguishes commodification from non-commodified creative production and subsequent selling is an important one to raise, however. And not always easy to answer. What looks like obvious commodification to me will not appear that way to others. Thanks for your thoughts.

      • paul

        Thanks (and please pardon the length of this comment, it got a bit out of hand), I see what you mean now by commodify, and I know there is a lot of theory on the term that I’m ignorant of, but still I think the general sense of “make salable” is better as something can also be made complex to monetize it (as I think is the case with the turmeric drink TumericALIVE (which I don’t see a problem with), and attempts to patent turmeric (which I can’t see as anything but theft)).

        I mentioned sincerity in the context of the article’s want to connect with a tradition (and with the understanding that there is no yoga tradition but traditions in which yoga is expressed), which I wasn’t clear about, and misses the mark as it seems your interest is more academic/intellectual, a context in which sincerity should take a back seat to accuracy, if for no reason than there it becomes just another thing to pick at.

        However, mulling it this last week, I think the academic thesis-driven narrative that makes up most yoga critique/history runs contrary to making the history accessible, as it alienates (or feels alienating) because it pushes against a tradition-narrative that is for the most part experiential. I think it needs to be brought together in a scheme where the histories are not “re-narrated” but presented as a collection of narratives with an intent to not make the presentation/collection a narrative itself (“unframed frames” rather than the “(re)framing of frames”). I think this is what you are calling for in this article, and your and other’s writing lean toward already, but instead of embracing it there is a meandering between experience and thesis (personal narratives prefacing and concluding “objective” analysis), rather than a data-based presentation of the stories/ideas/praxis, where analyses are more addons than central or driving.

        This requires specifics so isn’t easy, won’t change hearts and mind, and making a narrative is what people will do, but as it is ungated I think is a much better way of making community and coherence for the yoga crowd, as it allows both categorization and possibility, makes the histories compelling by being about exploration in the present (rather than the ordering of facts), and by putting specifics to the fore rather than the theory/narrative, the vagueries and platitudes people enjoy hiding behind can be engaged with while mitigating the sense of being attacked, and what meta-narrative is there is more transformation than ideology/identity.

        So for instance I think it would allow addressing this article’s unnamed teacher’s wrong but unnamed teaching while retaining politeness, because by presenting the teacher’s stories, their background and ideas, their possible sources, and making the reading/writing about understanding where this perspective came from, rather than attacking it or listing its falsities (“they said X and it’s wrong”), the endeavor is about exploration and not identity, allowing the particular “wrongs” to be addressed, without needing these to address/corrode the person or their situation.

        I’m not clear on how to make this scheme work, or if it could be done by a student in a seminar, and is not to be against theses/analysis (which is what this/any argument is), but whatever the effort, I think what can be done to set the stage to allow for peace should be the imperative, which I think means remaining generally open to the ways we don’t like, and even setting aside the utility (and so usability) of an endeavor, to allow what is there to manifest.

        • chorton

          I’m not sure if I follow your suggestion – is it to elucidate different perspectives without any criteria for comparing how compelling they are or evaluating their historical accuracy? And is that based on the view that the concept of “historical accuracy” is itself entirely problematic? Just trying to make sure that I understand your comment correctly.

  8. ted grand

    Always grateful for your words and ideas, Carol. For what it’s worth, Yoga PhD is a book that I highly recommend at our training, especially because it lacks the presence of celebrity. I keep it near to me and access it whenever I need a hit of inspiration. Oddly, it sits right next to Georg’s ‘The Yoga Tradition’, which is also a constant source of inspiration.

    • chorton

      Ted, that is an honor and certainly an inspiration to me. Thanks so much.

  9. Prazak

    I’m enjoying your book Yoga PHD, and I also enjoyed 21st Century Yoga (both in Kindle format). Both have been enormously stimulating to my thinking about the meaning and context of this particular system of “dynamic breathing and harmonic gymnastics” (as Genevieve Stebbins might have called it) that I practice (aka Ashtanga Yoga). I appreciate the honesty of your blog here, as many of us grapple with similar sets of issues.

    • chorton

      Yes, the Ashtanga community is really operating at Ground Zero of these questions – I have observed both quasi-religious historical fundamentalism and exceptionally insightful historical rethinking going on there. It seems to be a yoga subculture that supports and even demands serious engagement in a way that most don’t, which is really attractive to me. I hope that this will continue to produce creative inquiry into yoga history and philosophy, as the resources for that are probably at an all-time high right now. Thanks for reading and commenting!

  10. Prazak

    Meant to add that I thought the crowd-source financing approach Singleton and Mallinson used for the upcoming Roots of Yoga book was a creative way to cut out the middle-man. As you know the self-published Create Space and Amazon route still leaves far too much of the royalty income in the hands of those who control the distribution pipelines.

  11. I love this article – the timing could not be more relevant for me. Thank you. I am in the midst of teaching an Yoga Fundamentals Immersion for students moving through Teacher Training. The scaffolding is Ganesh mythology, Patanjali, and the Gita –comparing classical & tantric points of view, and weaving it all into the breath & the body.
    Although most students enter into it for the Asana, it is the rich expansiveness of the tradition-the myth, philosophy, and history that keeps them there. Great writers read voraciously, great artists never stop looking at art & know their art history. I fervently agree that it should be the same for yogis. And, as you point out, the more I learn the more I feel I have to learn, yet I have the awareness that I become ever more deeply embedded in a beautiful conversation. Like any serious discipline, really.
    So I end up at this thought again & again, when I witness how little many yogis know about their tradition: How can you move forward when you don’t know where you’re coming from?

    • chorton

      Thanks Susanna for such an eloquent and beautifully worded comment! I particularly love this: “Great writers read voraciously, great artists never stop looking at art & know their art history. I fervently agree that it should be the same for yogis.” I see the best of contemporary yoga as a living, creative art and hope to see that thrive more and more in the future.

  12. Manoj Mehta

    Great article Carol ! I agree with you- the complexity of the history can be overwhelming. And that’s just for the history we KNOW. There’s much yet that’s not known. One thing one has to remember through all this is that yoga, however you may want to define it, is still pretty much a living tradition…or traditions. I have just come back from my 3rd trip to India in 2 years. All trips centred around what one would term as yoga in all its complexity, in various parts of India. This time, I was in South India, and the history and traditions there can be HUGELY different from what most in North America might think they are. The previous trips were to North India. The Kumbha Mela in Allahabad in Feb 2013 was where history met, and frequently clashed with the present. I don’t even now have any words to really describe that experience except to say that it was powerful, frightening, uplifting, meaningful, mythical and dramatic. Theatrical too. With tens of millions of other ‘seekers’ present, and attendant charlatans and genuine folks. The South India trip from which I’ve just returned showed a facet of the tradition to me that I had only been exposed to in a theoretical or academic way. The trip certainly made my studies feel immensely real for me. I went with Prof. Douglas Brooks and a busload of others. Each one of these trips has made my connection to the world of yoga stronger, and yes, more challenging and confounding but oh so worth it! My point? Try and plan a trip to the land of its origins (as Georg Feuerstein put it, and strangely enough, I hear that he himself had never actually made it to India!). You might get a deeper insight into all things ‘yoga’, both past and present…and perhaps if you are lucky, even future! 🙂

    • chorton

      Thanks Manoj for such an interesting and intriguing comment! Your description of your trips sounds like what I would imagine, and so well put! Sadly, I don’t see India in the cards for me anytime soon – too expensive to get there – but, someday, hopefully it will happen!

  13. Bravo! I applaud your inspiring commitment.

  14. Yoga history is complex and contradictory. I find that it is most meaningful when an idea from the past is attached to something contemporary. Then the student can relate to it.

    It does not necessarily matter which version of the past is absolute but that something happened that can be understood and made useful to the present moment. There is often only a moment or two in a typical asana based class where an idea might be tossed out but it can pack a great punch if the message hits home.

    This takes the teacher having a willingness to dive into notes from the past and the skill to extract something she can use as a teaching moment. Also, the teacher should be honest that she is drawing from an idea that someone more scholarly has begun and explain why she comes to her conclusions.

    Just my opinion as someone teaching folks who have lively minds but little patience for more than a smattering of philosophy unless it relates to them and enhances the experience that can be felt in an hour and a half.

    We are fortunate to have many authors and speakers present their views of yoga. This is an important resource. It enlivens their own conversations as well as ours.

    • chorton

      Thanks for being here, H. It’s certainly true that yoga history and philosophy have only sound-byte sized utility in an asana class, if that. Since I am more of a yoga writer than asana teacher, I don’t approach these issues by considering their in-class utility. But, of course, that’s what most yoga teachers really want and need on a day-to-day basis.

      There’s not much of a market for the history and philosophy among asana students and even most of the teachers who might be interested are probably too busy to dive in deep. All this no doubt contributes to the marketability of the neatly packaged, commodified pseudo-histories that I complained about. The problem, however, then becomes that some of those who are interested enough to go that far feel that they should accept this pre-packaged “truth” at face value. At the very least, I’d like to help dispel that sense of confused obligation.

  15. Great piece Carol. All I might add is that, to me, the study of yoga’s history and philosophy is not just a matter of knowledge but of the actuality of practice. Most yoga classes are utilizing much of the same forms. But depending on the mentality and context in which those forms are employed, even when it is unconscious or not voiced, the experience and results of the practice are vastly different. Our understanding of the history and philosophies of yoga are integral to the effectiveness of yoga practice.

    As the “power” craze has begun to wear off, and many have grown weary of the standard vinyasa class, a deeper consideration of the ideas and context for our practice becomes increasingly more relevant. Of course, whether or not this makes it more marketable is another question entirely.

    I share your uncomfortability with presentations of yoga history and philosophy that reduce it to platitudes and seek to impose experience on the student. Only through observation and inquiry into ones own experience can yogic concepts be genuinely understood. I don’t how we sell that but, I figure, its worth trying.

    I admire your decision to write the book that you felt needed to be written more than what would sell. And I know that I am not alone in my deep appreciation and gratitude for the work you produced. Such commitment acts as a levenning to the masses.

    • chorton

      Thanks so much for your kind words and support. I really appreciate it!

      Re the link between learning history and philosophy and practicing asana – to me, a natural dialectic developed over time. Certainly, this wasn’t until I got more serious about asana practice. But, once that happened, I naturally wanted to learn more about the history and philosophy. And that wasn’t simply limited to “yoga” per se – it also led me to read a lot of work in contemporary Buddhism, follow the neuroscience research on meditation and the brain, etc.

      That learning certainly colors my experience “on the mat” just as everything else does – but the ideas that help me to make sense of my own experience, and provide clues as to how best to work with my asana practice fruitfully, are distinctive.

      I guess that’s a long way of saying that I agree with your point; and that was my experience in both theory and practice!

  16. Beatrice Nichols

    This was very thought provoking. In my experience, though, most people don’t want to think. They are also extremely uncomfortable with the ambiguity and open-endedness that you and I value. I am extremely grateful that I don’t have all the answers and that mystery still exists in the world. We live in a both-and universe but most people insist on either-or. A world that contains both black and white and a million gray-scale, not to mention a full color spectrum, is unrelatable.

    I’ve been practicing yoga over 5 years. I did yoga teacher training but never registered to teach. I remain on the fringes because I’m put off by the commoditization and (gleeful) lack of critical thinking. Everyone wants “gym yoga” – let’s do some exercise and work up a sweat and go home. I need more than that.

    Commoditization is absolutely necessary for most if they are going to make a living from yoga. That’s why we have jello-yoga, porcupine-yoga and whatever the yoga flavor of the day is. Bored with your practice? Come for mud-bath yoga! My response is, if I’m bored with my practice maybe I need to sit with my boredom and observe it. Maybe I need to simply persist with this spiritual discipline until the boredom passes.

    Thank you again for this.

    • chorton

      Thanks for your very insightful comment! I love the way that you phrased your observations and reflections, very powerful and poignant! Thanks.

  17. It’s interesting that you’ve aspired to write a book based upon a premise you haven’t yet determined is true. Your quest to learn about yoga’s history must be based on this premise that the knowledge you acquire will be of value to you personally; if it should prove valuable then you have a personal story to tell. However, you may very well arrive at the conclusion that your pursuit has failed to lead you to any practical wisdom. What then? Would a story about a sincere search for meaning be any less important than one about a journey which proves its original premise?

    A filmmaker, Kate Churchill, made a documentary, Enlighten Up! in which she begins with a premise that yoga is transformational and sets out to document proof. The film she ended up with was quite different than the one she’d planned. Her theory proceeds to unravel and decay all around her, yet she doggedly plods ahead determined to stick to her plan. She ends up vexed and wayward rather than enlightened. A more successful film was made by Vikram Gandhi, called Kumare. He set out to document the pervasive gullibility of many who would prefer being told the answers rather than asking the big questions.

    • chorton

      Andrew – the book I referred to was actually published about a year ago; you can find the link to it in the first sentence of the post. From my perspective, there is definitely a story told there, but it’s not really like either “Enlighten Up” or “Kumare.” (And, BTW, I agree with you that the latter is an infinitely better film.)

      As I mentioned in response to J. Brown’s comment above, my approach is more dialectical – I’ve had profound experiences in asana practice that caused me to get interested in yoga history and philosophy (and related subjects), what I learned in pursuing that colored my asana practice, but also led to other endeavors (e.g., blogging and writing books) and conversations (like this one). All this, in turn, produces new questions, new answers, new experiences . . . and it all just continues.

      Overall, however, my preference is decidedly for “asking the big questions” and holding an open space for the evolution of the best (always partial) answers that we’re able to provide in any given moment.

      Thanks for reading and commenting.

  18. Hi Carol,

    Maybe being naturally rather (much sometimes) cynical and aversive, I am not surprised at all at the popularity-minded agent’s advice. I find your historical view to be so obvious, academically mainstream, and intelligent that it shouldn’t be news. But we are living in yet another era/culture of deep anti-intellectualism, extraordinary narcissism, and historical myopia, and so push-backs like this, unfortunately, seem to be still necessary. Especially in a yoga culture with substantial New Age influences (which she has written well about).

    I work and play in a broad yoga-dharma community that respects the intellectual work I do (in academia as well as in [not very] “popular” yoga philosophy teaching). But the vast majority of my friends, yoga peers, asana students, and broader yoga-oriented culture are almost completely indifferent to the breadth of history that you are talking about, and that I also try to teach. I am beginning to be known in the area for my teaching work, but it is still tremendously difficult to fill a philosophy workshop with enough bodies to make the studio I work for happy.

    My partner Sara is right now in Burma, on a Buddhist practice trip with several other experienced Dharma students and a wonderful teacher. Skyping with her after a visit to Shwedagon Pagoda, a mind-blowing monument to the enlightenment of the Buddha that I also visited 12 years ago, she said that it was clear being there that this vast religious edifice of devotion and generosity is what is necessary to sustain the subtle teachings of the dharma for so long. And so even if only a couple people out of the thousands who pray and whose lives are greatly enriched by the religion become practitioners who engage with the mystical and subtle teachings, the whole structure can be said to be successful — for everyone.

    I see our very young (in many ways) yoga community in this way. Millions of people are devoted to yoga asana, and their lives are deeply enriched by it. Of those millions, many will hold views of yoga that seem historically unsound, but their devotion helps to support the whole cultural edifice. Some amount of devotees will study history and philosophy more deeply (just as some will study yoga via social justice and oppression, some via the arts and creative expression, some business, etc) and as long as the social ecosystem of yoga doesn’t tilt out of balance (which it sometimes seems in danger of doing), the whole system — including the subtle and historically broad-minded — will sustain.

    • chorton

      Hi Sean: Thanks for taking the time to repost your very interesting FB comment here. I really appreciate the combination of hands-on knowledge, grounded skepticism, and equally grounded optimism it embodies. Upon rereading it, however, I’m now wondering: is it possible to explain how, when, and why you would assess the “social ecosystem” of yoga today as “tilting out of balance”? What would the criteria be?

      I think it’s a vital question, as even if we can’t answer it definitively (and I don’t think we can or even should), if we don’t address it all, we have zero guidance on the issue of what’s meaningful in this diverse and ever-evolving practice. Even if it’s only a personal, provisional answer, that’s an important resource for others, and therefore the “ecosystem” as a whole, I believe.

  19. paul

    Criteria for comparing and evaluating accuracy are for debate, not conversation, and require a depth of information to engage with so are interesting only to those already interested, with the only appeal to a newcomer in being an observer, not a participant. I think most people who look into the history are interested in understating the philosophy better, rather than just history, so too, I think the people who might otherwise be interested in the histories are turned off by the agenda debate/theses imply, which come off as culture war and making of controversy rather than conversation, choosing one’s encampment or being “confronted by the truth” rather than something one is participating in or can be engaged with.

    Yoga’s histories are mostly received or by instruction manual hermeneutics, and both compounded by twilight language, so for yoga, “historical accuracy” is problematic indeed, though on specifics, and in other subjects (even with victors writing) I think such a thing exists. The history also includes a lot of yoga not under the ‘hatha’ or even ‘yoga’ heading (jain, buddhist, vira saiva, etc), so with such a difficult to define scope, a reframing or narrative are by their nature impractical maybe impossible to addressing the vaguery.

    So, I think presenting all narratives as ones among many, without an agenda driving the collection as a way to make the history accessible, dynamic and engaging, instead of the usual frame-narrative approach that often ends up looking more like a list of facts that prove something that probably has nothing to do with a person’s practice/life. This means setting aside the driven debate stuff initially, (which are fun once the subject is generally understood), and letting them be the narratives among narratives they are.. i hope this is helpful.. peace!

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  1. Yoga Benefits - […] My Yoga History Problem | Carol Horton, Ph.D. http://carolhortonphd.com/I first realized I had a yoga history problem back when…
  2. the plumber’s son & the professor – CoccoYoga - […] established that American yoga practitioners don’t go in for critical thinking, much less a little history. I find both…

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