BOOK REVIEW: Yoga Body by Mark Singleton

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

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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I was excited to stumble across this book because it proposed fresh insights into the history and development of posture-centric yoga. Singleton’s premise is that yoga as it’s practiced in studios around the world today (i.e. practices focused heavily on asana, or postures) has almost nothing to do with historic yogic traditions and is to a large extent European (or Western) fitness practices fed back to the world with a patina of Indian-ness instilled by a few Indian fitness teachers (e.g. T. Krishnamacharya and students.) This is a bold and stunning hypothesis. The problem is that Singleton leaves plenty of room to doubt his thesis. I’m not saying that I’m certain Singleton is wrong, but after reading the book I’m no more inclined to believe his hypothesis than when I first read the book blurb.

The book consists of nine chapters:
1.) A Brief Overview of Yoga in the Indian Tradition
2.) Fakirs, Yogins, Europeans
3.) Popular Portrayals of the Yogin
4.) India and the International Physical Culture Movement
5.) Modern Indian Physical Culture: Degeneracy and Experimentation
6.) Yoga as Physical Culture I: Strength and Vigor
7.) Yoga as Physical Culture II: Harmonial Gymnastics and Esoteric Dance
8.) The Medium and the Message: Visual Reproduction and the Asana Revival
9.) T. Krishnamacharya and the Mysore Asana Revival

One can see the flow of the book in this chapter listing. It begins by describing the ancient yogic traditions (e.g. Jnana yoga, Bhakti yoga, and Karma yoga.) Singleton then goes on to put immense weight on very few voices that were speaking globally about yoga in the late 19th century—largely European but notably including Swami Vivekananda. (This, by the way, is where I noticed the most glaring weaknesses of the book. There seems to be an assumption that what the most vocal people were saying during this time was the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.) One will note that the late 19th century is an arbitrary point to make the critical juncture for a study of yoga—this era’s sole importance seems to be in that that’s when Europeans started entering the scene (and documenting it in English and Western languages to a large extent.) I understand that there may have been a dearth of information previously; however, I’m also skeptical of equating the sum of truth with the sum of what is documented.

The book then shifts into the early 20th century when Singleton proposes the proto-postural yoga is beginning to coalesce with both Western and indigenous Indian influences. Singleton writes extensively about this period, and presents what he believes is the path by which postural practice evolved over a short time into modern yoga as we know it. The book ends in the mid-20th century with an extensive discussion of T. Krishnamacharya and his pack of brilliant students (i.e. B.K.S. Iyengar, Pattabhi Jois, T.V.K. Desikachar, and Indira Devi) who are responsible for a lot of how yoga is practiced today (for virtually all of modern yoga by Singleton’s reckoning.)

It should be noted that this book is put out by an academic press, Oxford University Press, and there’s all the front and post matter that one would expect of a scholarly press publication. This includes an introduction, notes, and a bibliography.

So, you might be wondering how I could have so much doubt about the veracity of the book’s central claim—a book written by a Cambridge educated scholar and published by Oxford University Press. It’s, after all, chocked full of facts that are designed to bolster Singleton’s argument. I’m certainly not suggesting that Singleton lied or presented false facts (however, I have–and will further–argue that he frames facts throughout the book to diminish those statements and facts that run counter to his argument while wholeheartedly accepting statements that validate his argument—even when the people whose statements he leaves unchallenged would seem to have their own agendas. I don’t know, perhaps T. Krishnamacharya was—as Singleton intimates though never explicitly accuses—lying when he claimed to have received his sequence and approach from a scripture he was taught by a Himalayan master. However, interestingly, he would be lying to minimize his role in the development of yoga rather than to increase his fame. This stands in contrast with the European authors who Singleton readily accepts who were seeking to build their bona fides as experts in the esoteric systems of India and the Himalaya, who arguably had a lot to gain from being seen as having a full understanding of these systems.)

The best way to understand the root of my skepticism is to tell a make-believe story. Imagine a race of aliens came down to Earth. For whatever reason, they want to understand (presumably among many other things) the Roman Catholic Church. One astute alien scholar notes that, after having reviewed not only the entire Bible but a vast canon of theologian discourse, there is scant mention of sitting or kneeling. However, when cameras came around, there came to be clear evidence of pews and kneelers in the church. The aliens conclude that Catholics had always stood during worship, but with the advent of the camera they began to sit and kneel. The aliens, having big and bulbous butts, conclude that the Catholics have become concerned that their own big, bulbous butts will be captured for posterity (pun intended) by the cameras and have, thus, opted to adopt postures that would more adequately provide cover. In the present day, sitting and kneeling are the bulk of what Catholics do with their bodies when [overtly] practicing their religion, and so it must be those postures–rather than abstract notions like achieving “grace” are now the most critical part of the practice. (Besides, the earliest photos of kneelers came from Protestant churches, so perhaps Anglicans taught Catholics how to kneel.)

If you haven’t figured it out, in my little scenario, the late 19th century Europeans who were writing the English language tracts that formed the heart of Singleton’s research material are the aliens with big, bulbous butts. I would propose that the Europeans aren’t viewing yoga completely objectively but through the lens of their own experience and desires. Furthermore, they are also only giving weight to what they see and hear (which may or may not be a full picture.) I would further argue that just like Catholics don’t devote much text to discussing sitting and kneeling in the documents of the Vatican library doesn’t mean there isn’t a long history of those practices. Postural practice is:

a.) not the critical end result that everyone is concerned with even if it takes up the bulk of one’s time in [overt] practice. It’s certainly true that there are a vast number of yoga practitioners whose only interest is in the fitness aspect of the practice. However, there are also many who spend most of their yoga reading time learning from Vedas and reading yogic philosophy even though the bulk of their practice time is asana.
b.) extremely difficult to convey via text but readily conveyed through demonstration and hands-on teaching. If you were a Catholic and wanted to teach someone kneeling, would you write them a three paragraph text description of the process, or would you just demonstrate how to kneel and correct any glaring (albeit unlikely) deficiencies in form.

At no point does Singleton get into the postural details of individual asana. He mentions another scholar that supposedly has done some of that work, but Singleton feels it’s not critical. However, it’s very hard to prove what he’s trying to prove without getting into that level of detail. Yes, there will be similarities between various systems of stretching because of the nature of the body. For example, European stretching systems had a forward bend that looks reminiscent of paschimottanasana (the body folds that way and stretching the hamstrings is one of the most important functions in any stretching regimen), and it shouldn’t be surprising or revealing if the first photograph of this posture was in a European gym (the fact that Scandinavians had cameras before Himalayan yogis isn’t a sound basis to conclude that Himalayan yogi’s learned to bend forward from Scandinavians.) A there are a lot of postures that two systems might reasonably independently discover, but one also can’t rule out that the Indian yogi taught the Europeans and not the other way around. (I know it’s hard to comprehend in the era of FaceBook, but failure to be documented does not equal failure to be true. The farther one goes into the past, the less of what happened is going to be documented, and some cultures are going to be more likely to document events than others. e.g. Would our aliens be right or wrong if they concluded that 85% of humans are females between the age of 12 and 24 years old because 85% of the selfies posted on the internet are among that group. )

Singleton’s book does have some graphics. They didn’t always help his case, however. I was struck by how few of the fine details of the European postures correspond to practice as we know them, while some of the very old paintings look almost exactly like present day asana. (If one accepts that the fact that they didn’t have the greatest grasp of capturing perspective back then isn’t indicative of how flat the postures and people were back then.) I’ll readily admit that I wouldn’t definitively count Singleton wrong on my subjective observation of the pictures, but it does leave me with a lot of room for doubt.

I suppose the next question is why I didn’t completely pan the book. Three stars isn’t a tragic rating. I thought the book contained a lot of good information and food for thought (even if it fell far short of proving its central hypothesis.) I particularly enjoyed the chapter on T. Krishnamacharya and his now-famous student body. I’ll also say that part of why I came away from the book with such a muddled perception of this history is that Singleton doesn’t hide facts that are damning to his case, but rather presents them and then tries to marginalize them. A prime example would be the Hatha Yoga Pridipika (HYP), a 15th century text that mentions a number of the asana considered classic yoga postures today (some of which form the core of a Hata practice)—though admittedly HYP emphasizes the importance of only four seated postures.

I can’t say that Singleton didn’t help give me pause to wonder about the truth of the received understanding of yoga’s evolution. I’ve practiced yoga in places as varied as India, the U.S., Thailand, and Hungary, and I found it shocking how similar the practice is around the world. This bodes well for the argument that yoga as it’s practiced today has coalesced recently. By way of contrast, there are many myths about how one martial art is the ancestor of another but the two systems often look nothing alike. (e.g. I’ve studied Kalaripayattu, which many believe was the ancestor art taken to China by Bodhidharma through Southeast Asia, but which today looks nothing like Kung fu or Muay Thai. Furthermore, Kung fu styles usually look quite unlike the Korean and Japanese martial arts that they are said to have inspired.) If the latter among these martial arts did come from the earlier, they evolved apart quickly. While the evolution into different martial art forms is quite possible, it raises the question of why yoga should be so similar internationally. A skilled yoga teacher would likely give a given student the same alignment adjustments for, say, Warrior I, regardless of whether the teacher was in Prague, Manila, Tokyo, or San Diego.

I can’t say that I’d endorse Singleton’s argument. It would take much more precise information for me to buy it (and it’s likely that said detailed historical information doesn’t exist.) However, if you’re interested in the history of yoga, you might want to check out this book. Your conclusions may differ from mine, but even if they don’t I suspect you’ll learn a thing or two of interest. Yoga Body was reasonably priced as a Kindle book when I bought it.

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1 thought on “BOOK REVIEW: Yoga Body by Mark Singleton

  1. I pretty much agree with you on this. I found Singleton’s book presented an interesting, provocative hypothesis. I suspect that there is some truth in it but I was not convinced that it went completely the way he suggests. My personal suspicion is that teachers of the Krishnamacharia lineage were certainly influenced by Western gymnastic practice – but possibly more in the method and approach to teaching, rather than in the core values/qualities/benefits/effects of the asana themselves.


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