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Making the Familiar seem Strange and the Strange seem Familiar

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The title of this post is a quote from an essay written by Jonathan Z. Smith1, which I found in David Gordon White’s note to instructors, who plan to use the essays found in Yoga in Practice.

I thought the sentiment expressed also applies to modern-day hatha yoga teachers. I think many times yoga teachers relish being “exotic” (Sanskrit anyone?), when often the best pedagogical technique is to use familiar concepts.

In many cases authenticity is tied to Hindu concepts and formulations. Whenever you find yourself looking down on a particular style/lineage/school of yoga, consider that there have been so many systems of yoga, your favored system is just one of them. So embrace the yoga system that works for you, but realize that “authenticity” and “lineage” can be slippery slopes.

From Yoga in Practice pages 24-27:

Given the fact that the people who “do” yoga number in the tens of millions in the West alone, many students will come to a course on yoga with a number of preconceptions received from their teachers and trainers. Primary among these is the received notion that all yoga are one, and that one Yoga tradition has remained unchanged since its origins in the mists on antiquity. An alternative assumption is that yoga has evolved in a straight line and following some sort of historical determinism from the teachings of the Bhagavad Gita and the Yoga Sutra down through the classical works of hatha yoga and into modern-day Vinyasa, Astanga, Kriya Yoga and so forth. What a chronological reading of the outstanding translations and introductions in this volume makes abundantly clear is that there are as many discontinuities as there are continuities in the history of yoga, and that there are nearly as many yoga systems as there are texts on yoga.

… There are continuities — historical, philosophical, ritual, and so forth — between and among various yoga traditions … This being said, once cannot help but notice that even when they are seeking to refute one another, the authors of these words were clearly engaged in some sort of conversation. So, while there are distinctively Hindu, Buddhist, Jain, Tantric, non-sectarian, and even Islamic yoga traditions, there are a number of pervasive themes that recur across texts and time. … As the six contributions on yoga in South and Inner Asian Tantric traditions make clear, sectarian differences among Hindus, Buddhists, and Jains paled in comparison to the commonalities of their shared Tantric worldview, metaphysics, goals, and techniques.

… What distinguishes the principal types of yogic practice from one another are the components of the self that are the objects of one’s discipline. So it is is that in meditative traditions, the principal focus will be on immobilizing thought, usually in conjunction with breath control, the inner repetition of mantras, and so on. In most forms of Tantric yoga, thought, semen, and the body are highlighted to varying degrees. In hatha yoga, the focus can be on all four components as immortalized in a medieval vernacular poem attributed to the Nath Yogi Gopicand: “Steady goes the breath, and the mind is steady, steady goes the mind, the semen. Steady the semen, and the body is steady, that’s what Gopicand is sayin.”

… culture warriors from worlds apart are making the nearly identical claim that yoga is fundamentally Hindu. In the United States, a number of Christian evangelists are taking this position for the expressed purpose of controlling the bodies of Christian women, while in India, Hindu fundamentalists are doing the same in the service of their ongoing campaign of identity politics.

… As for their shared claim that Yoga is fundamentally Hindu, this can only stand if one allows that there has only ever been one “yoga” , and that yoga has remain unaltered since incepetion, i.e., the yoga being taught today in yoga studios across the globe is identical to the yoga of the Upanishads or that taught to Krsna in the Bhagavad Gita, the two earliest treatments of “yoga” in the Hindu cannon. However, upon inspection these two original Hindu teachings on yoga are found to diverge on several points, an so one must conclude that from the very outset there have been at least two Hindu systems of yoga. And, as the contributions to this volume make plain, the past 2,500 years have seen the emergence of many, many systems of yoga — the earliest of which may not have been Hindu at all, and many of which arose outside of India — whose theories and practices have often been diametrically opposed to one another.

… Now, it is the case that many modern-day yoga gurus have collapsed the rich and varied histories of the many yogas of India, greater Asia, and now the West, into a simplistic vision of yoga as an unchanging tradition grounded in the religion of the Vedas. However, the simple fact that some contemporary teachers and practitioners of yoga hold to such an untenable hypothesis does not make yoga Hindu, any more than the presence of a plastic Jesus on some dashboards would make all automobile drivers Christian.


(1) “… the task of the religious studies scholar is not only to make the strange seem familiar, but also to make the familiar seem strange.”

Written by virtualsatsang

January 3, 2012 at 12:06 am

Posted in History, Yoga

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Yoga and Yogi Practice

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I always smile whenever I hear people refer to themselves as “yogis” or “yoginis”. Especially when the person is a bit of a self-promoter to begin with. So I found it interesting to read the following passage from a recent essay by David Gordon White: my instinctive reaction does have a historical basis!

From Yoga in Practice pages 11-12:

Here it is helpful to introduce the difference between “yogi practice” and “yoga practice”, which has been implicit to South Asian thought and practice since the beginning of the Common Era, the period in which the terms “yogi” and “yogi perception” first appeared in the Indian scriptural record. On the one hand, there is “yoga practice,” which essentially denotes a program of mind-training and meditation issuing in the realization of enlightenment, liberation, or isolation from the world of suffering existence. Yoga practice is the practical application of the theoretical precepts of various yogic soteriologies, epistemologies,and gnoseologies presented in analytical works like the YS and the teachings of the various Hindhu, Buddhist, and Jain philosophical schools. Yogi practice, on the other hand, concerns the supernatural powers that empower yogis to take over other creatures’ bodies and so forth. Nearly every one of the earliest narrative descriptions of yogis and their practice underscore the axiom that the penetration of other bodies is the sine qua non of yoga.

The cleavage between these two more or less incompatible bodies of theory and practice can be traced back to early Buddhist sources, which speak of a rivalry between meditating “experimentalists” (jhayins) and “speculatives” (dhammayogas). … The gulf between yoga practice and yogi practice never ceased to widen over the centuries, such that, by the time of the British Raj, India’s hordes of yogis were considered by India’s elites to be little more than common criminals, with their fraudulent practices — utterly at odds with the true “science” of yoga, which, taught in the YS, was practiced by none — save perhaps a handful of isolated hermits living high in the Himalayas.

Written by virtualsatsang

December 27, 2011 at 5:32 pm

Posted in History, Yoga

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Books for Your Yoga Teacher

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Here are (holiday) gift suggestions for your yoga teacher. You’ll notice that the titles I’ve chosen lean towards the academic (history, anthropology) side — I am after all, an ex-academic.

Postural Yoga

  • Eighty-four Asanas (A survey of traditions) by Gudrun Buhnemann: Make sure you get the 2011 edition.
  • Yoga Tradition of the Mysore Palace by N.E. Sjoman: It looks like its price on Amazon has dropped considerably, in the past a used copy of this title was at least $75. I’ve reviewed this here and here.
  • Yoga Body by Mark Singleton: My review of this book was the first ever entry on this blog!
  • Krishnamacharya (His Life and Teachings) by A.G. Mohan: I really enjoyed this short book by one of Krishnamacharya’s longstanding students.
  • Extra Love (The Art of Hands-on Assists) by Jill Abelson: One of my pet peeves is that many yoga instructors don’t spend enough time teaching safety precautions and learning how to properly assist students. Popular Jivamukti Yoga teacher, Jill Abelson (formerly based in DC, but now in SF), has been conducting workshops on yoga assists for years. I’m glad she put together this well-written manual.
  • History of Yoga

  • Yoga in Practice, edited by David Gordon White: I’m currently reading this just published title. White’s introductory essay is a fantastic overview of Yoga across several religious traditions.
  • History of Modern Yoga by Elizabeth de Michelis: I’ve met several teachers who’ve read Singleton’s book, and I always point them towards this book. Vedanta and Neo-vedanta have heavily influenced modern yoga but I suspect many teachers are unaware of the historical impact of the movements discussed in this book.
  • Yoga in Modern India by Joseph Alter: Make sure you get the 2010 edition.
  • Positioning Yoga by Sara Strauss: A well-written ethnographic study of Swami Sivananda’s Divine Life Society. Modern postural yoga instructors seem to be descended mostly from either Krishnamacharya or Sivananda. Many contemporary teachers in the US are familiar with Krishnamacharya either directly or through his students (who founded Ashtanga and Iyyengar yoga). The late Swami Sivananda also has his share of famous students, including Mircea Eliade, Lilias Follan, Sachtidananda (Integral Yoga) and Satyananda (Bihar School).
  • India

  • Nine Lives by William Dalrymple: I love this book, I’ve read each chapter multiple times.
  • Wandering with Sadhus by Sondra Hausner: I learned so much from this book, and unlike many academic titles, it is extremely readable and even entertaining. Hausner conducts an ethnographic study of renunciates, and along the way provides a wonderful overview of the organizational structures behind the scene.
  • Darsan (Seeing the Divine Image in India) by Diana Eck: A great guide to the statues that are so popular in Yoga studios.
  • Miscellaneous Titles

  • Transcendent in America (Hindu-Inspired Meditation Movements as New Religion) by Lola Williamson: Profiles the Self-Realization Fellowship, Transcendental Meditation, and Siddha Yoga, through interviews with longterm and former members. (Williamson herself was a former member of two of the organizations.)
  • White Lama (The Life of Tantric Yogi Theos Bernard) by Douglas Veenhof: I wouldn’t be shocked if this book becomes the basis for a movie. Veenhof does an incredible job retracing Bernard’s life — though there are sections where the detailed narrative reminds me of Bob Woodward.
  • Yoga in the Modern World edited by Mark Singleton and Jean Byrne: An underrated collection of essays.
  • Alternative Medicine and American Religious Life by Robert Fuller: I just stumbled upon this 1989 title, and already I’ve learned so much about the history of different forms of alternative medicine.
  • Written by virtualsatsang

    December 23, 2011 at 7:31 pm

    Posted in History, Yoga

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