Mathew Remski: Forget everything you thought you knew about yoga history…
Writer Matthew Remski reviews the new book Roots of Yoga and (spoiler alert) shares 10 of its biggest surprises.
Imagine you’re a guppy in a fishbowl. Just swimming around among the fake seaweed and little plastic castle. If you’re precocious you’ll have a vague inkling that there’s something small or phony about your little world. And lately, the waves have picked up. Your water is sloshing and swirling. What’s going on?
This is what being an English-speaking yoga nerd has been like over the past decade. The waves come from yoga researchers like Norman Sjoman, Suzanne Newcombe, Elizabeth de Michelis, David Gordon White and others, carrying your fishbowl along the winding path of yoga history and anthropology. You might have heard things about yoga’s relationship to Indian wrestling, the invention of the modern guru, and how some yogis weren’t exactly known for non-violence. In 2010 they handed it off to Mark Singleton, whose publication of Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice caused a minor maelstrom, sucking you down into the possibility that everything you’d come to believe about yoga through its modern advertising might be a myth. While you were down there you also heard something about cultural appropriation, but you were gasping for breath and couldn’t quite make it out.
Now, 2017 will be known as the year when Oxford Sanskritist Sir Jim Mallinson grabbed hold as well. With the publication of Roots of Yoga(Penguin, 2017), he and Dr. Singleton have dumped your fishbowl into the ocean, releasing you to the wilds. But not without navigation tools. With new critical translations of over 100 little-known yoga texts dating from 1000 BCE to the 19th century, threaded together with clear and steady-as-she-goes commentary, these authors have charted the deep.
Their endlessly diverse sources—translated from Sanskrit (of course) but also Tibetan, Arabic, Persian, Bengali, Tamil, Pali, Kashmiri, and early forms of Marathi and Hindi—explode the available resources for everyday practitioners. They drown the notions that yoga is any single thing that anyone has ever agreed upon or that it brings everyone to the same place. Now, there’s nothing to do but swim. As you do, here are 10 deep-sea discoveries (and a few monsters) you’ll bump into:
1. Shock horror! The Yoga Sutras are not universally accepted…
…or even respected amongst yoga adepts. Writing in his 18th century Haṃsavilāsa, Haṃsamiṭṭhu tells his wife and fellow traveller Haṃsi: “Dear lady, Patañjali’s teaching is nonsense, because there is nothing agreeable in anything achieved by force.”
2. Historically, if women practiced yoga, they were mostly invisible or sexually objectified.
Domestic tête-à-têtes aside, “texts on yoga are written from the point of view of male practitioners,” confirm the authors. “There are no pre-modern depictions of women practising yogic postures…. Sanskrit and vernacular poems of…north Indian ascetic traditions are highly misogynistic…. Women are never explicitly prohibited from practising yoga, although [medieval] haṭha texts commonly insist that male yogis should avoid the company of women.” Except, of course, when they need to procure menstrual fluid to gain superpowers. (You’ll have to read the book for that one.) The sexism at play here is related to the fear that women are the primary thieves of “bindu,” or semen, which many medieval yogis sought to sublimate into ecstatic awareness. Clearly, all of this stuff needs to be revisited and revised by a global culture that now consists of 80% women.
3. The cultural appropriation and religious identity debates in yoga are even muddier than we knew.
Mallinson and Singleton conclusively show that Buddhists (Indian and Tibetan), Jains, and even atheists all lay claim to yoga techniques. And who knew? Muslims also practiced a lot of yoga, and wrote amazing books about it.
4. Medieval yogis knew that asana—and pranayama—could be dangerous.
“In the Gorakṣaśataka, for example, we read, ‘Through practising yoga I have become sick’.” Then there were many yogis who thought postures and breathwork were whack. “There is no point in spending a long time cultivating the breaths [or] practising hundreds of breath-retentions,” says the 12th century Amanaska treatise, “which cause disease and are difficult, [or] lots of painful and hard to master seals. When [the no-mind state] has arisen, the mighty breath spontaneously and immediately disappears.”
5. “Vinyāsa” didn’t always mean a “sequence of poses.”
Mallinson and Singleton write: “The Sanskrit word vinyāsa used…by Krishnamacharya and his students to denote a stage in one of these linked sequences is not found with this meaning in pre-modern texts on yoga…. Vinyāsa and related words are more common in tantric texts, where they usually refer to the installation of mantras on the body…. The modern usage of vinyāsa is thus a reassignment of the meaning of a common Sanskrit word….” This doesn’t make vinyāsa any less effective, of course, unless its effects come partly from faith.
6. Body image isn’t just a modern yoga problem.
Medieval yogis were obsessed with thinness. The preparatory cleansing techniques focused exclusively on slimming down are described in many of the haṭha texts. Perhaps today’s yoga feminism, which is slowly steering the culture toward body positivity, is also healing an ancient fatphobia.
7. The chakras are as much a spiritual dream as a felt reality.
Different yoga sects speak of four, five, six, or twelve chakras. So who’s right? One says that if you can’t locate the chakras within you, that’s okay—doing a fire ceremony is just as good. The chakras “are not a result of the yogi’s empirical observation,” write the authors, “but rather parts of a visualized installation on the body of tradition-specific metaphysics and ritual schemata.” In other words: they are ways of “dressing” the body in spiritual imagery proprietary to different practice groups. This holds a crucial message for practitioners who know that language continues to influence bodily experience. “The goals of a particular system,” write our authors, “determine the way the body is imagined and used within its yoga practices. The yogic body was—and continues to be in traditional practitioner circles—one that is constructed or ‘written’ on and in the body of the practitioner by the tradition itself.”
8. “Yogic suicide” is a thing.
But is it really suicide? In many communities, samādhi was viewed as a blissful meditation from which the yogi, intentionally and happily, never emerged. But instead of leaving the world, the 11th century Amṛtasiddhi suggests it’s more about merging the body with the stillness of the world, while solving the unknowability of the time of death. “When the sun, in line with Meru, stops moving on the left, know that to be the equinox, an auspicious time in the body. By recognizing the equinox in their own bodies, yogis, full of the vigour [produced by] their practice, easily abandon their bodies in yogic suicide at the correct time.”
9. A dominant theme of medieval pranayama was complete self-sufficiency.
Muslim yogis give the analogy of the embryo, breathing its own fluids, within a womb. This lines up with 19th century reports of yogis burying themselves in underground caverns for months on end, stopping their breath in suspended animation. This might sound appealing for the modern practitioner desperate to hide from the 24-hour news cycle.
10. If you read this book, you are unique in yoga history.
No one has had such broad access to the diversity of traditions as we have now. We used to be given disciplines. Now we are given choices.
So this is just a few drops in a whole lot of ocean. It’s a vast and perhaps scary territory. Guppies, after all, can easily get lost, or swallowed by bigger fish. But then—so was old Matsyendranath, the orphan boy who, legend says, founded haṭha yoga. He was abandoned at the shore by his parents and gobbled up whole by a whale, which then took a deep dive. By luck or karma, this gave him the chance to listen in on Siva and Parvati as they sat on the ocean floor, whispering about the mysteries of yoga. He listened for 12 years, which is about how long it will take this reviewer to fully absorb Roots of Yoga. And, perhaps—for it to become the top book on every yoga teacher training reading list in the English-speaking world.