Holy yoga body!

Perhaps the most unsettling thing about Singleton's Yoga Body: The origins of modern posture practice, is that it narrows on the ashtanga system (chapter 9 is all about the Mysore style), it brings it under the microscope far closer than say, Iyengar (although he gets his share of discrediting too).

As a defensive mechanism is easy to get angry first off, so I gave the book a chance, read it slowly, trying to not fall asleep on the academic terminology and wordiness, and attempting to get to the core of what he is trying to say.
"modern, transnational yoga is predominantly an anglophone phenomenon" 
Is it?  His exposure is thorough, and if anything, I am left with more questions than answers.

I enjoyed reading about the early Palace years (30s) of Krishnamacharya and could not but wonder about him, high in yoga, coming to the palace and being given a wing in it.  I wondered about how he had to please a Maharasha (whom in turn reported to the British?), who was intent on getting Indian youth fit, while at the same time having to deliver results, and keep true to what he knew.

I suppose India is too big a place, to deep a country to just follow military records, but nevertheless, it is an eye opener.

The author seems to have a bit of a control issue,  he knows that he will be critiziced and he lets us know how it will happen:
I am well aware... my work will elicit very specific reactions...  is dismissed as either irrelevant or malign in intent and its author as an academic trespasser on hallowed ground... others...revel in what they see as a much needed exposure of convenient but specious myths".  
Instead, he suggests we think of modern yoga (the postural poses) as a hononym, (same word different meaning) to the old yoga of Patanjali.

It is interesting to see the paralels he draws from how both the gymnastics and the yoga would influence each other
"as a bodybuilder, Iyer was an avide promoter of hatha yoga ... in his Muscle Cult (1930)... declares "Hatha Yoga had more to do in the making of me... than all the bells and bars, steel-springs and strands I have used" 

Three suggestions are the ones that kind of "hurt",  one is his dismissal of the Yoga Korunta as being mere fantasy...as when he retells of a student of Krishnamacharya reporting that the master would "chuckle" when asked to produce the book,

The second one could be perceived as a direct dismisal of the ancestry of the ashtanga system:
"For example, the claim that specific gymnastic asana squences taught by certain postural schools popular in the West today are enumerated in the Rg Vedas is simply untenable from a historical or philological point of view.  This claim is made by Pattabhi Jois about the suryanamaskar sequences"
Third his suggestion of how suryanamaskar may not really be coming from an unbroken tradition/lineage of yogis, but rather...
"Suryanamaskar, today fully naturalized as a presumed "Traditional" technique of Indian yoga, was first conceived by a bodybuilder and then popularized by other bodybuilders
I am sure that the biggest insult for ashtangis may come when when he poses this question, (I made the emphasis on the but):
"Could it be that what has come to be known as Ashtanga represents the institutionalization... of a vinyasa bricolage designed by Krishnamacharya in the 1930 for South Indian youths but transmitted subsequently by Pattabhi Jois to mainly Western students as the ancient... asana practice delineated in the Vedas and lost Kurnuta?"
When I approached Eddie he seemed very convinced that the Korunta did exist.  "It absolutely existed" he confirmed, as well as the living tradition.  It felt true, in my body, as I looked around at the 60 or so people in the shala, following his guidance, which he gathered from his guru, who gathererd it from his own guru, and so on.  A living legacy, no records involved.

Do we as Westerners have such desire to own yoga that we cannot really accept that traditional spoken lineage and must look at papers to draw conclusions?  do we need to absolutely know and trust only what is written?.  Then again, could it possibly be that books like the Korunta were just fictional creations to give credibility to a world that seems to increasingly need such things?

The book, just like yoga, is a product of our times, and I have a feeling that more books will begin to come out in the near future, showing us different shades, different findings, creating more controversies.

As per me, I am sticking to practice, and getting as close to the living tradition as I can.  Even though books like this have their place and certainly arise my curiosity, I am far more interested in what direct students say, even if they also try to tear each other down sometimes, how they operate in the world, and most importantly the effect that the practice has on me.


  1. Huh - well now I don't need to read it myself anyway! I have heard that Astanga bears a lot of resemblance to calisthenics imported by the Brits. I don't really care where it comes from though! It IS damned good exercise. No one can argue with that. Whether or not the modern traditions pay more than lip service to the other limbs is something I tend to think about more than origins...

  2. I'm finding the book kind of liberating. How the practice came about, though fascinating, seem to matter less. It's a wonderful way of practicing asana and can be beautiful. I practice Vinyasa Krama in the morning and, personally, it's openness as a system seems to suit my exploration of Yoga better. Ashtanga, I practice a few evenings a week for the sheer joy of it.

  3. Hi B, I am completely with you on that, I also find it very beneficial, regardless of where it comes from. As per the other limbs, this makes me think, I wish there was more focus on them, that the teachings would not be so asana-centric... just like the shala you were visualizing creating...

    Grimmly, I am every so curious now about Vinyasa Krama, and the teachings of the "later students of Krishnamacharya", I guess I can relate to the liberating part, in my case if anything it has awaken more curiosity.

  4. OMG, wonderful post! I'm delighted you read the chapter closely, Claudia.

    I initially mis-read the intent of your question,

    "Do we as Westerners have such desire to own yoga that we cannot really accept that traditional spoken lineage and must look at papers to draw conclusions?"

    I thought you were asking if we westerners have such a need to feel that our yoga is something more than what we experience that we have to believe it came down on papers (i.e. the Korunta).

    I know that wasn't your intent... but it is an interesting question too.

    Honestly, what difference would it make to Eddie of the Korunta never existed? More interesting, what difference would it make to us if ashtanga is a bricolage of east and west, and not purely from the east?

    For me, I am not sure that it degrades me if it's purely a contemporary form. What do you think, Claudia?

  5. P.S. For my part, I'm very excited about the book when I have some time in a few months. Had a brief email introduction to the author last year, and had no idea he had this brilliance up his sleeve. :-)

  6. Hi Ovo, you are right, it does not make a difference, but I suppose having a book, especially something mysterious and almost magical like the Korunta does give the whole system more credibility, at least in the eyes of some, and I suppose especially in the eyes of scholars... but at the end of the day, it is the fruits it produces in the practitioners that makes it count...

    I would like to know what you think when you read it.

  7. It's fascinating to situate this against, say, Maehle, who encourages us in his books to dig into the Indian mythology and such and who without any tongue in any cheek, dates the first book "year so-and-so of Kali Yuga."

    And no, I don't think it would matter to Eddie at all, re: the Korunta. There's a wonderfulness to that.

  8. @ Patrick, yes, fascinating, and I remember that part, the Kali Yuga year part... I guess like he says, we have indeed wondered about into thinking territory and we need things to be thoroughly explained to us, before we can grasp divinity... I remember him describing the ages and noting how we are in the worst one...

  9. "As per the other limbs, this makes me think, I wish there was more focus on them ..."

    You did just mention Paul Dallaghan in your prevoius post. He was the one who inspired me to put focus on a daily pranayama practice (and chanting and the study of yoga philosophy) together with my ashtanga practice. I think that for ashtanga people who are into the other limbs, they are easily accessible even within the ashtanga world.

  10. I agree, I Roselil, I took the teacher training with Paul and he also inspired me into pranayama practice . I am also grateful to Eddie, who offers free yoga sutra classes, and brings yogis for talks etc. I suppose my daydreaming was along the lines of it being a bit more organized. I have a feeling all is coming, or, like you say, it's already here is just a question of looking in the right places :)

  11. I was thinking, asana practice really is a way for us to be able to sit in lotus comfortably for long periods and switch off the 'monkey mind', preparing us for pranayama and the other limbs. Who cares what method is used to get to this point. The old yogis might have found it easy to sit in this position as they didn't have the modern conviences (chairs etc) to affect the body in a negative way. What K and Jois did (whether with the Korunta or not) is come up with a systematic approach to achieve this 'goal'. I think anyone who practices this method diligently over a long period of time gets to really appreciate how brilliant this 'scientific method' is. Let not forget what Jois named his institute: Ashtanga Yoga RESEARCH Institute. He crafted or maybe tweaked this system over many years of dedication and research. The research continues and its up to the individual to figure out how to tweak things to suit themselves :)

  12. Hi Niall, absolutely, and good point on bringing up the name and highlighting the research part, true, all yoga is research, as you say, whatever brings us to samadhi...

  13. I am guessing that Singleton writes in the book about the way that Indian yogas extol the idea of science? It's delightful, though the Indian idea of science differs from the way we use the word.

    Patrick, you feel there is wonderfulness to Eddie's swearing that the Korunta existed? I am trying to see the wonderfulness, but just find it sort of depressing...

  14. As a professional student, I'm always interested in questions about the history of yoga, and all that goes with it.

    However, if I were to find out that everything I know as yoga was invented by hippies in California after a really good acid trip in the 60's, and that the real yoga being practiced in India for thousands of years is something completely different, perhaps involving hitting oneself in the head with a hammer every day, it really wouldn't have any effect on my practice. Ultimately, the yoga I practice has really positive effects on my life, so let's hear it for those hippies, and I really don't thinking hitting myself on the head with a hammer would, so I'll put that in the same bin with Old Testament instructions from Jahweh about how to sell my daughters into slavery as well as just about everything any of the great spiritual traditions has had to say about gender relations.

    Not to say that ancient traditions aren't important, but I do think the yoga world gets a bit caught up in a very romantic (and, ironically, very western) dichotomy of old and Indian=pure and spiritual, modern and western=impure, not-so spiritual.

    (Disclaimer: to the best of this commenter's knowledge, modern yoga was not, actually, invented by hippies after an acid trip, and ancient Indian yoga has absolutely nothing to do with hitting oneself on the head with anything, and he certainly doesn't want to start any rumors to that effect).

  15. Hi OvO, not sure the book goes into the direction of yoga praising science, there is mentioning of the Kaivalyadama institute for example, that has done research but not much on science per say, it is very centered on the paralels of modern postural yoga and the development of indian/westerner yoga as we "know" it today.

    YogaforCynics, liked the disclaimer :-)

  16. Interesting post! When I attended a workshop with Sri O.P. Tiwari two years ago I remember him explaining to us that the Surya namaskaras are something developed during the 20th century and not part of the original hatha yoga asanas. Also when I practice asana with him it is quite different from ashtanga vinyasa yoga (e.g. no surya namaskaras) and not at all any focus on bandhas. Once I think Paul Dallaghan said that Tiwari thinks ashtanga vinyasa yoga is just much jumping around but if that asana practise suits you than that is fine. I like that.

    Tiwari is a lovely person and has a lovely attituted towards yoga. Do a little every day than a lot once in a while...so with two young children under the age of 3 I really enjoy my pranayama practice every evening b/c that is what I have time for at this stage in life. Also Tiwari said that my yoga for now is my family...sooo true! :-)

    Thank you Claudia for sharing and I really enjoy reading your blog!


  17. Anna good to hear from you. Interesting that Tiwariji said that. I also admire him and keep a link to his Kayvalyadhama Institute, I want to visit him as soon as I can. And as per your family being your yoga yes, so true.

  18. Hi - coming to this a little late I know but thought this piece might help you remain confident in pursuing vipassana without having to necessarily "let go" of your so called, "Modern Yoga":-


    With all good wishes to you.


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