Yoga Consultation

Stuart Ray Sarbacker s-sarbacker at NORTHWESTERN.EDU
Wed Dec 14 17:03:34 UTC 2005


On behalf of the steering committee, I am writing to you to announce 
the formation of, and solicit your participation in, a new 
consultation at the American Academy Religion entitled "Theory and 
Practice of Yoga." It has been approved to run for three years, 
beginning in 2006, with the possibility of renewal or change of 
status (towards more permanent or orientation towards publication) at 
the end of that term.

For the 2006 Annual Meeting, which will be in Washington, D.C. from 
November 18th to the 21st, we plan to have an inaugural panel on the 
topic of the formation of "modern yoga" with an emphasis on the 
tension between "construction" and "transcendence," and likely 
another co-sponsored panel with one of the other AAR program units.

I hope that you will be interested in taking part in this timely 
conversation. I would encourage people who have an interest in the 
topic and want to be involved to send me their contact information. 
One of the goals of the consultation is to provide a venue that 
brings together the international community of scholars working on 
the topic to facilitate collaboration across geographic and 
disciplinary boundaries.

Best Wishes,
Stuart Sarbacker
Northwestern University


Consultation Outline:

The new consultation will seek to elucidate the relationship between 
religious and sectarian representations of yoga in Indian history and 
the profoundly fascinating contemporary yoga culture that is 
emerging. Among other topics that will be addressed in our 
consultation are a number of important works on the emergence of 
modern yoga out of the encounter between Indian and European culture 
in the late 19th and early 20th century. This topic is focused on the 
"missing link" between contemporary formulations of yoga and the 
late-medieval precursors from which they establish their authority. 
The consultation will also address changing paradigms with respect to 
the nature and function of yoga in the Indian context, such as the 
role and importance of magical powers in yoga practice, a topic that 
is redefining the way that yoga is understood both historically and 
in its current manifestations. It will also examine the relative 
pervasiveness of spiritual and religious ideologies in manifest or 
latent forms within the contemporary yoga scene, and the overarching 
sociological relevance of yoga within global culture. The goal of the 
consultation is to provide a venue in which the body of scholars 
working in this area will be able to collectively evaluate this 
extremely timely material. We will actively pursue scholars from 
Europe, Asia, and other areas that have worked at length on these 
issues, so as to bring an important international component to the 

Methodologically speaking, it should be emphasized that this 
consultation will embrace the broader principles of the History of 
Religions method, attempting to balance critical and historical study 
with an empathetic attitude towards the practices and experiences 
associated with yoga. This will allow a plurality of methods, such as 
the historical, philosophical, philological, sociological, and 
anthropological approaches, to be represented. This particular area 
of study is well-suited to such a plurality of approaches, as the 
practice of yoga is represented in both ancient history and 
contemporary culture, lending to its developmental importance in 
Indian traditions and as part of the Hindu and Buddhist diaspora in 
the 20th and 21st century. The idea of "practice" will be examined in 
the seminar not with the intention to propagate any particular form 
of sectarian practice, but for the purpose of understanding the 
importance of embodied ascetic discipline within the range of 
physical and mental disciplines that fall under the rubric of "yoga."

One of the key questions that has emerged with regard to the academic 
study of contemporary yoga practices is the question of if we can 
adequately reconstruct the development of these practices in such a 
way as to link them to traditional and historical narratives. These 
studies, and others, are ripe for exploration in terms of the light 
they can shine on issues of religious modernity in general and the 
role of yoga as a transnational ideology and praxis. Likewise, the 
way in which yoga exists on the boundary between modernity with 
respect to its physical benefits (health, etc.) and spiritual 
explorations (especially sectarian identity) makes it a profoundly 
interesting place to examine where secularism and religion appear to 

There have also been several recent historical and textual studies on 
that deal with the appropriation of magical power through yoga 
technique. These studies represent a shift in thinking with respect 
to scholarship on yoga that deserves significant attention. This 
shift is a move away from 19th and 20th century scholarship that 
portrayed Indian ascetic techniques in an extremely idealistic light, 
towards a more realistic and measured approach that recognizes the 
import that these traditions put upon the worldly benefits of 
practice. In addition to changing our perspective with respect to the 
uses and purposes of yoga practice, this also can be a basis for 
re-examining the role of yoga in popular culture (such as in 
so-called "hot" yoga) as a means of power and success that is not 
rooted in soteriological purposes. Furthermore, there are numerous 
other discussions to be had regarding the importance of secularized 
(and often economically driven) versions of key aspects of yoga, such 
as rituals of initiation (diksa) and the role of the guru within 
modern yoga organizations and enterprises. These topics and others 
will examine the way in which recent scholarship on the topic can 
help explicate the structure, meaning, and purpose of contemporary 
yoga practices by placing them in historical and critical perspective.

The chairpersons for the consultation will be Christopher Chapple of 
Loyola Marymount University and Stuart Sarbacker of Northwestern 
University. Gavin Flood of Oxford University, Lloyd Pflueger of 
Truman State University, Ian Whicher of the University of Manitoba, 
David Gordon White of the University of California Santa Barbara, and 
Lola Williamson of the University of Wisconsin will serve as steering 
committee members.

Dr. Stuart Sarbacker
Lecturer in Religion
Director of Undergraduate Studies
Department of Religion
Northwestern University

More information about the INDOLOGY mailing list