Yoga Body, a book by Mark Singleton---Add "dharma"

Steve Farmer saf at SAFARMER.COM
Thu Mar 10 05:21:39 UTC 2011

George Thompson writes:

> Dear Shyam Ranganathan,
> Thank you for attempting to rescue us from this Humpty Dumpty  
> conundrum that
> Singleton has created!

This is supposed to be a research list, which I take it means that  
strings of polemical statements of this sort, if permitted at all on  
the list, are at a minimum supposed to be backed by evidence.

Mr. Thompson has shown by many odd comments over the last few days --  
starting with his (I should think quite embarrassing to a linguist)  
objection to the correct use by Mark Singleton and Wendy Doniger of  
the word 'homonym' -- that he has neither read nor understood  
Singleton's newest book, outside perhaps of a few isolated snippets in  
its opening sections,

Singleton's study is not a general history of yoga (no matter how  
construed, premodern or modern), as Thompson apparently assumes, but  
is rather the most detailed study ever undertaken of the development  
of modern (meaning late 19th to 20th century) asana practice.

Singleton presents hundreds of pages of evidence, including data drawn  
from exclusive interviews with dozens of Indian principals critical to  
that development (including K. Pattabhi Jois and many others in the  
close-knit circles of Jois and Iyengar and Krishnamacharya before  
them) that confirm a thesis that evolved out of a long series of  
studies stretching from the mid 1990s to the present -- that the  
relationship between modern asanas, as practiced today in India no  
less than in the West, is tenuous at best.

  What Krishnamacharya and Jois and Iyengar and their students  
represented to themselves and their followers -- both Indian and  
Western -- as "traditional" asana practice can be shown from evidence  
coming from many directions to have been a syncretic fusion of a wide  
assortment of diverse Indian and Western cultural elements that only  
emerged during the late colonial era.

Part of the roots of that thesis lay in the publication of Norman  
Sjoman's studies of key Sanskrit texts that emerged from his two  
decades of research in Mysore, summarized in his now classic _The Yoga  
Traditions of Mysore Palace_, which appeared in 1996. Other studies  
generalizing on and expanding that thesis soon followed, undertaken by  
a long list of researchers including Joseph Alter (University of  
Pittsburgh), Elizabeth De Michelis (Cambridge University), David  
Gordon White (University of California at Santa Barbara), Gudrun  
Bühnemann (University of Wisconsin), and -- more recently -- many of  
their students.

That thesis today can hardly be viewed as controversial -- unless it  
offends one's indigenous or political-religious sensibilities (as is  
true in respect to Hindu nationalists, who are violently attacking the  
thesis all over the Web) -- or undercuts spurious claims of antiquity  
made for legitimizing purposes by specific yoga lineages, *including*  
those identified with Krishnamacharya (who wasn't above manufacturing  
pseudo-ancient Sanskrit texts to legitimize his yoga innovations) or  
Jois or iyengar.

But these exceptions aside, the thesis is hardly a contentious one  
among academic yoga historians, who for that reason have quite  
uniformly praised Singleton's work. Even the _Yoga Journal_ types have  
now begun to accept the thesis -- ironically the same people who so  
violently attacked Norman Sjoman's work when it first came out -- as  
well as mainstream figures in the yoga world, who to their credit have  
been forced by Mark's work to begin to reevaluate the roots of their  
own traditions.

Nor will the thesis remain contentious for long for anyone else who  
takes the time to read Singleton's book and compare what he or she  
finds there with the decidedly *un-modern* types of asana practice  
discussed in the increasingly abundant medieval tantric and hatha  
texts now being made available in high-quality modern editions and  
translations by other yoga specialists (including some of whom quietly  
subscribe to this List).

Singleton's new book is already becoming a classic, and rightly, since  
(building on the early works previously cited) it has already  
triggered a revolution in yoga studies scarcely a year following its  

One of the ironies in the violent discussions about the book now all  
over the Web -- Thompson's polemics, which seem oddly personal in  
nature (although he doesn't know Mark) -- are quite similar to those  
of Hindutva writers now being aimed at summaries of the ongoing  
revolution in yoga written by Meera Nanda and Wendy Doniger -- is that  
Singleton himself has done everything in his power to show that his  
writings have absolutely no polemical intent. Half the introductory  
materials in his book in fact is aimed at trying to make that clear.

Part of the reason for this is because Mark himself is deeply  
connected to the yoga world -- he is both a world-class yoga  
practitioner and teacher himself, who was doing yoga long before he  
got his doctorate at Cambridge -- and part is that his only motivation  
in doing historical research, as is true of many on this list,  
revolves around his love of research. I don't know of a less polemical  

But as many on this List recognize from experience, questioning even  
the most obvious of historical fantasies in Indian history can get you  
in hot water whether you like it or not, simply because so much of  
contemporary Indian ideologies depend on fantastic views of the past.   
"Mit der Dummheit kämpfen Götter selbst vergebens."

I have no idea what it means to claim that we need "rescue" from "this  
Humpty Dumpty condundrum that Singleton has created!"

Could I politely ask Mr. Thompson, since seriousissues are involved  
here, as witnessed by the now global discussion (most recently  
witnessed by Doniger's review) of _Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern  
Posture Practice_, to

1. Quote a single passage covering a central topic -- only one is  
requested -- which Thompson finds factually incorrect in the book or  
interpretatively misguided; and

2. Add some meaningful criticism to it that demonstrates why we are  
led into a "Humpty Dumpty conundrum" by the work?

These one-liners attacking major scholars while citing spurious  
evidence (or in this case no evidence at all) are daily fare on Hindu  
nationalist Lists. They don't belong in serious research forums.

Steve Farmer

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