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  • Writer's pictureCatherine Flutsch

Enlightened Postures: The Origins of Yoga


Just under 4% of the world’s population practices yoga.* Today, the global yoga industry is estimated to be worth US$88 billion.**   It’s not only ordinary people who are turning to yoga for its health and wellness benefits – the scientific community has directed its laser focus on yoga. In the past 20 years, over 8000 scientific studies have been published on yoga, with almost 800 published in the last year alone.***

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The number of published scientific studies on yoga since 1948.

If you are in the West and you practice yoga, you are likely to have come to it through classes, probably for the mental or physical health benefits.  If that’s the case, it’s also likely that you practice some version of what’s been called modern postural yoga.  The phrase modern postural yoga was coined in 2010 to better describe what it is we do in the West (and increasingly in India) when we say we practice yoga.****


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I have been practicing yoga regularly for a number of years, but I have never really investigated yoga’s origins in any depth.  Other than knowing that yoga originated in India and having done a subject called Indian Philosophy at Uni, I didn’t really have much knowledge about the origins of the yoga I spend so much of my time on. 

 

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Early copy of the Rigveda, which originated in 1500-1200 BCE., which includes references to meditative practices that are precursors to yoga.

So I decided to do some further research.*****  It turns out that the story of modern yoga is filled with extraordinary drama, suffering and appropriation.  What we call yoga in the West owes very little to the yoga that is mentioned in ancient yogic texts and a lot to do with colonisation, and cultural appropriation.

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British merchant ship approaching Bombay (Mumbai) Harbour; oil on canvas by J.C. Heard, c. 1850.

A blog post such as this can’t possibly do justice to this topic. So in this post, I’m going to very roughly sketch some of the impacts of British colonisation on the development of modern postural yoga. Of course, colonisation isn’t the only influence.  So I’m going to include a mind map that I created that lists all the influences on modern postural yoga that I could find.  I’ll also provide a very short reading list – if you want to read into the topic more deeply.

 I hope that this will give you a starting point to read into this fascinating subject and help you to start looking at modern postural yoga with a clear and unbiased gaze – recognising its troubled history and honouring its distant origins as a spiritual, ethical and devotional practice.


Namaste


Colonisation and Yoga

When I started reading into this subject, I was surprised to find out that physical postures play only a very minor role in the foundational Indian yogic texts – the primary focus of yoga being a spiritual and ethical practice.  Even when physical postures are referred to in the ancient texts, they are generally only mentioned  in the context of seated postures – to create a stable seat to help with meditation.  If that’s the case, I wondered why modern postural yoga has largely rid itself of its spiritual and ethical practices and become a primarily physical practice?

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Shah 'Alam, Mughal Emperor (1759–1806), Conveying the Grant of the Diwani to Lord Clive, August 1765 Benjamin West (1738–1820) British Library

To answer that question, we have to go back to the colonisation of India by the British. When the British arrived in India in the late 18th century,  the most visible yoga practitioners, hatha yogis, were seen by the British as a subversive, disreputable, and troublesome.  This is because hatha yogis carried out many very extreme, taboo breaking practices, as well as completely renouncing materialism.  Consequently, many hatha yogis looked underweight, scary, and poor.  The British banned wandering hatha yogis.


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Indian yoga asetics

This cultural and racial bias against hatha yogis extended to the British rulers’ perception of Indian men in general. The British feeling was that Indian men were effeminate, and morally and physically inferior – justifying colonial rule by the "morally and physically superior" British.

In an extension of this paternalistic bias, the British sought to promote physical fitness and strength-building practices to improve the physiques and morality of Indian men.  To do this, the British integrated “indigenous” physical practices (i.e. the physical postures of hatha yoga) with Western fitness movements that were sweeping the world at that time, to create a unique physical training system – early postural yoga - for Indian men.

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Russian army (circa 1910) performing Swedish gymnastics as part of military calisthenics

Yoga, as we know it today, was therefore a tool to reinforce the ideas underlying the colonisation of India.  Conversely, yoga was also used as a tool for resistance against colonial rule.  Remember those disreputable hatha yogis?  Well a group of highly organised, militarised hatha yogis, took the physical practices of hatha yoga and used them as military training to resist the British – eventually becoming so powerful that they were able to challenge British rule. 

The transformation of yoga into a physical exercise regime was also influenced by the work of Indian nationalists – who wanted to counter colonial stereotypes of weak, effeminate men and promote a sense of national pride.  The Indian YMCA, among others, started promoting yoga as a physical exercise regime to enhance physical strength among Indian men, reclaiming Indian masculinity.

Even the most superficial research uncovers the contradictions inherent in the development of early modern postural yoga.  We see that yoga has been a tool for both repression and resistance.  It’s also been not only an expression of racism but a statement of Indian pride. Yoga’s development from a spiritual practice to a primarily physical system of exercise begins here. 

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Mindmap I created to show origins of modern postural yoga. © C.Flutsch

The move of yoga from India to the West, its subsequent commercialisation, feminisation and medicalisation is the story for another time.

 

* Acharya Prashant Jakhmola, Yoga Statistics, https://www.yogavidyaschool.com/blog/yoga-statistics

**Shaw, A., & Kaytaz, E. S. (2021). Yoga bodies, yoga minds: contextualising the health discourses and practices of modern postural yoga. Anthropology & Medicine, 28(3), 279–296. https://doi.org/10.1080/13648470.2021.1949943

****Mark Singleton, Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice, Oxford University Press,  2010. 

*****My research started by reading the proceedings from Yoga Bodies: The Association of Social Anthropologists’ Conference on Sociality, Matter, and the Imagination: Re-creating Anthropology, held at the University of Oxford in September 2018.

****** Ayebainemi Ese, Decolonising Yoga, 9 March 2021,  https://ayebainemi.medium.com/decolonising-yoga-31c9a7325230

 

Further Reading

  • Shaw, A., & Kaytaz, E. S. (2021). Yoga bodies, yoga minds: contextualising the health discourses and practices of modern postural yoga. Anthropology & Medicine, 28(3), 279–296. https://doi.org/10.1080/13648470.2021.1949943

  • Singleton, M., Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice, Oxford University Press,  2010. 

  • Alter, Joseph. 2004. Yoga in Modern India: The Body between Science and Philosophy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

  • Alter, Joseph. 2000b. “Subaltern Bodies and Nationalist Physiques: Gama the Great and the Heroics of Indian Wrestling.” Body & Society 6 (2): 45–72.

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