Monday, December 10, 2018

Interview with Seth Powell, Part 4: Modern Misconceptions about Early Yoga

Yogi in Headstand, Bahr al-hayat Sufi yoga treatise, India,
Watercolor on Paper, 1600-04, Chester Beatty Library, Dublin, Ireland
Priya: Regarding access to yoga practice throughout India’s history, or more recently in the West, what misconception would you most like to see teachers revise for their students, and why?

Seth: The first big misconception that still needs to be addressed is the notion that there is one single, unchanging, “original” or “authentic” yoga tradition that existed in premodern India, and that we have now somehow lost, corrupted, or altered in western modernity. The history of yoga is far more complex, and far more interesting, than narratives of singular static essences, which today tend to prop up fundamentalist views of “my yoga is holier than yours.” The vast history of yoga reveals, rather, that yoga has always been incredibly diverse, pluralistic, and multifaceted. While yoga has played a very important role within Hindu traditions (e.g., Śaivism and Vaiṣṇavism), it has never been limited only to what we think of today as Hinduism. There is Buddhist yoga, Jain yoga, Islamic Sufi yoga, and more—all prior to the colonial period.

Loosening our grips from the monolithic notion that there is only one single authentic yoga tradition, can in turn soften the notion that there is then only one correct way to engage in yoga practice—or what scholars refer to as the “orthopraxy” of modern yoga. However, on the flip side, I don’t think we should take this position to the extreme of cultural relativism to suggest that yoga can simply mean whatever we want it to. Historically, at least, yoga was always defined and understood in very particular ways—within very specific cultural, religious, and philosophical milieus—even if different texts and traditions disagreed over those meanings.
The tension and balance between tradition and innovation is a common theme that runs throughout the yogic literature of the past two thousand years.

It is also really important to understand the ways in which yoga and physical yoga practice have dramatically changed in the modern period, as India and yoga came into contact with the global discourses of western science and physical culture movements, as Dr. Mark Singleton has so importantly elucidated in Yoga Body (2010). The birth of what some today refer to as modern postural yoga was a synthesis of older forms of Indian yoga, reconfigured within new political, colonial, spiritual, and physical cultural contexts.

When Indian yoga gurus like Swami Vivekananda, Paramahansa Yogananda, or the disciples of Swami Sivananda and Tirumalai Krishnamacharya, first brought their yoga to Europe and North America at the end of the nineteenth and throughout the early twentieth century, they were yoga missionaries of sorts. Part of their mission was to bring yoga to the masses. Each in their own ways, the early waves of Indian gurus sought to make their yoga “accessible”—to new audiences, cultures, languages, minds, and bodies. In so doing, and like any cultural idea or practice, yoga changed as it moved across space and time.


One of the most striking differences between premodern and modern yoga, is the changing demographic of the yoga practitioner. Whereas the premodern yogi was predominantly male, celibate, and ascetic, on the fringes of mainstream Indian society, today the modern global yoga practitioner is predominantly female, middle class, highly educated, householder, and practices yoga in urban studios and centers within the nexus of a multi-billion dollar health and wellness industry.

2017 Accessible Yoga Conference, New York
Photo by Darshan Nohner
We can see this today in the west, but also in India, where there is a resurgence of interest in yoga, fueled by the current Indian government. Perhaps more than ever before in India today, yoga is becoming a mainstream householder activity, with yoga studios, gyms, and camps cropping up all over the country.

I think it is important to reflect more seriously on this changing public demographic, and to consider how yoga practice might be transforming today to fit the ever-evolving needs and expectations of the modern yogi, or in this case, the yogini.

Further Reading:

Birch, Jason. 2018. “The Proliferation of Āsana in Late Mediaeval Yoga Traditions.” In Yoga in Transformation: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives, edited by Karl Baier, Philipp A. Maas, and Karin Preisendanz, 97-171. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht Unipress.

Diamond, Debra, ed. 2013. Yoga: The Art of Transformation. Washington, D.C.: Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.

Jones, Jamal Andre. 2018. “A Poetics of Power in Andhra, 1323-1450 CE.” Ph.D. dissertation—University of Chicago.

Mallinson, James. 2011. “Haṭha Yoga.” Brill Encyclopedia of Hinduism 3: 770–81.

Dattatreyayogaśāstra. Mallinson, James, ed.and trans. 2013. Draft translation.

Powell, Seth. 2017. “Advice on Āsana in the Śivayogapradīpikā.” Guest blogpost for The Luminescent.

Powell, Seth. 2018. “The Ancient Yoga Strap: A Brief History of the Yogapaṭṭa.” Guest blogpost for The Luminescent.

2018. “Etched in Stone: Sixteenth-century Visual and Material Evidence of Śaiva Ascetics and Yogis in Complex Non-seated Āsanas at Vijayanagara.” Journal of Yoga Studies (1): 45-106.

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


Seth Powell is a longtime practitioner of yoga and a scholar of Indian religions, Sanskrit, and yoga traditions, and is the founder of Yogic Studies. He is currently a PhD Candidate in South Asian Religions at Harvard University, where he is writing his dissertation on the history, theory, and practice of medieval and early modern yoga traditions. Seth also holds degrees in the study of religion from the University of Washington (MA) and Humboldt State University (BA). He has taught and lectured for numerous university courses on the religions and literature of India, Hinduism, Buddhism, and yoga traditions, and presents his research regularly at international conferences. Seth conducts online courses and teaches regularly on the history and philosophy of yoga at studios, teacher trainings, and universities around the country. You can find him online at www.yogicstudies.com.


This post was edited by Patrice Priya Wagner, co-editor of Accessible Yoga blog and member of the Board of Directors.

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