Yoga, Alistair Shearer notes, in this erudite, scholarly and engrossing study, is not itself a religion. But when practised in the right spirit, it may gradually align the practitioner with “those eternal principles on which all true religion rests”.
As the Katha Upanishad – a Vedic text dating from between 800BC and 300BC – has it: “Yoga is this complete stillness in which one enters the unitive state, never to become separate again.” Which may come as a surprise to the practitioners of Ashtanga yoga, “hot” yoga and all the other variations on self-punishment that are so popular today.
In much the same way as “mindfulness” has stripped Buddhist meditation of its spiritual connotations to become a secular therapy for relieving stress and maximising efficiency, so yoga has long been stripped of its sacred associations. If the classic image of the yogi was once of the solitary contemplative in his Himalayan redoubt, it is now of lithe bodies enacting the “downward dog” at expensive retreats in the Greek islands or on the polished wood floors of the yoga studio with its aroma of incense and its air of cultivated narcissism. As Shearer writes, yoga is now an $18bn (€16bn) industry.
It is often said that yoga practices date from “5,000 years” ago, but nobody knows for sure. There is no mention of what he calls “posture yoga” in the Vedic teachings, which date from roughly 2500BC to 500BC. But there are 900 mentions in the later Mahabharata, the great Sanskrit epic of ancient India, which includes the ‘Bhagavad Gita’, the most important text in what came to be known as Hinduism.
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The seers of early yoga scriptures were interested in physical postures only insofar as they aided meditation and breathing. The oldest known text devoted solely to yoga – now regarded as its de facto Bible – is The Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali, composed sometime before 350AD. Patañjali devotes only three short verses out of 196 to physical postures, making clear that the mastery in asanas – or positions – lies not in athleticism or flexibility, the ability to bend, twist and work up a sweat, but in the fact that it facilitates an effortless state of mental absorption. In short, “the purpose of body work is to refine the mind”; “yoga is the settled mind”.
Shearer provides a fascinating chronology of the changing attitudes towards yoga in the West. To the Victorians, Indian holy men were held to be objects of reproval – the emaciated yogi lying on a bed of nails provided the perfect illustration of the perceived laziness and moral turpitude of the native Indian, in stark contrast to the doctrine of “Muscular Christianity” served up by the social reformer and evangelist Charles Kingsley, whose recipe for moral improvement was a cold morning bath – or of a kind of appalled amusement.
A deeper understanding came with Swami Vivekananda, whose appearance at the first World Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893 galvanised popular interest in Hindu teachings. The Fabian turned theosophist Annie Besant, who saw Vivekananda speak in Chicago – “Purposeful, virile, strong, he stood out, a man among men, able to hold his own” – would go on to publish a book on Maharishi Patañjali’s yoga in 1907. In 1932, Carl Jung presented a seminar on kundalini yoga in Zurich, which, Shearer writes, was regarded as “a milestone in the Western understanding of Eastern thought”.
Further enlightenment came with Aurobindo Ghose, the Indian nationalist turned mystic, whose teachings inspired the founders of the Esalen Institute in California – the crucible of the so-called ‘Human Potential’ movement in the 1960s. Then came a galaxy of new variations including flow yoga, rocket yoga and ‘kilt yoga’, as demonstrated by Scottish teacher Finlay Wilson, whose headstands, Shearer notes, finally answer the question of what a Scotsman wears under his kilt.
It is significant that some of the most popular forms of yoga today are the least contemplative. Shearer describes the “no pain, no gain” variation of Ashtanga yoga, popularised by K Pattabhi Jois and much espoused by celebrities such as Madonna, Sting and Gwyneth Paltrow, as “a sweat-based path for a nation of self-actualising achievers”.
Then there is hot yoga – invented by “the pony-tailed, waxed-chested” Bikram Choudhury – a technique combining heat and vigorous activity. It’s not unheard of for people attempting hot yoga “to vomit, break down and pass out, or lose bladder control in a room full of their fellow students”. This too attracted the predictable celebrity following, including Shirley MacLaine, Lady Gaga and Gwyneth Paltrow (again), and made Choudhury a multimillionaire, before he fell to earth after a Vanity Fair article accusing him of rape, sexual harassment and false imprisonment. (He has since denied any wrongdoing.)
“The physical postures should be steady and comfortable,” Patañjali wrote in the fourth century. “They are mastered when all effort is relaxed and the mind is absorbed in the infinite.” But nobody said it would be easy.
In 2017, a survey in The Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies reported that yoga was the cause of more injuries than all other sports combined, with one in 10 practitioners developing musculoskeletal pain from their practice, and a third of those experiencing pain so severe they were out of action for three months. As Shearer puts it: “Body-yoga has enjoyed 50 years of astonishing popularity in the West; now the casualties are limping in.”
Something for practitioners to meditate on, perhaps. Those adopting the determined sedentary position may find these statistics strangely vindicating.
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