Way back in 1996 Norman E. Sjoman published a book called The Yoga Tradition of the Mysore Palace, in which he contested that much of what we now (in the West) consider to be yoga — a practice apparently steeped in millennia of ancient Indian tradition — is actually a veritable hotchpotch of disparate influences, some of which are surprisingly modern. In 2010 Mark Singleton’s controversial Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice consolidated Sjoman’s argument, and Yoga International (through somewhat gritted teeth, no doubt) claimed it represented ‘a watershed moment in the history of global asana culture’.
Now we have Alistair Shearer’s The Story of Yoga: From Ancient India to the Modern West to contend with — a clear-eyed, elegantly written and wonderfully informative history of yoga (and the aforementioned controversies surrounding the subject) in which even the word itself gets pored over, gently prodded and then found to be somewhat overextended.
Shearer approaches yoga forensically, from every conceivable angle: historically, spiritually, geographically, culturally and commercially. He is patently embedded in the discipline himself, but always quietly playful and able to maintain a measure of emotional distance from a booming industry (in the US there were a few hundred thousand practitioners towards the close of the 20th century; numbers rose to four million by 2001 and hit 37 million by 2016) towards which he appears to feel more than his fair share of scepticism.
In terms of his agenda, the beginning and end of Shearer’s argument is in drawing a marked distinction between ‘mind’ and ‘body’ yoga. For him, yoga is at its most meaningful and authentic as an ancient spiritual practice, but in the West it is generally approached in a fitness or therapeutic context (as mindfulness). Shearer explains how ‘body’ yoga survives — indeed thrives (constantly reinventing itself as ‘tantric’, ‘hot’, etc) in a milieu in which the modern holy cows of science and relativism shape, and inevitably traduce, the possibilities of the form.
He also describes how and why it is that western adherents (not to mention western institutions) have often struggled with yoga’s spiritual iteration (while making it clear that mindfulness — a therapeutic form of ‘mind’ yoga and/or Buddhism — rests on the idea of self-discovery/ego-bolstering, when in fact the spiritual roots it hails from are always underpinned by the opposing goals of surrender/ego-lessness).
There are countless interesting discussions on the guru/disciple paradigm (those ‘crazy wisdom traditions’ which sit at the heart of knowledge transmission in India), why it works as a system, how it can be exploited or abused, and why it sometimes has trouble translating in the western context:
“For us moderns, what place, if any, does surrender play in spiritual development?… In our increasingly atomised society, most individuals’ prime devotion is to their own autonomy, and they would like to claim an inalienable right to pursue their own personal agenda for fulfilment. This process often entails rejection of inherited structures and authorities, especially religious ones. Such individualism is curiously inconsistent, though. While we are happy enough to accept specialised expertise for practical matters — such as the proper functioning of our car, our computer or even our own body — we resist such authority when it concerns intellectual and, particularly, spiritual matters. It is as if respect for the sophistication of specialised knowledge is confined to material fields alone; elsewhere our default setting is one of scepticism…
The sobering truth is that if ‘body’ yoga is not practised correctly it can potentially be very dangerous to our physical selves (yoga apparently causes more injuries than all sports combined), but beyond that, if it isn’t properly understood, as a mind tradition, it risks perpetuating and exacerbating modern societal ills (while actually pretending to do the opposite).
Shearer offers a wide-ranging critique of our culture in general, from our addictions to ‘stuff’, our increasing narcissism (fuelled by social media), the prevalence of anxiety and depression, our obsession with gadgets and our ever decreasing attention spans. He warns:
“The growth of secularised yoga exemplifies a general principle: as the power of belief wanes, the authority of medicine increases. What were formerly considered moral failings — overeating, addiction, hyper- sexuality — are now classified as diseases, and as more and more of our life becomes medicalised, wellness has replaced goodness as the answer to many of our ills. Yoga has always been remedial, but the sickness traditional practice sought to cure was the metaphysical ignorance that, according to the sages, is the root of human suffering…
Just like those two other fine works that preceded it, Shearer’s remarkable book is a wide-ranging and rather sobering discussion on the nature of authenticity. Yoga is its vehicle. And yet at the heart of current yoga praxis, he contends, there exists a delicious and thought-provoking paradox: ‘body’ yoga (by its very nature, something slightly inauthentic and risky) actually contains within it the very seeds of its own (and our) salvation casually tucked into the cursory ‘relaxation’ segment at the end. Can we, Shearer wonders, as a culture, develop the necessary tools, insight, even the modesty, fully to apprehend this?