Nicola Barker

The downside of mindfulness

The authentic ancient spiritual practice of the East has been transformed by the West into a therapeutic fitness regime

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.

As a mind tradition, yoga risks exacerbating modern societal ills while pretending to do the opposite

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).

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