Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Backward Facing Yoga

At lunch, in the library, I was looking at a very interesting book, Selling Yoga: From Counterculture to Pop Culture, by Andrea Jain. Well, I thought it was very interesting, anyway, as a baby-boomer consumer of yoga.

The subtitle somewhat undersells the book's scope, since the book dives far deeper into yoga's history. I've looked a bit into the subject matter of this book, and I have to say that it strikes me that the author's account lines up very neatly with what I've found - and what I've found does not line up well with the popular understanding of contemporary yoga as something Indian monks have been doing for millennia, minus the rubberized mats.

The book itself is academic, in a sociology-of-religion sort of way. So you have to wade through the verbal padding and the show of value-neutrality which that entails. I mean, consider this sentence from the book's synopsis:

"Yoga brands destabilize the basic utility of yoga commodities and assign to them new meanings that represent the fulfillment of self-developmental needs often deemed sacred in contemporary consumer culture."

But underneath all that, I thought it was quite lively. I didn't read it all the way through, but the book does touch on some of the juicy recent yoga scandals, where old gurus had "transgressive" sex with young devotees.

The big takeaway, I would say, which I have seen elsewhere, but which is much neglected, is that 20th/21st century yoga, as a system of physical exercise, is not some old set of Indian customs. Rather, it developed at the turn of the prior century as an Indian response to the European "physical culture" movement (meaning: the beginning of today's continuing exercise craze). There are things called "yoga" that are old, but they were not this modern system of stretchy poses.

If a guru felt at home
in the halls of Ancient Rome,
would he practice Hatha Yoga
while attired in a toga?

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