How did yoga get so physical? Yoga Body tells what happened to yoga in the 20th century.

How did yoga get so physical? Yoga Body tells what happened to yoga in the 20th century.

The primacy of asana performance in transnational yoga today is a new phenomenon that has no parallel in premodern times. (Yoga Body, Introduction)

In his book, author Mark Singleton explains that the modes of asana practice we know today began to develop less than a hundred years ago. The postures that are an integral part of of the yoga you do today were in fact influenced by bodybuilding and European gymnastics in the 1900s.

Before that time, the focus of yoga was on techniques to purify the body and mind.

When a movement known as ‘physical culture’ became prominent in India, it led to the creation of modern yoga as we know it: a yoga that is exercise, medicalised and very much about the body.

Book title: Yoga Body: the origins of modern posture practice
About the author:
Mark Singleton has a PhD in modern yoga from University of Cambridge
Publishing details: Oxford University Press, 2010

How physical culture influenced yoga

Singleton explains that the physical culture movement came to prominence both in India and the west from around 1850. The thinking was that promoting physical health and strength among the populace ensured a healthy workforce to serve their country.

One result was that yoga teachers in places like Mysore were encouraged to teach yoga as a physical exercise.  Yoga teachers worked closely with physical culture teachers, and both were influenced by the likes of Ling Gymnastics and even Indian bodybuilding. Singleton’s research shows that these influences helped asana forms emerge that would keep people fit and healthy, that would attract the masses by demonstrating complex bodily feats, and that would entertain the Maharaja and his consorts in performances.

But just because yogis haven’t been doing your particular asana sequence for thousands of years, it doesn’t (necessarily) mean your creative vinyasa class is any less authentic.

Did you know?

  • Sun Salutations, now a prominent feature in many hatha yoga classes, were their own class in the Mysore schools, and separate to yoga asana (postures).  
  • Indian Hatha Yogis who practiced physical yoga postures were frowned upon in the 1800s by Indians and Europeans alike.  They were considered circus performers who denigrated ‘real’ yoga.
  • Yoga guru Krishnamacharya was employed by the Maharaja Krishnaraja Wodiyar IV and charged with the goal of ensuring fitness among the royal staff and popularising forms of physical culture. This included ‘propaganda work’ in South India.
  • The innovation that led to today’s very physical styles of yoga emerged in India, and not from the US or the western world as we often think.

But what about those ancient texts?

The Yoga Korunta is often cited as evidence that today’s yoga sequences have been practiced for thousands of years, but the Yoga Korunta was actually never seen. Former students of Krishnamcharya say that their master would speak of this ancient text with a twinkle in his eye, and seemingly change the contents of the book over time.

It seems there was then, as there is now, a desire to anchor modernity in something ancient.

Authenticity and innovation go hand in hand

Even though yoga has been changing over the centuries, it doesn’t make your practice any less authentic.  Krishnamacharya was an innovator in yogasana, providing the means for Pattabhi Jois to popularise Ashtanga Yoga and BKS Iyengar to promote the very different practice of Iyengar Yoga.

But he was also an adept of yogic philosophy, instructed from a young age in several of the Indian philosophical systems.

Just as Krishnamacharya’s creativity and innovation was grounded in decades of dedication to his path, the innovations in the form of yoga that continue to emerge today are part of a lineage that has been handed down for thousands of years.

1 Comment
  • Mani
    Posted at 17:06h, 11 February Reply

    Mark is looking for historical written evidence which is not available in Indian upanishadic (sit near the guru) oral traditions. Many of the secrets and instructions were given only to specific students. When the British were involved in ruling and looting India, they had no time to teach Indians yogic practices. Also this book has not been reviewed by T Krishnamacharya or his son and makes some wild claims similar to concocted Aryan Invasion theory.

    For yoga history – refer to the ‘essence of yoga’ by Georg Feurstein or the new book – Indra’s net by Rajiv Malhotra

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