Let’s Call it Danish Gymnastics: The Yoga Body

In the fall of last year, Al Mohler initiated a firestorm by suggesting that “yoga cannot be fully extricated from its spiritual roots in Hinduism and Buddhism.”

In making his argument, Mohler was drawing on Stefanie Symen’s The Subtle Body.

But Symen’s book was not the only book on the history of yoga in the past year. Mark Singleton’s treatment, The Yoga Body, was put out by distinguished publisher Oxford University Press only a few months before Symen’s.

Somewhat paradoxically, Symen’s book sucked up all the discussion, but Singleton’s is actually more controversial.  If the question of whether the postures of what we know as yoga can be extricated from their Hindu roots is contentious, the question of whether they have Hindu roots at all should have been explosive.

Singleton sets out his thesis early:  “The primacy of asana [or posture based] performance in transnational yoga today is a new phenomenon that has no parallel in premodern times.”

While there are clearly references to yoga in the Hindu sacred texts, Singleton argues that the lack of emphasis on postures makes yoga a homonym to how it was used historically, not a synonym.  Whatever connection there is (and Singleton hedges at the last second against disavowing a connection altogether), contemporary posture based yoga is developed and appropriated the ancient texts for its own purposes in response to the introduction of new discourses into India–namely, the “physical culture” of seeking social transformation through bodily health that the YMCA brought to India.

'Saratoga CV3' photo (c) 2002, SDASM Archives - license: http://www.flickr.com/commons/usage/

Singleton’s story is a complex one, but the simplified version goes something like this:  starting the mid 1800s, Per Henrik Ling’s system of Swedish gymnatics was adopted throughout England and Europe.  Ling’s approach was similar to the YMCA’s–it was oriented toward the development of the “whole person,” not just the body.  And it had the advantage of not requiring weights or machines, which meant it was perfect for physical education (a concept that was incorporated into the school system during this time), the military, and elsewhere.

It was this system, along with Dane Niels Bukh’s rhythmic exercises, that framed the YMCA’s approach in India.  Singleton highlights the fact that when the organization took its message of social transformation through bodily transformation to India, they found “no “system” or “brand” of physicalized yoga that could satisfactorily meet India’s need.”  So they created it, coopting the few posture-based practices that were in use at the time and fusing them with medical gymnastics, calisthentics, and body building.

According to Singleton, distinctively Hindu or Indian yoga developed in reaction to this fusion, and seems to have been accompanied by a tinge of anti-imperial nationalism.  The Indians might have learned about the “physical culture” from the British, but they were intent on making it their own.  And “yoga” as we know it was heavily influenced by this collision of cultures.

Singleton strengthens his case by pointing out that even as late as the 1930s, for many in the west yoga meant something totally different than the posture-based practices we know today.  And somewhat ironically, a cluster of postures and practices similar to contemporary yoga was popular in Britain (specifically), but was associated with Scandinavian systems of gymnastics.

Singleton’s case for this is thorough, but I’ll only highlight two prominent facts.  First, Singleton reviewed Health and Strength magazine, a British publication that was the most popular outlet for the “physical culture”.  He describes the conclusion this way:

Indeed, among the articles on yoga in H&S (or in its sister magazine The Superman) during the 1930s, none outlines a course of bodily extensions of the kind one would expect to find in a modern “hatha yoga” class today: if such articles are to be found, they are scarce. On the other hand, the magazine is replete with exercise schema designed exclusively for women and which are based to a very large extent on stretching. But these are not designated as, nor associated with, yoga.

Additionally, he analyzed Niel Bukh’s Primary Gymnastics (1925) and found that “at least 28 of the exercises in the first edition of Bukh’s manual are strikingly similar (often identical) to yoga postures occurring in Pattabhi Jois’ Ashtanga sequence or in Iyengar’s Light on Yoga.” Both Jois and Iyengar were students of T. Krishnamacharya, who taught yoga in the Indian royal palace and whose classes were categorized as “physical culture” or “exercise” in the official palace records.  By that point, the Danish gymnastic system had reached such a level of popularity that it had been incorporated into the British Army and into the Indian YMCA.

None of this means that the creators of yoga consciously stole from the Scandinavians.   Cultural transmission rarely happens that intentionally or consciously.  But it does raise serious questions about the pristine and ancient history that is often used to praise contemporary yoga.

Nor does it mean yoga has no spiritual dimension.  Singleton hedges here too:

This does not mean that the kind of posture-based yogas that predominate globally today are “mere gymnastics” nor that they are necessarily less “real” or “spiritual” than other forms of yoga. The history of modern physical culture overlaps and intersects with the histories of para-religious, “unchurched” spirituality; Western esotericism; medicine, health, and hygiene; chiropractic, osteopathy, and bodywork; body-centered psychotherapy; the modern revival of Hinduism; and the sociopolitical demands of the emergent modern Indian nation (to name but a few).

At the same time, Singleton’s analysis complicates the “anti-yoga” argument for Christians.  If the postures of contemporary yoga were developed in response to Scandinavian stretching systems, then they may be more easily extricated from the problematic ideologies that often accompany them (which Mohler reluctantly grants in the followup).  To give only one example, I’m pretty sure I was taught this in cross country, only we called it “beauty queens.”

If nothing else, the question of what yoga is and where it came from is far more complex than people realize.  In fact, it’s so complex that yoga proponents haven’t quite figured it out.  The possibility of a “secularized” yoga simply for the purposes of health has some proponents decrying its commercialization and yearning for a return to its more spiritual roots.  Yet if Singleton’s thesis has any weight at all, then the “return” may not be as far back as advocates suggest, and yoga may have more to do with the secular west than they realize.

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  • http://www.saet-online.org/category/blog Jason B. Hood

    Okay, can I attempt a discussion kickoff via my bib studies background? (Sorry that it doesn’t have so much to do with your post, I’ve always found Singleton interesting.)

    If circumcision, sacrifice, strong drink, covenant, etc. were features endemic to pagan religions surrounding Israel, and YHWH doesn’t just give them but actually *requires* them for Israel, what are the possible implications for the application of the syllogism that supports Mohler’s prohibition? If cinema had first been invented by pagans for cult practices, does that mean we should avoid it for all time?

    (For the record I agree that it is potentially problematic. Just not sure that it’s inherently so.)

    • Matthew Lee Anderson

      Troublemaker.

  • http://stathanasiusanglicanchurch.wordpress.com Fr. Bill

    … yoga cannot be fully extricated from its spiritual roots in Hinduism and Buddhism.

    How about this, then:

    Christmas trees cannot be fully extricated from their spiritual roots in Northern Germanic paganism.

    Or this:

    Halloween trick-or-treating and costume-wearing cannot be fully extricated from their spiritual roots in the Celtic celebrations of Samhain in medieval Ireland

    Or this:

    Easter eggs and bunny rabbits cannot be fully extricated from their spiritual roots in the fertility rites of the goddess Ishtar. Indeed, even the name “Easter” is derived from the goddess’ name!

    Admitted, Mohler’s assertion quoted above (whether it has any historical merit or not depends partly on how well Singleton makes his case) is not precisely equivalent to the others above, but it has obvious formal parallels, and those parallels arise from a source different from the historical development of yoga, as Singleton argues.

    That different source is this – the way in which spiritual values or spiritual meanings or spiritual significance are frequently “embodied” in various social practices (rituals, rites, customs, and the like). The Christian faith, even in its most Spartanly anti-liturgical anti-sacramental forms (e.g. Anabaptist piety and worship) contains things which involve this wedding of the expressly spiritual and the objectively experienced material, baptism and the Eucharist being the most central of these.

    I came to faith, had my spiritual formation, and ministered for 20 years within this Spartan Anabaptist milieu. Today I pastor within a smellsy bellsy niche of the English Reformation. The change is the direct result of a slow, often difficult engagement of this wedding of the spiritual and the material which riddles the Biblical revelation and its presentation of “spirituality” in both Old and New Testaments.

    American evangelicalism, precisely because the Anabaptist strain of the Reformation predominated in the evolution of Protestantism generally in America, is today still haunted by the ghost of sacramental piety which lurks on every page of the Bible evangelicals claim to honor. For the most part, they do, indeed, honor the Bible, and that is why its sacramental piety haunts them.

    I have not yet read Earthern Vessels, though I note with great interest that the promotional video Brother Matthew has produced and displayed on this blog makes the point that the body and what it does, what happens to it, what we do with it, is all freighted with a weight of glory. My hope for his book is that it will advance evangelicals’ ability and willingness to coax that ghost out of the dark nooks and crannies of their Bibles (where they have banished it) and to discover that what haunts them is nothing other than the Holy Ghost and all those things which He offers them in His Holy Word for their health.

    • http://www.remnantculture.com Joseph Sunde

      I like reading your comments, Fr. Bill. That is all.

      • Matthew Lee Anderson

        As do I.

    • http://mereorthodoxy.com Cate

      me too!

  • http://twitter.com/#!/BhartiyaAgnosti Bhartiya Agnostic

    What an un-scholarly piece. Don’t these researchers Google before they spew balderdash ?

    The whole argument stands on the false premise that physical Yoga postures are a post 1800 phenomenon in India

    read ..https://secure.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/wiki/Hatha_Yoga_Pradipika .. This is a 15th century extant sankrit Hindu text that describes all the asanas(postures) and breathing exercises (pranayama).

    to what levels of untruth ur God leads u to?

  • http://www.squarepeggedness.wordpress.com Rachael Starke

    Bhartiya,

    At this point, I’m going to weight the arguments of two published authors over a single link from a dubious source for thorough and objective data.

    Regardless, Mohler’s argument seems to deny some important implications of the Christian doctrine of regeneration. At regeneration, we are indeed forever extricated from the roots of our old, dead selves, and grafted into Christ. He becomes the source of our life and spiritual vitality. And He indwells us permenently. He can’t be evicted, or replace by some nonexistent or demonic spirit.

    I believe that the deeper we see that, the less the more “spiritual” aspects of religious yoga (and pseudo-Christian-ized versions of it) will even be appealing. We’re increasingly freed from the need for some kind of supra-natural, nebulous connection with a nameless Divine, because we experience genuinely supernatural fellowship with a named Divine who also has a body. But because He has a body, we’re free to enjoy whatever physical methodology strengthens and invigorates our own. Our souls are freer than the most religiously-devoted yoga teacher, even if our body isn’t quite as nimble.

    • Matthew Lee Anderson

      Bhartyia,

      What Rachael said. Also, there were certainly asanas and pranayma prior to 1930. However, if I’m reading Singleton rightly, he argues that they were mostly oriented toward breathing exercises, and weren’t at all similar to the sort of heavy exercises that are currently the rage.

      Best,

      Matt

    • Bhartiya Agnostic

      Rachael

      If you would have cared to read the complete article , you would have known that many authors have translated the 15th century Hindu text Hatha Yoga Padipaka to English.

      here’s the sankrit-english online chapter describing key asanas and lineage of Yogis prior to 15th century from the same
      http://www.sacred-texts.com/hin/hyp/hyp03.htm

      bias is an enemy of knowledge, it makes information appear as if it were mere data.

      • http://www.squarepeggedness.wordpress.com Rachael Starke

        Okay, Bhartiya, for the sake of argument, I’ll concede your point.

        To turn the question on its head, given those spiritual roots and elements, what would someone who adheres to them make of a Christian participating? As I said above, Christians believe that we are indwelt by God’s Spirit, and that we fellowship with Him through prayer, and through meditating on His words in Scripture (whether through memory or through reading). While we may sense His presence more intimately at some times than others, at no point does He ever leave our soul or our body. However, while the involvement of our physical bodies in that ongoing fellowship is sometimes affected by either good or poor health, it’s not seen as intrinsically connected.

        How might those realities affect your definition of yoga’s impact on either our bodies or our souls?

        • Bhartiya Agnostic

          Rachel,

          please don’t concede for the sake of argument, but for verity.

          There are indeed spiritual as well as physical aspects of Yoga.But it’s definition is secular:
          Yoga is the control of the modifications of the mind(Yoagsh chitta vritti nirodhah)

          As a Christian you can always practice Hatha Yoga [ asanas, pranayamas] without having to compromise with your religious injunctions.

          Raja Yoga,the spiritual philosophy as well as practice, may or may not be in sync with your religious belief.To understand the nuances , please visit http://www.swamij.com if time permits.

          from a religious perspective, a Hindu is suggested(Hinduism is prescriptive not directive) to treat all religions as valid paths to God..so my objection to the article is not religious but academic..and by virtue of the same , i am not offended if the fellow sitting next to me is chanting “Christ” or “Allah” in meditation.

          again ,as per Hinduism, the chants,the rituals,the scriptures etc are like pole-vault poles…We let them go at the right time to leap into the lap of the divine that pervades every living being.

          Albeit,there are certain mantras that have deep metaphysical meaning and vibrations as per Yoga Scriptures (AUM etc) ..these are the ones you wud like to stay away from as an orthodox christian

    • Kevin White

      Rachel,

      I have no qualifications to weigh in pro- or anti-Singleton, besides noting that his thesis has the potential to be quite incendiary in both academic (esp. post-colonial) and Hindu circles. Cultural appropriation is always a very fraught issue, and many leaders in Hinduism see American attempts to secularize yoga (or re-secularize, if Singleton is right)as denying the religious character of Hinduism. Or even as an attack on the legitimacy of Indian culture, esp. for the more nationalism-oriented figures. Who are very active on the Internet…

      But I don’t think the regeneration and embodiment arguments work in the direction you’re suggesting. If regeneration makes us so impervious to spiritual danger (and there are serious threats that are far short of losing the Holy Spirit, or our salvation), a lot of the New Testament would be written very differently. If we cannot be threatened by a “nonexistent or demonic spirit”, then why all the warnings to test every spirit, to practice careful discernment, and not to blaspheme against angelic and/or demonic beings? Regeneration is a priceless, indelible gift. But it does not make us spiritually bulletproof.

      And I agree, the Incarnation means that we are not dealing with “the divine” (whatever that is…), but the Word-made-flesh. But the importance of the body, and the close connection of body and soul, means that what we do with our body has spiritual consequences. Our approach to physical exercises that claim mental or spiritual benefit needs to be more nuanced than ‘total freedom.’

      In other words, even if Mohler is wrong about the inherent spiritual nature of yoga, he is not trivially wrong.

      And, Matt, if the physical postures of yoga are originally just Danish gymnastics, then maybe Christian yoga-users (or even just yoga-users who don’t care for the spiritual element) should directly revive the Danish gymnastics. :) We could start our own studio, and it’d be a hit! ;)

  • http://Bensonian.org Christopher Benson

    Matt: I’ve never seen a tire that didn’t need a little air. Translation: I’m prone to exaggeration. Seriously, though, this is the most interesting blog post you’ve written all year. Bravo!

    • Matthew Lee Anderson

      Christopher,

      As someone also given to exagerration, your comment is the best comment from you I have read all year. : )

      Thanks, man. It is appreciated. : )

      matt

  • Bhartiya Agnostic

    Matthew,

    asanas as well pranayamas are described in the above text(link above).

    The bit i agree with is that the new age innovations (hanging yoga and all that dangerous stuff) is not part of traditional Yoga.

    Traditional Yogis in the west and the east refrain from these new-age studio yogas and stick to the asanas that have been tested for thousands of years and also bcoz the purpose of asanas for yogi is to open up his/her energy channels (nadis) and optimize circulatory system as a necessary precursor to breathing exercises(pranayama).

    A 2nd century BC text: Patanjali Yoga sutra attests this fact : yama, niyama, asana, pranayama, pratyahara, dharana, dhyana , samadhi are the eight limbs of Yoga.

    There is no pranayama without asanas. to suggest otherwise is ridiculous

    • Matthew Lee Anderson

      Yes, but I think you’re missing the point of the article, which isn’t that there can be pranayama without asanas, but rather that the asanas that we in the west (and many in the East) currently associate with yoga are very different than those asanas which were historically associated with yoga, and were influenced by stretching forms of gymnastics from the West.

      That’s the claim.

      Best,

      matt

  • Bhartiya Agnostic

    Matthew,

    My objective was to highlight the false premise on which the argument was carried forward.

    I don’t have any objection to Danish gymnastics..if it’s good for health and well-being it must be promoted BUT not by discrediting Traditional Yoga which has an unbroken tradition of spiritual and physical practices since time immemorial.

    traditional yogis , be they in the east or west refrain from experimenting with the time tested exercises.

    To get a holistic understanding of Yoga please visit http://www.swamij.com

    There are many articles written on Jesus learning tenets of Hinduism in Varanasi and about his tomb in Kashmir(there’s a movie on this one now) ..One can use this info to debunk the originality of Christian theology or One could rather research the topic in detail to ascertain the merits.

    I would have done the latter in the name of rationality and truth and i expect the same from God-loving or God-fearing people.I hope i am not expecting much

    best regards,
    Bhartiya

    • http://www.mereorthodoxy.com Matthew Anderson

      Bhartiya, thanks for the comments and the interaction. I don’t think that anyone is denying that there is a traditionalist strain of yoga that wants to view it as a spiritual practice (and it is this strain which I, as a Christian, think is misguided). But I think who counts as a “traditional yogi” is precisely whats in question, and how much they experiment in terms of the poses.

      Either way, I’ll make a deal. I’ll read your websites if you read the book, and then we can dialogue by email if you want.

      Best,

      Matt

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