Today yoga has a large following in the West and many consider it synonymous with posture practice. How has hatha yoga, specifically asana practice, taken center stage, and what role has the West played in that? These are questions addressed in two new releases: Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice, by Mark Singleton, and The Subtle Body: The Story of Yoga in America, by Stefanie Syman.
Yoga Body begins by examining perceptions of hatha yoga before and during Vivekananda’s time. Singleton writes:
At the time of Vivekananda’s synthesis of yoga in the 1890s, postural practice was primarily associated with the yogin (or more popularly, “yogi”). This term designated in particular the hatha yogins of the Nath lineage, but was employed more loosely to refer to a variety of ascetics, magicians, and street performers. Often confused with the Mohammedan “fakir,” the yogi came to symbolize all that was wrong in certain tributaries of the Hindu religion. The postural contortions of hatha yoga were associated with backwardness and superstition.
In his talks, Vivekananda never used the word “yoga,” a curious fact in light of some current scholarship which proposes that modern, transnational yoga began with him. Moreover, Vivekananda did not contort himself into the bow pose or any other asana. In India a yoga revival connected with Indian nationalism was in full swing, and Vivekananda was an advocate of the movement. But he avoided the word “yoga” because he thought Westerners would find it too foreign and frightening, and he avoided hatha yoga altogether because—along with the majority of his compatriots—he found it distasteful and wholly unsuitable for the yoga revival.
Excerpts from Mindful Article Yoga’s Twisted History by Andrea Miller