The 'second history' of Modern Yoga

On 2nd of February, 1835 the infamous 'Minute on Education'1) was to prefigure decades of education, translation and interpretation that followed. By the time World War II was over, a new form [of yoga], not one which shall imitate unsuited past forms, sought to reform ancient Indian literature and make it 'fitter', especially for the institution of modern English. Practical Yoga, Ancient and Modern2)3)

In the introduction to Wood, by Paul Brunton, the idea of 'Modern Yoga' was first outlined:

It should be a twentieth century and global one, wedding mysticism to practicality.
Ernest Egerton Wood4)

Brunton, again from the introduction:

An Orient which was mentally and physically incompetent to deal scientifically with the external environment of man is now feeling the results of this deficiency. (bolding added)

Brunton's charge of mental and physical incompetence against 'the East' (which we might justifiably read as: 'Hindus') is uncomplicated by the man's excitement about the personally rewarding and uplifting project of healing the West while failing to confront the malady of his own prejudice.

This is the first recorded evidence of a 'blueprint' for today's research and development agenda in 'Modern Yoga Studies' and it was neatly framed in 1948, coincidentally the same year as the National Health Service was founded in Britain:

An Occident which despised meditation, ascetic self-discipline and metaphysical values, is now feeling the painful consequences of this profound lack in its life.

The pirating of the alleged dull and weak literature of the Orient continues to show no signs of abatement, reproducing an aesthetic of antiquity, feeding a Euro-centric research agenda and development of an expanding network of personal service franchises.

Brunton's unscrupulous, problem with the West was so indiscriminate it enabled an unaccountable logic of assuming uneven social, economic and political conditions are due to racial difference rather than colonial terror. The barbaric narrative of 'Modern Yoga' has been sustained ever since. The legacy is one of racism, albeit in the form of a more benign racism in european scholarship of India5).

The British bluster of colonial times has since been re-calibrated to suit postmodern tastes, but too many commentaries still rely on denigrating Indian culture to mediate the Western ideas and culture. Here is Matthew Remski Brunton again:

We must experiment creatively until we find a composite culture that suits us. The Orient and the Occident are not mutually exclusive in these days of universal inter-communication. The culture of man cannot be modern and complete until it combines the knowledge which has resulted from the labors of the West with that which has resulted from the labors of the East. Both contributions must be put into a common basket. We can profitably use the research-results of the brown men, as we have used those of the white men, and this need not make us any less Western in our standpoint than before. We can still remain loyal to the heritage and the circumstances which are peculiarly our own, even though we take advantage of the knowledge and the discoveries of those who inhabit the lands of the rising sun and add them to our own. Introduction to 'Practical Yoga Ancient and Modern' (Wood, 1948) by Paul Brunton (bolding added)

Information and resources for better understanding. The motto of the Modern Yoga Research project6), bolding added

The field of Modern Yoga Studies has been created and cultivated by individual scholars rather than by an academic tradition built up within particular schools. Here is a starter menu of references showing just a few of the twists and turns in the research and development of Modern Yoga:

  • The modern yoga handbook: A complete guide to making the spiritual and physical disciplines of yoga work in your life, Hassin, Vijay, (1978)
  • Yoga in Modern India: The Body Between Science and Philosophy, Alter, J.S., (2004)
  • A history of modern yoga: Patanjali and western esotericism, De Michelis, E., (2005)
  • Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice, Singleton, M., (2010)

Global historiographical periodization can be mind-boggling, but research and development of Modern Yoga, from this textual perspective, is refreshingly uncomplicated, and improvident.

To develop into an influential interdisciplinary field, Modern Yoga Studies needs to reassess itself and decide whether it ought to stick to the timeframe indicated by the introduction of the idea just after WWII, or straddle it by introducing materials from an earlier modern period that may provide a more robust counterbalance to the postmodernist failure of mistaking deconstruction for bigotry.

A re-constructive view of Indian culture may be more profitable for everyone, and not just an indispensable idea for a few academics languishing in an academic subculture of South Asian Studies theorizing about historical texts from antiquity to create unreliable distinctions from influences connected to modernization and modernity.

Modern Yoga, Postural Yoga and Modern Postural Yoga are used interchangeably, importing a variety of presuppositions in commentaries that are rarely clear or consistent, and frequently self-contradictory within the same body of work, even within the discrete locus of the Modern Yoga Research clique7)8).

As Jay L. Garfield and Bryan W. Van Norden point out in the New York Times If Philosophy Won’t Diversify, Let’s Call It What It Really Is (2016)

The [philosophy] profession as a whole remains resolutely Eurocentric.

Elisa Freschi, (Institute for the Cultural and Intellectual History of Asia - Austrian Academy of Sciences) asks in Investigatio semper reformanda:

Should we try to periodise Indian philosophy or shall we give up any attempt, since each one will be criticised and is in some respect flawed?


Let us attempt great theories, general periodisations and classifications of authors and ideas, but if and only if we are then not only willing, but also ready to question them. The great interpretative frame is not a goal to be reached once and forever. It is always to be revised.

We do not need a new form of yoga, we do not need to revise yoga, we need a new form of research and development, we need to revise our R&D .

Practical Yoga, Ancient and Modern is subtitled: Being a New, Independent Translation of Pantanjali's Yoga Aphorisms, Interpreted in the Light of Ancient and Modern Psychological Knowledge and Practical Experience
Published in 1948, including an introduction by prominent British theosophist and western esotericist Paul Brunton, the pen name of Raphael Hurst who is credited with introducing Ramana Maharshi to the West through his own books, A Search in Secret India and The Secret Path.
Born in Manchester, England in 1883 and a lifelong member of the Theosophical Society. In 1908 he moved to Adyar, India, the headquarters of the society but toward the end of his time in India, he became disillusioned with the inner-politics of Theosophical Society and devoted himself to Yoga. Wood, for his part was credited with being instrumental in the discovery of philosopher, speaker and writer Jiddu Krishnamurti whilst in Adyar along with Charles Webster Leadbeater and Annie Besant.
Despite her sari and her frequent references to Indian culture, Ms. Spivak dislikes being identified as a scholar of India, a label she attributes to 'benevolent racism.' (NY Times)
Modern Yoga Research was invented by Mark Singleton who bought the domain in May 2009 Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, ‘ [ICANN WHOIS]’ [accessed 12 February 2016]

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