Site Tools

Yoga as 'linkage'

It is fashionable to ignore all the data present in the intersections between individuals, groups, practices, ideas, cultures and lineages and simply assume each entity is more or less contiguous within a hierarchical taxonomy of superordinate common ancestors using a seductively naturalistic image of a family tree.

A Typology of Modern Yoga from A History Of Modern Yoga by Elizabeth de Michelis (2005). When history[…] is presented in a simplified way, with drama exaggerated and [people] romanticized, this creates wrong stereotypes[…] and in fact constitutes pseudohistory, despite being based on real facts. 1)

By way of an alternative, the concept of linkage is a better candidate for the purposes of quickly theorizing our observations of traditions developing over time, not in the shape of a tree, but more like a neural network2).

'To see the cultural not as the source of conflict - different cultures - but as the effect of discriminatory practices - the production of cultural differentiation as signs of authority - changes its value and its rules of recognition'. Signs taken for wonders: Questions of ambivalence and authority under a tree outside Delhi, May 1817, Bhabha, Homi K; (1994) Source: Google image search

Conceptualizing the transmission of yoga using the metaphor of a network avoids the common mistake in thinking each tradition identified is discretely separated from one another, as many scholars assume. For example, Buddhism, Sikhism, Hinduism and Jainism have all undergone many innovations, sometimes appearing to affect each other too, but since each of these traditions are all mutually intelligible even after thousands of years have passed by, and through times of rapid social innovation and new cultural linkages have taken place, each can be seen as important intangible objects still foundational to many contemporary classes, courses and curriculums.

In this way, innovations that are shared even after a group is deemed to have been set adrift from an originating culture may still be linked, as is the case of claims made by people to be 'gurus' of some kind, but without any obvious familial connection to Indic culture.

Abandoning family trees and the boundaries implied by 'sets' emphasizes continuity over discontinuity. It also explains why so many contemporary actors like to invoke the spirit of great traditions, even in the case of the most divergent formats that barely resemble earlier formats. Using the concept of linkage, contemporary practices can be seen for what they probably are - indiscrete connections to the earliest traditions, rather than discretely separated from them in every aspect.

The metaphor of a network is in direct contrast with the metaphor of a family tree. The analogy of a tree implies practitioners are destined to be eventually isolated from each other, it emphasizes splits and schisms despite the overwhelming evidence that yoga is mainly learned informally through longstanding family ties, across generations, among friends and within social networks, not through formal guarantees in contracts with isolated groups.

Assuming 'yoga' tends towards polysemy3), the meaning of linkage, links practices that have emerged historically from the diversification of Indic culture mainly through international trade, fair and exhibition culture. The neural network metaphor interprets them as examples of recovery and convergence, albeit in a somewhat anachronistic and belated setting of international workforce agendas of late capitalist market economics.

If we admit yoga as a cultural continuum, innovation is no longer seen as an abrubt continuity error, a break in a linear procession through time or as divergence.

Eventually, under the network model, anything we might currently view as being 'problematic' or 'unwelcome interference' from 'outside' our own semantic horizons might be seen more charitably, as contributing in some way to the process of transmission between communities positioned often in much closer semantic and geographic proximity as the tree model implies, as yoga continues to be shared among networks of intersecting encounters among groups and individuals.

The linkage model refuses to accept the assumption of so called, Modern Yoga Studies that what we are seeing is an invented tradition, descended from european aesthetic tastes for strength and physical fitness. Instead the direction of travel even under the auspices of the highly politicized, sports, recreation and physical fitness industry, suggests people with only a passing interest in the cultural aspects are nevertheless heading inexorably towards the earliest traditions, and not away from them.

It may be that the human interest in sports, recreation and physical fitness are just as ancient as religion, but even if we if don't accept that idea, it's perhaps easier to imagine that participation in religion and participation in sports, in many cases involves an exchange of features that are now considered by many to enumerate yoga today, features such as improving concentration, motivation, mood, self-confidence and the new ambivalence about bodily postures to relax and rejuvenate.

If we can accept this 'quick and simple' answer of linkage as being at least 'more right' than the notion of a family tree model of lineage, then we start to see how many of the features common to contemporary practice can be assumed to have been present, or at least anticipated in any ancestral culture too.

Using the network metaphor we are still able to evaluate a celebrity weight-loss DVD or motivational self-help book without the assumption of multiple discontinuities the tree model of lineage proposes.

In other words, there is no risk in abandoning the 'aboreal thesis' when trying to understand the contemporary yoga scene, and plenty of evolutionary gains to be had from refusing to sit passively underneath the boughs.

Especially when it serves as such a grand inducement to such a tiny clique of scholars, already aspiring to impose their indiscriminate thought leadership beyond what might be considered reliable or trustworthy.

All grand objects cast grand shadows, and even if the tree metaphor is seen as just a merciful lie, it's still a lie.

Allchin, D. 2004. Pseudohistory and pseudoscience Science & Education 13:179–195.
or since the intervention of the internet, perhaps a neural networks of neural networks?
Reasons for prefering polysemy to homonymy are available.

CC Attribution 4.0 International Unless otherwise stated, all content is licensed under: CC Attribution 4.0 International