History, Culture and the Arts: Modern Yoga, Modern Myth

[…]history is not the past - it is the method we have evolved of organizing our ignorance of the past. It’s the record of what’s left on the record. It’s what’s left in the sieve when the centuries have run through it – a few stones, scraps of writing, scraps of cloth. It is no more ‘the past’ than a birth certificate is a birth, or a script is a performance, or a map is a journey. It is the multiplication of the evidence of fallible and biased witnesses, combined with incomplete accounts of actions not fully understood by the people who performed them. It’s no more than the best we can do, and often it falls short of that.

Historians are sometimes scrupulous and self-aware, sometimes careless or biased. Yet in either case, and hardly knowing which is which, we cede them moral authority. Hilary Mantel, THE BBC REITH LECTURES – The Day Is for the Living, (2017)

Modern Yoga, Modern Myth is a brief survey of some of the academic literature pertaining to Modern Yoga with implications for practitioners and for further research.

It takes as a starting point, the premise that history often underpins all the stories and arguments about the future direction of yoga.

This importance is demonstrated by the way that actors supporting a traditional view of yoga assume it is necessary to accept a version of the established account of its history as true, whether it is Hindu, Buddhist, Jain, Sikh or something resembling these traditions from a post-classical period, sometimes (problematically) called pre-modern yoga.

Likewise, a necessary condition of supporting the mass media's view of the United Nations stewardship over yoga is to disbelieve historical accounts, and rely on a reading that suggests yoga cannot be claimed by any one religion, so it is safe to assume yoga has nothing to do with any religion.

There are perhaps only three narratives available about the politics of yoga's cultural heritage. One tells us yoga has got nothing to do with religion, and another tells us that yoga is Hinduism. The third narrative is somewhat harder to articulate than the other two: In some ways, yoga has got something to do with religion. Mat Witts

Haridwar Kumbh Mela by the English painter J. M. W. Turner. Steel engraving (c. 1850's). At some point, it cannot keep being about Western vs. Eastern philosophy, but about timelines and influences, regardless of what area of the world they are coming from. An understanding of the historical realities of trade and migration and importation and exportation of ideas should inform the formation of curricula of philosophy. LS

The flows of information supporting both views may be contra-indicative of countercurrents that suggest it is feasible for an actor to refuse the religious account of history and yet still argue for Indian stewardship on the grounds of philosophical and cultural development. Similarly, it would be possible for an actor to accept the broad, Indian formulations and yet still argue for individual autonomy or independence on the grounds of ethno-religious identity formation and self-determination.

Faith groups have legitimate concerns about acknowledgement of their own faith and cultural heritage, and so the UNESCO decision to inscribe yoga on the List of Intangible Heritage of Humanity in 2016 may be the most important political development to safeguard and promote faith groups whose activities are often marginalized by global markets and whose existence depends on the groups ability to cohere with the norms of democracy and human rights that are core tenets of the state and many international political institutions.

The history of yoga sometimes gets discursively-bound up with political arguments for its future by actors that are nervous about it's past, a good example is the work to invent a modern myth of 'Modern Yoga' that seeks to drive a wedge between people of different cultures based on arbitrary and unreasonable resemblances and temporal distinctions and thus frustrating and somewhat trivializing an important debate.

The perceived importance of the historical status of yoga is because more often than not it is a version of history that is often accepted by those that accept it’s religious shape as well as those that prefer to deny it. It appears that the history of yoga is used in arguments to make it more marketable as a sport or vocation as well as to assert an historical account necessary to claim yoga's future will always be religious.

The religion issue has been identified as a major cause for dispute and has made negotiations adversarial, more often than not leading to a political splits and breakdown in communications.

While the precise details concerning message, medium, actions and objects of yoga are typically sketchy, elusive and ultimately sepulchral, the historical status of yoga has been already established to such a degree that it is considered satisfactory by both sides and it is beneficial to both the producers of knowledge about yoga that want to standardize their research and training programs and individuals both within and without such concerns who may prefer to disabuse themselves from the standardized research and programs of both higher and vocational education.

One conclusion that may be drawn from this reading is that there is very little credibility available in denying entirely the historical provenance of most of the core texts and so the best chance of success is if the repetitive path of disputing yoga's religious roots in India is discontinued.

Analysing historical claims and consulting on the basis of a shared history, not a divided one based on untenable, academic demarcation may prove to be the most effective attenuator against the rising tide of mass media podcasts, blogs and publications where practitioners hastily construct arguments for an individuated practice unencumbered from its historical past and proceed on the basis of a bigoted reading of the historically enumerated definitions found in Indian literature.

This is not to say that the individual ought to convert, surrender or somehow invalidate their own beliefs or opinions based on history, but instead it addresses them as issues that have been debated since the first humans came together to discuss accounting for their experiences and the world. A simple attributive quality concerning the status of Indian literature in the provenance of discourse on yoga does not weaken the individual case for autonomy.

Regardless of what elements of history are eventually admitted, an overwhelming majority of individuals value autonomy from institutions of all kinds for yoga, from the most secular corporation to the most esoteric sect. If we accept yoga has always been connected to Hinduism, the desire for autonomy is still capable of being addressed through and motivated by a coherence with the norms of democracy and human rights that are core tenets of international political institutions.

A simple admission of the historical links to Indian literature does not weaken the case for individual autonomy and so it is this this path that is suggested to prevent negotiations between the religion-deniers and religion-supporters ending in political gridlock over the history of yoga.

It is for this reason, the landmark decision of UNESCO to inscibe yoga on the List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2016 can be predicted to have a consolidating effect on the future direction of yoga.

Points to be discussed in forthcoming articles are likely to run along the following lines:

  1. Given that Modern Yoga imposes an analytical scale that does not demarcate between activities that generally aim to raise the cardiovascular system (e.g. Hot Yoga) from those that tend towards lowering it (e.g. Vipassana), Modern Yoga typology simultaneously fails to create any sensible distinction between the various objects under investigation and predicatably, only leads to more ambiguity and incoherence.
  2. Does the concept of Modern Yoga have anything substantial to add to studies that involve the of concepts like market, neoliberalism,McDonaldization or ideology for example?
  3. How are the many conceptual ambiguities identified in the earlier Indic literature analysed more fruitfully using the concept of Modern Yoga?