It’s easy to understand why John Friend highly recommends the book Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Yoga “for all sincere students of yoga.” Because, Mark Singleton’s thesis is a well researched expose of how modern hatha yoga, or “posture practice,” as he terms it, has changed within and after the practice left India.
But the book is mainly about how yoga transformed in India itself in the last 150 years. How yoga’s main, modern proponents-T. Krishnamacharya and his students, K. Patttabhi Jois and B. K. S. Iyengar-mixed their homegrown hatha yoga practices with European gymnastics.
This was how many Indian yogis coped with modernity: Rather than remaining in the caves of the Himalayas, they moved to the city and embraced the oncoming European cultural trends. They especially embraced its more “esoteric forms of gymnastics,” including the influential Swedish techniques of Ling (1766-1839).
Singleton uses the word yoga as a homonym to explain the main goal of his thesis. That is, he emphasizes that the word yoga has multiple meanings, depending on who uses the term.
This emphasis is in itself a worthy enterprise for students of everything yoga; to comprehend and accept that your yoga may not be the same kind of yoga as my yoga. Simply, that there are many paths of yoga.
In that regard, John Friend is absolutely right: this is by far the most comprehensive study of the culture and history of the influential yoga lineage that runs from T. Krishnamacharya’s humid and hot palace studio in Mysore to Bikram’s artificially heated studio in Hollywood.
Singleton’s study on “postural yoga” makes up the bulk of the book. But he also devotes some pages to outline the history of “traditional” yoga, from Patanjali to the Shaiva Tantrics who, based on much earlier yoga traditions, compiled the hatha yoga tradition in the middle ages and penned the famous yoga text books the Hatha Yoga Pradipika and the Geranda Samhita.
It is while doing these examinations that Singleton gets into water much hotter than a Bikram sweat. Thus I hesitate in giving Singleton a straight A for his otherwise excellent dissertation.
Singleton claims his project is solely the study of modern posture yoga. If he had stuck to that project alone, his book would have been great and received only accolades. But unfortunately, he commits the same blunder so many modern hatha yogis do.
All yoga styles are fine, these hatha yogis say. All homonyms are equally good and valid, they claim. Except that homonym, which the cultural relativist hatha yogis perceive as an arrogant version of yoga. Why? Because its adherents, the traditionalists, claim it is a deeper, more spiritual and traditional from of yoga.
This kind of ranking, thinks Singleton, is counterproductive and a waste of time.
Georg Feuerstein disagrees. Undoubtedly the most prolific and well-respected yoga scholar outside India today, he is one of those traditionalists who holds yoga to be an integral practice-a body, mind, spirit practice. So how does Feuerstein’s integral yoga homonym differ from the non-integral modern posture yoga homonym presented to us by Singleton?