The Surprisingly Short History of Popular Yoga

Yoga pose, courtesy flickr user Paolo Neoz via Creative Commons
Yoga pose, courtesy flickr user Paolo Neoz via Creative Commons

Last month, a yoga class at the University of Ottawa that was cancelled amid accusations of cultural appropriation made a quiet return to the class schedule. The controversy initially erupted in November when a yoga instructor received an email from from the school’s student union saying that her services would no longer be needed. Citing problematic legacies of “cultural genocide” and “western supremacy,” the email stated some students felt uncomfortable with how yoga was being practiced. Now the class is back with a new instructor—a South Asian instructor—who worries she was hired only because she’s Indian.

The incident was the latest in a string of cultural flashpoints surrounding the centuries-old Indian practice, and has made many a yogi rethink the lines between cultural exchange and cultural appropriation.

In the following conversation, journalist Michelle Goldberg and professor Andrea Jain discuss their latest books on yoga and question whether a practice hinged on the idea of reinvention can really have an “original” tradition.

Andrea Jain: Michelle, you and I recently wrote books about modern yoga. Your The Goddess Pose: The Audacious Life of Indra Devi evaluates modern yoga as contemporary spirituality through the lens of a particularly influential woman, Indra Devi. My Selling Yoga: From Counterculture to Pop Culture analyzes the popularization of yoga and its religious dimensions by selecting from a wide array of yoga figures and types, from Iyengar and his Iyengar Yoga to Bikram and his Bikram Yoga.


The Goddess Pose: The Audacious Life of Indra Devi
Michelle Goldberg

Knopf, 2015


Selling Yoga: From Counterculture to Pop Culture
Andrea Jain

Oxford University Press, 2014

We have very different methodological approaches and subjects, but what I most recognized in your book, the thread that most echoed a major theme of Selling Yoga, was that of “reinvention.” In fact, you seem to have used reinvention as the pole around which the book revolves. For example, your chapters are named for Indra Devi’s many titles, each of which, as you note, she built and discarded without regret when it no longer suited her. Your book reiterates, in short, that Indra Devi repeatedly reinvented herself. I think this makes her an especially useful figure through which to understand the history of modern yoga, which I suggest is perpetually reinvented and therefore lacks any static core or essence around which all other qualities revolve. What does modernity have to do with all this reinvention?

In other words, does the tendency toward perpetual reinvention reflect something characteristically modern about modern yoga and Indra Devi?

Michelle Goldberg:

Reinvention seems like a great place to start. It’s certainly a more useful frame for discussing modern yoga than “authenticity.” As you write—and I completely agree—“yoga has been perpetually context-sensitive, so there is no ‘legitimate,’ ‘authentic,’ ‘true,’ or ‘original’ tradition, only contextualized ideas and practices organized around the term yoga.”

My book isn’t just about yoga: I was fascinated by Devi because of the sheer crazy scope of her life, which goes from the Russian revolution to the cabarets of Weimar Berlin to Indian independence, wartime Shanghai and beyond. But I also saw her life as a vehicle to answer my own questions about yoga, which I’ve practiced for years even as I’ve harbored skepticism about much of what I’ve heard in yoga classes. As I dove into the research for the book, I came to realize pretty quickly how big a gulf there is between the popular Western conception of yoga and the academic understanding of it.

You put it perfectly: “today’s popularized yoga systems are new, not continuations of some static premodern yoga tradition… Even postures and breathing exercises were marginal to the most widely cited sources on yoga prior to the twentieth century, and the forms of postures and breathing exercises that were present in those sources dramatically differ from those idiosyncratic forms found in postural yoga today.”

One thing I love about your book is that you treat this observation as a starting point rather than an end. You still take the ritual, spiritual aspects of modern yoga seriously. When I talk about my book, occasionally people will come up to me as ask—sometimes anxiously—which parts of modern yoga practice are “real.” If there’s no scriptural record of warrior poses, what about headstand or lotus? How about the breathing exercises? I get it—a lot of people turn to yoga, as opposed to, say, Pilates, because they want to partake of a deep tradition, and finding out that that tradition isn’t very long can be disillusioning. But most people also understand that every religious and cultural practice undergoes a huge amount of adaptation and reinvention as it moves through space and time. I was raised in Reform Judaism. The religion of my childhood would be unintelligible to the animal-sacrificing desert Jews of two thousand years ago. That doesn’t mean it isn’t “real,” or meaningful.

“I think yoga is a powerful ritual of reinvention for modern people, especially modern women, who constantly feel like they have to create and recreate themselves.”

So the question becomes: what is the ritual of a modern yoga class doing for people? Why is it so meaningful to them? The answer starts, I think, with the quasi-religious nature of physical fitness culture in general, with its cycle of sin, guilt and expiation. We have great admiration for people, particularly women, whose bodies testify to their asceticism; they seem somehow good and pure in addition to being beautiful. But yoga has something that CrossFit doesn’t—an aura of magic. It’s satisfying to believe that differing arrangements of limbs can cure one problem or another, and that they can ultimately, in some inchoate way, lead us closer to becoming who we’re meant to be, both physically and emotionally.

I think yoga is a powerful ritual of reinvention for modern people, especially modern women, who constantly feel like they have to create and recreate themselves. In this sense, Indra Devi, a protean, self-made, stateless woman forever refusing to be bound by her own history, is much more the progenitor of modern yoga culture than, say, Swami Vivekananda.

Here’s a question for you, as a scholar of religion. We’re both interested in all the ways that postural yoga is a distinctly modern phenomenon. But is there any through line at all to older traditions? Obviously there’s a lot of silliness that goes under the name “tantra,” but you also suggest that there’s some sort of real continuity between Indian tantra and contemporary New Age spirituality. If there is, what is it?

Indra Devi’s first book was called Forever Young, Forever Healthy. In my understanding, most Eastern religious traditions would teach us to let go of such an impossible fixated hope. But is tantra different?

“Modern yoga culture seems vaguely progressive, but a lot of the underlying ideas are about an escape from politics.”

AJ: You have honed in on a subtle but important point from Selling Yoga. In several places throughout the book, I remind readers that nothing like modern postural yoga existed prior to the twentieth century. Yet, I suggest there is continuity between premodern yoga traditions and modern postural yoga. Upon first consideration, those two claims might seem incompatible, but, although a modern postural yogi would not recognize herself if she was to transport herself back in time to witness a premodern yoga tradition from within, she would nonetheless share two connections with at least some of those premodern practitioners.

The first connection, as you point out, has to do with tantra, a category that is particularly useful for thinking about change and continuity in the history of yoga. Although modern postural yogis would generally not recognize themselves in premodern tantric yoga practitioners, they share with some tantric practitioners a non-dualist vision.

I’m drawing from Hugh Urban’s work here. He has suggested that tantra and the new age movement intersect where bodily, sexual, and material enjoyment are integrated into spiritual pursuits and that, simultaneously, this integration reflects an intersection between tantra and contemporary consumer culture. In other words, what the New Age movement shares with consumer culture can be found in tantra, the preeminent South Asian model of nondualism. In my analysis of the intersections of consumer culture and postural yoga, I found that postural yoga also shares a nondualist approach to the world and so reflects the dominant metaphysical mode of consumer culture.

Of course, the type of nondualism assumed by premodern tantric yoga practitioners and that assumed by modern postural yogis are different. On the one hand, tantric yoga served to increasingly refine consciousness as a means to achieving divinized embodiment or, in other words, becoming a god while remaining in the body. Divinity here has nothing to do with beauty or health in any modern sense, but with direct awareness of the unity of everything, which allows consciousness to transcend or break through the usual false binaries within which we tend to live. Most notably, the practitioner awakens to the reality that there is no distinction between consciousness and the body or between god or the cosmos and the individual. Given this awareness, anything is possible, even immortality, since there is no real distinction between life and death.

On the other hand, postural yoga assumes the unity of the self with the body, so that the attainment of health and beauty as defined in modern terms based on biomedical and contemporary cultural ideals is central to self-development, envisioned as an individualized, not cosmic, process.

The second continuity between premodern tantric yoga and modern postural yoga is a mythical one. Modern postural yoga practitioners often believe themselves to be a part of a transmission that can be traced back to ancient traditions, especially those of hatha yoga. In the tenth to eleventh centuries, hatha yoga or “yoga of forceful exertion” emerged and involved the tantric manipulation and channeling of energy within the body. Breath control would serve to purify and balance energy in the body and, in combination with other techniques, including postures, would awaken divine feminine energy or Shakti, who otherwise lies dormant, coiled up at the bottom of the spine. The techniques of hatha yoga draw her up through the body, and, as she rises she awakens latent energy. Finally, she reaches the top of the head, and the practitioner achieves embodied enlightenment.RDinboxIn popular yoga discourse, claims to a linear trajectory of transmission—premodern yoga functions as what Mark Singleton has described as “the touchstone of authenticity” for proponents of modern yoga—are frequently made and assumed to be historically accurate. For example, postural yoga giants B.K.S. Iyengar and K. Pattabhi Jois have claimed direct historical ties between their postural yoga methods and ancient yoga traditions. The claim to authority with regard to ancient yoga knowledge, though historically inaccurate, serves to ground a worldview and set of values and therefore fulfills a mythological function.

Since we’re on the topic of tantra, it seems to me that Indra Devi shares something with tantra that reaches beyond the nondualism and mythological functions that tie tantra to postural yoga generally. I would suggest it’s their subversive qualities. Tantra is known for flipping conventional cultural rules on their head, such as key distinctions between pure and impure foods (for example, vegetarian versus meat) or pure and impure occupations (for example, priesthood versus prostitution).

Indra Devi was also subversive. For example, she was an unwed actress in a time and place when both designations were deemed unsavory. In your view, what were the most profound ways in which Indra Devi was subversive or transgressive and how did they serve to empower her in her pursuit of India and eventually yoga?

MG: I think Devi was transgressive and conservative all at once. Clearly, she was a proto-feminist and a fiercely independent, adventurous woman. She forged her own identity at a time when that was much harder than it is today. She took off for India on a spiritual quest, alone, in 1927. When she was nearing 50, she moved, again on her own, to Hollywood, a place not particularly welcoming to middle-aged women without a lot of money, and reinvented herself here. When she was in her eighties, she decided to start a new life in Buenos Aires. She never had children and never let either of her husbands tie her down, for better or worse. She defies almost every expectation there is for how a woman’s life is supposed to unfold, and rather than coming to ruin, she dies just short of 103 surrounded by adoring friends and acolytes. In that sense, she’s a model for the efficacy of the system she taught.

There is a subtly feminist message in some of her books, particularly her first one, Forever Young, Forever Healthy, which came out in 1953. As anyone who has read The Feminine Mystique knows, the self-help books of the time often told women their suffering came from their refusal to accept their subordinate domestic role. Devi’s message was very different: “In our present age women are going through a critical period of transition,” she wrote. “Being awakened to a new freedom, they will probably have to suffer even more now than they did a generation ago when they lacked it.” Ultimately, she believed, the growing antagonism between the sexes “will continue until man grants women equality as a human being.” She also urged men to attend to their wives’ sexual pleasure: “an emotionally mature and loving husband is the best person to help his wife to overcome her frigidity, provided he himself hasn’t caused it by being a clumsy, crude, and uninspiring lover.”

None of this had very much to do with what had, until then, gone under the rubric of yoga, but it was doubtlessly empowering, and set a precedent for yoga as part of the self-care regimen of independent, cosmopolitan women.

Yet there was also a political quiescence built into her conception of yoga. She once wrote of students in Paris who didn’t understand why she wouldn’t condemn the Soviet Union: “They weren’t interested in talking with someone who simply accepted things as they were and decided to live her life free from historical conflicts.” The desire to float above history is certainly understandable, given the cataclysms she lived through. But as a political person, I can’t help but see the belief that one can escape history by changing one’s own consciousness as a fantasy.

“The last people we imagine doing yoga are impoverished or otherwise disenfranchised people, such as inner-city at-risk youth or incarcerated people trapped in dilapidated jails and prisons.”

Devi’s conception of reincarnation as something that both explains the world’s injustices and promises to redress them in the next life feeds into this quiescence, since it makes justice in this life less urgent. In her schema, cultivating change in oneself was far more important than cultivating change in the world. I hear similar ideas in contemporary yoga classes all the time; they allow people to feel like they’re doing something altruistic when they’re performing their asanas. Much as I love asana practice, I don’t believe this. Do you?

I’d like to hear your thoughts about yoga and politics. Modern yoga culture seems vaguely progressive, but a lot of the underlying ideas are about an escape from politics.

AJ: I think Devi’s emphasis on self-cultivation at the loss of attention to social justice is alive and well among many practitioners of postural yoga today. In the popular imagination, we tend to imagine yoga as a luxury activity primarily embraced by white suburbanites. Yoga has become a part of popular culture and brand-name yoga commodities are easily accessible among privileged communities across the world. And for a large number of yoga advocates, the claim to possess knowledge of yoga is closely related to the quest for power, status, or money.

There is much more to today’s yoga industry, however, than self-cultivation or profit. And Devi’s conscious effort to disengage from history does not represent the approach of all contemporary postural yoga practitioners. Many modern asana practitioners have wed yoga to political or social justice agendas. At first glance, this seems unlikely since postural yoga has become a part of a consumer culture in which practitioners choose yoga products and services based on individual desires and needs. Consumption of this kind appears rather hedonistic, or perhaps, as Jeremy Carrette and Richard King have put it strongly, is characterized by an “obsession with the individual self and a distinct lack of interest in compassion, the disciplining of desire, self-less service to others and questions of social justice.”

The last people we imagine doing yoga are impoverished or otherwise disenfranchised people, such as inner-city at-risk youth or incarcerated people trapped in dilapidated jails and prisons. Yet, our vision of what people doing postural yoga look like should change. In locations across the country, modern postural yoga has been introduced to disenfranchised communities as a healing method, rehabilitative method, and as an initiative to empower those who have been socially, politically and economically marginalized.

Here are a few examples:

In 2002, postural yoga teacher and founder and director of the Prison Yoga Project James Fox, first began teaching yoga to prisoners at the San Quentin State Prison, a California prison for men. According to the Prison Yoga Project, most prisoners suffer from “original pain,” pain caused by chronic trauma experienced early in life. The consequent suffering leads to violence and thus more suffering in a vicious cycle that can last a lifetime. Yoga, according to the Prison Yoga Project, provides prisoners with a path toward healing and recovery.

“…yoga advocates are expressing concern about the disparity in access to yoga and its concomitant near absence among disenfranchised communities.”

I recently made a couple of visits to Chicago, a city that testifies to the fact that yoga is not just the pastime of the rich and privileged. In Chicago, I interviewed Marshawn Feltus and Carol Horton, two yoga instructors and social activists whose efforts to make yoga available to disenfranchised people by teaching in poverty-stricken neighborhoods and schools as well as the Cook County Jail have been substantial. Their yoga advocacy aims to foster a critical consciousness regarding racism, poverty, and incarceration.

Feltus learned yoga while incarcerated at Illinois River Correctional Center where he spent nineteen years of his life having been convicted of murder. He is the founder and owner of Awareness, Change, Triumph Yoga (ACT Yoga), a yoga studio in the black-majority inner urban neighborhood of Austin, Chicago, which Feltus describes as a “yoga desert.” He also offers yoga classes to men at the Cook County Jail. His classes consist of postures, breathing exercises, meditation, and talk therapy, which he suggests offer students the much-needed opportunity to purge otherwise painful memories, feelings, and thoughts.

A teacher with Yoga for Recovery, a Chicago nonprofit offering yoga classes to women in the Cook County Jail, and co-founder of Chicago’s Socially Engaged Yoga Network (SEYN), Horton is an advocate for yoga as a tool for social justice. She offers workshops, teacher trainings, and public lectures on trauma-sensitive yoga. Beyond the Cook County Jail, Horton has taught yoga in a homeless shelter, a community health center, an inner urban public school program, and a residential foster care facility. She has suggested that yoga offers economically- and socially-disenfranchised people “a more robust conception of what life can be.”

The above examples are not the only ones where yoga advocates are expressing concern about the disparity in access to yoga and its concomitant near absence among disenfranchised communities. In the last several years, many non-profit organizations around the country and beyond have engaged in concerted efforts to make yoga more accessible to at-risk youth, veterans, prisoners, and those suffering from HIV/AIDS or substance abuse.

Reading your book, I was struck by the story of Devi giving a “prison class” in a Shanghai hotel where Americans were held captive by Japanese forces. Even if she didn’t set out to teach yoga as a part of a social justice project, she at least had this moment in which she used modern yoga’s meditative and postural components as tools for change in a socially heated and politically complex situation, if only among this small group of prisoners desperate for help.

Much has changed in the yoga world since Devi taught those yoga classes in Shanghai. Most notably, yoga has undergone popularization and has become a hot, and oftentimes expensive, commodity among countless consumers around the world. Speaking as a practitioner of postural yoga, what do you think has remained a constant? In other words, do you recognize anything in your own yoga practice or in pop culture yoga more generally that echoes Devi’s story? If so, at what moments has she been most present? And, in what ways does her story not resonate with what is most commonly found in a pop-culture yoga class today?

MG: I certainly don’t what to suggest that Devi didn’t believe in the altruistic power of yoga. She was passionate, for example, about teaching yoga to prisoners, which she did well into the end of her life. Nevertheless, I don’t see modern postural yoga as being fundamentally about social change. It can certainly be used by those working for the greater good, but it doesn’t have any inherent moral value. When I’ve been in class and have heard teachers say that, through our practice, we’re improving the world, I can’t help but roll my eyes. There seems to be this vaguely occult idea that through yoga we can generate positive energy that will then ripple out into our surroundings. I think it comes from the mystification of yoga, the way contemporary teachers try to imbue the poses with religious magic. True, if you take care of yourself, you’re more able to take care of others, but that’s not specific to yoga—you could say the same thing of running, or spinning. (Although I guess with SoulCycle, the vague spirituality that surrounds yoga has expanded into other realms of fitness.)

Where Devi is present to me is in the way that yoga has become so much an adjunct of urban, cosmopolitan female life. She sometimes presented yoga as a way for women to deal with the many competing demands that were placed on them, a way to help them sort out their own identities and, if necessary, reinvent themselves. It’s strange and improbable that these techniques associated with medieval Indian ascetics have become a crucial support system for elite 21st century women. In addition to recounting Indra Devi’s wild life, my book tries to describe how that happened.