The Yoga Academics

In Tuesday’s post, I mentioned “Mark Singleton and other yoga academics.” To introduce you to these other “yoga academics,” here’s a blog post just on them. While there are more academics studying yoga, these are the four who have key things to say to dialogue about the intersection of yoga and Christianity. Here is a brief synopsis of who they are and the brief “Facebook status update” of what they contribute to the conversation. The order in which they are described is not order of importance, alphabetical, or chronological. It’s the order of discussion.

Joseph Alter, Yoga in Modern India: The Body Between Science and Philosophy (2004)
Dr. Alter’s work is particularly important to me because he was on my graduate thesis committee as an anthropology professor at the University of Pittsburgh. When I met him, I did not understand how important his work was in the yoga academic world. At the time, his book was one of two academic texts published on yoga.

In Yoga in Modern India, Dr. Alter examines the development of yoga specifically in India during the 1900s, and establishes yoga as not a religion, but as something ingenious developed by the human imagination. His chapter one contains this brilliant quote from I.K. Taimni: “There is no subject which is so much wrapped up in mystery and on which one can write whatever one likes without any risk of being proved wrong” (9).

Elizabeth de Michelis, A History of Modern Yoga: Patanjali and Western Esotericism (2004)
de Michelis’s dense account of the history of modern yoga traces the cultural and religious developments of yoga from the Neo-Vedantic tradition in India in the late 1800s, through Swami Vivekananda’s visit to the 1893 Chicago Parliament of World Religions, up to B.K.S. Iyengar’s appropriation of yoga. By the end of the book, de Michelis differentiates between “yoga” and “postural yoga” because the postures important in North American yoga today were not necessarily part of the Neo-Vedantic tradition of yoga practiced on the other side of the world 150 years ago.

Most interestingly, de Michelis concludes with a description of “Modern Postural Yoga” as a “healing ritual of secular religion.” During a yoga class, the participant separates oneself from the world, cleanses the body and mind, and “incorporates” the healing into the body in corpse pose, and leaves the class fully integrated and healed in some way.

It might be argued that church services reflect a similar ritual.

Mark Singleton, Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice (2010)
A friend of mine made the claim that if we could get the message of this book out to the world at large, the debate about Christians practicing yoga could be moot. Singleton, whose academic mentor was/is Elizabeth de Michelis, argues that “there is little or no evidence that asana (excepting certain seated postures of meditation) has ever been the primary aspect of any Indian yoga practice tradition–including the medieval, body-oriented hatha yoga–in spite of the self-authenticating claims of many modern yoga schools” (3). Furthermore, “Although it routinely appeals to the tradition of Indian hatha yoga, contemporary posture-based yoga cannot really be considered a direct successor of this tradition” (5).

In his book, Singleton describes the origins of hatha yoga, as well as demonstrates that modern yoga poses are a hybrid between Western calisthenics and Eastern yoga.
Ergo, the claim that Christians are adopting (or hijacking or colonizing) an Eastern practice is moot if half of what they’re adopting is already Western. [Of course, then there’s the claim that Christianity was originally an Eastern religion (east of Rome, that is), but that is for yet another discussion.]

It’s a solid, important book. And Singleton is up to another yoga project over at Kickstarter (now fully funded!).

Thomas Ryan, Prayer of Heart and Body: Meditation and Yoga as Christian Spiritual Practice (1995)
All this brings us to our earliest and most important text: Fr. Tom Ryan’s Prayer of Heart and Body. While Ryan wrote this book before all the academic research came out on the origins of yoga, I think the academic research makes Ryan’s book all the more powerful and prophetic, in a way. In this book, Ryan describes the Christian traditions of contemplative prayer, preparing the body for prayer, and the importance of the body in Christian theology (which has been a bit forgotten in recent centuries). It’s an important must-read for any Christian practicing yoga.

In particular, Ryan calls Christians to incorporate prayer into their yoga practice, calling it “Body Prayer.” In the tradition of the mystics, Ryan also describes the spiritual benefits of meditation (further explored in his books Disciplines for Christian Living and Four Steps to Spiritual Freedom.)

Two other academic texts of note are: Stefanie Syman’s The Subtle Body: The Story of Yoga in America (2010) and William J. Broad’s The Science of Yoga: The Risks and the Rewards (2012). Syman’s book fills in a lot of the gaps de Micelis’s book doesn’t address, examining the development of cultural yoga in the past century. Broad’s book deconstructs many scientific contemporary myths about yoga (Broad does for contemporary yoga in the States what Alter does for yoga in India in the last century). While these books are formidable and important, they don’t necessarily add to the dialogue between yoga and Christianity (other than that Syman’s book describes everything Christians are afraid of in yoga).

There’s also a website for Modern Yoga Research that features most of these authors. Check it out!

Share this!
Facebook Twitter Email

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *