Yoga’s Twisted History

No question, yoga has a large following in the West. But how has hatha yoga, specifically asana practice, taken centre stage? And what role has the West played in that preference? Andrea Miller reviews two books that address these questions: Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice, by Mark Singleton, and The Subtle Body: The Story of Yoga in America, by Stefanie Syman. 

In the spring of 1893, an Indian swami named Vivekananda traveled to the U.S. hoping to participate in the World Parliament of Religions, which was being convened as a part of Chicago’s World Fair. And though he had no official invitation, participate he did. According to the Boston Evening Transcript, “Four thousand fanning people in the Hall of Columbus would sit smiling and expectant, waiting for an hour or two of other men’s speeches to listen to Vivekananda for fifteen minutes.”

Perhaps one key to Vivekananda’s popularity was that he at once fulfilled and debunked Indian stereotypes, enabling Americans to romanticize him and his country without abandoning too many of their own values. For his lectures, the young swami decked himself out in scarlet or orange robes and a yellow turban. Yet he spoke fluent, articulate English, ate meat and ice cream, and used snuff, which he hawked copiously on the floor.

In his talks, Vivekananda never used the word “yoga,” a curious fact in light of some current scholarship which proposes that modern, transnational yoga began with him. Moreover, Vivekananda did not contort himself into the bow pose or any other asana. In India a yoga revival connected with…