Translations, Belief Frameworks & Modern Yoga Practice

Mark Singleton

Mark Singleton author Yoga Body, the Origins of Modern Posture Practice (Oxford University Press, 2010) excerpt from conversation with Susan Maier-Moul

Susan Maier-Moul:
How does everything we’ve been talking about relate to practice – to actually doing yoga?

Mark Singleton: Practical yoga in modern times has changed immensely, sometimes out of all recognition. This is also a process of translation. Practices are taken from earlier traditions, added to, edited, spun and re-cast, until they become something completely other.

This is particularly visible in the way that yoga these days has become almost synonymous with posture practice—this is a new situation, that has very few precedents in any pre-modern yoga traditions. I examine the reasons for this development in my recent book Yoga Body, The Origins of Modern Posture Practice.

As in translation of texts like the Yoga Sutras, the translation of practices is guided by the belief frameworks and needs of that particular time and place. So in early twentieth century India, Hindu Indians were seeking to assert their own indigenous religious practices, in the face of colonial impositions. One of the names given to this project was “yoga”.

Susan: What we are doing now and naming yoga – whether it’s something that’s being called “classical yoga” or “flow yoga” or something else – it isn’t consistent with even the yoga of Patanjali, much less “ancient” practices.

Mark: The body of practices that grew up (mainly among English-educated, urban Indians) was quite different from what we might call “grass roots” versions of yoga.

For one thing, in spite of their assertions of religious and cultural independence from abroad, many of these men (and occasional women) borrowed significantly from Western philosophical and esoteric concepts. It was these people, and particularly the immensely successful Swami Vivekananda, who first brought yoga to the West, and who, to a large extent, shaped early American and European understandings of yoga.