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.

Health Benefits of Yoga

Image: Paul Harvey’s

Most common questions on Yoga relate to the health benefits associated with practicing Yoga, together with questions around how Yoga practice differs from conventional exercise.

Answers to these questions have been researched and are presented in a detailed article published on the IAYT (International Association of Yoga Therapists) website, providing interesting reading.

In terms of the health benefits the information is grouped under physiological benefits, psychological benefits, and biochemical effects. It is based on the regular practice of traditional āsana (yoga postures), prānāyāma (breath), and dhyāna (meditation).

Yoga Compared to Conventional Exercise



Parasympathetic nervous system dominates
Subcortical regions of brain dominate
Slow dynamic and static movements
Normalization of muscle tone
Low risk of injuring muscles and ligaments
Low caloric consumption
Effort is minimized, relaxed
Energizing (breathing is natural or controlled)
Balanced activity of opposing muscle groups
Noncompetitive, process-oriented
Awareness is internal
(focus is on breath and the inifinite)
Limitless possibilities for growth in self-awareness
Sympathetic nervous system dominates
Cortical regions of brain dominate
Rapid forceful movements
Increased muscle tension
Higher risk of injury
Moderate to high caloric consumption
Effort is maximized
Fatiguing (breathing is taxed)
Imbalanced activity of opposing groups
Competitive, goal-oriented
Awareness is external
(focus is on reaching the toes, reaching the finish line, etc.)
Boredom factor

Yoga & Rheumatoid Arthritis


Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease causing the immune system to attack joints. However it can also affect other areas of the body such as lungs, heart and bone marrow. It is a painful inflammatory condition that can lead to loss of mobility due to pain and damage of joints. It is known that the practice of Yoga can help people with rheumatoid arthritis.

The research was completed in United Arab Emirates. The details of the findings were presented at the 2011 Annual Congress of EULAR – The European League Against Rheumatism, in London. The findings state that “….individuals with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) who practice yoga showed significant improvements in disease activity….” Their view is that the practice of yoga long term could result in further significant improvements. They are continuing their research into the benefits of Yoga in the context of RA.