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Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice [Paperback]

Mark Singleton
4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (9 customer reviews)
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Book Description

10 Feb 2010
Yoga is so prevalent in the modern world-practiced by pop stars, taught in schools, and offered in yoga centers, health clubs, and even shopping malls—that we take its presence, and its meaning, for granted. But how did the current yoga boom happen? And is it really rooted in ancient Indian practices, as many of its adherents claim?

In this groundbreaking book, Mark Singleton calls into question many commonly held beliefs about the nature and origins of postural yoga (asana) and suggests a radically new way of understanding the meaning of yoga as it is practiced by millions of people across the world today. Singleton shows that, contrary to popular belief, there is no evidence in the Indian tradition for the kind of health and fitness-oriented asana practice that dominates the global yoga scene of the twenty-first century. Singleton's surprising-and surely controversial-thesis is that yoga as it is popularly practiced today owes a greater debt to modern Indian nationalism and, even more surprisingly, to the spiritual aspirations of European bodybuilding and early 20th-century women's gymnastic movements of Europe and America, than it does to any ancient Indian yoga tradition. This discovery enables Singleton to explain, as no one has done before, how the most prevalent forms of postural yoga, like Ashtanga, Bikram and "Hatha" yoga, came to be the hugely popular phenomena they are today.

Drawing on a wealth of rare documents from archives in India, the UK and the USA, as well as interviews with the few remaining, now very elderly figures in the 1930s Mysore asana revival, Yoga Body turns the conventional wisdom about yoga on its head.

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Product details

  • Paperback: 272 pages
  • Publisher: OUP USA (10 Feb 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0195395344
  • ISBN-13: 978-0195395341
  • Product Dimensions: 21.6 x 13.5 x 1.9 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (9 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 72,224 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

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Review

What Mark Singleton does prove, with massive, irrefutable, fascinating and often hilarious evidence, is that yoga is a rich, multi-cultural, constantly changing inter-disciplinary construction, far from the pure line that its adherents often claim for it. (Wendy Doniger, Times Literary Supplement)

This book, an invaluable source on modern yoga, should be on the reading list of every serious student and teacher training program. (Richard Rosen, Yoga Journal)

About the Author

Mark Singleton teaches at St. John's College, Santa Fe, New Mexico. He is the editor, with Jean Byrne, of Yoga in the Modern World: Contemporary Perspectives. He lives in Santa Fe.

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Customer Reviews

4.4 out of 5 stars
4.4 out of 5 stars
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
Format:Paperback
It takes a special and humble intelligence to wear one's learning lightly. Mark Singleton's book wins in being both academically rigourous but an accessable work, presenting challenges on tradition, mysticism and cultural translation. It is much more than a book about Yoga in the narrow or one for the narrowly Yoga focused. By turns anthropological study, detective story and at times humourous in puncturing obsessions with perfectionist fitness (the 'primary series' having its origins in a homework sheet!?) it stands also as just a good read. Rather like recipes I like to go back to where things started and a cursory investigation will tell you spaghetti is southern Italian pasta, and Bologna is in the north - spaghetti bolognaise is a geographical non starter. What is appealing is the author does not impose a conclusion as to the rightness or wrongness of how you, I or others interpret the receipe for Yoga. What you may be left with is that Yoga (as commonly available) has as much to do with ancient Indian spirituality and practice as my mum's spaghetti bolognaise has with Italian traditional food - I still love it though - and loving it with the discipline of knowledge that cultures bend, invent and coalesce traditions is a welcome headclearing freedom!
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars bodies and minds in yoga 7 Mar 2010
Format:Paperback
I highly recommend this readable and detailed account of the origins of postures in modern yoga. Mark Singleton has done a work of significant research that traces the links between 19th century bodybuilding and gymnastics to yoga as practiced today in the west. It's well argued and backed up by pages of footnotes and references - and at the same time accessible and understandable.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I ordered this book after picking up debates on it on various blogs talking about ashtanga yoga - although the author addresses modern yoga as practiced in the west in general, it is perhaps ashtanga whose myths are most challenged by the book.

I am an ashtanga student myself, practicing almost daily - and it's easy for me to see how the gymnastic origins of what we do, as postulated by Singleton, is completely credible. Having seen yoga practiced by saddhus in India (their practice is also covered in the book - then, as now, they were seen as outside of mainstream Hinduism and viewed with disdain or suspicion) it is clearly different (and, I would suggest, in some cases involves a whole other level of commitment). For some though, the idea that they are practicing something ancient, found in ancient texts and passed down from a guru in a cave in Tibet to Krishnamacharya, and then to Jois, is important and makes what they do more than just exercise. What actually makes it more than just exercise as usually understood these days is probably the breathing more than anything else - timing the movement with breathing. That too though, is, according to the book, borrowed from western exercise systems of the nineteenth and earlier twentieth centuries. I don't care much personally, as I find all the cod-sanskrit and po-faced spiritualism of some in the ashtanga scene more than a bit tedious (and, to be fair, from what I've seen of Jois himself, he never took it so seriously). A change in approach may be required though from those who currently insist, with a straight face, that bending over and touching the floor is veda-inspired and a step on the road to enlightenment.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
By McAnna
Format:Paperback
Like others have stated before me, this book is extremely well researched indeed. And that's a great thing. BUT:

Keep in mind that "Yoga Body" is NOT written in "popular" science writing style. This book is the real, academical deal. There are quotations, dates, names and all the other landmarks of truly scientific writing that can make even the most well-written text a bit long-winded and at times hard to follow. Especially if you are unfamiliar with this type of writing you may find the book a bit tedious. I'm not saying it's not a brilliant book - it IS! - but in comparison with many other books on yoga's development it is NOT easy to read. If you're looking for a nice, relaxing, leisure time type of book, you'll probably be unhappy with this one!

Another reason why the text is sometimes hard to follow is this: The developments the author discribes are quite complex, sometimes chronologically parallel, sometimes highly ambivalent etc. Diagrams or other graphic depictions of those processes would have helped immensely to keep a clear view, but unfortunately none are provided.

So, my conclulsion on this book: Highly interesting and extremely well researched. The only drop of bitterness: at times unnessessarily hard to follow.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Well researched, informative, thought-provoking 28 Oct 2012
By Sbo
Format:Paperback
"Yoga Body"is based on the Mark Singleton's PhD thesis at the university of Cambridge.
The author studies the emergence of posture (asana) practice in "Hatha Yoga", between 1896,when Vivekananda's Raja Yoga--- that promoted a posture-LESS yoga--- was published, and the 1930s, when Krishnamacharya and others taught quite athletic poses and exercises in the close surroundings of the Maharajah of Mysore--India).

Krishnamacharya's teachings have been propagated all over the world by some of his well-known students such as B.K.S. Iyengar, K. Pattabhi Jois (who created "Ashtanga Yoga", a very dynamic, flowing style based on defined series of poses) , T.K.V Desikashar (Krishnamacharya's son, from the teachings of whom "Desikashar yoga" , Viniyoga and smaller schools derive).
M. Singleton's book questions not only the origins of current importance given to poses in yoga practice, but also a couple of assertions these teachers made in the name of Krishnamacharya and of "tradition".

According to M. Singleton, two trends met and influenced each other, leading to the development of new, "posture-based" hatha yoga:
1) The West was increasingly interested in methods of physical education (e.g. bodybuilding, Scandinavian gymnastics,...) in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, in a spirit of growing nationalism. The idea of muscular bodies being a token of physical, moral, see spiritual health/strength was diffused in India by the British army, Indian YMCA and education.
2) A part of the educated Indian elite was eager to prove the vigour of their nation's race and heritage to some contemptuous orientalists and British.
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