The history of yoga in a readable book

Alistair Shearer’s The Story of Yoga: From Ancient India to the Modern West delves into a simple question of how yoga went from a spiritual practice to a physical one

May 12, 2020 02:40 pm | Updated May 13, 2020 01:41 pm IST

The Indian team performing at the 8th Asian Yoga Sports Championships in Thiruvananthapuram in 2018

The Indian team performing at the 8th Asian Yoga Sports Championships in Thiruvananthapuram in 2018

In his book The Story of Yoga: FromAncient India to the Modern West, the author, Alistair Shearer answers a simple question: How did “a time-honoured road to enlightenment” turn “into a $25 billion-a-year wellness industry”? He answers it across 357 pages, the first few chapters having a scholarly density, the sources being from history — excavations from Mohejodharo (c. 3000 BC - 1500 BC), and texts like the Vedas (2500 BC - 500 BC). It eases up soon enough with insights on what pushed yoga from meditative practice to physical mat work. In a nutshell, Shearer tells us that the original practice was always meant to be what he calls “mind-yoga”, the purpose of which was to look inward, but what we’ve turned it into is “body-yoga”, the purpose of which is fitness or “a secular healing remedy”.

Past Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra, wherein he says only three short verses are devoted to physical postures; the Hatha Yoga Pradipika that has only four asanas ; and various other texts, Shearer establishes that the purpose of yoga was never to tone our bodies, but “as the way to transcend its irksome limitations altogether”. The physicality of the practice, he says, began with the British Raj’s clever fusion of gymnastics with yoga as promoted in the YMCA. Along the way, we meet the Theosophists, Swami Vivekananda, BKS Iyengar, and encounter various movements and alliances, like the number of hours of teachers’ training, the types of yoga that have come up over the years, and Western medicine’s ‘stamp of approval’ — all of which have contributed to the way yoga is seen today.

In an email interview, Shearer, who has in the past translated the Yoga Sutras , and co-created Neeleshwar Heritage in Kerala, talks of his own interest in yoga, its past, present and future. The book took three years to write, and needed to be pruned of 40,000 words, thereby leaving out some parts of the history of yoga, like the Bihar School. “A lot of interesting material had to be jettisoned. It’ll be in the next book,” says Shearer.

Alistair Shearer, author of The Story of Yoga: From Ancient India to the Modern West

Alistair Shearer, author of The Story of Yoga: From Ancient India to the Modern West

Why a book on yoga — was it an idea that came to you because of the huge interest in it, or was it something you had always wanted to do and the time was right?

Well, I’ve been interested in Indian culture all my adult life, first studying Indian religions and Sanskrit academically and then teaching courses on Indian art and architecture at various institutions in the UK, including the British Museum and London University. At the same time, on the practical level, mind-yoga has been a constant source of nourishment for me since I studied with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi over 40 years ago, and I have been practising and teaching meditation ever since then.

The extraordinary growth of global yoga as a commercialised and secular exercise routine, rather than a path leading to spiritual enlightenment, has boomed in the last 20 years, sparking in turn a huge increase of academic investigation into the origins of the practice in India itself. So three or four years ago, it seemed to me to be the right time to bring all these different strands together and weave them into a story in a way that was accessible to the general reader, as well as those engaged in teaching and practising the discipline. Hence the book.

What does yoga mean to you?

I suppose my whole life revolves around it. I’ve had a daily routine for many years that consists of a simple set of asanas , some pranayama and meditation, as well as pursuing my interests in the philosophies of yoga and Vedanta. Then there are the retreats I lead for my students every couple of months or so. Recently though, the physical side of my practice has given way to longer daily periods of meditation. I keep meaning to get back to doing asanas but given that I also have a busy working life, it doesn’t look likely at the moment. There is only so much time each day one can devote to self-improvement!

The book is quite dense in the first few chapters and it gets easier to read as it goes along? Did you discuss this with your editor, and why did you decide to do this?

The content dictated it, really. The book proceeds chronologically, and to examine the early roots of yoga, you have no choice but to delve into the history of ancient India and get to grips with a very different society that had a very different way of seeing the world than we do today. Much of the specific evidence comes from a handful of highly esoteric Sanskrit texts, such as the Upanishads and Patanjali’s Yogasutra, that deal with the nuances of altered and uncommon states of consciousness brought about by prolonged meditation. So for the non-specialist, this is really very unfamiliar territory that has to be trod slowly and with some care. There’s no way round it. But persevere, dear reader! As the narrative moves out of the dense forests and dark caves inhabited by those early yogis, we emerge towards modern times, where there is more room for recognisable markers, anecdote, irony and humour and so the tone automatically lightens. Then, by the end of the book, I come back to discussing yogic spirituality, but in its contemporary setting and in modern terms, with the scientific evidence and so on.

If you were to pick just the main milestones on the road to the rise of yoga, what would they be — in the context of it becoming a part of the multi-billion dollar wellness industry?

One silent seed of the modern scene was the work of Shri Yogendra, who presented yoga as a secular, scientific discipline with measurable health benefits, both preventative and curative. He opened his pioneering Yoga Institute, the first in the world, in suburban Bombay in 1918. It is still flourishing today and has become effectively the official spokesman of medical yoga for the Indian Government.

But the most important, albeit unwitting, milestone was probably the great Vaishnava scholar and yoga master, TM Krishnamacharya of Mysore. In the 1930s, he ran a yoga school in the palace of his patron, Maharajah Krishna Wodeyar IV, and he mixed Scandinavian gymnastic exercises, then becoming very popular in Europe, into his regime. TMK’s two most successful pupils were K Pattabhi Jois and BKS Iyengar. The former went to America and developed his vigorous Ashtanga system, while BKS conquered Europe with his eponymous method that pioneered the use of props. Both these highly physical approaches ignored the interiority that Patanjali calls ‘the heart of yoga’. Significantly, Krishnamacharya also accepted a female disciple, Indra Devi, because he felt that as Indian men were being seduced from traditional brahmin values by the desire to make money, the future of yoga lay with women. Indra went to California and introduced many of the leading ladies of Hollywood to posture work as a way to lose weight, keep fit and combat the effects of ageing. Such concerns have shaped much modern yoga, which is a 90% female phenomenon.

Then came the yogic supermarket — countless DVDs, videos, apps, books, clothes, fashion items and assorted accessories — that promotes yoga as an image-conscious and celebrity-endorsed pastime.

The book cover

The book cover

How did yoga move from the North of India to the South?

This is an interesting and, as far as I know, little researched question. My feeling is that yoga was a pan-Indian phenomenon from early times, though most records of it are in the North. It is widely held that the great Vedic rishi Agastya brought sacred knowledge to the South, perhaps establishing his main ashram at modern Thanjavur. In other centres of Tamil culture, such as Kanchipuram and Kumbakonam, Jain, Buddhist and Hindu yogis lived and taught alongside each other from at least the beginning of the common era. The renowned Vedantin, Adi Shankaracharya, who was born in modern-day Kerala, of course, travelled extensively around the South in the 8th Century AD, establishing monasteries and teaching. He advocated jnana yoga , the most advanced type of mind-yoga, and wasn’t interested in postural work, but we do have depictions of physical yoga from the Pallava capital of Mahabalipuram dating from the same period. Then, in medieval times, the most important group of yogis, the Naths, established a powerful centre at the Kadri-Manjunath temple, South of Mangalaru, that dates from the 13th Century, possibly earlier.

Do you ever see yoga going back to what it was originally meant for, or do you see it evolving into something quite different altogether?

I think it will develop in both directions simultaneously. There will be a growing hunger for a return to a yoga that is more profound, more spiritual than mere Instagram flexibility. The devastation caused by COVID-19 may help this. But at the same time, the relentless advances of technology will develop lucrative human-machine interfacing that will result in a type of cyborg yoga, developed by, and for, techno-nerds.

What are some of the most outrageous things people have said to you about yoga, and who has said them?

I remember a public talk I gave several years ago when a serious young man stood up shouting that yoga was ‘the work of the devil’ and I would ‘go to hell’ for promoting it. I replied that the pipe he was smoking would do him far more damage than yoga ever could. Thankfully, nowadays, there’s far less ignorance and prejudice around the subject.

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