July 15, 2016

Timeless Yoga and Sinister Yogis: David Gordon White’s Brief History of Yoga

Research on the history of yoga has steadily grown throughout the past two decades, focusing primarily on developments and transformations since the height of the colonial period in India. Exemplified by scholars such as Elizabeth De Michelis, Joseph Alter and Mark Singleton, efforts have been made to trace threads of practice and philosophy from the eighteenth to the twenty-first century, illustrating how popular forms of yoga today gradually took shape. This research has been instrumental in highlighting the influence of orientalists such as Henry Thomas Colebrooke, Indian public figures such as Swami Vivekananda, and groups as diverse as the Theosophical Society, to European bodybuilding and gymnastic groups (De Michelis, 2005; Singleton, 2010). It is widely accepted within academic communities that contemporary yoga (if we can indeed speak of it in the singular) has been highly influenced, directly or indirectly, by orientalist scholarship. This is particularly evident in the ongoing popularity of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, seen as authoritative guides to the theory and method of ‘classical yoga’ – despite being largely forgotten by the fifteenth century, only gaining prominence thanks to Colebrooke’s work. Texts directly inspired by the Yoga Sutras such as Vivekananda’s Raja Yoga were instrumental in encouraging romantic narratives of yoga as a timeless, pristine tradition – and part of an apparently monolithic Hindu religion. Furthermore, these romantic orientalist ideas have proliferated within contemporary yoga, and are used to sanction and legitimate practices (Singleton, 2008).

I find it useful to approach historical studies of yoga with this romantic narrative which we are persistently confronted kept in mind. The current proliferation of studies exploring the development of contemporary yoga can be seen as a direct challenge to popular perceptions of yoga as a timeless and unified practice which are reproduced (often as a marketing ploy) in non-academic contexts. Indeed, for the sake of historical accuracy it is important to attempt to expand this somewhat simple narrative and to encourage deeper understanding of yoga’s more complex history. This becomes an equally important part of challenging romantic orientalist views of India (and other parts of the world), often used in the contemporary ‘New Age’ milieu without question. The question of whether many practitioners, whose involvement with yoga is primarily influenced by experiencing physical or emotional benefits, will be aware of this challenge, or indeed care, is to be seen.

It is from this background that I also approach David Gordon White’s work on yoga. White takes on the mammoth task of giving a broad history of yoga – from the term’s early appearances in the Rig Veda up to the present.  Although he notes points of similarity between contemporary yoga and older forms, his focus is firmly on the points of difference. By taking this as his focus, he strengthens the ongoing drive to unpack the historical developments of yoga, and helps to complicate an otherwise simplistic, linear narrative.

Unlike other studies of the history of yoga, White looks much further back in time. By delving into yoga in India’s early and medieval periods, White makes valuable additions to current scholarship and further highlights the great extent to which yoga has changed throughout the past two millennia. Perhaps the simplest way that White highlights this transformation is his exploration of the term’s semantic range. His emphasis on the martial connotations of ‘yoga’ in the Bhagavad Gita implies a sharp contrast with yoga as we know it today, and he acknowledges how this historical use of the term surprises many yoga practitioners.

The most striking difference, however, is found in White’s exploration of ‘yogi practice’. Yogi practice, for White, includes practices aiming toward the attainment of supernatural powers – which primarily entails gaining control over the bodies of others by manipulating methods of perception. As White introduces the idea of ‘sinister yogis’ (the subject of one of his books), perceived as dangerous and powerful figures due to their magical prowess, the listener is once again inclined to compare this with the stereotypical image of a contemporary yogi. White’s presentation of alchemy and certain Tantric practices can also serve a similar comparative function. In his construction of a two-sided picture of yoga (yoga practice vs. yogi practice), with an emphasis on little-known philosophies and practices, White’s work can be used as an effective counterpoint against the romantic myth of yoga as a monolithic, timeless practice.

Leading on from this, White raises the issue of how yoga can be represented differently according to social and cultural context (although he doesn’t probe these ‘culture wars’ in detail here). As such a popular global practice, representations of yoga take on a political dimension, and various parties have a vested interested in how yoga and its history are presented. As I write, International Yoga Day approaches – a day adopted by the UN on the suggestion of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who referred to yoga as ‘an invaluable gift of our ancient tradition’ (www.iyd.yoga). Even to those with minimal knowledge of Modi’s controversial Hindu nationalism, the aim of this statement is somewhat transparent. However, his description also illustrates the extent to which yoga’s history has been obscured.

Clearly, it is important that research such as White’s continues to emphasise the diverse and complex history of yoga, including practices and philosophies which do not conform to current popular understandings. However, it is equally important that such research does not pass judgement on contemporary forms of yoga. It seems that some historians of South Asian traditions (and particularly those traditions undergoing a renewed explosion of popularity such as yoga and tantra) convey a preference for historical, textual presentations of yoga – before discourses of orientalism and forces of capitalism left their imprint. Fusions of South Asian practices with ‘New Age’ philosophies (which often become commercialised and commodified) can be seen as uninformed hybrids by those with more detailed historical knowledge. As such, the risk remains that a preference for the ‘ancient’ or ‘traditional’ can be reproduced, even in the work of accomplished academics. Thankfully, White largely avoids passing judgement and allows the listener to make their own comparisons between contemporary yoga and the variety of historical forms that he presents.


Alter, J. Yoga in Modern India: The Body Between Science and Philosophy. Princeton: Princeton University Press

De Michelis, E. 2005. A History of Modern Yoga: Patanjali and Western Esotericism. London, New York: Continuum

Singleton, M., 2008. ‘The Classical Reveries of Modern Yoga’. In: Singleton, M., and Byrne, J., 2008. Yoga in the Modern World: Contemporary Perspectives. Abingdon: Routledge

Singleton, M. 2010. Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press

International Yoga Day website: http://www.iyd.yoga/


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