In this interview, we discuss the history and development of yoga in its South Asian contexts, and then examine its transformations across the globe into the contemporary era.
In its earliest uses, the word “yoga” meant “yoke,” primarily yoking a warhorse to a chariot. In the classical period, yoga took on a variety of other meanings, including yoking the mind-body complex through meditative practices, such as breath control and mantras, to achieve liberation. Yoga was an analysis of perception and cognition, whereby to know something is to be it; higher states of consciousness could expand individuals into the universe and even to omniscience. Yoga also included achieving superpowers through sexual and other bodily alchemical practices, allowing practitioners to see through things and to take over other human bodies. In tantric yoga, which developed during the medieval period, the goal became not union with the absolute but rather to become a living god, a yogi, through occult practices. In hatha yoga, practitioners regulated their breath and channeled vital fluids within the body, via chakras, in order to achieve awakening and supernatural powers. Contemporary forms of yoga as postural practice developed from Hindu Vedanta, Indian nationalism, the Orientalist resurrection of the Yoga Sutras, Theosophy, Swedish gymnastics, and other sources, and constitute a relatively recent phenomenon in the history of yoga. Even more recently, the study of yoga in North America has been riven by debates about what counts as “authentic” yoga and who gets to make such claims authoritatively, as the Hindu America Foundation’s Take Back Yoga campaign can attest.