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Stretching Good Faith: A Response to Candy Gunther Brown

Perhaps the most intriguing parts of Daniel Gorman Jr.’s interview with Professor Candy Gunther Brown are the parts that are not there. In his conversation with her on the adoption of yoga and metaphysical healing practices by evangelical Americans, we get little indication that Brown has already written on this subject at length for her book The Healing Gods: Complementary and Alternative Medicine in Christian America, published in 2013 by Oxford University Press. More significantly, although the interview does mention an important court case regarding the legality of yoga-teaching in Encinitas, California public schools, there is no reference to Brown’s significant role in the case.

For those unfamiliar with the case, the details, in brief, are these. In February 2013 Stephen and Jennifer Sedlock, parents of children in the Encinitas Union School District, filed an action against its superintendent Timothy Baird, in which they argued that the implementation of a voluntary Ashtanga yoga program for students violated their religious freedom. The plaintiffs in Sedlock v. Baird were represented by the legal defense organization The National Center for Law & Policy, a group that on its website describes its efforts as “the protection and promotion of religious freedom, the sanctity of life, traditional marriage, parental rights, and other civil liberties” and being “motivated in our endeavors by our faith to keep the doors open for the spread of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”

The judge in the case ruled that yoga was permissible in the Encinitas schools, and an appeal of the decision was denied in 2015, but it is not hard to see how significant an opposite ruling would have been. Declaring yoga as religious would not only shape future yoga programs in schools, but it could have disrupted the massive American yoga industry in myriad ways.

Brown authored a thirty seven-page declaration for the plaintiffs and testified for a full day in court as their expert witness, describing her role as a natural function and extension of her academic vocation. In an interview for the Oxford University Press blog, Brown said, “I am a religious studies scholar who studies yoga’s cultural mainstreaming in America. I accepted the request because part of my job as a university professor is to educate the public about ‘religion.’” In another blog post, Brown said that the plaintiffs requested her due to her scholarly research on yoga (although she had not previously published on the topic) and she accepted for similar reasons— also to “educate the courts” on the subject.

While it is not unheard of for academics to appear in court to offer their expertise, it is not routine, and Brown appears to have done so with unique investment and enthusiasm, repeatedly expressing her disappointment in not having successfully “educated the courts” in a letter about the ruling to the editor of the online Encinitas Patch and in posts for Psychology Today and The Huffington Post. In any case, and with her connection to this particular case, Brown’s theories on yoga are worth considering carefully. In this response, I trace their articulations in this particular interview for the Religious Studies Project, her court testimony, and her writings online and in print.

For the last several decades, scholars of religion in America have increasingly looked towards the complexity of religious identity, practice, and experience. Rather than telling neat histories of discrete denominations passing through history, or of believers rendered comprehensible through doctrine, scholars have portrayed American religions as being dependent on their social and historical contexts, and they have recognized that individual agents behave and believe in ways that are often idiosyncratic and unpredictable given their organizational affiliations.

Image 1: "The Tempter Ensnares His Victim" from The Devil's Pitfalls or Fighting Modern Evils (1913)

Image 1: “The Tempter Ensnares His Victim” from The Devil’s Pitfalls or Fighting Modern Evils (1913)

In light of this scholarly consensus, Brown’s treatment of religious identity and practice is rather jarring. While she gestures in her interview with the Religious Studies Project towards different and wide-ranging methods, sources, and working definitions, in practice she understands religion in a fashion that is ultimately dependent on relatively simple and deterministic notions of belief and origins.

For instance, rather than the complex and combinative religious worldviews and traditions we see in the work of scholars such as Catherine L. Albanese and Wade Clark Roof, Brown sees “religious” and “non-religious” as clear and absolute categories. Brown assumes the holistic integrity and purity of religious systems, too, and thus the capacity for contagion by and through the introduction of something that can be (or once was) considered occult or metaphysical; simple interaction is sufficient to render an erstwhile consistent system non-Christian and thus to place it at odds with the Christian subjects that Brown assumes to be staggeringly uniform in their belief. It is perhaps this view that allows her to treat “prayer and Bible reading” and “yoga and meditation” in American public schools as interchangeable practices of “religion” despite fifty years of distance and immense social and cultural differences between the two.

In her description of her encounters with Christian consumers of chiropractic treatments for the Religious Studies Project, Brown focuses on the perceived incongruity of their acceptance of chiropractic with the “vitalistic metaphysical framework” of chiropractic’s founder over a century ago. Brown seems unaware of not only the possibility of how complex the worldviews of any given Christian or chiropractor may be—or how such early frameworks can be shaped, forgotten, or repurposed over time—but also of the effects of her position as interviewer and the possibilities of the larger contexts in which these dyadic relationships occur.

Might Christian patients be especially vocal about the Christian identity of their chiropractic doctors as responses to already widespread perceptions of the practice, or the fact that they are being interviewed by a professor of religion? Do they or their doctors subscribe to the same understandings as the founders of chiropractic, or are they more invested in pain relief, the affordability of this particular healing modality (in a country with often limited or non-existent health care), or the closeness and personal attention they get from their DCs as opposed to medical doctors (as do many clients of Complimentary and Alternative Medicine)? We never learn, and we suspect that Brown would be uninterested in such matters, given other aspects of her thesis that something is amiss with Christian chiropractic.

To be blunt, Brown sometimes makes claims and assessments that seem more at home in theological and apologetic circles than in the academic study of religion. She is eager to assume what her Christian subjects should and should not believe, and to find error in their judgement. Perhaps most surprisingly, moreover, Brown’s work assumes the reality of a variety of spiritual forces and divinities. The claimed inability for Christians to render yogic practice compatible to their beliefs, despite any changes in wording or context, because of the essential spiritual forces within physical yogic practice, is a staggering assertion that some of the most enthusiastic yoga teachers would be hesitant to make.

As Courtney Bender argued in a lengthy and at times withering review essay for Church History, Brown’s argument in The Healing Gods uses the work of scholars of religion in a cursory fashion that casts them as supporting pieces of evidence without truly engaging with them at length or in depth. Similarly, in her chapter on yoga, Brown extracts evidence from scholarly and historical works on modern and pre-modern yoga, and on American metaphysical traditions generally, in ways that are decidedly at odds with the spirit and conclusions of those same works.

Image 2: Mike Shreve giving his testimony on how he was saved from yoga in Deliverance from the Occult (1991)

Image 2: Mike Shreve giving his testimony on how he was saved from yoga in Deliverance from the Occult (1991)

Mark Singleton, the author of the 2010 work Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice that is cited repeatedly in The Healing Gods, filed a declaration on behalf of the opposing side in the Encinitas case that countered Brown’s claims in her own. Singleton pointed to numerous ancient yogic texts such as the Dattatreyayogasastra and the Hathapradipika, as well as to T. Krishnamacharya, the founder of Ashtanga yoga himself, as parts of a larger body of evidence that cast yoga as being deliberately and consciously non-sectarian and non-religious. Like Catherine Albanese who in 2005 described contemporary yoga as a “new and American yogic product,” Singleton concluded by stating, “In Professor Brown’s Declaration, themes which are associated with yoga as such are, in fact, key concerns of modern American cultural history more generally (such as the relief of suffering; managing mental delusions; concern for how one’s actions effect others; valuing others; energy management; the mind-body connection; attaining a calm and relaxed body and mind etc.)… That yoga literature is used by some yoga teachers to illustrate the importance of such concerns is not an indication that these concerns are religious.” [1]

If Candy Gunther Brown’s work is so divergent with her peers in academia, how does one contextualize her understanding of yoga and her approach to it? In keeping with Bender’s assessment that Brown “exemplifies the ‘caveat emptor’ genre of popular writing about CAM,” I would argue that Brown’s writings on yoga are most similar to the genre of Christian-based criticism of yoga.

The history of yoga in the United States is almost always charted in a way that explains its current popularity and mainstream acceptance: how it went from something so small, foreign, and marginal in the late-nineteenth century to something that seems to exist on every city block and in every gym in America today. Many scholars have attempted to explain this rise in terms of eased immigration restrictions, the Counterculture of the late-1960s, or the efforts of unique and charismatic individuals. While these explanations may have their merits, appraisals of American yoga usually fail to consider that in addition to its growth and successes, yoga has attracted a constant stream of criticism. Even as the practice of yoga itself has shifted from largely being mental and magical to physical and postural, for about 120 years there have been concerns about mental harm and physical injury, moral panics about yoga teachers seducing women and breaking up homes, and mockery of yoga as faddish and bizarre. No current of this criticism has been as strong or steady as the Christian opposition to yoga carried out in sermons, lectures, and in print.

Only a few years after Swami Vivekananda’s arrival in the United States, and in the midst of a wave of discourse surrounding the swami and the (largely female) attention he had been receiving, the Christian Literature Society for India set the tone for this opposition and published a slim volume titled Swami Vivekananda and His Guru which aimed to expose the swami’s efforts in the United States as the work of a fraud, buttressed with dozens of statements by prominent Americans. The early twentieth century was marked by sharp polemics against yoga by authors for Christian and secular outlets, and their charges would be repeated for decades in more general surveys casting swamis and gurus as part of a large and diverse threat to Christian America.

Opposition to yoga as heretical and non-Christian continued as ministers and authors included it in their surveys of cults and New Religious Movements from the 1950s onward, and the rejection of yogic practice also became a feature of many Christian conversion narratives. Over the last few decades, yoga has come under the radar of deliverance ministries and those practicing spiritual warfare who see pranayama and asana as opening the door to demonic forces and oppression.

Of course American Christianity has always been varied and complex, and, like yoga, it too has changed and morphed over time. Pastoral concerns over a handful of attention-grabbing lectures by a swami at the turn of the century are not interchangeable with the current warnings of a megachurch minister to much larger numbers of Christians who attend classes at a local studio. And yet, there have been several threads that have remained consistent throughout the history of Christian opposition to yoga in the United States over the last century and a quarter.

Yoga, in this discourse, is a cover for and is inseparable from Hinduism. Yoga cannot be simply reduced to any of its parts (exercise, self-improvement) or what its advocates or adherents claim it to be. Yoga either leads to an adoption of Hinduism, or it already contains the essence of it— and thus practitioners of yoga are by default also practicing Hindus. Hinduism itself is routinely conjured up in the most simplistic and shocking terms, and, described as consisting of magic, idolatry, or goddess-worship (usually with images of Kali), it is rendered incompatible with Christianity. Even some of the same wording and metaphors have remained consistent over time. We find the same language of yoga teachers “mesmerizing” and “seducing” students with their teachings, as well as similar comparisons between the serpentine kundalini energy and the serpent in the Garden of Eden, from pre-WWI articles to 1990s DVDs to today’s YouTube videos.

Not only do we see reflections of this genre in Brown’s general views of yoga, but there are striking parallels between Brown’s work and the genre of Christian anti-yoga critique. In her testimony, Brown described the physical movements within yogic practice as “yoga rituals,” which can (according to Brown) change the practitioner’s worldview, ethos, and behavior regardless of belief, intent, or context. Such claims and phrases sound as if derived straight from the 2006 book Yoga and the Body of Christ by the late Christian apologist Dave Hunt, who also called yogic poses “rituals” and claimed that “one cannot adopt even the physical aspects of yoga without becoming spiritually ensnared.”(38)

Also in her Encinitas-case testimony, Brown stated that she considers karate and Taekwondo (even in Olympic competition) to be religious like yoga. This is an unusual grouping that few academic scholars of religion would make, but it can be found in the seminal and influential 1973 deliverance manual Pigs in the Parlor which, like Brown, warns of “religious errors” that can be found in “such popular interests as yoga exercises and karate which cannot be divorced from heathen worship.”(29) In statements that echoed pieces from a century earlier, like Mabel Daggett’s “Heathen Invasion of America,” Brown also testified that Ashtanga yoga was a product of “intentional marketing” that deceived its practitioners through camouflage and conspiracy, and that yoga instructors were planted in the environs of the school district.

Another common feature of this genre has been the often ironic necessity for Christian opponents of yoga to take their subject at its word and on its own terms. We can find numerous historical antecedents of critics in early twentieth-century America who would accept the definitions of yoga, statistics of membership, and claims to power given by South Asian yoga teachers to show the grave threat they posed to Americans, and then condemn those same teachers as fraudulent and untrustworthy in the next paragraph or page.

Andrea Jain has argued that the “Yogaphobic” and “Hindu Origins” positions on yoga in current cultural debates— respectively belonging to evangelical Christian opposition to modern yogic practice and Hindu claims to the same— both depend on many of the same assumptions for the arguments of either side to be valid: yoga needs to be ancient, Indian, and religiously Hindu. It makes sense, then, that Brown would need to look to the self-advancing works of yoga teachers and groups like the Hindu American Foundation, frequently over and above scholarship, to buttress her claims of yoga as Hinduism full-stop.

Finally, there is the verdict in the Encinitas case. A pithy recounting of Judge John Meyer’s ruling could describe it as such: the yoga program was religious, but not religious enough to be considered as religion. While this reasoning may seem contradictory on its face— Brown herself described it as “frankly confusing” and “astounding”— it is sane and reasonable upon closer inspection. For those in the academic study of religion as well as non-specialist members of the public, we are familiar on some level with the variety, complexity, subtlety, and gradations of religion: how spiritual and secular worlds often blend and flow into one another, how dependent religious meaning is upon individuals, and how difficult it is to map definitions of religion onto the real world of practice and experience. It is not possible to divide the world— be it in a yoga class, a chiropractor’s office, or elsewhere— into what is simply “religion” and “not religion” like separating so many sheep from goats.

Meyer eventually rejected Brown’s testimony in the Encinitas case and commented that “Dr. Brown has an obvious bias and I think can almost be determined to be on a mission against Ashtanga yoga.” Brown protested the charges of bias in a blog post, seeing “the only possible basis” for that claim in a mistaken assumption that she was funded by the Christian Wilfred S. Templeton Foundation instead of the non-apologetic John Templeton Foundation. Claims of bias are more understandable in light of Brown’s actions on behalf a group like the NCLP, though, which put a biblical-based one-page guide on its website to inform the public that yoga was not Christian since Christians “should not worship or bow down to idols” which are “connected to demonic activity.”

More importantly, the court may have been unpersuaded by Brown’s testimony because she stands apart from others in the discipline of religious studies and the subfields of work on modern yoga and the American metaphysical tradition. American courts have long used standards for scientific evidence and expert testimony— such as the Frye test (1923) and later the Daubert test (1993)— that require such evidence and testimony to be generally accepted by their respective scholarly communities. To diverge sharply from the larger conversations and bodies of work of one’s peers may sometimes be less the mark of a rebellious maverick than a reason to be viewed askance.

References

[1] See Catherine Albanese, “Sacred (and Secular) Self-Fashioning: Esalen and the American Transformation of Yoga,” in Jeffrey J. Kripal and Glenn W. Shuck (eds.), On the Edge of the Future: Esalen and the Evolution of American Culture (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2005), 45.

Evangelical Yoga: Cultural Appropriation and Translation in American Religions

super-funny-pet-picture-the-yo-5926Dr. Brown began her career as a historian of evangelicalism, and soon branched out into the study of religious healing and “new religions” in the U.S. In this interview, we discuss her interest in yoga as a new American phenomenon and the way that some evangelical Christians practice it. Brown provides a historic overview of bodily–religious practices in America, starting with mesmerism, occultism, osteopathy, and chiropractic in the nineteenth century. These practices challenged the standard “heroic” model of medicine: Instead of the patient experiencing torturous medical treatments, a practitioner simply realigns the patient’s body or does a quick procedure. Such bodily practices blurred, in some cases, with Pentecostal and Holiness Christians’ use of prayer as a medical treatment. (Today, many chiropractors retain an interest in bodily energy and proper alignment, though they may not articulate this view to their patients.)

As the nineteenth century progressed, many Americans consumed translations of Hindu and Buddhist literature. Asian concepts of bodily practice and energy fields (qi, meridians, chakras) entered the lexicon of new American religions. Theosophy, in particular, borrowed from Hindu and Buddhist concepts. The introduction of Eastern metaphysics to America created a small market for the introduction of yoga. This market grew in the 20th century as Vivekananda and Yogananda brought forms of yoga (and, in Yogananda’s case, a hybrid of Hinduism & Christianity) to the U.S. Today, evangelical Christians are adopting yoga, finding parallels between chakras and the Holy Spirit, or — in an act of cultural appropriation — creating a new kind of yoga shorn of Hindu references. The American Hindu community has criticized such cultural appropriation. Some Hindus have also suggested that a Christian doing yoga poses, or asana, may slowly convert to Hinduism, making evangelical yoga a stealth victory for Vedic culture.

The interview concludes with a discussion of Dr. Brown’s field research methods, along with her and Mr. Gorman’s thoughts about secularization in America and the inadequacies of secularism as a research concept.

Editor’s Note: On 29 June 2017 we published a response to this interview, written by Philip Deslippe, which provides an important and well-argued counter-narrative to this interview. As with every podcast we publish, we encourage listeners/readers to digest the podcast in tandem with the response(s) , to explore further if interested, and to get in touch in the comments, via email, or on social media to continue the discussion. 

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A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.

Evangelical Yoga: Cultural Appropriation and Translation in American Religions

Podcast with Candy Gunther-Brown (19 June 2017).

Interviewed by Daniel Gorman Jr

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Gunther-Brown – Evangelical Yoga 1.1

Daniel Gorman (DG) : Dr Candy Gunther-Brown, welcome to the Religious Studies Project!

Candy Brown (CB): Thank you.

DG: So, I’m calling you from up-state New York – you’re in Indiana, and I’m told the weather is equally miserable in both places.

CB: That seems to be about right.

DG: OK. So, today we’re going to be talking about your research into new religious movements, particularly: how people who are not Hindu wind up practising yoga.

CB: Sure.

DG: So to begin, why don’t you tell our listeners how you got interested in new religious movements or, in this case , old religious practices being done in a new way?

CB: Sure. Well, my research trajectory really started with looking at Evangelicals in the 19th century and at print culture. And then, as I wanted to move forward in time to look at later 19th century, into the 20th century and into the 21st century, I realised that it was really a much bigger story than just what was going on in the United States with the Evangelicals. And so I needed to start looking at global moments and much more interconnection. And I also realised that a big part of the story was Pentecostal charismatic Christianity. So that took my research, then, into the directions of looking at, particularly, Pentecostal practices of prayer for healing and deliverance from evil spirits. And so I did a lot of interview work in the field, worked with various Pentecostals and asked them about their healing experiences. And so this led to me to start asking questions that were, in a sense, more of an empirical nature of what happens when people pray for healing. So then I was looking at some science and religion kinds of questions. But I also got some very interesting responses from my Pentecostal respondents. Because, when I started asking them about prayer for healing, they also started to volunteer that they loved their chiropractors.

DG: Really?

CB: And this was a somewhat surprising response to me, given what I knew about Chiropractics: that it’s roots were in mesmerism and spiritualism, and the founders and developers of the tradition saw themselves as doing something very different from Christianity. And the Christian informants that I was talking to, not only did they love their chiropractors but they also insisted that they were Christian. They didn’t bother telling me that their medical doctors were Christian, but they really wanted me to know that their chiropractors were. Again this was very interesting because if you look at survey research that’s been done on chiropractors you see that around 80% or so will say that they’re Christians, and around 80% or so share vitalistic, metaphysical beliefs, very much in line with the founders of chiropractics. So you’ve got a really interesting kind-of blending of worldviews and frameworks and interpretations of the world. And I realised that this was really just the tip of the iceberg. And so, from looking at chiropractic I began to look at other kinds of complementary and alternative medicine, including various kinds of meditation – transcendental meditation, mindfulness meditation, but also Reiki, therapeutic touch, acupuncture, homeothapy, aromatherapy – and realised that some of the most engaged practitioners were actually Evangelical Christians. And particularly the ones who were interested in charismatic and Pentecostal Christianity, who had a kind of worldview where there’s some kind of spiritual force that’s interacting with the world. So a lot of the reasoning process that these Evangelicals used was: if there’s a spirit and it’s having beneficial effects on health, then there must be a kind of an analogy between the Holy Spirit and the spiritual properties that are at work in these other practices. And thus, I landed on yoga and mindfulness practised by Evangelicals, as well as by a lot of other Americans who engage in these practices, for various reasons – related to spirituality as much as health and wellness.

DG: That’s a lot! Let me . . . . I’ll take one thread and we’ll work through this. Some listeners, especially outside the United States, may not be familiar with some of the traditions you mentioned, some of the 19th century occult things: mesmerism, and chiropractic. Could you talk a little bit more about how these alternative viewpoints to Christianity . . . where they came from?

CB: Sure. Well around the middle of the 19th century there was a lot of dissatisfaction among certain Americans who were dealing with both a medical orthodoxy and a religious orthodoxy. (5:00) And the medical orthodoxy was heroic medicine – and by today’s standard, [it was] not very effective and very aggressive. So, things like vomiting with mercury derivatives and bleeding people. And it was the patient who was the hero as they were subjected to all kinds of very strenuous treatments by doctors.

DG: Torture.

CB: Yes. I mean, for many patients that was their perspective. But then a lot of the Calvinist theologians, who were in the dominant mainstream, basically gave the advice that patients should submit to their doctors as a way of resigning to God’s will for sickness. And the reason was that spiritual sanctification required a kind of physical kind of submission and sickness. And so this dominant theology, that sanctification is produced through suffering in the body, aligned well with heroic medicine. But there was also a lot of resistance. And so this is where you start getting the emergence of nature-cure kinds of medical alternatives. But then you also start to get the development of divine healing movements where the interest is in a focus on prayer for healing. So, whether it is a nature-cure looking to water and spiritual forces and kind-of the alignment of the planets, or whether it’s a prayer to God the Father through Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit, there is a widespread search for something else – some alternative to the mainstream offerings.

DG: That’s very interesting because I recently read, for my graduate school lists, Catherine Albanese’s A Republic of Mind and Spirit. And she talks, in that book, about how osteopathy emerged as sort-of this quasi-religious movement: the idea that you can align the energy forces in your body by manipulating bones.

CB: Yes. And actually the founder of chiropractic, D.D. Palmer, was accused by Still, the founder of osteopathy, of basically stealing his ideas. The ideas are so close. And they both emerge out of a vitalistic metaphysical framework. And what’s interesting is that osteopathy was much more embraced by the medical mainstream. So that, today, there’s really a kind of a sense of equivalence, almost, between an osteopathic medical degree and an MD. Whereas chiropractic is still much more on the fringes, even though it’s become a lot more mainstream. And it’s not necessarily that osteopathy has actually renounced the metaphysical framework, but they’ve been a lot more intentional and effective in terms of gaining mainstream medical legitimacy.

DG: Well, that’s one thing I’ve wondered about – I mean, as just someone looking at medical treatments – you know, chiropractors don’t receive the same training in anatomy and physiology that a doctor or a modern osteopath receives. . .

CB: That’s true. And it’s not just a matter of difference in training, but it’s really a difference in philosophy. An idea that Palmer articulated . . . . So Palmer, the founder of chiropractic, basically said that all disease is a matter of a failure of alignment with innate intelligence – that’s universal intelligence, so “innate” was short for this. And so you may ask the question, what are chiropractors adjusting? And it’s actually, they’re adjusting the spine for the sake of having a free flow of innate. It’s not just a physical kind of adjustment. So that was the rationale for how chiropractic could affect all kinds of other conditions, whether it’s having earaches, or infections, or whether it’s turning a breach baby – I mean there’s all kinds of different claims that, even today, are made for chiropractic. And they stem from the idea that, really, the key to health is the innate intelligence. And so it’s that philosophy that’s really at the core, and why there’s still so much tension with modern medicine.

DG: I do want to move onto the yoga connection. But there’s one question I’ll pose to you as somebody who researches these kinds of movements: so to some, let’s say an atheist medical practitioner, what you’re describing is pseudo-science. But that doesn’t seem that way to people who practise it and believe that it helps them. How do you navigate that balance between judging and understanding?

CB: Well, I think this is where it’s important to really look at a multiplicity of perspectives and to try and explain: well, who are the developers of various practices? But not only what are the roots of these practices, what are today’s philosophies? And this is why for chiropractic, for instance, it’s important that there’s survey research that’s been done by chiropractors, that basically confirm that the beliefs that are held by many chiropractors today are actually very much in alignment with those that were articulated by the Palmers. (10:00) Now that doesn’t mean that the chiropractors always communicate that with their patients. In fact, that often is not the case. And so, one of the things that it’s important for scholars to do is to actually look at the variety of narratives that are articulated by practitioners as well as patients, depending on who their audiences are. And this is something that we’ll see with yoga, as well – that explanation of what practices do, why they’re practices, what they mean – you may not always get the same explanation if you’re looking at different audiences, and different purposes for giving that account of what the practice is.

DG: So now, this is where I think chiropractic and yoga tie together. This concept of energy in the body – well, to someone who knows anything about Hinduism, this sounds a lot like the idea of chakras and energy flows in the body. So, in the 19th century, when people like Palmer and others were starting their work, what understanding in America was there of Indian religions?

CB: Sure. Well, there was a combination of Western metaphysical traditions – something like homeothapy or aromatherapy would be rooted in that kind of tradition – and there was often quite a bit of exchange, though, with Asian religious traditions as well. So a lot of the people who were developing these Western metaphysical ideas, they actually were reading texts that they got from India and other parts of Asia. They were interacting with ideas of say Prana or qi, or chakras and meridians, as you mentioned. And so there’s often a real, kind of, exchange and consonance in these ideas. And a lot of the practitioners of chiropractic or yoga will say, yes, there’s a lot that there actually is in common between the Western and Eastern traditions.

DG: Yes. I was thinking of the Theosophist, people like Madam Blavatsky, who think you can control the spirits with your mind – and then she goes and lives in India for a decade!

CB: Well exactly! And then she actually formally converted to Buddhism, and she drew extensively on Hinduism and a variety of Western traditions and Freemasonry. So, that kind of eclectic interest in various forms of spiritually – sometimes framed as science themselves . . . . A lot of the pioneers in the kinds of movements that are popular today were very interested in exploring a variety of practices and traditions.

DG: So, as far as yoga goes, when did that begin to be introduced to the American market? I’m thinking, for instance, in the 1920s there were the immigration restrictions, so how was this material – about philosophy and exercise – how as that making the crossing to America?

CB: Sure, well even as early as the 19th century you’ve got the transcendental folks, like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, who are reading as many translated Hindu and Buddhist texts as they’re able to. And you got Thoreau who’s doing his best to practice yoga. So even in the 19th century you can see some of the beginnings of practices coming into America. The World Parliament of Religion, in 1893, was a really important event. Because there you’ve got Vivekananda – actually, several of those Hindu and Buddhist spokespersons – who are starting to frame practices in a language of science, to basically argue that Hinduism and Buddhism (as they’re starting to be named and understood by Westerners) are, actually, more compatible with modern science than Christianity is. And so you start to have a stream of popularisers and, even with immigration restrictions, you’ve got enough who are either coming into the United States themselves or whose books and publications are crossing over, that the influence, again, begins to be disseminated. Yogananda is another one of these hugely influential figures who sets up a base in California and continues to be popular even into the present day with his Self-Realisation Fellowship. And so now his followers are continuing to disseminate the traditions. And so there’ve been a variety of health and beauty promotions, exercise promotions, the use of television – so really an increase over the course of the 20th century, but accelerating with: the lifting of immigration restrictions in the 1960s; the interest of the Beat generation; the counter-culture. But then, even more recently in the 1990s and beyond, you start to see this increasing mainstream status – even to the point of putting yoga and mindfulness practices into public schools. And that really is just within the last couple of decades.

DG: (15:00) Well it was interesting when you mentioned Yogananda in the 1930s, because he was somebody who preached that Jesus was another incarnation of the other Hindu deities, an avatar.

CB: And that’s been a very common strategy. A very common strategy by a lot of the promoters of Yoga is to argue for consonance, for complementarity. And that’s actually been one of the things that’s been motivating for Evangelical Christians even, who feel that there’s something missing in their own tradition. And so they’re trying to fill in and supplement by borrowing from other kinds of traditions.

DG: So Evangelical Christians in the present day: how are they accessing yoga? What kinds of facilities, for instance?

CB: Well, a lot of times there’s the YMCA, there’s health clubs, sometimes more traditional yoga studios. So some Christians will find their way either into the health club version or into the studio version. But then also there’s a proliferation of explicitly Christian versions of yoga or alternatives to yoga. And so you start to get movements like: Christo-yoga, holy yoga, fully fit, Yahweh yoga, praise moves. . . . And some of them keep yoga somewhere in the title, some of them try to remove yoga from the title. And there’s a kind of Evangelical sense that religion, really, is fundamentally reducible to language. It’s about what you believe and what you say that you believe. And so if you change the language, and you say you’re no longer doing “sun salutations” – salutes to the sun – but you say you’re doing “son salutations” – s-o-n, instead of s-u-n – you’ve now repurposed the practice and dedicated it to Jesus. You’re no longer doing pranayana but you’re breathing in the Holy Spirit. So by re-labelling either individual poses or larger practices, many Evangelicals are convinced that they’ve basically emptied the contents . . . . They’ve removed the Hindu contents from the container of neutral yoga practices, and they’ve poured in Bible verses and prayers. Now with a different framework of religion where it’s about practices, not necessarily just beliefs, then that may seem a rather strange or unworkable kind of approach. So some Hindu critics of the Christianisation of yoga will basically say, the prayers are actually the bodily practices. Doing the sun salutation with your body is a form of devotion to Surya the sun god. And so there are actually some warnings by Hindu spokespersons, saying that ultimately Evangelicals are going to find their faith corrupted, by their own standards, and they’re going to be led into the true way of enlightenment. And it may not be so easy just to re-label practices and make them Evangelical.

DG: Do you think – building on this theme of Hindu response – are there Hindu groups that are offended that anyone’s just using this tradition, without any sense of where it comes from?

CB: Oh there are definitely critiques of cultural appropriation. And the Hindu American Foundation launched a Take back Yoga campaign in 2008. And some of their spokespersons have been critical of Christian appropriation. But you find this, similarly, with Buddhists who complain about appropriation of mindfulness practices and claim that they’ve been secularised or, in some cases, they claim that they’ve been Christianised. So that’s definitely a critique that’s present.

DG: Now, I’m curious in the way you go about researching these things. Do you travel to Christian yoga studios? And when you go there, what do you do? Are you a participant or are you just observing?

CB: I’ve done observing. I’ve relied a lot on just the proliferation of online sources and video presentations, and [I’ve] also been present in meditation settings. And I’ve observed – I don’t participate. I think that there are ethical issues that come into play with that, so my stance is that of an observer. I do a lot of interview work with participants and with teachers. And I also do empirical work and look at the studies that have been done. And this is an interesting aspect, is to ask, “Well, what happens when people participate in either secularised or Christianised versions of something like yoga or mindfulness meditation?” And what’s interesting is that there is sociological work that suggests that there are, actually, some profound changes in spiritual and religious experiences that result – even, sometimes, from very short term involvement. But that, basically, the longer people tend to be involved in these practices, the more likely what started off as just an exercise class has turned into a spiritual pursuit. And the content of religious practices does tend to shift towards practices that would be more aligned with, say, Hinduism than with Christianity. And this is, actually, very much parallel to the kinds of claims that are made by yoga teachers and mindfulness teachers, who are very confident that the practices themselves are transformative.(20:00) And so, here, you get both proponents of yoga and mindfulness, and some of the Christian critics, who are essentially arguing that there is something inherent about theses practices themselves that transform people, regardless of what their intentions are going into the practices. Intentions, it seems, can actually change through the experiences of practices. And that claim does, to some degree, seem to be borne out by the sociological research that’s been done.

DG: Do you see any regional differences, in the United States, about the Christian reception of yoga?

CB: Well, it seems that – predictably in some ways – the coasts have a lot more yoga and a lot more Christian yoga. And also, some of the controversies over this . . . . You see more Christian yoga on the coast, you also see just more yoga programmes. But it’s not coincidental that where the most high profile law suit over yoga in public schools took place – it was in Encinita, San Diego County, California. And it was actually right next door to Yogananda’s Self-Realisation Fellowship.

DG: That’s interesting.

CB: This is also the birthplace of Ashtanga yoga in the United States, which was brought over by Pattabhi Jois, and that was the particular form of yoga that was being practised in the public schools where there was a lawsuit. So, a place like Encinita is interesting because something like 45% of the population practices yoga, compared with – as of 2012, which was when that 45% came out – it was about 9%, nationally. Now it’s about 15%, nationally. About 40% of the population is Christian, but that compares to about 70% of the total US population that’s Christian. So you have fewer Christian and more religious diversity in a place like Ansonita. But you still have a lot of Christians who are practising – and it was a minority of those Christians who protested against yoga. The large majority seemed to actually be pretty interested in practising it themselves.

DG: We’re closing in on the end our session, but I want to try to connect this practice of yoga to some of the other things you’ve mentioned, particularly transcendental meditation. It’s billed as TM now, it’s sort-of this exercise, but there’s no real sense of where that comes from. Do you think Christians are also participating in TM movements?

CB: I think that they are in one of the main places where TM has really got in its foothold: in what’s now called “quiet-time programmes” in public schools. So transcendental meditation more comes out of Hindu meditation traditions. And this is, actually, one of the places where . . . . Really, one of the only law suits where there was a judicial decision defining religion was a case of Malnak v. Yogi, in 1979, which found that transcendental meditation was a religion. And one of the lines in the concurring opinion by Arlin Adams, he said, “Well, if a Catholic can’t practice in schools, then neither should a transcendental meditator be allowed to do so.” Even so, TM programmes and quiet-time programmes have proliferated in public schools even until the present day, alongside mindfulness programmes. So I think that, a lot of the time, Christians and others – atheists as well – really don’t know where practices are coming from, and they don’t know how connected to the originating traditions those practices remain. So it’s not just a matter of, “ a long time ago there were ancient religious roots”. But, if you look at how practices are being framed when not being marketed to the public, you actually find that there are still a lot of the same claims that this is, for instance, a “Vedic victory” when yoga gets into public schools, or this is “stealth Buddhism”, when mindfulness gets into the schools. So those are the kinds of claims that are made when talking to Hindu or Buddhist sympathiser audiences. But a lot of the people who are interested in doing practices for health or wellness, they really don’t know where these practices come from and they really haven’t thought that much about how intentions may change through their participation in these practices.

DG: If anything, the future of religion in this country is going to be very interesting, because we’re going to see . . . .

CB: (Laughs) I think so too!

DG: Well I’m thinking, if the country is growing more secular, the question is: if these practices endure, then do we need to rethink the idea of secularisation?

CB: Well, I think we absolutely do. And this is where my working title for the book I’m working on now, on yoga and mindfulness in public schools, is “Secular and Religious”. And I think that practices actually can be both at the same time. (25:00) And that by presenting practices as secular that this can actually be a more effective way of advancing new forms of religion and spirituality.

DG: Thank you for your time, Dr Gunther-Brown.

CB: Thank you very much.

Citation Info: Gunther-Brown, Candy 2017. “Evangelical Yoga: Cultural Appropriation and Translation in American Religions”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 19 June 2017. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 16 June 2017 Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/evangelical-yoga-cultural-appropriation-and-translation-in-american-religions/

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Studying Tantra from the Inside and Out

In this interview on ‘Studying Tantra from the Inside and Out’, Douglas R Brooks allows the listener an insight into his own personal and academic development, and an account of how various factors led him to the study of South Indian Shrividya Shakta Tantrism. There are many interesting elements to consider therein, but for me, the interview first and foremost appeals to one of the core debates within Religious Studies: the insider/outsider debate. Due to the interview’s largely autobiographical focus, I find it most useful when viewed as an elaboration on this discussion, and I hope, in this short response, to highlight elements of the ongoing debate. Specifically, I wish to highlight the shifting nature of the categories of ‘insider’ and ‘outsider’; emphasise the position of the ‘other’ in judging the status of the researcher; and to consider how the researcher may work to position themselves in this dynamic.

One of the RSP’s earliest interviews with George Chryssides covers the insider/outsider debate, and raises several questions in relation to it – as does Katie Aston’s response, in which she explores the question of whether it is best for the scholar (or more specifically, the anthropologist) of religion to have any belief in order to relate to the individuals that they research.   Most would agree that being an insider or outsider to the group that one studies will always be on some sort of spectrum, with few clear or stable boundaries. The researcher’s position in this spectrum will alter according to various identity markers, including whether or not they are already an accepted member of the community being researched, or indeed if they are a ‘believer’ in any capacity; but also according to markers such as nationality, ethnicity, native language, age, and gender.  Each of the researcher’s identity markers will be perceived differently by the individuals they encounter, and this will define the extent to which one is perceived as an ‘insider’ or an ‘outsider’ by each individual.  This sets a broad background for the interview with Brooks, a scholar renowned for his research on (and deep involvement) in Shakta Tantra in South India.  Several of the aforementioned ideas arise particularly prominently in this interview.

Starting with a more general consideration of being an insider or outsider to a typically Christian, North American background, Brooks discusses his experience of being brought up in a non-religious household, using the somewhat revealing phrase that he ‘didn’t have to undo a great deal’.  By casting his non-religious upbringing as an advantage, Brooks consciously positions himself outside of the sphere of traditional religion in the North American context. Despite appearing to be grateful for this lack of religious influence in his early life, he also describes how this later led to him being somewhat of an outsider on his University course, which assumed that students of comparative religion would come from a Judeao-Christian background, and would have some form of committed belief. Brooks clearly felt that he did not fit this mould.

However, to avoid reiterating previous discussions about the effects of a (non)religious background, I prefer to focus on one theme that emerges particularly strongly in this interview: that of language, and the great effect that it can have on the status of the researcher. Brooks clearly places great value on his own command of Sanskrit and Tamil, and indeed, his knowledge of these languages has afforded him a unique understanding of South Indian Tantric and Goddess traditions that few scholars can match.  The importance placed on language also leads him to refer to a past lecturer on Hinduism and Buddhism as ‘a well-meaning amateur’ due to his lack of first-hand knowledge of Sanskrit, which thus denied him direct access to the literature (here, Brooks perhaps overemphasises the role of texts).  Clearly, Brooks’ skill in this area can afford him increased access to not only the literature of his field, but to individuals and communities in South India today – contributing toward his efforts to become an insider.  On a more practical level, advanced linguistic ability also avoids the complexities of employing a translator in the fieldwork setting – an arrangement which risks a loss of nuance, and reinforces the researcher’s position as an outsider through the translator’s necessary presence and involvement.

As well as aiding in his research in South India, this linguistic ability also gives Brooks social and cultural capital for the groups that he speaks with during his public engagement events: one attendee and blogger writes, ‘It blew my mind when he lead puja on the last day.  He busted out mantras as if he were born a Brahmin. Dude can read Sanskrit!’. Through his use and knowledge of languages, Brooks can thus be perceived by America yoga students as more of an ‘authentic’ insider to those South Indian traditions which he studies.  This in turn can afford him the status of an insider to the yoga community, which places high value on these relatively rare skills.

This also raises the question of Brooks’ status to those involved in the North American yoga community, in which he lectures extensively on Tantric philosophy and appears to be considered a yoga teacher.  However, unlike the vast majority of yoga teachers, he does not teach asana (as far as I can tell).  Thus Brooks straddles the spheres of the academy and the yoga world, finding a place in both but not as a ‘typical’ member.  This straddling echoes that done by Brooks’ own mentor, Dr Sundaramoorthy.  It seems that for Brooks, Sundaramoorthy represented an ideal insider to the both the academic world and the world of South Indian Tantrism, as he studied Shakta Tantrism academically, was skilled in languages, and was born to an orthodox Brahmin family.

Finally, we can take a more removed perspective and consider Brooks’ positioning of himself to the audience, and the language used therein – already touched upon in his comment on not having to ‘undo’ the effects of a religious upbringing.  Although it is important not to hypothesise too imaginatively on the interviewee’s choice of words or topics to cover, we can at least consider the effect they might have on the audience.  For example, Brooks explicitly places himself outside the ‘hippy movement’ of the Beatles’ era, as well as emphasising his removal from the modern postural yoga movement exemplified by figures such as K. Pattabhi Jois, B.K.S Iyengar, and Tirumalai Krishnamacharya. What does the interviewee convey to the audience by doing so?  To me, Brooks seems to emphasise his commitment to studying South Indian traditions in their more classical or traditional forms. However, by doing so, he could perhaps be casting himself as a more ‘authentic’ researcher and insider of Indian traditions by maintaining some distance between himself and the New Age movement, often subject to accusations of cultural appropriation, a lack of historical understanding, and being more ‘lightweight’.   As well as looking at what is said in this interview, we can also consider what is not said. Brooks’ own involvement in the North American yoga world is downplayed as his ‘weekend job’ of public engagement, which partially obscures the fact that this isn’t done in an entirely academic capacity, but also in the capacity of a devoted teacher of the Rajanaka Yoga philosophy.  The listener wonders whether Brooks’ downplaying of his involvement with the North American yoga world could perhaps be an appeal to greater academic credibility, and to the academy’s preference for highly objective empirical accounts of religious phenomena.

I find autobiographical interviews such as this valuable for the themes that emerge throughout the narrative, such as that of the researcher’s status as an insider or outsider.  I hope that this short response has highlighted the complexity of relationships between Brooks (as the researcher) and the other social actors he encounters including, but not limited to: the individuals and communities he studies; his mentor, Dr Sundaramoorthy; the North American yoga world; the academy; and the listeners of this podcast – all of whom, I suspect, will judge him as an ‘insider’ or ‘outsider’ to wildly varying degrees.

 

 

 

Studying Tantra from Within and Without

Shakti

Shakti

Douglas R. Brooks, Professor of Religion at the University of Rochester, discusses how he became involved in the academic study of Hinduism, specifically Tantra and goddess-centered traditions. He begins with his training in Sanskrit and Tamil at Middlebury College, where he found that little English work had been done on Hindu traditions for some years. Living intermittently in India during the 1970s–80s, Brooks found a lack of secular studies of Hinduism, as opposed to religious devotional studies. Given these challenges, Brooks has had to study Tantric Hinduism from within and without the traditions. On the one hand, his friendship with Dr. Gopala Aiyar Sundaramoorthy introduced him to the lived practice as well as venerable philosophical traditions of Tantra and tantric yoga. Working with Sundaramoorthy, Brooks was “within” a vibrant Hindu tradition. As he refined his work at Harvard Divinity School, however, Brooks articulated a critical, non-religiously invested perspective on Hinduism — in short, observing Tantra from “without,” treating the religion like any other secular subject worthy of study. This approach caused Brooks to clash with older scholars at HDS, who assumed that Judeo-Christian terms and concepts were universally applicable to all religions. Later in the interview, Brooks discusses his interpretation of Tantric yoga, giving particular attention to the philosophy’s doctrine of application to daily problems. This kind of yoga is distinct from the New Age, exercise-based style of yoga that B.K.S. Iyengar and others popularized in the West. In recent years, Brooks has attended many popular yoga workshops with the goal of educating the general public about genuine Tantric philosophy from India. He concludes with some reflections on public service as an academic and his plans for a new book on Tamil pilgrimages.

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A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.


Studying Tantra from Within and Without

Podcast with Douglas R. Brooks

Interviewed by Daniel Gorman Jr.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock

Audio and transcript available at: Brooks – Studying Tantra from Within and Without 1.1

Daniel Gorman (DG): Professor Brooks, welcome to the Religious Studies Project.

Douglas Brooks (DB): Thanks for having me.

DG: Could you tell us, briefly, what drew you to the study of Hindu, in particular, Sanskrit literature? Because you went to Middlebury College – a place that you could be trained in any of many languages, and you chose one of the oldest and deadest!

DB: I didn’t so much choose Sanskrit as Sanskrit chose me. And the same quickly followed up in the study of Tamil and other Indian languages. So, I suppose it traces back to my interest in history and the ancient world, and specifically in religion. I wasn’t raised in a religious family, but I think that’s always been an advantage to me: I didn’t have to undo a great deal. But I made myself religious, as a child, of my own accord, so I suppose that’s a kind of peculiar character feature. I mean, what kind of a kid asks to go to church, when his parents are not church-goers at all? Anyway, I got over that, that being itself it’s own story. And when I got to Mid, I was just interested in History, and the Classics and particularly philosophy and political science – and religion. Religion always struck me as still the subject that let you study all other subjects. So I suppose that was the real hook for me. You could be interested in language, politics, art, music, linguistics. . . . Everything in the study of religion just lets you study culture, lets you study history, all of the subjects. And I still think that as an undergraduate teacher. I think this is the department of the Humanities. And I think that that’s a fair assessment. So, India provided a perfect example if only because everything about the Hindus is. . . creates a history and a literature, and a politics and the rest of it. So what really happened was, I took a class that introduced Hinduism and Buddhism, from a really wonderful man who, as I look back on now, I see as a very thorough scholar for a fellow who didn’t have the languages, who – by my own standards today – would be a well-meaning amateur, in the sense of not having direct access. But he did an excellent job and I got hooked reading early Buddhism and then, particularly, the eclectic prose and verse Upanishads. And the literature just captivated me for its beauty, and for its insight, and for its cultural complexity, and its depth. And I said to myself at eighteen years old, “If this is interesting in these wooden unreadable translations, how much better would it be if you could go after the real thing?”

DG: I suppose I’m curious about access, because I’m thinking of the University of Chicago’s publication, now, of the Bhagavad Gita in the Mahabharata in English. They’re still not done with it! So how much material was available when you were. . . ?

DB: That’s because nobody wants to do it!

DG: So how much was available in the 1970s, before computers?

DB: (5:00) Well, you know, there was this amazing emergence of Indology at the end of the 19th-century. And there are astonishing scholars of that era, whose work we continue to rely on. I mean, Maurice Bloomfield, Wilhelm Kalend . The material available in German and French and the early English scholarship – astonishing degrees of erudition! I just don’t even know how these guys learned that much about everything. They had their own issues of colonialism, and sexism and their own parochialisms that came out of the era in which they first emerged. But the 19th-century provided an enormous well-spring of philology, and scholarship, and commitment: very serious people. That carried on in the period between the wars in Europe, which was also the period when American scholarship in Indology and the History of Religions, really took off. And because the History of Religions as a kind of German phenomenon – you know Religionsgeschecte, Wissenschaft, that kind of “subject” invented in Europe – translated well here because we’re pluralists and because we’re almost by nature compelled to study religion, as a subject – which is still a rare subject in a European University. You find Philology, and you find History departments, and you find other ways in which the subject is divvied up, but you don’t really find Religion departments. And that, too, was available at Middlebury. So there was a fair amount of – as I said – old, wooden, 19th -century translation material. There was the material that was created in the space between the wars, and then there really was a long hiatus until the ‘50s and ‘60s, when another generation came along and took up the work of that generation that was, in fact, trained before World War Two. So, my principal Sanskrit Professor at Harvard, Daniel Engels, was a code-breaker during World War Two. He was a Harvard undergraduate in the ’30s, and  I was studying with him in the ’70s and ’80s. ‘80s, I suppose, was our real time together: ’79-’86. He retired in ’84. So he came from a different era. He came from a whole different world. And then, what happened in the ’60s and ’70s kind of reshaped me. Because I came out of that rebellious world of looking for alternative voices, and subversive models, and other kinds of “How do you discover yourself?” questions – which were very much still not part of my History of Religions programme. Let me say one more thing about that. When I entered the doctoral programme at Harvard . . . . I guess that was ’81 after my first master’s. I graduated at the Divinity Schools and you had to reapply and then get into the Doctoral programme. There, the expectation was that we were Christians, or that we were Jewish and that we were studying theses “other” religions. The Comparative Study of Religion meant that you were a committed religious person of your own Western persuasion, and that these were the subjects you studied. It hadn’t occurred to the directors of that programme that any of us had, what they would call, “gone native”, or that we weren’t particularly avowed or created by our own Western religions. We weren’t using that as our home base, or our focal point for the study of religion, and yet that was still very much the model. You know, my secondary field in the Comparative Study of Religion, when I passed my general exams at Harvard, was Christianity – which had long since passed being of any personal connection to me.

DG: And that brings me to Dr Sundaramoorthy, if I’m saying his name correctly.

DB: Yes, you said it perfectly. So I arrived in India in 1977, on the University of Wisconsin’s College Year programme, looking for “the wonder that was India”. (10:00) Romantically, still very much a seeker, I didn’t know that I was seeking Hinduism, but I was seeking those sources and those ideas and commitments. And before I met Dr Sundaramoorthy I’d tumbled down that flight of stairs that makes you realise that you missed everything: that this was over, that the “wonder” that I had romanticised, and created this ancient India, and I had worked through this vision of what I thought it would be, or could be. . . . And I arrived there and  it was 1977. And from the standpoint of that romanticised vision, that party was over. Now, I was blessed because I came late enough into the “East comes West” story to miss the Beatles. Does that make sense?

DG: Yes.

DB: I didn’t really get the Hare Krishna Beatles bug. I didn’t get caught up in one of the Swamis coming West – any Maharishi, Mukundananda – that wasn’t my gig. I was too young for that. I wasn’t going that way. None of that ever seemed to be the real thing that I was looking for. So, when I went to India looking for the real thing, rather than some distilled version of hippy culture – I wasn’t averse to that, it just wasn’t what I wanted for myself – I got to India and it didn’t seem to be there any more. It seemed to be long gone. India was definitely on its own mission of economic development, but it had culturally decided not to do that, go in that direction. Every kid I knew or met, was studying medicine or engineering. They were headed into our world. They were headed into First World global consumerist sience and medicine. And you can still see that in diaspora Indian communities. That’s where the energy still is in education. So there wasn’t this rich, deep, academic culture of the study of India in India. That’s not what you found. And then, out in the temples, or out in the liturgical worlds, or in the practitional worlds, or in peoples’ religious lives you didn’t really find that level of scholarship, or that level of deep erudite commitment, that I had kind of romanticised and hoped for. And then, at my wits end with really very little other recourse, I was introduced to Dr Sundaramoorthy, who was a Reader and Chair of the Sanskrit department at Madurai University. He was eventually elevated to Professor. And he actually was that character I was looking for. Because he had this serious academic training that traversed through Indian Universities and Oxford and other places where his work had been reviewed and he had learned his subject. He was a linguist and a comparativist. His English was elevated – immaculate, really. But he had also been raised in an ultra-orthodox Brahmin family. So his heritage was the stewardship of a tradition of Sanskrit erudition and Tamil culture. He was just as magnificent in Tamil as he was in Sanskrit. And yet he also had the capacities and the training of Western scholarship. So meeting him was, again, just pretty much serendipity. Like, I walked in and met the right guy at the right time. He had just, in fact, returned from a long stint in Malaysia and Singapore working at the university in Kuala Lumpor. If I had come a year earlier, he wouldn’t have been there. So I just got lucky, I mean. And then, as those years moved on – I was supposed to spend nine months, I spent two years – and as our studies moved on, he was the one who encouraged me to go to Harvard and to continue my doctoral work and my more advanced work here, and then to go back and study with him. (15:00) Which is what I did. And when I won the Fulbright, in ’84, that’s technically my Fulbright year . . . . I wrote a PhD proposal for the grant that I won before the professorial committee approved my proposal. So I had the Fulbright to write my PhD before the professorial committee had given me approval, and I applied and actually won the grant before I passed my general exams for the PhD! And the grant essentially landed on Dr Sundaramoorthy’s desk, so I was paid to go home! And then, I had leveraged the situation so that: what were they going to do, say, “Oh no we’re not going to approve your PhD proposal, even though you already have the grant”? So I had the Fulbright fellowship and got to go back to Madurai to live in my teacher’s house, to become a Fellow of the Department of Sanskrit, at the University where he was the Chair of the department.

DG: How did that introduce you to the study of yoga, though?

DB: Well, the study of yoga is the study of India, as far as I can tell.

DG: It’s what most of your books are about.

DB: Well, most of my books are about the intersections of the medieval traditions of the rise of esoteric yoga, the Tantric traditions, especially the goddess traditions: those particular, peculiar formulations that involve the Brahmins in South India and other ways in which it anthropologically took hold. What living in Sundaramoorthy’s house did, and spending all those years in India did is, it gave me immersion in language and culture. I got, essentially, the training of an anthropologist, both in a kind of formal fieldwork sense but also the company of a gifted comparative linguist and philologist. So I got a classical education and a fieldwork education at the same time. When you spend that much time in India, you see that correlation between sources and texts and history and living traditions. And I was particularly interested in the kind of historical tradition that you couldn’t understand without a living tradition. There’s no penetrating Tantric lore, and text, and prescription, and liturgy, and philosophy and what they call “yoga”, without meeting someone who can tell you what the books are saying and finding out what it looks like. You don’t study Tantric liturgies of complex yogic rituals without learning it from someone who can do those rituals. It’s impossible. That was always my ace in the hole, was that: the book says this, but I know what that looks like, I’ve seen that performed in more than one place, by more than one person, in more than one way.

DG: But when you said performed, we’re not just talking about the exercise aspect of yoga. . . ?

DB: No, no, no you mean what we call yoga today in the West?

DG: There’s much more to it than that.

DB: Oh no, no, no. I don’t even refer. . . . Let’s talk about that for a second. What we call yoga today in the West is now a meme, it has a life of its own, it’s a phenomena of gyms and yoga studios, and morning TV exercise shows. That is a whole separate history from the history that I would have considered yoga until 20 years ago. Those characters that brought/ invented/ co-opted the word yoga to mean postures and exercise and the somatic engagement that happens on mats or in asana in posture, that’s, in fact, not really my subject at all. I don’t really know much about that. I didn’t really follow that transmission of that material to the West. I had to learn that much, much later in my career. Who were these guys? What’s the history of what we call yoga today, like yoga asana? There are people who write about that, who’ve taken that up as their academic subject. That’s just something that happened while I was there. Characters like Krishnamacharya and Pattabhi Jois and B.K.S. Iyengar who’s a famous name in all of that. (20:00) Those guys were largely still in Pune or in Madras when I was studying in India, then they kind of brought their stuff to the West.

DG: And then you get people like John Friend. . .

DB: John Friend and Rodney Yee and Francois Raoult – these were all people who studied with Iyengar in Pune. They’re in Pune doing Hatha Yoga with Iyengar when I was in Madurai studying Tantra and learning Sanskrit and speaking Tamil. We had nothing to do. . . .That world had nothing to do with my world.

DG: So, in your world, what is yoga?

DB: Yoga was the practical esoteric methodology of applied religion. I mean, if yoga meant engagement it meant application, it meant method. And, in that sense, it meant the study of how to take ideas, values, insights, claims, and apply them somatically, cognitively emotionally: how to put them into action, or into your life. That would apply to ritual, to study, to mythology, to esoteric practices. That’s what yoga was. Yoga was the application of this visionary, philosophical religiously encoded symbolic world into practice. And the practice would be somatic and cognitive and ethical and practical, in terms of living your life. And most of that was learned textually, contemplatively and ritually.

DG: And there is, you mentioned earlier, pluralism. What you’re describing to me were different ways of living. There is a pluralistic component there.

DB: Well, because yoga means application, there were Buddhist yogas and Hindu yogas and Jain yogas and Sikh yogas – everybody’s using the word. And they’re all, in effect, using the word to mean: “This is what we do and this is how we do it.” And the “it” on the other end of that, is: what we think; what we believe; what we conjure to be possible in bodies; and what are our cognitive, spiritual and intellectual goals; how do we organise our lives? What’s the practical implications of . . . . If we have these stories and rituals and practices, how does that change our everyday lives? How do we live? How we go about our ordinary lives, our moral lives, our intellectual lives? That was what. . . . So yoga applied in every religion in India, it was just the word people used for method, application, how we do what we do, how we engage, how we connect.

DG: And you’ve spent a significant amount of time, now, doing public engagement with people who may not know the scholarly issues you and I have been discussing.

DB: Oh no, none of it! The vast majority of people, who are sort-of my weekend job, are people who got introduced to yoga simply as asana. Now that’s changing too, because over the last fifteen years of that, I would say. . . .Twenty years ago, yoga was nowhere near the sort of simple, mainstream place it factors into our contemporary society. I mean I call it “Aisle 11a” now. When you go to the Wegmans grocery store in Rochester, yoga is in Aisle 11a. It’s like “outdoor goods”, “Seasonal”, “yoga”. So, how much more mainstream can you get? It’s not even in the gym, it’s in the grocery store! So, most of the people I meet who do yoga came in through that way. They came in through a yoga studio or a gym, practicing asana. What happened fifteen or twenty years ago is that that same nascent crew, which was far from the mainstream, was still interested in things Indian. They were still interested in that old sense of all the meanings of the word yoga. Now, they had no clue of what that was about, and that’s how I got involved. They were just curious. “We do yoga. What’s that?” Well, Niagara Falls! That’s just going to come tumbling over in volumes of history and curiosities expressed in texts and sources and ideas. And somehow there’s still some small segment of that population that still asks me that question. And their rooms are full- such as it is- with people for whom yoga is just their asana practice. (25:00) And that asana practice creates this surrogate community that often substitutes – in our fragmented, secularised, less religious, less institutional world – for the kinds of communities that even my parent’s generation associated with the church, or the rotary club, or the Boy Scouts, or the Book of the Month club. People go to yoga studios and they have. . . . And since we don’t have those other kinds of institutional, pre-created structures for us – you know, you went to the church or your father was a Mason or something – you go there, now. And so, yoga studios and these sorts of environments are not only places where they get their asana practice – which they’re still principally interested in – it’s where they meet their friends, where they meet like-minded people. And then they all say, “Well, what’s yoga?” And then some bright light says, “Well, we could have an event, we could ask somebody who knows about that.”

DG: Professor Brooks we’re basically out of time, but if you could say briefly – you’ve mentioned your public work but what is your new scholarly project, if you have one?

DB: Oh yes. So I parley the two together because I’ve always thought that the vanity and self-perpetuation of scholarship, at a certain level, is just more and more of itself. It really does very little good for the world, in a certain way. And I came from an environment where we wanted to do something in the world, we wanted to build schools, we wanted to help people, we wanted to give people in India a chance to study their culture, or to have a good life, or to get an education: very simple kinds of things. So I took this out of the university environment of learning and parleyed that into opportunities to take people to India and then two pieces happened The first is, they get a great experience and we do things like build schools and send children to school, and take care of folks. That’s the simple way of putting it. But also, that means that I get to spend a great deal of time on the ground in India. So, my new projects have to do with an extension of the goddess traditions that I was working on in the ’80s. And now I’m focussed on the furtherance of that mythology as it takes place in pilgrimage in South India. So there are these whole seasons of tens of thousands of people on the road – especially in Tamil Nadu – who are going to Shiva temples and Ganesha temples and Muraga temples and then to this character named Ayyappa. And I’m following all of those pilgrim paths and tracing history, language, sources, philosophy and literature into the anthropology of the practices of pilgrimage.

DG: Professor Brooks thank you for your time. And pleasant voyages.

DB: Thanks a lot.


Citation Info: Brooks, Douglas R. 2017. “Studying Tantra from Within and Without”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 1 May 2017. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 3 May 2017. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/studying-tantra-from-within-and-without/

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Framing, Observing, and Exhibiting Yoga: A Response to Bruce Sullivan

Writing on the state of yoga in America today tends to frame discussions on the topic with statistics that attest yoga’s current popularity: the thousands of studios, the millions of practitioners, or the billions of dollars in annual revenue the yoga industry generates. The repetition of these figures runs the risk of rendering them trite, but ignoring this crucial context in which to place American yoga runs a greater risk of projecting one’s misrepresentative assumptions onto a much larger whole.

Where then does Bruce Sullivan’s research on the practice of yoga in museums— both in his interview for the Religious Studies Project and in his chapter on the subject in the edited volume Sacred Objects in Secular Places: Exhibiting Asian Religions in Museums— fit in this context? Yoga performance in museums is certainly novel and intriguing, and offers a potentially fruitful perspective to think about current understandings of yoga. Yet, it also becomes problematic to extend the transposition of an ordinary yoga class into a museum beyond novelty or intrigue, and perceive it as either a widespread practice, strange anomaly, or indicative of modern yoga’s drifting from a traditional center.

Sullivan describes these events as occurring with significant frequency in the United States (and to a lesser extent in Britain). He lards this observation with an impressive catalogue of museums hosting yoga events. Descriptors such as “diverse array,” “many,” “popular,” and “numerous” do the heavy lifting of reminding the reader how pervasive this practice has become.

Yet despite these efforts to quantify a growing and easily-discovered phenomenon, putting these numbers in their statistical contexts makes clear that this growing trend is a microcosm, dwarfed by traditional museum patronage and yogic practice. There are almost 35,000 museums in the United States alone, a number larger than the combined total locations of McDonald’s and Starbucks. When placed alongside the vast number of yoga practitioners, an honest assessment would see even the most complete accounting of yoga in museums as being a miniscule part of the whole of either. It is possible to go online as Sullivan did and create similar lists and descriptions of wine and beer tasting events at dozens of zoos around the country, but the presence of “Brew at the Zoo” and “Roar and Pour” events would not tell us much more beyond the fact that lots of people enjoy drinking alcohol and zoos have a vested interest in generating money and increasing the number of visitors.

The reasons for these yoga events, as Sullivan recognizes, are pragmatic and symbiotic. Like other public outreach, hosting yoga classes offers museums a range of benefits such as publicity, gift shop and café sales, and new visitors.  Surveys— such as the same frequent source for the size of the yoga industry in America, the large-scale 2016 “Yoga in American Study” conducted by Yoga Journal and Yoga Alliance—find the vast majority of people practicing yoga doing so in health clubs or gyms, community centers, or in the privacy of their own homes, rather than in dedicated yoga studios. Yet yoga devotees like the idea of performing their art in public places. One of every five practitioners surveyed attended a yoga event in a public place; three out of every four are interested in doing so in the future. It is simply a mutually beneficial exchange: museums gain new visitors and yoga practitioners get a desired change of scenery.

It is difficult not to see Sullivan’s preoccupation with yoga in museums as an example of what Catherine Albanese termed “show-and-tell scholarship”— work at the intersection of religious studies and popular culture that consists of “unearthing still one more custom, practice, belief, or piece of spiritual paraphernalia that no one yet among scholars had discovered.”[1] The originality and quality of this brand of scholarship, therefore depends on the novelty of the finding. The underlying assumption in both the interview for the Religious Studies Project and Sullivan’s chapter is that there is something incongruous, if not slightly absurd, about rows of people going through a Vinyasa class under the shadow of an art institution’s paintings and statuary. We would not expect a similar analysis of a wedding reception being hosted in the ballroom of a Freemasonic Lodge, or weekly Bingo night in the community center attached to a Catholic church, but something about yoga in museums seems to present a heightened contradiction between the perceived sacred and secular. The highpoint of the interview and the namesake of Sullivan’s chapter, the pair of New Age yoga students who believe that they are “reconsecrating the icons” of Buddhist images and Hindu statues that surround them in the museum through their yogic asanas, seem to embody this antinomy.

Yet the tension between sacred and secular that Sullivan finds so remarkable traffics in an overemphasis on the nature we want to attribute to both museums and yoga. Many of the features that make us assume museums are secular like their fundraising and promotion, or the commerce done within their walls, are shared by a large number of various religious institutions around the world. As Sullivan notes in the introduction to his edited volume by way of Carol Duncan’s work, museums often share much in common with religious sites. Museums are often spaces set apart from the mundane world, where singular objects of admiration can be encountered in a ritualistic fashion, and thus cultivate powerful experiences in their visitors. As Anne Murphy suggests in a description of the displaying of Sikh artifacts in the Sacred Objects in Secular Places volume, in some cases it is hard to tell where veneration begins and curation ends.

Further, studies suggest that no more than a small percentage of those who practice yoga see themselves as doing anything spiritual. Those familiar with Mark Singleton’s 2010 work Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice and the evidence it marshals to show the strong influence of Western bodybuilding, gymnastics, and physical culture on the formation of yoga as we now know it, would not be surprised to learn that three-quarters of American yogis practice other forms of physical exercise such as running, cycling, or weight-lifting. The closest thing to a spiritual motivation for yoga that we can find among the top five reasons for Americans who start yoga is “stress relief,” which is a factor for little more than one-half of respondents. A yoga class in a museum could be seen just as much as a secular practice in a quasi-religious space as a quasi-religious practice in a secular space.

Even the two “reconsecrators” in Sullivan’s interview and chapter are surrounded by other forms on the periphery of modern yoga— “vino yoga,” “acryo-yoga,” and the “yoga rave”— that are softly implied through their inclusion and descriptions to also “get yoga wrong” to lesser extents. Recently in the UK’s Independent, the scholar Jim Mallinson contended, “(Yoga’s) such a big multifarious tradition you can find precedents for almost anything.” The variety and complexity of yoga’s long history ensures there is almost nothing today— naked yoga, yoga with dogs, yoga paired with cannabis— without a possible, tentative analogue from the past. More importantly, there is also no single, stable core of authentic yogic tradition that can be used as a stable reference point to adjudicate the legitimacy of contemporary yogic practice.

While anecdotes can provide intriguing or illustrative examples, there is a danger in holding up a select few and taking them as representatives of a larger phenomenon. Anecdotal examples often say as much about who has chosen them as those who are chosen. Sullivan’s understanding of contemporary yoga seems to be built partially upon his personal experience with B.K.S. Iyengar and his style of yoga— which may explain his fascination and amusement with the variety of less austere and more experimental forms of practice he describes— but mostly upon older textual sources such as the Yoga Sutra, Hatha Pradipika, Bhagavad Gita, and Shvetashvatara Upanishad.

An example of this is one of the most intriguing parts of Sullivan’s work on yoga in museums— “the idea that yoga practice in a museum setting enables one more fully to appreciate an artwork or an object of religious significance,” (45) a concept that is mentioned by several museums and Sullivan contrasts with earlier texts such as the Yoga Sutra and Gita, in which yoga was associated with a withdrawal from the senses, not a heightening or relishing of them. Again, there is a risk in taking statements by professional promoters of museums at face value. In light of how much yoga has changed over millennia from those texts to its contemporary practice, there is also something a bit unfair in judging the latter by the standards of the former. While many serious yoga teachers like to imagine a link between their practice and ancient Indian traditions, and museum organizers want to present the yoga events they host in a flattering light by gesturing to the same mythic source, this maybe be for critics and participants alike an observation of something simply not there.

One link between yogic practice and museums may come from viewing yogis, yoga teachers, and yoga promoters as performing work comparable to museums in the nearly century and a half history of modern yoga’s global spread. As museums curate, exhibit, frame, spotlight, and annotate their works to an anticipated audience, yoga has similarly been consciously displayed and promoted. Modern yoga’s history can be emplotted through the way it has exhibited itself.

The yogis witnessed by early Europeans in India aggressively displayed themselves in public venues with exaggerated poses and dress to receive alms. As accounts of yogis made their way to the United States at the turn of the century, the understanding of yoga as mental and magical was mirrored in the ways it was staged to a range of audiences: Vaudeville stage magicians adopted exotic Indian personae, several American-born magicians alternated between performing mentalist routines and offering teachings on yoga, and several Indian-born yoga teachers accentuated their public lectures with displays of magic, most notably Yogananda, who employed a claimed  Polish count and an Egyptian wonder-worker (born and raised in Italy) to demonstrate the magical powers of yoga.

During the interwar decades, it was common for the dozens of yoga teachers who travelled across the country to shift their public persona by altering their names and places of origin, adding real and fictitious titles and degrees, and adjusting their claims for what their yoga was and what it could do for its practitioners. One was more likely to find notices for yoga classes and lectures at this time in the entertainment section of the newspaper than alongside the church notices.

By the time of the Second World War, the work of Swami Kuvalayananda in India retailed in his visually-rich medical journal Yoga Mimamsa had begun to shift American ideas of yoga itself by framing the physical practice of hatha yoga with demonstrable scientific reasoning and practical, worldly results.  The success of his venture set the stage for mass market paperback books and television programs by American yoga teachers such as Richard Hittleman and Lilias Folan. Perhaps even more significant in yoga’s development than its adoption by much of the late-1960s Counterculture was its embrace by popular fitness culture that was facilitated by television and later millions of VHS tapes and DVDs with figures like Baron Baptiste and Rodney Yee and allowed for yoga to be done at any time in one’s own home.

Today, yoga as individual physical practice— done through the body for the body— can be seen in the ubiquitous manner of exhibiting the toned yoga body through photographs and social media, and how still images and video can function as credentials for many practitioners and instructors. Perhaps the strongest testament to the popularity of yoga is the number and variety of venues it is practiced in. It has become so commonly practiced that it can be found in health clubs, community centers, parks, private homes–and even in the occasional yoga class on display at a museum.

References 

[1] Catherine Albanese, “Forum: How I Changed My Mind,” for Religion and American Culture: A Journal of Interpretation, Vol. 14, No. 1 (Winter 2004), pp. 3-10.

Modern Yoga: A Response to Bruce Sullivan on Yoga in Museums

Bruce Sullivan’s “micro-ethnography” of yoga practice in museums is simultaneously fascinating and puzzling. I use the latter descriptor not to critique Sullivan himself, but to position this particular piece in the larger field of scholarship on modern yoga, which has yet to fully come into its own. Modern forms of yoga—especially those practiced in America—have become so diverse and yet have remained so understudied that listening to Sullivan’s analysis is like being handed a puzzle piece that fits somewhere at the center of a puzzle whose outer edges one has only begun to assemble.

Andrea Jain recently mounted an admirable effort at filling in some of the gaps by identifying modern postural yoga as a context-specific transnational movement that can be considered religious in its own right without denying its current nature as a product of consumer capitalism. She additionally maintains that such a characterization is not out of step with yoga’s pre-modern variants—it is a phenomenon whose diversity is best explained by its dependency on context. Sullivan points out something similar when he tells us: “yoga is a term that has been used for so many types of things that it’s difficult to characterize briefly.” In the case of modern American yoga, which is the topic at hand, I have come to the conclusion that it cannot be understood apart from its roots in the American metaphysical spirituality of the turn of the century. Here, I’m referring to the likes of Theosophy and New Thought in particular, and that which we might today call the New Age if indeed we call it anything at all.

Proponents of American metaphysical religions, like modern yoga practitioners, are frequently resistant to identifying their traditions as religious. They appeal to science, philosophy, wellness, spirituality, but rarely “religion.” In part, this is due to the fact that their roots in Western esotericism bring them closer to philosophy and proto-science than they do to “religion” in the traditional sense of the word. Early twentieth-century Indian teachers of yoga picked up on this language and mirrored the sensibilities of their American audiences. Some, like Paramahansa Yogananda, dropped traditional yogic poses completely, and instead taught European-style calisthenics to evoke the metaphysical notions of holistic wellness based on a willful movement of subtle energy through the body. Sullivan rightly points out that talk of energy is not foreign to at least the medieval yoga traditions, if not the classical. Nor is wellness, as he refers to the work of B.K.S. Iyengar and its preoccupation with the physiological effects of yogic postures.  However, Iyengar’s incorporation of anatomy and physiology in Light on Yoga—which, after all, is not published until 1966—pales in comparison to the work of earlier proponents of yoga, both on Indian and on American soil. I could again refer to Yogananda (to whom, I admit, I am personally partial if we were to identify a patriarch of American yoga), but also to the likes of Swami Kuvalayananda, Sri Yogendra, and even various Swamis of the Vedanta Society who did not share the founder’s (that is, Swami Vivekananda’s) disdain for physical exertion. Likewise, Iyengar’s notion of healing is much less robust than the form on which it takes in American metaphysical movements where holistic healing is the hallmark of salvation.

Indeed, all of the aforementioned proponents of modern yoga arise out of a context where European modalities of metaphysical religion—primarily Mesmerism and Spiritualism—have trickled into India through colonial frameworks. This is not to say that indigenous forms of something like mind-cure are absent from Indian traditions, however simple psychosomatic wellness has never been the goal of pre-modern yoga. Even medieval hatha yoga, which accords a relatively high place to practices aimed at the physical body, does not stop there. At least not unless one is willing to go so far as to equate the alchemical transmutation of the human body into an immortal adamantine form to what modern yoga practitioners are striving to accomplish when they pull on their Lululemon pants. To be fair, we don’t see bodily health being touted as a stand-alone spiritual goal in contemporary European sources either. However, by the early nineteenth century we observe a blossoming of mind-cure ideologies that may be spiritual insofar as they rely of metaphysical principles and notions of cosmic harmony but generally set their sights no higher than psychosomatic wellness. Of course, as Catherine Albanese maintains when she names salvific healing as the fourth and culminating point in her model of metaphysical religiosity, such notions still carry deep religious meaning. If the state of psychosomatic wellness is equivalent to being perfectly in tune with one’s divine oneness with the cosmos, then surely the goals of such a system can be called religious.

Thus it is almost impossible to make sense of why people might be doing yoga in museums—which Sullivan admits happens mostly in the United States rather India or even European countries—without considering broader context of American metaphysical religions. On the point of whether such yoga constitutes a healing ritual unique to the American Baby Boomer generation, something is missing in Sullivan’s analysis. The reference to Iyengar, after all, tells us relatively little about how holistic healing rituals became enmeshed with the practice of yogic postures and, even more importantly, how such practices are concentrated in the spiritual movement that only the Baby Boomers are likely to still call by name: the New Age. Mind you, the content of this movement is now more relevant to popular spirituality than ever before. However, my Millennial students look at me blankly whenever I refer to New Age ideology or practices. That is, until I start listing what these might be—karma, yoga, reiki, positive affirmations, healing crystals…—at which point, they nod along. To them, this is simply the “spiritual but not religious.”

The most evocative question raised in the podcast’s conversation is whether yoga and art have something in common—a sort of contemplative aspect—that can help us understand something fundamental about the nature of the sacred. Sullivan is certainly correct in pointing out that art is not meant to be contemplated for its own sake in pre-modern India any more than in pre-modern Europe. Such an approach, if we are to call it spiritual, only makes sense from a modern metaphysical perspective—specifically one geared at the various modes of finding deeper meaning within the self. Here we see what Paul Heelas meant when he names the New Age a form of “Self-spirituality” that focuses on the divinization of the human self. In such a context, as the self becomes understood as fundamentally identical to the divine cosmos, any method of deeply experiencing this connection, whether it is physical, aesthetic, or otherwise, becomes a form of spiritual practice.

In this sense, I’m not entirely convinced that there is anything distinctive about the museum—or at least anything unique that truly sets it apart from the kind of rave-style yoga events that Sullivan cites. People also do yoga in craft breweries. Here in Southern California’s wine country, I frequently see ads for yoga in vineyards. Like Sullivan’s case, these could easily be analyzed as a conscious way for program directors to bring people into their spaces. However, when people actually show up and practice, we catch a glimpse of the ways in which they may be conceptualizing the various aspects of their identity as postmodern consumers in light of a holistic—and arguably spiritual—notion of the self. Sullivan’s example of museum practitioners who felt they were reconsecrating the formerly religious images in the exhibit gets at something very interesting about how modern yoga practitioners view their embodied practice. Because the embodied self—whether is enjoys art, beer, or wine—becomes the locus of spiritual experience, its conscious actions—even when they’re also exercise—become a religious ritual in their own right.

Yoga in Museums

Yoga, in its modern form, should be of great interest to scholars of religion. While it certainly has roots in Vedic culture, the vast majority of Western practitioners do not see it as “religious”, but rather to do with health or “well-being”. Yoga’s status as religious has been in court, but nevertheless it continues to be practised in business, schools and, as Bruce Sullivan tells us, museums.

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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.

References

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/

Historical, Popular, and Scholarly Constructions of Yoga

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.

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Religious Studies Project Opportunities Digest – 29 September 2015

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We thank you for your contribution. And now for this week’s digest:

Calls for papers

Conference: Yoga darśana, yoga sādhana: traditions, transmissions, transformations

May 19–21, 2016

Uniwersytet Jagielloński w Krakowie, Poland

Deadline: December 21, 2015

More information

Conference: Visual Narratives of Faith: Religion, Ritual and Identity

July 10–14, 2016

Vienna, Austria

Deadline: September 30, 2015

More information

Conference: Religion and Non-Religion in Contemporary Societies

April 21–24, 2016

Zadar, Croatia

Deadline: November 15, 2015

More information

Conference: Symposium Peregrinum

June 16–19, 2016

Tarquinio, Italy

Deadline: March 1, 2016

More information

Journal: Women: A Cultural Review

Special issue: Religion and Gender

Deadline: October 31, 2015

More information

Events

Annual meeting: American Academy of Religion

November 21–24, 2015

Atlanta, GA, USA

More information

Annual meeting: American Anthropological Association

November 18–22, 2015

Denver, CO, USA

More information

Annual meeting: North American Association for the Study of Religion

November 20–22, 2015

Atlanta, GA, USA

More information

Research report launch: What should young people leave school knowing about religion and belief?

November 26, 2015, 5–6:30 p.m.

London, UK

More information

Conference: Radicalization & Islamophobia: Roots, Relationships and Implications in Religiously Diverse Societies

November 30–December 1, 2015

Sydney, Australia

More information

Conference: Pluralism and Community: Social Science History Perspectives

November 12–15, 2015

Baltimore, MD, USA

More information

Grants and awards

Miklós Tomka Award

Deadline: January 10, 2016

More information

Jobs

Postdoctoral Fellowship: History of Religion and Religiosity

German Historical Institute, Washington, D.C.

Deadline: December 1, 2015

More information

Two PhD scholarships in Buddhist Studies

LMU München, Germany

Deadline: October 18, 2015

More information

Fully funded PhD studentship

Newman University, UK

Deadline: October 23, 2015

More information

Bricolage

BRICOLAGE: construction (as of a sculpture or a structure of ideas) achieved by using whatever comes to hand; also : something constructed in this way

“Bricolage.” Merriam-Webster.com.

Claude Lévi-Strauss in the 1960s and has undergone a complex genealogy of modifications within the sociologies of culture and religion. As Véronique Altglas writes in a forthcoming article, ‘originally a metaphor, “bricolage'” became an anthropological concept to understand cultural and religious creativity, with an emphasis on what organizes it, despite its contingent nature. Transposed in the study of contemporary European societies, bricolage became about what individuals do in relation to cultural practices and lifestyles’ (Altglas Forthcoming).

In this interview with Chris, Altglas – the author of the recent OUP monograph From Yoga to Kabbalah: Religious Exoticism and the Logics of Bricolage – discusses this complex genealogy, tracing a movement from forms of cultural warfare to ‘playful, postmodern bricoleurs’ – what many might be tempted to dub ‘pick and mix spirituality’. However, as Altglas goes on to demonstrate, with a particular empirical focus upon Hindu-based Yoga centres and the Kabbalah centre, far from a carefree process of shopping at the ‘spiritual supermarket’, ‘the original meanings and otherness of elements used in this religious bricolage matter, and in fact limits, the popularization of “exotic” religions’ (Forthcoming).

IMG_20141112_114757This broad-ranging interview provides a fascinating overview of an important concept that is not only relevant for the study of contemporary ‘religion’ and ‘spirituality’, but also speaks to cultural appropriation and construction in general, utilizing a number of stimulating contextual examples along the way. Chris enjoyed the interview so much, he immediately went out and bout Véronique’s book… and he suggests you do too!

This interview was recorded at the European Sociological Association’s Sociology of Religion Research Network Conference in Belfast in September 2014. You can also download this podcast, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.ca, or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when you have a purchase to make – particularly in the run up to Christmas!

Picture-41

Thanks to Culture on the Edge for posting this passage. http://edge.ua.edu/monica-miller/the-myth-of-origins/

References

  • Forthcoming 2015. ‘Bricolage’: Reclaiming a Conceptual Tool. Culture & Religion. 2015. 4.

Podcasts

Stretching Good Faith: A Response to Candy Gunther Brown

Perhaps the most intriguing parts of Daniel Gorman Jr.’s interview with Professor Candy Gunther Brown are the parts that are not there. In his conversation with her on the adoption of yoga and metaphysical healing practices by evangelical Americans, we get little indication that Brown has already written on this subject at length for her book The Healing Gods: Complementary and Alternative Medicine in Christian America, published in 2013 by Oxford University Press. More significantly, although the interview does mention an important court case regarding the legality of yoga-teaching in Encinitas, California public schools, there is no reference to Brown’s significant role in the case.

For those unfamiliar with the case, the details, in brief, are these. In February 2013 Stephen and Jennifer Sedlock, parents of children in the Encinitas Union School District, filed an action against its superintendent Timothy Baird, in which they argued that the implementation of a voluntary Ashtanga yoga program for students violated their religious freedom. The plaintiffs in Sedlock v. Baird were represented by the legal defense organization The National Center for Law & Policy, a group that on its website describes its efforts as “the protection and promotion of religious freedom, the sanctity of life, traditional marriage, parental rights, and other civil liberties” and being “motivated in our endeavors by our faith to keep the doors open for the spread of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”

The judge in the case ruled that yoga was permissible in the Encinitas schools, and an appeal of the decision was denied in 2015, but it is not hard to see how significant an opposite ruling would have been. Declaring yoga as religious would not only shape future yoga programs in schools, but it could have disrupted the massive American yoga industry in myriad ways.

Brown authored a thirty seven-page declaration for the plaintiffs and testified for a full day in court as their expert witness, describing her role as a natural function and extension of her academic vocation. In an interview for the Oxford University Press blog, Brown said, “I am a religious studies scholar who studies yoga’s cultural mainstreaming in America. I accepted the request because part of my job as a university professor is to educate the public about ‘religion.’” In another blog post, Brown said that the plaintiffs requested her due to her scholarly research on yoga (although she had not previously published on the topic) and she accepted for similar reasons— also to “educate the courts” on the subject.

While it is not unheard of for academics to appear in court to offer their expertise, it is not routine, and Brown appears to have done so with unique investment and enthusiasm, repeatedly expressing her disappointment in not having successfully “educated the courts” in a letter about the ruling to the editor of the online Encinitas Patch and in posts for Psychology Today and The Huffington Post. In any case, and with her connection to this particular case, Brown’s theories on yoga are worth considering carefully. In this response, I trace their articulations in this particular interview for the Religious Studies Project, her court testimony, and her writings online and in print.

For the last several decades, scholars of religion in America have increasingly looked towards the complexity of religious identity, practice, and experience. Rather than telling neat histories of discrete denominations passing through history, or of believers rendered comprehensible through doctrine, scholars have portrayed American religions as being dependent on their social and historical contexts, and they have recognized that individual agents behave and believe in ways that are often idiosyncratic and unpredictable given their organizational affiliations.

Image 1: "The Tempter Ensnares His Victim" from The Devil's Pitfalls or Fighting Modern Evils (1913)

Image 1: “The Tempter Ensnares His Victim” from The Devil’s Pitfalls or Fighting Modern Evils (1913)

In light of this scholarly consensus, Brown’s treatment of religious identity and practice is rather jarring. While she gestures in her interview with the Religious Studies Project towards different and wide-ranging methods, sources, and working definitions, in practice she understands religion in a fashion that is ultimately dependent on relatively simple and deterministic notions of belief and origins.

For instance, rather than the complex and combinative religious worldviews and traditions we see in the work of scholars such as Catherine L. Albanese and Wade Clark Roof, Brown sees “religious” and “non-religious” as clear and absolute categories. Brown assumes the holistic integrity and purity of religious systems, too, and thus the capacity for contagion by and through the introduction of something that can be (or once was) considered occult or metaphysical; simple interaction is sufficient to render an erstwhile consistent system non-Christian and thus to place it at odds with the Christian subjects that Brown assumes to be staggeringly uniform in their belief. It is perhaps this view that allows her to treat “prayer and Bible reading” and “yoga and meditation” in American public schools as interchangeable practices of “religion” despite fifty years of distance and immense social and cultural differences between the two.

In her description of her encounters with Christian consumers of chiropractic treatments for the Religious Studies Project, Brown focuses on the perceived incongruity of their acceptance of chiropractic with the “vitalistic metaphysical framework” of chiropractic’s founder over a century ago. Brown seems unaware of not only the possibility of how complex the worldviews of any given Christian or chiropractor may be—or how such early frameworks can be shaped, forgotten, or repurposed over time—but also of the effects of her position as interviewer and the possibilities of the larger contexts in which these dyadic relationships occur.

Might Christian patients be especially vocal about the Christian identity of their chiropractic doctors as responses to already widespread perceptions of the practice, or the fact that they are being interviewed by a professor of religion? Do they or their doctors subscribe to the same understandings as the founders of chiropractic, or are they more invested in pain relief, the affordability of this particular healing modality (in a country with often limited or non-existent health care), or the closeness and personal attention they get from their DCs as opposed to medical doctors (as do many clients of Complimentary and Alternative Medicine)? We never learn, and we suspect that Brown would be uninterested in such matters, given other aspects of her thesis that something is amiss with Christian chiropractic.

To be blunt, Brown sometimes makes claims and assessments that seem more at home in theological and apologetic circles than in the academic study of religion. She is eager to assume what her Christian subjects should and should not believe, and to find error in their judgement. Perhaps most surprisingly, moreover, Brown’s work assumes the reality of a variety of spiritual forces and divinities. The claimed inability for Christians to render yogic practice compatible to their beliefs, despite any changes in wording or context, because of the essential spiritual forces within physical yogic practice, is a staggering assertion that some of the most enthusiastic yoga teachers would be hesitant to make.

As Courtney Bender argued in a lengthy and at times withering review essay for Church History, Brown’s argument in The Healing Gods uses the work of scholars of religion in a cursory fashion that casts them as supporting pieces of evidence without truly engaging with them at length or in depth. Similarly, in her chapter on yoga, Brown extracts evidence from scholarly and historical works on modern and pre-modern yoga, and on American metaphysical traditions generally, in ways that are decidedly at odds with the spirit and conclusions of those same works.

Image 2: Mike Shreve giving his testimony on how he was saved from yoga in Deliverance from the Occult (1991)

Image 2: Mike Shreve giving his testimony on how he was saved from yoga in Deliverance from the Occult (1991)

Mark Singleton, the author of the 2010 work Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice that is cited repeatedly in The Healing Gods, filed a declaration on behalf of the opposing side in the Encinitas case that countered Brown’s claims in her own. Singleton pointed to numerous ancient yogic texts such as the Dattatreyayogasastra and the Hathapradipika, as well as to T. Krishnamacharya, the founder of Ashtanga yoga himself, as parts of a larger body of evidence that cast yoga as being deliberately and consciously non-sectarian and non-religious. Like Catherine Albanese who in 2005 described contemporary yoga as a “new and American yogic product,” Singleton concluded by stating, “In Professor Brown’s Declaration, themes which are associated with yoga as such are, in fact, key concerns of modern American cultural history more generally (such as the relief of suffering; managing mental delusions; concern for how one’s actions effect others; valuing others; energy management; the mind-body connection; attaining a calm and relaxed body and mind etc.)… That yoga literature is used by some yoga teachers to illustrate the importance of such concerns is not an indication that these concerns are religious.” [1]

If Candy Gunther Brown’s work is so divergent with her peers in academia, how does one contextualize her understanding of yoga and her approach to it? In keeping with Bender’s assessment that Brown “exemplifies the ‘caveat emptor’ genre of popular writing about CAM,” I would argue that Brown’s writings on yoga are most similar to the genre of Christian-based criticism of yoga.

The history of yoga in the United States is almost always charted in a way that explains its current popularity and mainstream acceptance: how it went from something so small, foreign, and marginal in the late-nineteenth century to something that seems to exist on every city block and in every gym in America today. Many scholars have attempted to explain this rise in terms of eased immigration restrictions, the Counterculture of the late-1960s, or the efforts of unique and charismatic individuals. While these explanations may have their merits, appraisals of American yoga usually fail to consider that in addition to its growth and successes, yoga has attracted a constant stream of criticism. Even as the practice of yoga itself has shifted from largely being mental and magical to physical and postural, for about 120 years there have been concerns about mental harm and physical injury, moral panics about yoga teachers seducing women and breaking up homes, and mockery of yoga as faddish and bizarre. No current of this criticism has been as strong or steady as the Christian opposition to yoga carried out in sermons, lectures, and in print.

Only a few years after Swami Vivekananda’s arrival in the United States, and in the midst of a wave of discourse surrounding the swami and the (largely female) attention he had been receiving, the Christian Literature Society for India set the tone for this opposition and published a slim volume titled Swami Vivekananda and His Guru which aimed to expose the swami’s efforts in the United States as the work of a fraud, buttressed with dozens of statements by prominent Americans. The early twentieth century was marked by sharp polemics against yoga by authors for Christian and secular outlets, and their charges would be repeated for decades in more general surveys casting swamis and gurus as part of a large and diverse threat to Christian America.

Opposition to yoga as heretical and non-Christian continued as ministers and authors included it in their surveys of cults and New Religious Movements from the 1950s onward, and the rejection of yogic practice also became a feature of many Christian conversion narratives. Over the last few decades, yoga has come under the radar of deliverance ministries and those practicing spiritual warfare who see pranayama and asana as opening the door to demonic forces and oppression.

Of course American Christianity has always been varied and complex, and, like yoga, it too has changed and morphed over time. Pastoral concerns over a handful of attention-grabbing lectures by a swami at the turn of the century are not interchangeable with the current warnings of a megachurch minister to much larger numbers of Christians who attend classes at a local studio. And yet, there have been several threads that have remained consistent throughout the history of Christian opposition to yoga in the United States over the last century and a quarter.

Yoga, in this discourse, is a cover for and is inseparable from Hinduism. Yoga cannot be simply reduced to any of its parts (exercise, self-improvement) or what its advocates or adherents claim it to be. Yoga either leads to an adoption of Hinduism, or it already contains the essence of it— and thus practitioners of yoga are by default also practicing Hindus. Hinduism itself is routinely conjured up in the most simplistic and shocking terms, and, described as consisting of magic, idolatry, or goddess-worship (usually with images of Kali), it is rendered incompatible with Christianity. Even some of the same wording and metaphors have remained consistent over time. We find the same language of yoga teachers “mesmerizing” and “seducing” students with their teachings, as well as similar comparisons between the serpentine kundalini energy and the serpent in the Garden of Eden, from pre-WWI articles to 1990s DVDs to today’s YouTube videos.

Not only do we see reflections of this genre in Brown’s general views of yoga, but there are striking parallels between Brown’s work and the genre of Christian anti-yoga critique. In her testimony, Brown described the physical movements within yogic practice as “yoga rituals,” which can (according to Brown) change the practitioner’s worldview, ethos, and behavior regardless of belief, intent, or context. Such claims and phrases sound as if derived straight from the 2006 book Yoga and the Body of Christ by the late Christian apologist Dave Hunt, who also called yogic poses “rituals” and claimed that “one cannot adopt even the physical aspects of yoga without becoming spiritually ensnared.”(38)

Also in her Encinitas-case testimony, Brown stated that she considers karate and Taekwondo (even in Olympic competition) to be religious like yoga. This is an unusual grouping that few academic scholars of religion would make, but it can be found in the seminal and influential 1973 deliverance manual Pigs in the Parlor which, like Brown, warns of “religious errors” that can be found in “such popular interests as yoga exercises and karate which cannot be divorced from heathen worship.”(29) In statements that echoed pieces from a century earlier, like Mabel Daggett’s “Heathen Invasion of America,” Brown also testified that Ashtanga yoga was a product of “intentional marketing” that deceived its practitioners through camouflage and conspiracy, and that yoga instructors were planted in the environs of the school district.

Another common feature of this genre has been the often ironic necessity for Christian opponents of yoga to take their subject at its word and on its own terms. We can find numerous historical antecedents of critics in early twentieth-century America who would accept the definitions of yoga, statistics of membership, and claims to power given by South Asian yoga teachers to show the grave threat they posed to Americans, and then condemn those same teachers as fraudulent and untrustworthy in the next paragraph or page.

Andrea Jain has argued that the “Yogaphobic” and “Hindu Origins” positions on yoga in current cultural debates— respectively belonging to evangelical Christian opposition to modern yogic practice and Hindu claims to the same— both depend on many of the same assumptions for the arguments of either side to be valid: yoga needs to be ancient, Indian, and religiously Hindu. It makes sense, then, that Brown would need to look to the self-advancing works of yoga teachers and groups like the Hindu American Foundation, frequently over and above scholarship, to buttress her claims of yoga as Hinduism full-stop.

Finally, there is the verdict in the Encinitas case. A pithy recounting of Judge John Meyer’s ruling could describe it as such: the yoga program was religious, but not religious enough to be considered as religion. While this reasoning may seem contradictory on its face— Brown herself described it as “frankly confusing” and “astounding”— it is sane and reasonable upon closer inspection. For those in the academic study of religion as well as non-specialist members of the public, we are familiar on some level with the variety, complexity, subtlety, and gradations of religion: how spiritual and secular worlds often blend and flow into one another, how dependent religious meaning is upon individuals, and how difficult it is to map definitions of religion onto the real world of practice and experience. It is not possible to divide the world— be it in a yoga class, a chiropractor’s office, or elsewhere— into what is simply “religion” and “not religion” like separating so many sheep from goats.

Meyer eventually rejected Brown’s testimony in the Encinitas case and commented that “Dr. Brown has an obvious bias and I think can almost be determined to be on a mission against Ashtanga yoga.” Brown protested the charges of bias in a blog post, seeing “the only possible basis” for that claim in a mistaken assumption that she was funded by the Christian Wilfred S. Templeton Foundation instead of the non-apologetic John Templeton Foundation. Claims of bias are more understandable in light of Brown’s actions on behalf a group like the NCLP, though, which put a biblical-based one-page guide on its website to inform the public that yoga was not Christian since Christians “should not worship or bow down to idols” which are “connected to demonic activity.”

More importantly, the court may have been unpersuaded by Brown’s testimony because she stands apart from others in the discipline of religious studies and the subfields of work on modern yoga and the American metaphysical tradition. American courts have long used standards for scientific evidence and expert testimony— such as the Frye test (1923) and later the Daubert test (1993)— that require such evidence and testimony to be generally accepted by their respective scholarly communities. To diverge sharply from the larger conversations and bodies of work of one’s peers may sometimes be less the mark of a rebellious maverick than a reason to be viewed askance.

References

[1] See Catherine Albanese, “Sacred (and Secular) Self-Fashioning: Esalen and the American Transformation of Yoga,” in Jeffrey J. Kripal and Glenn W. Shuck (eds.), On the Edge of the Future: Esalen and the Evolution of American Culture (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2005), 45.

Evangelical Yoga: Cultural Appropriation and Translation in American Religions

super-funny-pet-picture-the-yo-5926Dr. Brown began her career as a historian of evangelicalism, and soon branched out into the study of religious healing and “new religions” in the U.S. In this interview, we discuss her interest in yoga as a new American phenomenon and the way that some evangelical Christians practice it. Brown provides a historic overview of bodily–religious practices in America, starting with mesmerism, occultism, osteopathy, and chiropractic in the nineteenth century. These practices challenged the standard “heroic” model of medicine: Instead of the patient experiencing torturous medical treatments, a practitioner simply realigns the patient’s body or does a quick procedure. Such bodily practices blurred, in some cases, with Pentecostal and Holiness Christians’ use of prayer as a medical treatment. (Today, many chiropractors retain an interest in bodily energy and proper alignment, though they may not articulate this view to their patients.)

As the nineteenth century progressed, many Americans consumed translations of Hindu and Buddhist literature. Asian concepts of bodily practice and energy fields (qi, meridians, chakras) entered the lexicon of new American religions. Theosophy, in particular, borrowed from Hindu and Buddhist concepts. The introduction of Eastern metaphysics to America created a small market for the introduction of yoga. This market grew in the 20th century as Vivekananda and Yogananda brought forms of yoga (and, in Yogananda’s case, a hybrid of Hinduism & Christianity) to the U.S. Today, evangelical Christians are adopting yoga, finding parallels between chakras and the Holy Spirit, or — in an act of cultural appropriation — creating a new kind of yoga shorn of Hindu references. The American Hindu community has criticized such cultural appropriation. Some Hindus have also suggested that a Christian doing yoga poses, or asana, may slowly convert to Hinduism, making evangelical yoga a stealth victory for Vedic culture.

The interview concludes with a discussion of Dr. Brown’s field research methods, along with her and Mr. Gorman’s thoughts about secularization in America and the inadequacies of secularism as a research concept.

Editor’s Note: On 29 June 2017 we published a response to this interview, written by Philip Deslippe, which provides an important and well-argued counter-narrative to this interview. As with every podcast we publish, we encourage listeners/readers to digest the podcast in tandem with the response(s) , to explore further if interested, and to get in touch in the comments, via email, or on social media to continue the discussion. 

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, Nag Champa incense, and more.

A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.

Evangelical Yoga: Cultural Appropriation and Translation in American Religions

Podcast with Candy Gunther-Brown (19 June 2017).

Interviewed by Daniel Gorman Jr

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Gunther-Brown – Evangelical Yoga 1.1

Daniel Gorman (DG) : Dr Candy Gunther-Brown, welcome to the Religious Studies Project!

Candy Brown (CB): Thank you.

DG: So, I’m calling you from up-state New York – you’re in Indiana, and I’m told the weather is equally miserable in both places.

CB: That seems to be about right.

DG: OK. So, today we’re going to be talking about your research into new religious movements, particularly: how people who are not Hindu wind up practising yoga.

CB: Sure.

DG: So to begin, why don’t you tell our listeners how you got interested in new religious movements or, in this case , old religious practices being done in a new way?

CB: Sure. Well, my research trajectory really started with looking at Evangelicals in the 19th century and at print culture. And then, as I wanted to move forward in time to look at later 19th century, into the 20th century and into the 21st century, I realised that it was really a much bigger story than just what was going on in the United States with the Evangelicals. And so I needed to start looking at global moments and much more interconnection. And I also realised that a big part of the story was Pentecostal charismatic Christianity. So that took my research, then, into the directions of looking at, particularly, Pentecostal practices of prayer for healing and deliverance from evil spirits. And so I did a lot of interview work in the field, worked with various Pentecostals and asked them about their healing experiences. And so this led to me to start asking questions that were, in a sense, more of an empirical nature of what happens when people pray for healing. So then I was looking at some science and religion kinds of questions. But I also got some very interesting responses from my Pentecostal respondents. Because, when I started asking them about prayer for healing, they also started to volunteer that they loved their chiropractors.

DG: Really?

CB: And this was a somewhat surprising response to me, given what I knew about Chiropractics: that it’s roots were in mesmerism and spiritualism, and the founders and developers of the tradition saw themselves as doing something very different from Christianity. And the Christian informants that I was talking to, not only did they love their chiropractors but they also insisted that they were Christian. They didn’t bother telling me that their medical doctors were Christian, but they really wanted me to know that their chiropractors were. Again this was very interesting because if you look at survey research that’s been done on chiropractors you see that around 80% or so will say that they’re Christians, and around 80% or so share vitalistic, metaphysical beliefs, very much in line with the founders of chiropractics. So you’ve got a really interesting kind-of blending of worldviews and frameworks and interpretations of the world. And I realised that this was really just the tip of the iceberg. And so, from looking at chiropractic I began to look at other kinds of complementary and alternative medicine, including various kinds of meditation – transcendental meditation, mindfulness meditation, but also Reiki, therapeutic touch, acupuncture, homeothapy, aromatherapy – and realised that some of the most engaged practitioners were actually Evangelical Christians. And particularly the ones who were interested in charismatic and Pentecostal Christianity, who had a kind of worldview where there’s some kind of spiritual force that’s interacting with the world. So a lot of the reasoning process that these Evangelicals used was: if there’s a spirit and it’s having beneficial effects on health, then there must be a kind of an analogy between the Holy Spirit and the spiritual properties that are at work in these other practices. And thus, I landed on yoga and mindfulness practised by Evangelicals, as well as by a lot of other Americans who engage in these practices, for various reasons – related to spirituality as much as health and wellness.

DG: That’s a lot! Let me . . . . I’ll take one thread and we’ll work through this. Some listeners, especially outside the United States, may not be familiar with some of the traditions you mentioned, some of the 19th century occult things: mesmerism, and chiropractic. Could you talk a little bit more about how these alternative viewpoints to Christianity . . . where they came from?

CB: Sure. Well around the middle of the 19th century there was a lot of dissatisfaction among certain Americans who were dealing with both a medical orthodoxy and a religious orthodoxy. (5:00) And the medical orthodoxy was heroic medicine – and by today’s standard, [it was] not very effective and very aggressive. So, things like vomiting with mercury derivatives and bleeding people. And it was the patient who was the hero as they were subjected to all kinds of very strenuous treatments by doctors.

DG: Torture.

CB: Yes. I mean, for many patients that was their perspective. But then a lot of the Calvinist theologians, who were in the dominant mainstream, basically gave the advice that patients should submit to their doctors as a way of resigning to God’s will for sickness. And the reason was that spiritual sanctification required a kind of physical kind of submission and sickness. And so this dominant theology, that sanctification is produced through suffering in the body, aligned well with heroic medicine. But there was also a lot of resistance. And so this is where you start getting the emergence of nature-cure kinds of medical alternatives. But then you also start to get the development of divine healing movements where the interest is in a focus on prayer for healing. So, whether it is a nature-cure looking to water and spiritual forces and kind-of the alignment of the planets, or whether it’s a prayer to God the Father through Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit, there is a widespread search for something else – some alternative to the mainstream offerings.

DG: That’s very interesting because I recently read, for my graduate school lists, Catherine Albanese’s A Republic of Mind and Spirit. And she talks, in that book, about how osteopathy emerged as sort-of this quasi-religious movement: the idea that you can align the energy forces in your body by manipulating bones.

CB: Yes. And actually the founder of chiropractic, D.D. Palmer, was accused by Still, the founder of osteopathy, of basically stealing his ideas. The ideas are so close. And they both emerge out of a vitalistic metaphysical framework. And what’s interesting is that osteopathy was much more embraced by the medical mainstream. So that, today, there’s really a kind of a sense of equivalence, almost, between an osteopathic medical degree and an MD. Whereas chiropractic is still much more on the fringes, even though it’s become a lot more mainstream. And it’s not necessarily that osteopathy has actually renounced the metaphysical framework, but they’ve been a lot more intentional and effective in terms of gaining mainstream medical legitimacy.

DG: Well, that’s one thing I’ve wondered about – I mean, as just someone looking at medical treatments – you know, chiropractors don’t receive the same training in anatomy and physiology that a doctor or a modern osteopath receives. . .

CB: That’s true. And it’s not just a matter of difference in training, but it’s really a difference in philosophy. An idea that Palmer articulated . . . . So Palmer, the founder of chiropractic, basically said that all disease is a matter of a failure of alignment with innate intelligence – that’s universal intelligence, so “innate” was short for this. And so you may ask the question, what are chiropractors adjusting? And it’s actually, they’re adjusting the spine for the sake of having a free flow of innate. It’s not just a physical kind of adjustment. So that was the rationale for how chiropractic could affect all kinds of other conditions, whether it’s having earaches, or infections, or whether it’s turning a breach baby – I mean there’s all kinds of different claims that, even today, are made for chiropractic. And they stem from the idea that, really, the key to health is the innate intelligence. And so it’s that philosophy that’s really at the core, and why there’s still so much tension with modern medicine.

DG: I do want to move onto the yoga connection. But there’s one question I’ll pose to you as somebody who researches these kinds of movements: so to some, let’s say an atheist medical practitioner, what you’re describing is pseudo-science. But that doesn’t seem that way to people who practise it and believe that it helps them. How do you navigate that balance between judging and understanding?

CB: Well, I think this is where it’s important to really look at a multiplicity of perspectives and to try and explain: well, who are the developers of various practices? But not only what are the roots of these practices, what are today’s philosophies? And this is why for chiropractic, for instance, it’s important that there’s survey research that’s been done by chiropractors, that basically confirm that the beliefs that are held by many chiropractors today are actually very much in alignment with those that were articulated by the Palmers. (10:00) Now that doesn’t mean that the chiropractors always communicate that with their patients. In fact, that often is not the case. And so, one of the things that it’s important for scholars to do is to actually look at the variety of narratives that are articulated by practitioners as well as patients, depending on who their audiences are. And this is something that we’ll see with yoga, as well – that explanation of what practices do, why they’re practices, what they mean – you may not always get the same explanation if you’re looking at different audiences, and different purposes for giving that account of what the practice is.

DG: So now, this is where I think chiropractic and yoga tie together. This concept of energy in the body – well, to someone who knows anything about Hinduism, this sounds a lot like the idea of chakras and energy flows in the body. So, in the 19th century, when people like Palmer and others were starting their work, what understanding in America was there of Indian religions?

CB: Sure. Well, there was a combination of Western metaphysical traditions – something like homeothapy or aromatherapy would be rooted in that kind of tradition – and there was often quite a bit of exchange, though, with Asian religious traditions as well. So a lot of the people who were developing these Western metaphysical ideas, they actually were reading texts that they got from India and other parts of Asia. They were interacting with ideas of say Prana or qi, or chakras and meridians, as you mentioned. And so there’s often a real, kind of, exchange and consonance in these ideas. And a lot of the practitioners of chiropractic or yoga will say, yes, there’s a lot that there actually is in common between the Western and Eastern traditions.

DG: Yes. I was thinking of the Theosophist, people like Madam Blavatsky, who think you can control the spirits with your mind – and then she goes and lives in India for a decade!

CB: Well exactly! And then she actually formally converted to Buddhism, and she drew extensively on Hinduism and a variety of Western traditions and Freemasonry. So, that kind of eclectic interest in various forms of spiritually – sometimes framed as science themselves . . . . A lot of the pioneers in the kinds of movements that are popular today were very interested in exploring a variety of practices and traditions.

DG: So, as far as yoga goes, when did that begin to be introduced to the American market? I’m thinking, for instance, in the 1920s there were the immigration restrictions, so how was this material – about philosophy and exercise – how as that making the crossing to America?

CB: Sure, well even as early as the 19th century you’ve got the transcendental folks, like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, who are reading as many translated Hindu and Buddhist texts as they’re able to. And you got Thoreau who’s doing his best to practice yoga. So even in the 19th century you can see some of the beginnings of practices coming into America. The World Parliament of Religion, in 1893, was a really important event. Because there you’ve got Vivekananda – actually, several of those Hindu and Buddhist spokespersons – who are starting to frame practices in a language of science, to basically argue that Hinduism and Buddhism (as they’re starting to be named and understood by Westerners) are, actually, more compatible with modern science than Christianity is. And so you start to have a stream of popularisers and, even with immigration restrictions, you’ve got enough who are either coming into the United States themselves or whose books and publications are crossing over, that the influence, again, begins to be disseminated. Yogananda is another one of these hugely influential figures who sets up a base in California and continues to be popular even into the present day with his Self-Realisation Fellowship. And so now his followers are continuing to disseminate the traditions. And so there’ve been a variety of health and beauty promotions, exercise promotions, the use of television – so really an increase over the course of the 20th century, but accelerating with: the lifting of immigration restrictions in the 1960s; the interest of the Beat generation; the counter-culture. But then, even more recently in the 1990s and beyond, you start to see this increasing mainstream status – even to the point of putting yoga and mindfulness practices into public schools. And that really is just within the last couple of decades.

DG: (15:00) Well it was interesting when you mentioned Yogananda in the 1930s, because he was somebody who preached that Jesus was another incarnation of the other Hindu deities, an avatar.

CB: And that’s been a very common strategy. A very common strategy by a lot of the promoters of Yoga is to argue for consonance, for complementarity. And that’s actually been one of the things that’s been motivating for Evangelical Christians even, who feel that there’s something missing in their own tradition. And so they’re trying to fill in and supplement by borrowing from other kinds of traditions.

DG: So Evangelical Christians in the present day: how are they accessing yoga? What kinds of facilities, for instance?

CB: Well, a lot of times there’s the YMCA, there’s health clubs, sometimes more traditional yoga studios. So some Christians will find their way either into the health club version or into the studio version. But then also there’s a proliferation of explicitly Christian versions of yoga or alternatives to yoga. And so you start to get movements like: Christo-yoga, holy yoga, fully fit, Yahweh yoga, praise moves. . . . And some of them keep yoga somewhere in the title, some of them try to remove yoga from the title. And there’s a kind of Evangelical sense that religion, really, is fundamentally reducible to language. It’s about what you believe and what you say that you believe. And so if you change the language, and you say you’re no longer doing “sun salutations” – salutes to the sun – but you say you’re doing “son salutations” – s-o-n, instead of s-u-n – you’ve now repurposed the practice and dedicated it to Jesus. You’re no longer doing pranayana but you’re breathing in the Holy Spirit. So by re-labelling either individual poses or larger practices, many Evangelicals are convinced that they’ve basically emptied the contents . . . . They’ve removed the Hindu contents from the container of neutral yoga practices, and they’ve poured in Bible verses and prayers. Now with a different framework of religion where it’s about practices, not necessarily just beliefs, then that may seem a rather strange or unworkable kind of approach. So some Hindu critics of the Christianisation of yoga will basically say, the prayers are actually the bodily practices. Doing the sun salutation with your body is a form of devotion to Surya the sun god. And so there are actually some warnings by Hindu spokespersons, saying that ultimately Evangelicals are going to find their faith corrupted, by their own standards, and they’re going to be led into the true way of enlightenment. And it may not be so easy just to re-label practices and make them Evangelical.

DG: Do you think – building on this theme of Hindu response – are there Hindu groups that are offended that anyone’s just using this tradition, without any sense of where it comes from?

CB: Oh there are definitely critiques of cultural appropriation. And the Hindu American Foundation launched a Take back Yoga campaign in 2008. And some of their spokespersons have been critical of Christian appropriation. But you find this, similarly, with Buddhists who complain about appropriation of mindfulness practices and claim that they’ve been secularised or, in some cases, they claim that they’ve been Christianised. So that’s definitely a critique that’s present.

DG: Now, I’m curious in the way you go about researching these things. Do you travel to Christian yoga studios? And when you go there, what do you do? Are you a participant or are you just observing?

CB: I’ve done observing. I’ve relied a lot on just the proliferation of online sources and video presentations, and [I’ve] also been present in meditation settings. And I’ve observed – I don’t participate. I think that there are ethical issues that come into play with that, so my stance is that of an observer. I do a lot of interview work with participants and with teachers. And I also do empirical work and look at the studies that have been done. And this is an interesting aspect, is to ask, “Well, what happens when people participate in either secularised or Christianised versions of something like yoga or mindfulness meditation?” And what’s interesting is that there is sociological work that suggests that there are, actually, some profound changes in spiritual and religious experiences that result – even, sometimes, from very short term involvement. But that, basically, the longer people tend to be involved in these practices, the more likely what started off as just an exercise class has turned into a spiritual pursuit. And the content of religious practices does tend to shift towards practices that would be more aligned with, say, Hinduism than with Christianity. And this is, actually, very much parallel to the kinds of claims that are made by yoga teachers and mindfulness teachers, who are very confident that the practices themselves are transformative.(20:00) And so, here, you get both proponents of yoga and mindfulness, and some of the Christian critics, who are essentially arguing that there is something inherent about theses practices themselves that transform people, regardless of what their intentions are going into the practices. Intentions, it seems, can actually change through the experiences of practices. And that claim does, to some degree, seem to be borne out by the sociological research that’s been done.

DG: Do you see any regional differences, in the United States, about the Christian reception of yoga?

CB: Well, it seems that – predictably in some ways – the coasts have a lot more yoga and a lot more Christian yoga. And also, some of the controversies over this . . . . You see more Christian yoga on the coast, you also see just more yoga programmes. But it’s not coincidental that where the most high profile law suit over yoga in public schools took place – it was in Encinita, San Diego County, California. And it was actually right next door to Yogananda’s Self-Realisation Fellowship.

DG: That’s interesting.

CB: This is also the birthplace of Ashtanga yoga in the United States, which was brought over by Pattabhi Jois, and that was the particular form of yoga that was being practised in the public schools where there was a lawsuit. So, a place like Encinita is interesting because something like 45% of the population practices yoga, compared with – as of 2012, which was when that 45% came out – it was about 9%, nationally. Now it’s about 15%, nationally. About 40% of the population is Christian, but that compares to about 70% of the total US population that’s Christian. So you have fewer Christian and more religious diversity in a place like Ansonita. But you still have a lot of Christians who are practising – and it was a minority of those Christians who protested against yoga. The large majority seemed to actually be pretty interested in practising it themselves.

DG: We’re closing in on the end our session, but I want to try to connect this practice of yoga to some of the other things you’ve mentioned, particularly transcendental meditation. It’s billed as TM now, it’s sort-of this exercise, but there’s no real sense of where that comes from. Do you think Christians are also participating in TM movements?

CB: I think that they are in one of the main places where TM has really got in its foothold: in what’s now called “quiet-time programmes” in public schools. So transcendental meditation more comes out of Hindu meditation traditions. And this is, actually, one of the places where . . . . Really, one of the only law suits where there was a judicial decision defining religion was a case of Malnak v. Yogi, in 1979, which found that transcendental meditation was a religion. And one of the lines in the concurring opinion by Arlin Adams, he said, “Well, if a Catholic can’t practice in schools, then neither should a transcendental meditator be allowed to do so.” Even so, TM programmes and quiet-time programmes have proliferated in public schools even until the present day, alongside mindfulness programmes. So I think that, a lot of the time, Christians and others – atheists as well – really don’t know where practices are coming from, and they don’t know how connected to the originating traditions those practices remain. So it’s not just a matter of, “ a long time ago there were ancient religious roots”. But, if you look at how practices are being framed when not being marketed to the public, you actually find that there are still a lot of the same claims that this is, for instance, a “Vedic victory” when yoga gets into public schools, or this is “stealth Buddhism”, when mindfulness gets into the schools. So those are the kinds of claims that are made when talking to Hindu or Buddhist sympathiser audiences. But a lot of the people who are interested in doing practices for health or wellness, they really don’t know where these practices come from and they really haven’t thought that much about how intentions may change through their participation in these practices.

DG: If anything, the future of religion in this country is going to be very interesting, because we’re going to see . . . .

CB: (Laughs) I think so too!

DG: Well I’m thinking, if the country is growing more secular, the question is: if these practices endure, then do we need to rethink the idea of secularisation?

CB: Well, I think we absolutely do. And this is where my working title for the book I’m working on now, on yoga and mindfulness in public schools, is “Secular and Religious”. And I think that practices actually can be both at the same time. (25:00) And that by presenting practices as secular that this can actually be a more effective way of advancing new forms of religion and spirituality.

DG: Thank you for your time, Dr Gunther-Brown.

CB: Thank you very much.

Citation Info: Gunther-Brown, Candy 2017. “Evangelical Yoga: Cultural Appropriation and Translation in American Religions”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 19 June 2017. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 16 June 2017 Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/evangelical-yoga-cultural-appropriation-and-translation-in-american-religions/

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Studying Tantra from the Inside and Out

In this interview on ‘Studying Tantra from the Inside and Out’, Douglas R Brooks allows the listener an insight into his own personal and academic development, and an account of how various factors led him to the study of South Indian Shrividya Shakta Tantrism. There are many interesting elements to consider therein, but for me, the interview first and foremost appeals to one of the core debates within Religious Studies: the insider/outsider debate. Due to the interview’s largely autobiographical focus, I find it most useful when viewed as an elaboration on this discussion, and I hope, in this short response, to highlight elements of the ongoing debate. Specifically, I wish to highlight the shifting nature of the categories of ‘insider’ and ‘outsider’; emphasise the position of the ‘other’ in judging the status of the researcher; and to consider how the researcher may work to position themselves in this dynamic.

One of the RSP’s earliest interviews with George Chryssides covers the insider/outsider debate, and raises several questions in relation to it – as does Katie Aston’s response, in which she explores the question of whether it is best for the scholar (or more specifically, the anthropologist) of religion to have any belief in order to relate to the individuals that they research.   Most would agree that being an insider or outsider to the group that one studies will always be on some sort of spectrum, with few clear or stable boundaries. The researcher’s position in this spectrum will alter according to various identity markers, including whether or not they are already an accepted member of the community being researched, or indeed if they are a ‘believer’ in any capacity; but also according to markers such as nationality, ethnicity, native language, age, and gender.  Each of the researcher’s identity markers will be perceived differently by the individuals they encounter, and this will define the extent to which one is perceived as an ‘insider’ or an ‘outsider’ by each individual.  This sets a broad background for the interview with Brooks, a scholar renowned for his research on (and deep involvement) in Shakta Tantra in South India.  Several of the aforementioned ideas arise particularly prominently in this interview.

Starting with a more general consideration of being an insider or outsider to a typically Christian, North American background, Brooks discusses his experience of being brought up in a non-religious household, using the somewhat revealing phrase that he ‘didn’t have to undo a great deal’.  By casting his non-religious upbringing as an advantage, Brooks consciously positions himself outside of the sphere of traditional religion in the North American context. Despite appearing to be grateful for this lack of religious influence in his early life, he also describes how this later led to him being somewhat of an outsider on his University course, which assumed that students of comparative religion would come from a Judeao-Christian background, and would have some form of committed belief. Brooks clearly felt that he did not fit this mould.

However, to avoid reiterating previous discussions about the effects of a (non)religious background, I prefer to focus on one theme that emerges particularly strongly in this interview: that of language, and the great effect that it can have on the status of the researcher. Brooks clearly places great value on his own command of Sanskrit and Tamil, and indeed, his knowledge of these languages has afforded him a unique understanding of South Indian Tantric and Goddess traditions that few scholars can match.  The importance placed on language also leads him to refer to a past lecturer on Hinduism and Buddhism as ‘a well-meaning amateur’ due to his lack of first-hand knowledge of Sanskrit, which thus denied him direct access to the literature (here, Brooks perhaps overemphasises the role of texts).  Clearly, Brooks’ skill in this area can afford him increased access to not only the literature of his field, but to individuals and communities in South India today – contributing toward his efforts to become an insider.  On a more practical level, advanced linguistic ability also avoids the complexities of employing a translator in the fieldwork setting – an arrangement which risks a loss of nuance, and reinforces the researcher’s position as an outsider through the translator’s necessary presence and involvement.

As well as aiding in his research in South India, this linguistic ability also gives Brooks social and cultural capital for the groups that he speaks with during his public engagement events: one attendee and blogger writes, ‘It blew my mind when he lead puja on the last day.  He busted out mantras as if he were born a Brahmin. Dude can read Sanskrit!’. Through his use and knowledge of languages, Brooks can thus be perceived by America yoga students as more of an ‘authentic’ insider to those South Indian traditions which he studies.  This in turn can afford him the status of an insider to the yoga community, which places high value on these relatively rare skills.

This also raises the question of Brooks’ status to those involved in the North American yoga community, in which he lectures extensively on Tantric philosophy and appears to be considered a yoga teacher.  However, unlike the vast majority of yoga teachers, he does not teach asana (as far as I can tell).  Thus Brooks straddles the spheres of the academy and the yoga world, finding a place in both but not as a ‘typical’ member.  This straddling echoes that done by Brooks’ own mentor, Dr Sundaramoorthy.  It seems that for Brooks, Sundaramoorthy represented an ideal insider to the both the academic world and the world of South Indian Tantrism, as he studied Shakta Tantrism academically, was skilled in languages, and was born to an orthodox Brahmin family.

Finally, we can take a more removed perspective and consider Brooks’ positioning of himself to the audience, and the language used therein – already touched upon in his comment on not having to ‘undo’ the effects of a religious upbringing.  Although it is important not to hypothesise too imaginatively on the interviewee’s choice of words or topics to cover, we can at least consider the effect they might have on the audience.  For example, Brooks explicitly places himself outside the ‘hippy movement’ of the Beatles’ era, as well as emphasising his removal from the modern postural yoga movement exemplified by figures such as K. Pattabhi Jois, B.K.S Iyengar, and Tirumalai Krishnamacharya. What does the interviewee convey to the audience by doing so?  To me, Brooks seems to emphasise his commitment to studying South Indian traditions in their more classical or traditional forms. However, by doing so, he could perhaps be casting himself as a more ‘authentic’ researcher and insider of Indian traditions by maintaining some distance between himself and the New Age movement, often subject to accusations of cultural appropriation, a lack of historical understanding, and being more ‘lightweight’.   As well as looking at what is said in this interview, we can also consider what is not said. Brooks’ own involvement in the North American yoga world is downplayed as his ‘weekend job’ of public engagement, which partially obscures the fact that this isn’t done in an entirely academic capacity, but also in the capacity of a devoted teacher of the Rajanaka Yoga philosophy.  The listener wonders whether Brooks’ downplaying of his involvement with the North American yoga world could perhaps be an appeal to greater academic credibility, and to the academy’s preference for highly objective empirical accounts of religious phenomena.

I find autobiographical interviews such as this valuable for the themes that emerge throughout the narrative, such as that of the researcher’s status as an insider or outsider.  I hope that this short response has highlighted the complexity of relationships between Brooks (as the researcher) and the other social actors he encounters including, but not limited to: the individuals and communities he studies; his mentor, Dr Sundaramoorthy; the North American yoga world; the academy; and the listeners of this podcast – all of whom, I suspect, will judge him as an ‘insider’ or ‘outsider’ to wildly varying degrees.

 

 

 

Studying Tantra from Within and Without

Shakti

Shakti

Douglas R. Brooks, Professor of Religion at the University of Rochester, discusses how he became involved in the academic study of Hinduism, specifically Tantra and goddess-centered traditions. He begins with his training in Sanskrit and Tamil at Middlebury College, where he found that little English work had been done on Hindu traditions for some years. Living intermittently in India during the 1970s–80s, Brooks found a lack of secular studies of Hinduism, as opposed to religious devotional studies. Given these challenges, Brooks has had to study Tantric Hinduism from within and without the traditions. On the one hand, his friendship with Dr. Gopala Aiyar Sundaramoorthy introduced him to the lived practice as well as venerable philosophical traditions of Tantra and tantric yoga. Working with Sundaramoorthy, Brooks was “within” a vibrant Hindu tradition. As he refined his work at Harvard Divinity School, however, Brooks articulated a critical, non-religiously invested perspective on Hinduism — in short, observing Tantra from “without,” treating the religion like any other secular subject worthy of study. This approach caused Brooks to clash with older scholars at HDS, who assumed that Judeo-Christian terms and concepts were universally applicable to all religions. Later in the interview, Brooks discusses his interpretation of Tantric yoga, giving particular attention to the philosophy’s doctrine of application to daily problems. This kind of yoga is distinct from the New Age, exercise-based style of yoga that B.K.S. Iyengar and others popularized in the West. In recent years, Brooks has attended many popular yoga workshops with the goal of educating the general public about genuine Tantric philosophy from India. He concludes with some reflections on public service as an academic and his plans for a new book on Tamil pilgrimages.

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A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.


Studying Tantra from Within and Without

Podcast with Douglas R. Brooks

Interviewed by Daniel Gorman Jr.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock

Audio and transcript available at: Brooks – Studying Tantra from Within and Without 1.1

Daniel Gorman (DG): Professor Brooks, welcome to the Religious Studies Project.

Douglas Brooks (DB): Thanks for having me.

DG: Could you tell us, briefly, what drew you to the study of Hindu, in particular, Sanskrit literature? Because you went to Middlebury College – a place that you could be trained in any of many languages, and you chose one of the oldest and deadest!

DB: I didn’t so much choose Sanskrit as Sanskrit chose me. And the same quickly followed up in the study of Tamil and other Indian languages. So, I suppose it traces back to my interest in history and the ancient world, and specifically in religion. I wasn’t raised in a religious family, but I think that’s always been an advantage to me: I didn’t have to undo a great deal. But I made myself religious, as a child, of my own accord, so I suppose that’s a kind of peculiar character feature. I mean, what kind of a kid asks to go to church, when his parents are not church-goers at all? Anyway, I got over that, that being itself it’s own story. And when I got to Mid, I was just interested in History, and the Classics and particularly philosophy and political science – and religion. Religion always struck me as still the subject that let you study all other subjects. So I suppose that was the real hook for me. You could be interested in language, politics, art, music, linguistics. . . . Everything in the study of religion just lets you study culture, lets you study history, all of the subjects. And I still think that as an undergraduate teacher. I think this is the department of the Humanities. And I think that that’s a fair assessment. So, India provided a perfect example if only because everything about the Hindus is. . . creates a history and a literature, and a politics and the rest of it. So what really happened was, I took a class that introduced Hinduism and Buddhism, from a really wonderful man who, as I look back on now, I see as a very thorough scholar for a fellow who didn’t have the languages, who – by my own standards today – would be a well-meaning amateur, in the sense of not having direct access. But he did an excellent job and I got hooked reading early Buddhism and then, particularly, the eclectic prose and verse Upanishads. And the literature just captivated me for its beauty, and for its insight, and for its cultural complexity, and its depth. And I said to myself at eighteen years old, “If this is interesting in these wooden unreadable translations, how much better would it be if you could go after the real thing?”

DG: I suppose I’m curious about access, because I’m thinking of the University of Chicago’s publication, now, of the Bhagavad Gita in the Mahabharata in English. They’re still not done with it! So how much material was available when you were. . . ?

DB: That’s because nobody wants to do it!

DG: So how much was available in the 1970s, before computers?

DB: (5:00) Well, you know, there was this amazing emergence of Indology at the end of the 19th-century. And there are astonishing scholars of that era, whose work we continue to rely on. I mean, Maurice Bloomfield, Wilhelm Kalend . The material available in German and French and the early English scholarship – astonishing degrees of erudition! I just don’t even know how these guys learned that much about everything. They had their own issues of colonialism, and sexism and their own parochialisms that came out of the era in which they first emerged. But the 19th-century provided an enormous well-spring of philology, and scholarship, and commitment: very serious people. That carried on in the period between the wars in Europe, which was also the period when American scholarship in Indology and the History of Religions, really took off. And because the History of Religions as a kind of German phenomenon – you know Religionsgeschecte, Wissenschaft, that kind of “subject” invented in Europe – translated well here because we’re pluralists and because we’re almost by nature compelled to study religion, as a subject – which is still a rare subject in a European University. You find Philology, and you find History departments, and you find other ways in which the subject is divvied up, but you don’t really find Religion departments. And that, too, was available at Middlebury. So there was a fair amount of – as I said – old, wooden, 19th -century translation material. There was the material that was created in the space between the wars, and then there really was a long hiatus until the ‘50s and ‘60s, when another generation came along and took up the work of that generation that was, in fact, trained before World War Two. So, my principal Sanskrit Professor at Harvard, Daniel Engels, was a code-breaker during World War Two. He was a Harvard undergraduate in the ’30s, and  I was studying with him in the ’70s and ’80s. ‘80s, I suppose, was our real time together: ’79-’86. He retired in ’84. So he came from a different era. He came from a whole different world. And then, what happened in the ’60s and ’70s kind of reshaped me. Because I came out of that rebellious world of looking for alternative voices, and subversive models, and other kinds of “How do you discover yourself?” questions – which were very much still not part of my History of Religions programme. Let me say one more thing about that. When I entered the doctoral programme at Harvard . . . . I guess that was ’81 after my first master’s. I graduated at the Divinity Schools and you had to reapply and then get into the Doctoral programme. There, the expectation was that we were Christians, or that we were Jewish and that we were studying theses “other” religions. The Comparative Study of Religion meant that you were a committed religious person of your own Western persuasion, and that these were the subjects you studied. It hadn’t occurred to the directors of that programme that any of us had, what they would call, “gone native”, or that we weren’t particularly avowed or created by our own Western religions. We weren’t using that as our home base, or our focal point for the study of religion, and yet that was still very much the model. You know, my secondary field in the Comparative Study of Religion, when I passed my general exams at Harvard, was Christianity – which had long since passed being of any personal connection to me.

DG: And that brings me to Dr Sundaramoorthy, if I’m saying his name correctly.

DB: Yes, you said it perfectly. So I arrived in India in 1977, on the University of Wisconsin’s College Year programme, looking for “the wonder that was India”. (10:00) Romantically, still very much a seeker, I didn’t know that I was seeking Hinduism, but I was seeking those sources and those ideas and commitments. And before I met Dr Sundaramoorthy I’d tumbled down that flight of stairs that makes you realise that you missed everything: that this was over, that the “wonder” that I had romanticised, and created this ancient India, and I had worked through this vision of what I thought it would be, or could be. . . . And I arrived there and  it was 1977. And from the standpoint of that romanticised vision, that party was over. Now, I was blessed because I came late enough into the “East comes West” story to miss the Beatles. Does that make sense?

DG: Yes.

DB: I didn’t really get the Hare Krishna Beatles bug. I didn’t get caught up in one of the Swamis coming West – any Maharishi, Mukundananda – that wasn’t my gig. I was too young for that. I wasn’t going that way. None of that ever seemed to be the real thing that I was looking for. So, when I went to India looking for the real thing, rather than some distilled version of hippy culture – I wasn’t averse to that, it just wasn’t what I wanted for myself – I got to India and it didn’t seem to be there any more. It seemed to be long gone. India was definitely on its own mission of economic development, but it had culturally decided not to do that, go in that direction. Every kid I knew or met, was studying medicine or engineering. They were headed into our world. They were headed into First World global consumerist sience and medicine. And you can still see that in diaspora Indian communities. That’s where the energy still is in education. So there wasn’t this rich, deep, academic culture of the study of India in India. That’s not what you found. And then, out in the temples, or out in the liturgical worlds, or in the practitional worlds, or in peoples’ religious lives you didn’t really find that level of scholarship, or that level of deep erudite commitment, that I had kind of romanticised and hoped for. And then, at my wits end with really very little other recourse, I was introduced to Dr Sundaramoorthy, who was a Reader and Chair of the Sanskrit department at Madurai University. He was eventually elevated to Professor. And he actually was that character I was looking for. Because he had this serious academic training that traversed through Indian Universities and Oxford and other places where his work had been reviewed and he had learned his subject. He was a linguist and a comparativist. His English was elevated – immaculate, really. But he had also been raised in an ultra-orthodox Brahmin family. So his heritage was the stewardship of a tradition of Sanskrit erudition and Tamil culture. He was just as magnificent in Tamil as he was in Sanskrit. And yet he also had the capacities and the training of Western scholarship. So meeting him was, again, just pretty much serendipity. Like, I walked in and met the right guy at the right time. He had just, in fact, returned from a long stint in Malaysia and Singapore working at the university in Kuala Lumpor. If I had come a year earlier, he wouldn’t have been there. So I just got lucky, I mean. And then, as those years moved on – I was supposed to spend nine months, I spent two years – and as our studies moved on, he was the one who encouraged me to go to Harvard and to continue my doctoral work and my more advanced work here, and then to go back and study with him. (15:00) Which is what I did. And when I won the Fulbright, in ’84, that’s technically my Fulbright year . . . . I wrote a PhD proposal for the grant that I won before the professorial committee approved my proposal. So I had the Fulbright to write my PhD before the professorial committee had given me approval, and I applied and actually won the grant before I passed my general exams for the PhD! And the grant essentially landed on Dr Sundaramoorthy’s desk, so I was paid to go home! And then, I had leveraged the situation so that: what were they going to do, say, “Oh no we’re not going to approve your PhD proposal, even though you already have the grant”? So I had the Fulbright fellowship and got to go back to Madurai to live in my teacher’s house, to become a Fellow of the Department of Sanskrit, at the University where he was the Chair of the department.

DG: How did that introduce you to the study of yoga, though?

DB: Well, the study of yoga is the study of India, as far as I can tell.

DG: It’s what most of your books are about.

DB: Well, most of my books are about the intersections of the medieval traditions of the rise of esoteric yoga, the Tantric traditions, especially the goddess traditions: those particular, peculiar formulations that involve the Brahmins in South India and other ways in which it anthropologically took hold. What living in Sundaramoorthy’s house did, and spending all those years in India did is, it gave me immersion in language and culture. I got, essentially, the training of an anthropologist, both in a kind of formal fieldwork sense but also the company of a gifted comparative linguist and philologist. So I got a classical education and a fieldwork education at the same time. When you spend that much time in India, you see that correlation between sources and texts and history and living traditions. And I was particularly interested in the kind of historical tradition that you couldn’t understand without a living tradition. There’s no penetrating Tantric lore, and text, and prescription, and liturgy, and philosophy and what they call “yoga”, without meeting someone who can tell you what the books are saying and finding out what it looks like. You don’t study Tantric liturgies of complex yogic rituals without learning it from someone who can do those rituals. It’s impossible. That was always my ace in the hole, was that: the book says this, but I know what that looks like, I’ve seen that performed in more than one place, by more than one person, in more than one way.

DG: But when you said performed, we’re not just talking about the exercise aspect of yoga. . . ?

DB: No, no, no you mean what we call yoga today in the West?

DG: There’s much more to it than that.

DB: Oh no, no, no. I don’t even refer. . . . Let’s talk about that for a second. What we call yoga today in the West is now a meme, it has a life of its own, it’s a phenomena of gyms and yoga studios, and morning TV exercise shows. That is a whole separate history from the history that I would have considered yoga until 20 years ago. Those characters that brought/ invented/ co-opted the word yoga to mean postures and exercise and the somatic engagement that happens on mats or in asana in posture, that’s, in fact, not really my subject at all. I don’t really know much about that. I didn’t really follow that transmission of that material to the West. I had to learn that much, much later in my career. Who were these guys? What’s the history of what we call yoga today, like yoga asana? There are people who write about that, who’ve taken that up as their academic subject. That’s just something that happened while I was there. Characters like Krishnamacharya and Pattabhi Jois and B.K.S. Iyengar who’s a famous name in all of that. (20:00) Those guys were largely still in Pune or in Madras when I was studying in India, then they kind of brought their stuff to the West.

DG: And then you get people like John Friend. . .

DB: John Friend and Rodney Yee and Francois Raoult – these were all people who studied with Iyengar in Pune. They’re in Pune doing Hatha Yoga with Iyengar when I was in Madurai studying Tantra and learning Sanskrit and speaking Tamil. We had nothing to do. . . .That world had nothing to do with my world.

DG: So, in your world, what is yoga?

DB: Yoga was the practical esoteric methodology of applied religion. I mean, if yoga meant engagement it meant application, it meant method. And, in that sense, it meant the study of how to take ideas, values, insights, claims, and apply them somatically, cognitively emotionally: how to put them into action, or into your life. That would apply to ritual, to study, to mythology, to esoteric practices. That’s what yoga was. Yoga was the application of this visionary, philosophical religiously encoded symbolic world into practice. And the practice would be somatic and cognitive and ethical and practical, in terms of living your life. And most of that was learned textually, contemplatively and ritually.

DG: And there is, you mentioned earlier, pluralism. What you’re describing to me were different ways of living. There is a pluralistic component there.

DB: Well, because yoga means application, there were Buddhist yogas and Hindu yogas and Jain yogas and Sikh yogas – everybody’s using the word. And they’re all, in effect, using the word to mean: “This is what we do and this is how we do it.” And the “it” on the other end of that, is: what we think; what we believe; what we conjure to be possible in bodies; and what are our cognitive, spiritual and intellectual goals; how do we organise our lives? What’s the practical implications of . . . . If we have these stories and rituals and practices, how does that change our everyday lives? How do we live? How we go about our ordinary lives, our moral lives, our intellectual lives? That was what. . . . So yoga applied in every religion in India, it was just the word people used for method, application, how we do what we do, how we engage, how we connect.

DG: And you’ve spent a significant amount of time, now, doing public engagement with people who may not know the scholarly issues you and I have been discussing.

DB: Oh no, none of it! The vast majority of people, who are sort-of my weekend job, are people who got introduced to yoga simply as asana. Now that’s changing too, because over the last fifteen years of that, I would say. . . .Twenty years ago, yoga was nowhere near the sort of simple, mainstream place it factors into our contemporary society. I mean I call it “Aisle 11a” now. When you go to the Wegmans grocery store in Rochester, yoga is in Aisle 11a. It’s like “outdoor goods”, “Seasonal”, “yoga”. So, how much more mainstream can you get? It’s not even in the gym, it’s in the grocery store! So, most of the people I meet who do yoga came in through that way. They came in through a yoga studio or a gym, practicing asana. What happened fifteen or twenty years ago is that that same nascent crew, which was far from the mainstream, was still interested in things Indian. They were still interested in that old sense of all the meanings of the word yoga. Now, they had no clue of what that was about, and that’s how I got involved. They were just curious. “We do yoga. What’s that?” Well, Niagara Falls! That’s just going to come tumbling over in volumes of history and curiosities expressed in texts and sources and ideas. And somehow there’s still some small segment of that population that still asks me that question. And their rooms are full- such as it is- with people for whom yoga is just their asana practice. (25:00) And that asana practice creates this surrogate community that often substitutes – in our fragmented, secularised, less religious, less institutional world – for the kinds of communities that even my parent’s generation associated with the church, or the rotary club, or the Boy Scouts, or the Book of the Month club. People go to yoga studios and they have. . . . And since we don’t have those other kinds of institutional, pre-created structures for us – you know, you went to the church or your father was a Mason or something – you go there, now. And so, yoga studios and these sorts of environments are not only places where they get their asana practice – which they’re still principally interested in – it’s where they meet their friends, where they meet like-minded people. And then they all say, “Well, what’s yoga?” And then some bright light says, “Well, we could have an event, we could ask somebody who knows about that.”

DG: Professor Brooks we’re basically out of time, but if you could say briefly – you’ve mentioned your public work but what is your new scholarly project, if you have one?

DB: Oh yes. So I parley the two together because I’ve always thought that the vanity and self-perpetuation of scholarship, at a certain level, is just more and more of itself. It really does very little good for the world, in a certain way. And I came from an environment where we wanted to do something in the world, we wanted to build schools, we wanted to help people, we wanted to give people in India a chance to study their culture, or to have a good life, or to get an education: very simple kinds of things. So I took this out of the university environment of learning and parleyed that into opportunities to take people to India and then two pieces happened The first is, they get a great experience and we do things like build schools and send children to school, and take care of folks. That’s the simple way of putting it. But also, that means that I get to spend a great deal of time on the ground in India. So, my new projects have to do with an extension of the goddess traditions that I was working on in the ’80s. And now I’m focussed on the furtherance of that mythology as it takes place in pilgrimage in South India. So there are these whole seasons of tens of thousands of people on the road – especially in Tamil Nadu – who are going to Shiva temples and Ganesha temples and Muraga temples and then to this character named Ayyappa. And I’m following all of those pilgrim paths and tracing history, language, sources, philosophy and literature into the anthropology of the practices of pilgrimage.

DG: Professor Brooks thank you for your time. And pleasant voyages.

DB: Thanks a lot.


Citation Info: Brooks, Douglas R. 2017. “Studying Tantra from Within and Without”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 1 May 2017. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 3 May 2017. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/studying-tantra-from-within-and-without/

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Framing, Observing, and Exhibiting Yoga: A Response to Bruce Sullivan

Writing on the state of yoga in America today tends to frame discussions on the topic with statistics that attest yoga’s current popularity: the thousands of studios, the millions of practitioners, or the billions of dollars in annual revenue the yoga industry generates. The repetition of these figures runs the risk of rendering them trite, but ignoring this crucial context in which to place American yoga runs a greater risk of projecting one’s misrepresentative assumptions onto a much larger whole.

Where then does Bruce Sullivan’s research on the practice of yoga in museums— both in his interview for the Religious Studies Project and in his chapter on the subject in the edited volume Sacred Objects in Secular Places: Exhibiting Asian Religions in Museums— fit in this context? Yoga performance in museums is certainly novel and intriguing, and offers a potentially fruitful perspective to think about current understandings of yoga. Yet, it also becomes problematic to extend the transposition of an ordinary yoga class into a museum beyond novelty or intrigue, and perceive it as either a widespread practice, strange anomaly, or indicative of modern yoga’s drifting from a traditional center.

Sullivan describes these events as occurring with significant frequency in the United States (and to a lesser extent in Britain). He lards this observation with an impressive catalogue of museums hosting yoga events. Descriptors such as “diverse array,” “many,” “popular,” and “numerous” do the heavy lifting of reminding the reader how pervasive this practice has become.

Yet despite these efforts to quantify a growing and easily-discovered phenomenon, putting these numbers in their statistical contexts makes clear that this growing trend is a microcosm, dwarfed by traditional museum patronage and yogic practice. There are almost 35,000 museums in the United States alone, a number larger than the combined total locations of McDonald’s and Starbucks. When placed alongside the vast number of yoga practitioners, an honest assessment would see even the most complete accounting of yoga in museums as being a miniscule part of the whole of either. It is possible to go online as Sullivan did and create similar lists and descriptions of wine and beer tasting events at dozens of zoos around the country, but the presence of “Brew at the Zoo” and “Roar and Pour” events would not tell us much more beyond the fact that lots of people enjoy drinking alcohol and zoos have a vested interest in generating money and increasing the number of visitors.

The reasons for these yoga events, as Sullivan recognizes, are pragmatic and symbiotic. Like other public outreach, hosting yoga classes offers museums a range of benefits such as publicity, gift shop and café sales, and new visitors.  Surveys— such as the same frequent source for the size of the yoga industry in America, the large-scale 2016 “Yoga in American Study” conducted by Yoga Journal and Yoga Alliance—find the vast majority of people practicing yoga doing so in health clubs or gyms, community centers, or in the privacy of their own homes, rather than in dedicated yoga studios. Yet yoga devotees like the idea of performing their art in public places. One of every five practitioners surveyed attended a yoga event in a public place; three out of every four are interested in doing so in the future. It is simply a mutually beneficial exchange: museums gain new visitors and yoga practitioners get a desired change of scenery.

It is difficult not to see Sullivan’s preoccupation with yoga in museums as an example of what Catherine Albanese termed “show-and-tell scholarship”— work at the intersection of religious studies and popular culture that consists of “unearthing still one more custom, practice, belief, or piece of spiritual paraphernalia that no one yet among scholars had discovered.”[1] The originality and quality of this brand of scholarship, therefore depends on the novelty of the finding. The underlying assumption in both the interview for the Religious Studies Project and Sullivan’s chapter is that there is something incongruous, if not slightly absurd, about rows of people going through a Vinyasa class under the shadow of an art institution’s paintings and statuary. We would not expect a similar analysis of a wedding reception being hosted in the ballroom of a Freemasonic Lodge, or weekly Bingo night in the community center attached to a Catholic church, but something about yoga in museums seems to present a heightened contradiction between the perceived sacred and secular. The highpoint of the interview and the namesake of Sullivan’s chapter, the pair of New Age yoga students who believe that they are “reconsecrating the icons” of Buddhist images and Hindu statues that surround them in the museum through their yogic asanas, seem to embody this antinomy.

Yet the tension between sacred and secular that Sullivan finds so remarkable traffics in an overemphasis on the nature we want to attribute to both museums and yoga. Many of the features that make us assume museums are secular like their fundraising and promotion, or the commerce done within their walls, are shared by a large number of various religious institutions around the world. As Sullivan notes in the introduction to his edited volume by way of Carol Duncan’s work, museums often share much in common with religious sites. Museums are often spaces set apart from the mundane world, where singular objects of admiration can be encountered in a ritualistic fashion, and thus cultivate powerful experiences in their visitors. As Anne Murphy suggests in a description of the displaying of Sikh artifacts in the Sacred Objects in Secular Places volume, in some cases it is hard to tell where veneration begins and curation ends.

Further, studies suggest that no more than a small percentage of those who practice yoga see themselves as doing anything spiritual. Those familiar with Mark Singleton’s 2010 work Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice and the evidence it marshals to show the strong influence of Western bodybuilding, gymnastics, and physical culture on the formation of yoga as we now know it, would not be surprised to learn that three-quarters of American yogis practice other forms of physical exercise such as running, cycling, or weight-lifting. The closest thing to a spiritual motivation for yoga that we can find among the top five reasons for Americans who start yoga is “stress relief,” which is a factor for little more than one-half of respondents. A yoga class in a museum could be seen just as much as a secular practice in a quasi-religious space as a quasi-religious practice in a secular space.

Even the two “reconsecrators” in Sullivan’s interview and chapter are surrounded by other forms on the periphery of modern yoga— “vino yoga,” “acryo-yoga,” and the “yoga rave”— that are softly implied through their inclusion and descriptions to also “get yoga wrong” to lesser extents. Recently in the UK’s Independent, the scholar Jim Mallinson contended, “(Yoga’s) such a big multifarious tradition you can find precedents for almost anything.” The variety and complexity of yoga’s long history ensures there is almost nothing today— naked yoga, yoga with dogs, yoga paired with cannabis— without a possible, tentative analogue from the past. More importantly, there is also no single, stable core of authentic yogic tradition that can be used as a stable reference point to adjudicate the legitimacy of contemporary yogic practice.

While anecdotes can provide intriguing or illustrative examples, there is a danger in holding up a select few and taking them as representatives of a larger phenomenon. Anecdotal examples often say as much about who has chosen them as those who are chosen. Sullivan’s understanding of contemporary yoga seems to be built partially upon his personal experience with B.K.S. Iyengar and his style of yoga— which may explain his fascination and amusement with the variety of less austere and more experimental forms of practice he describes— but mostly upon older textual sources such as the Yoga Sutra, Hatha Pradipika, Bhagavad Gita, and Shvetashvatara Upanishad.

An example of this is one of the most intriguing parts of Sullivan’s work on yoga in museums— “the idea that yoga practice in a museum setting enables one more fully to appreciate an artwork or an object of religious significance,” (45) a concept that is mentioned by several museums and Sullivan contrasts with earlier texts such as the Yoga Sutra and Gita, in which yoga was associated with a withdrawal from the senses, not a heightening or relishing of them. Again, there is a risk in taking statements by professional promoters of museums at face value. In light of how much yoga has changed over millennia from those texts to its contemporary practice, there is also something a bit unfair in judging the latter by the standards of the former. While many serious yoga teachers like to imagine a link between their practice and ancient Indian traditions, and museum organizers want to present the yoga events they host in a flattering light by gesturing to the same mythic source, this maybe be for critics and participants alike an observation of something simply not there.

One link between yogic practice and museums may come from viewing yogis, yoga teachers, and yoga promoters as performing work comparable to museums in the nearly century and a half history of modern yoga’s global spread. As museums curate, exhibit, frame, spotlight, and annotate their works to an anticipated audience, yoga has similarly been consciously displayed and promoted. Modern yoga’s history can be emplotted through the way it has exhibited itself.

The yogis witnessed by early Europeans in India aggressively displayed themselves in public venues with exaggerated poses and dress to receive alms. As accounts of yogis made their way to the United States at the turn of the century, the understanding of yoga as mental and magical was mirrored in the ways it was staged to a range of audiences: Vaudeville stage magicians adopted exotic Indian personae, several American-born magicians alternated between performing mentalist routines and offering teachings on yoga, and several Indian-born yoga teachers accentuated their public lectures with displays of magic, most notably Yogananda, who employed a claimed  Polish count and an Egyptian wonder-worker (born and raised in Italy) to demonstrate the magical powers of yoga.

During the interwar decades, it was common for the dozens of yoga teachers who travelled across the country to shift their public persona by altering their names and places of origin, adding real and fictitious titles and degrees, and adjusting their claims for what their yoga was and what it could do for its practitioners. One was more likely to find notices for yoga classes and lectures at this time in the entertainment section of the newspaper than alongside the church notices.

By the time of the Second World War, the work of Swami Kuvalayananda in India retailed in his visually-rich medical journal Yoga Mimamsa had begun to shift American ideas of yoga itself by framing the physical practice of hatha yoga with demonstrable scientific reasoning and practical, worldly results.  The success of his venture set the stage for mass market paperback books and television programs by American yoga teachers such as Richard Hittleman and Lilias Folan. Perhaps even more significant in yoga’s development than its adoption by much of the late-1960s Counterculture was its embrace by popular fitness culture that was facilitated by television and later millions of VHS tapes and DVDs with figures like Baron Baptiste and Rodney Yee and allowed for yoga to be done at any time in one’s own home.

Today, yoga as individual physical practice— done through the body for the body— can be seen in the ubiquitous manner of exhibiting the toned yoga body through photographs and social media, and how still images and video can function as credentials for many practitioners and instructors. Perhaps the strongest testament to the popularity of yoga is the number and variety of venues it is practiced in. It has become so commonly practiced that it can be found in health clubs, community centers, parks, private homes–and even in the occasional yoga class on display at a museum.

References 

[1] Catherine Albanese, “Forum: How I Changed My Mind,” for Religion and American Culture: A Journal of Interpretation, Vol. 14, No. 1 (Winter 2004), pp. 3-10.

Modern Yoga: A Response to Bruce Sullivan on Yoga in Museums

Bruce Sullivan’s “micro-ethnography” of yoga practice in museums is simultaneously fascinating and puzzling. I use the latter descriptor not to critique Sullivan himself, but to position this particular piece in the larger field of scholarship on modern yoga, which has yet to fully come into its own. Modern forms of yoga—especially those practiced in America—have become so diverse and yet have remained so understudied that listening to Sullivan’s analysis is like being handed a puzzle piece that fits somewhere at the center of a puzzle whose outer edges one has only begun to assemble.

Andrea Jain recently mounted an admirable effort at filling in some of the gaps by identifying modern postural yoga as a context-specific transnational movement that can be considered religious in its own right without denying its current nature as a product of consumer capitalism. She additionally maintains that such a characterization is not out of step with yoga’s pre-modern variants—it is a phenomenon whose diversity is best explained by its dependency on context. Sullivan points out something similar when he tells us: “yoga is a term that has been used for so many types of things that it’s difficult to characterize briefly.” In the case of modern American yoga, which is the topic at hand, I have come to the conclusion that it cannot be understood apart from its roots in the American metaphysical spirituality of the turn of the century. Here, I’m referring to the likes of Theosophy and New Thought in particular, and that which we might today call the New Age if indeed we call it anything at all.

Proponents of American metaphysical religions, like modern yoga practitioners, are frequently resistant to identifying their traditions as religious. They appeal to science, philosophy, wellness, spirituality, but rarely “religion.” In part, this is due to the fact that their roots in Western esotericism bring them closer to philosophy and proto-science than they do to “religion” in the traditional sense of the word. Early twentieth-century Indian teachers of yoga picked up on this language and mirrored the sensibilities of their American audiences. Some, like Paramahansa Yogananda, dropped traditional yogic poses completely, and instead taught European-style calisthenics to evoke the metaphysical notions of holistic wellness based on a willful movement of subtle energy through the body. Sullivan rightly points out that talk of energy is not foreign to at least the medieval yoga traditions, if not the classical. Nor is wellness, as he refers to the work of B.K.S. Iyengar and its preoccupation with the physiological effects of yogic postures.  However, Iyengar’s incorporation of anatomy and physiology in Light on Yoga—which, after all, is not published until 1966—pales in comparison to the work of earlier proponents of yoga, both on Indian and on American soil. I could again refer to Yogananda (to whom, I admit, I am personally partial if we were to identify a patriarch of American yoga), but also to the likes of Swami Kuvalayananda, Sri Yogendra, and even various Swamis of the Vedanta Society who did not share the founder’s (that is, Swami Vivekananda’s) disdain for physical exertion. Likewise, Iyengar’s notion of healing is much less robust than the form on which it takes in American metaphysical movements where holistic healing is the hallmark of salvation.

Indeed, all of the aforementioned proponents of modern yoga arise out of a context where European modalities of metaphysical religion—primarily Mesmerism and Spiritualism—have trickled into India through colonial frameworks. This is not to say that indigenous forms of something like mind-cure are absent from Indian traditions, however simple psychosomatic wellness has never been the goal of pre-modern yoga. Even medieval hatha yoga, which accords a relatively high place to practices aimed at the physical body, does not stop there. At least not unless one is willing to go so far as to equate the alchemical transmutation of the human body into an immortal adamantine form to what modern yoga practitioners are striving to accomplish when they pull on their Lululemon pants. To be fair, we don’t see bodily health being touted as a stand-alone spiritual goal in contemporary European sources either. However, by the early nineteenth century we observe a blossoming of mind-cure ideologies that may be spiritual insofar as they rely of metaphysical principles and notions of cosmic harmony but generally set their sights no higher than psychosomatic wellness. Of course, as Catherine Albanese maintains when she names salvific healing as the fourth and culminating point in her model of metaphysical religiosity, such notions still carry deep religious meaning. If the state of psychosomatic wellness is equivalent to being perfectly in tune with one’s divine oneness with the cosmos, then surely the goals of such a system can be called religious.

Thus it is almost impossible to make sense of why people might be doing yoga in museums—which Sullivan admits happens mostly in the United States rather India or even European countries—without considering broader context of American metaphysical religions. On the point of whether such yoga constitutes a healing ritual unique to the American Baby Boomer generation, something is missing in Sullivan’s analysis. The reference to Iyengar, after all, tells us relatively little about how holistic healing rituals became enmeshed with the practice of yogic postures and, even more importantly, how such practices are concentrated in the spiritual movement that only the Baby Boomers are likely to still call by name: the New Age. Mind you, the content of this movement is now more relevant to popular spirituality than ever before. However, my Millennial students look at me blankly whenever I refer to New Age ideology or practices. That is, until I start listing what these might be—karma, yoga, reiki, positive affirmations, healing crystals…—at which point, they nod along. To them, this is simply the “spiritual but not religious.”

The most evocative question raised in the podcast’s conversation is whether yoga and art have something in common—a sort of contemplative aspect—that can help us understand something fundamental about the nature of the sacred. Sullivan is certainly correct in pointing out that art is not meant to be contemplated for its own sake in pre-modern India any more than in pre-modern Europe. Such an approach, if we are to call it spiritual, only makes sense from a modern metaphysical perspective—specifically one geared at the various modes of finding deeper meaning within the self. Here we see what Paul Heelas meant when he names the New Age a form of “Self-spirituality” that focuses on the divinization of the human self. In such a context, as the self becomes understood as fundamentally identical to the divine cosmos, any method of deeply experiencing this connection, whether it is physical, aesthetic, or otherwise, becomes a form of spiritual practice.

In this sense, I’m not entirely convinced that there is anything distinctive about the museum—or at least anything unique that truly sets it apart from the kind of rave-style yoga events that Sullivan cites. People also do yoga in craft breweries. Here in Southern California’s wine country, I frequently see ads for yoga in vineyards. Like Sullivan’s case, these could easily be analyzed as a conscious way for program directors to bring people into their spaces. However, when people actually show up and practice, we catch a glimpse of the ways in which they may be conceptualizing the various aspects of their identity as postmodern consumers in light of a holistic—and arguably spiritual—notion of the self. Sullivan’s example of museum practitioners who felt they were reconsecrating the formerly religious images in the exhibit gets at something very interesting about how modern yoga practitioners view their embodied practice. Because the embodied self—whether is enjoys art, beer, or wine—becomes the locus of spiritual experience, its conscious actions—even when they’re also exercise—become a religious ritual in their own right.

Yoga in Museums

Yoga, in its modern form, should be of great interest to scholars of religion. While it certainly has roots in Vedic culture, the vast majority of Western practitioners do not see it as “religious”, but rather to do with health or “well-being”. Yoga’s status as religious has been in court, but nevertheless it continues to be practised in business, schools and, as Bruce Sullivan tells us, museums.

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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.

References

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/

Historical, Popular, and Scholarly Constructions of Yoga

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.

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, yoga mats, tantric guides, and more.

Religious Studies Project Opportunities Digest – 29 September 2015

Dear subscriber,

We are pleased to bring you this week’s opportunities digest!

We would like to express our gratitude to everyone who has forwarded notifications. On that note, we would also like to encourage you to continue to do so (and invite those who remain hesitant to begin)!

It is super easy to have a Religious Studies call for papers, exciting event, or alluring job vacancy appear in future Opportunities Digests! Simply use the submission form, forward them to oppsdigest@religiousstudiesproject.com or, better yet, include said e-mail address in your mailing list for such e-mails!

We thank you for your contribution. And now for this week’s digest:

Calls for papers

Conference: Yoga darśana, yoga sādhana: traditions, transmissions, transformations

May 19–21, 2016

Uniwersytet Jagielloński w Krakowie, Poland

Deadline: December 21, 2015

More information

Conference: Visual Narratives of Faith: Religion, Ritual and Identity

July 10–14, 2016

Vienna, Austria

Deadline: September 30, 2015

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Conference: Religion and Non-Religion in Contemporary Societies

April 21–24, 2016

Zadar, Croatia

Deadline: November 15, 2015

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Conference: Symposium Peregrinum

June 16–19, 2016

Tarquinio, Italy

Deadline: March 1, 2016

More information

Journal: Women: A Cultural Review

Special issue: Religion and Gender

Deadline: October 31, 2015

More information

Events

Annual meeting: American Academy of Religion

November 21–24, 2015

Atlanta, GA, USA

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Annual meeting: American Anthropological Association

November 18–22, 2015

Denver, CO, USA

More information

Annual meeting: North American Association for the Study of Religion

November 20–22, 2015

Atlanta, GA, USA

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Research report launch: What should young people leave school knowing about religion and belief?

November 26, 2015, 5–6:30 p.m.

London, UK

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Conference: Radicalization & Islamophobia: Roots, Relationships and Implications in Religiously Diverse Societies

November 30–December 1, 2015

Sydney, Australia

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Conference: Pluralism and Community: Social Science History Perspectives

November 12–15, 2015

Baltimore, MD, USA

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Grants and awards

Miklós Tomka Award

Deadline: January 10, 2016

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Jobs

Postdoctoral Fellowship: History of Religion and Religiosity

German Historical Institute, Washington, D.C.

Deadline: December 1, 2015

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Two PhD scholarships in Buddhist Studies

LMU München, Germany

Deadline: October 18, 2015

More information

Fully funded PhD studentship

Newman University, UK

Deadline: October 23, 2015

More information

Bricolage

BRICOLAGE: construction (as of a sculpture or a structure of ideas) achieved by using whatever comes to hand; also : something constructed in this way

“Bricolage.” Merriam-Webster.com.

Claude Lévi-Strauss in the 1960s and has undergone a complex genealogy of modifications within the sociologies of culture and religion. As Véronique Altglas writes in a forthcoming article, ‘originally a metaphor, “bricolage'” became an anthropological concept to understand cultural and religious creativity, with an emphasis on what organizes it, despite its contingent nature. Transposed in the study of contemporary European societies, bricolage became about what individuals do in relation to cultural practices and lifestyles’ (Altglas Forthcoming).

In this interview with Chris, Altglas – the author of the recent OUP monograph From Yoga to Kabbalah: Religious Exoticism and the Logics of Bricolage – discusses this complex genealogy, tracing a movement from forms of cultural warfare to ‘playful, postmodern bricoleurs’ – what many might be tempted to dub ‘pick and mix spirituality’. However, as Altglas goes on to demonstrate, with a particular empirical focus upon Hindu-based Yoga centres and the Kabbalah centre, far from a carefree process of shopping at the ‘spiritual supermarket’, ‘the original meanings and otherness of elements used in this religious bricolage matter, and in fact limits, the popularization of “exotic” religions’ (Forthcoming).

IMG_20141112_114757This broad-ranging interview provides a fascinating overview of an important concept that is not only relevant for the study of contemporary ‘religion’ and ‘spirituality’, but also speaks to cultural appropriation and construction in general, utilizing a number of stimulating contextual examples along the way. Chris enjoyed the interview so much, he immediately went out and bout Véronique’s book… and he suggests you do too!

This interview was recorded at the European Sociological Association’s Sociology of Religion Research Network Conference in Belfast in September 2014. You can also download this podcast, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.ca, or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when you have a purchase to make – particularly in the run up to Christmas!

Picture-41

Thanks to Culture on the Edge for posting this passage. http://edge.ua.edu/monica-miller/the-myth-of-origins/

References

  • Forthcoming 2015. ‘Bricolage’: Reclaiming a Conceptual Tool. Culture & Religion. 2015. 4.