A History of Modern Yoga by de Michelis

Elizabeth de Michelis. A History of Modern Yoga: Patanjali and Western Esotericism. London and New York: Continuum, repr. 2006 [2004]. Paperback, xvii + 282 pages.

Elizabeth de Michelis, a research fellow at the Centre for Advanced Religious and Theological Studies at the University of Cambridge, has attempted to understand modern Yoga from the perspective of the sociology of religion.I need to state up front that I think the book’s title is too ambitious for its actual scope, which is to highlight specific aspects of the origins of Modern Yoga, to present one influential school (Iyengar Yoga) in depth, and to create a plausible sociological typology. What de Michelis has accomplished is nevertheless significant and will undoubtedly help future researchers in mapping Modern Yoga’s history with greater conceptual sophistication.

The author uses the label “Modern Yoga” to refer to “certain types of yoga that evolved mainly through the interaction of Western individuals interested in Indian religions and a number of more or less Westernized Indians over the last 150 years” (p. 2). She adds: “It may therefore be defined as the graft of a Western branch onto the Indian tree of yoga” (ibid.). Thus, her definition excludes modern articulations of traditional Yoga within India itself that have not been influenced by Western ideas.

The author proposes two chronological markers for the beginning of Modern Yoga: 1849 (the date of Thoreau’s declaration to a friend that he was a yogi) and 1896 (marking the publication of Swami Vivekananda’s book Raja Yoga). More commonly, his appearance at the 1893 Parliament of Religions held in Chicago is taken as the most significant historical marker, which makes sense because it was Vivekananda’s immense success at the Parliament of Religions that made Raja Yoga possible. De Michelis is wrong in maintaining that Vivekananda’s identification of Patanjali’s teachings as “Raja Yoga” has no traditional basis and that this notion goes back to Theosophical circles. Already the sixteenth-century scholar Vijnana Bhikshu, in his Yoga-Sara-Samgraha (Sanskrit edition, p. 39), distinguished between Raja-Yoga and Hatha-Yoga, indicating that the latter emphasizes postural practice.

De Michelis correctly recognized Vivekananda as propagating a “reformed” Yoga, which differed in significant ways from the classical Hindu versions of this ramifying tradition. Vivekananda, as she acknowledges, was a product of Modern Hinduism, that is, the kind of Hinduism that was shaped under the influence of Western ideas and beliefs. More specifically, Vivekananda came out of Neo-Vedanta circles, notably the Brahmo Samaj reform movement established in 1843. It was his exposure to the more esoteric or “universal spiritual” aspects of the Brahmo Samaj that made him predisposed to associate with Western esotericism and spiritual universalism.

The author spends considerable time on examining Vivekananda’s Neo-Vedantic background and also on Western esotericism, which goes back to Greek antiquity and which, via the European Renaissance, merged with New Age religiosity and then with the New Age Movement in the late twentieth century. While she is correct in seeing Vivekananda as an important catalyst, she has failed to make a convincing argument for her opinion that Modern Yoga developed in close association with the occult-religious subculture of the West. She does not even refer to the widespread fitness culture associated with early twentieth-century fascism, which one could regard as a precursor to the more recent narcissistic obsession, especially in North America, with health, fitness, and the “perfect” body. Modern Postural Yoga cannot be divorced from this trend. In general, she seems poorly informed about American developments and mainly bases her analysis on British materials.

De Michelis has elaborated a typology of Modern Yoga that comprises two major articulations. First, Modern Psychosomatic Yoga (MPsY); second, Modern Denominational Yoga (MDY). The former has two subcategories: (1) Modern Postural Yoga (MPY), which emphasizes physical practices, notably postures (asana), such as Iyengar Yoga and Pattabhi Jois’ Ashtanga Yoga, and (2) Modern Meditational Yoga (MMY), which stresses mental practices, such as Transcendental Meditation and Chinmoy’s version of Yoga. In the latter subcategory, she also incongruously and without further specification places “some modern Buddhist groups” (see Table 3 on p. 188).

By Modern Denominational Yoga, she means those types of Yoga that “got fully underway only during the 1960s and that are guru-centric and more cultic/sectarian in orientation, such as Rajneeshism and the Krishna Consciousness Movement. De Michelis inexplicably argues that MDY schools have not been instrumental in shaping Modern Yoga. Perhaps her interest in Modern Postural Yoga has blinded her to the immense, if fading, popularity of the two movements mentioned above. There have been other influential MDY schools that still have a sizable following, such as Swami Muktananda’s Siddha Yoga.

The author seems most at home with Iyengar Yoga, which she has practiced for many years herself, and her discussion of this most prominent form of Modern Postural Yoga is exemplary and quite detailed. It would be interesting, of course, to find out what B. K. S. Iyengar himself thinks about having his version of Yoga characterized as Postural Yoga, since he clearly views his Yoga in continuity with traditional Hatha-Yoga, which is an integrated system that includes meditation and the classical goal of liberation, etc.

To sum up, while de Michelis has helped define research into the history of Modern Yoga and also furnished a useful working typology, her treatment of this complex subject matter must be considered a preliminary overview that is in need of much further exploration. In particular, it is still a desideratum to investigate the diverse strands of influence that led from Swami Vivekananda’s epochal presentations at the Parliament of Religions to the televised popularizations of Yoga in the 1950s to the countercultural yogic teachings of the 1960s and 1970s to, finally, our present-day commercialized Yoga. Perhaps a more thorough examination will reveal that the assimilation of esoteric/occult notions into Modern Yoga was not a simple matter of importation but one of resonance: Many of the beliefs and practices found within Western esotericism have their parallel in traditional Yoga.

Copyright ©2007 by Georg Feuerstein. All rights reserved.
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