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« Elsewhere | Main | Some Publishing Phenomena »

September 26, 2007

Modern Yoga's Fountainhead

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Although the physical practices of yoga have a reputation as something ancient, even timeless, the historical fact seems to be that nearly all modern yoga stems from one man: Krishnamacharya, who lived from 1899 to 1989. Krishnamacharya not only brought together and revived what was around of yoga at the time of his youth, he developed most of the practices -- the postures and the sequences -- that people in yoga classes are executing today. Fernando Pages Ruiz does his best to sort out fact from legend.



UPDATE: Alan Little, a real scholar of yoga history, offers a lot of helpful info and interpretation in the comments on this posting, and in this posting at his own website.

posted by Michael at September 26, 2007


Most claims of the antiquity made by the New Age arts artists is hogwash. My favorite example is Reiki which, though it is claimed to be ancient and Japanese, has never been heard of in Japan. It was probably invented in California, along with the fortune cookie.

Posted by: Gawain on September 26, 2007 7:52 PM

It's staggering how many "ancient" customs really began in the nineteenth century, early twentieth. Everything from Christmas to Wicca to Yoga to most professional sports, etc. Everything old is new...except that it's not really that old. I wonder if there is a phenomenon of moderns systematically scanting the 19th century. If there is, I wonder why.

Posted by: PatrickH on September 26, 2007 9:33 PM

So true, PatrickH!
You could add to the list of 19th century born "old things":
— the "sacred feminine"
— regional tongues and identities such as the Basque, Britton, Occitan, etc.
— Christianity without a Church
The late Philippe Muray (a French writer) has a marvelous and hilarious book about the phenomenon: Le XIXe siècle à travers les âges. It's a must read, though I fear it is not translated into English.

Posted by: Philaretes on September 27, 2007 3:03 AM

Hi Michael

That's quite a good & interesting article (although you've picked up wrong dates from somewhere - Krishnamacharya lived to well over 100)

"Nearly all" is an overstatement though. K was indisputably the greatest snythesizer/innovator in the south Indian yoga tradition in modern times, but there's also a distinct north Indian branch that he didn't influence. Swami Sivananda found a yoga school based in the Himalayan town of Rishikesh that's widespread in the rest of the world. The Crazy Russian Yogis I'm acquainted mostly also studied with north Indian teachers whom they refer to as the "Delhi School", who seem to konw what they're doing if their students are any indication. And NYC's very own homegrown Yoga Master, Dharma Mittra, originally studied with a teacher whose name sounds distinctly north Indian.

Whatever Krishnamacharya was doing, he certainly didn't make it up from scratch because there are documented asana practices going back to around the 12th/13th centuries (pedants bear with me if I'm a century or two out here; I'm writing on the subway with no access to reference material) There seems to be evidence that K integrated yoga asana practices with some stuff borrowed from Indian martial arts and British gymnastics.

I wrote about this a while ago - it's interesting how very different the Indian and Japanese attitudes are to this sort of thing. The Japanese appear to have no problem with respecting people like Uyeshiba and Funakoshi - founders respectively of aikido and a major school of karate - for having done their own thing whilst drawing on stuff they learned from people before them. Whereas the Indian way is to pretend that everything was passed down from the gods via great sages in ancient times and nothing has ever changed. Even though it's pretty clear that Krishnamacharya was actually doing exactly what Uyeshiba, Funakoshi and others were also doing elsewhere round about the same time.

Posted by: Alan Little on September 27, 2007 3:51 AM

Hatha yoga is just a creative take on a British calisthenics manual distributed in the Raj in the early 20th century.

BTW, this is probably the first 2BH yoga article with no mention of comely female practitioners. A bit disappointing.

Posted by: James M. on September 27, 2007 11:21 AM

Well, yoga's great by me even if it was invented yesterday.

Apologies for failing to mention hot yoga chix. What's happening to me? Maybe this will repair some of the damage. NSFW, and yay to that.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on September 27, 2007 11:45 AM

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