Introducing Why Yoga: A Cultural History of Yoga
A Cultural History of Yoga is among many other things a fascinating historical examination of extraordinary customs and unusual social groups. We hear about such past milieus’ sometimes bizarre yoga practices and lifestyles, how they are turned into powerful symbols profoundly impressing the rest of society. We hear how these yoga specialists use the yoga image to struggle for social recognition among competitors and other social groups. Thus we hear about Jain ascetics, aristocratic warriors, Buddhist monks, Brahmin high castes, itinerant intellectuals, Tantric immortals, ecstatic Shamans, royal courts, snake charmers, Mughal mercenaries, temple cults, fakir contortionists, rural Lumpen-proletarians, enlightened princes, naked philosophers, Turkic Muslims, colonial gurus, urban high castes, wrestling monks, and semi-divine yogis who can fly.
....and yogis today...
But we are also introduced to more conventional and familiar lifestyles of modern times: fitness trainers, intellectual Orientalists, middleclass females, Hindu missionaries, fashion models, bourgeois cultural elites, stressed executives, home going housewives, spiritual entrepreneurs, cultural intermediaries, counterculture youths, petty-bourgeois business people, academic specialists and Hollywood stars.
Why do they practise yoga?....
They all are culturally engaged with yoga for different reasons and rewards. Hence throughout history we hear about yoga virtuosi – living conventionally or extraordinarily - who want to find peace after death, increase energy levels, stretch their backs, find their footing in life, be free of disease, unite with the divine, travel in time, improve their wellbeing, attain ethical guidance, realise the fundamentals of existence, commit public suicide, be purified from caste pollution, find their deepest self, live for hundreds of years, become pure consciousness, or improve the look of their bum.
So this book is for anyone fascinated by the amazing diversity of human history and culture seen from the point of yoga. Prepare for surprises.
What does it mean to be a yogi?
This unconventional and innovative book is primarily about the people involved with yoga in one way or another. It is about the various societies and cultures they are living in and how they use yoga to find a place in social life; in East and West, then and now. It is about the social background of such people and how they use yoga to construct social identity, expertise, social ranking, power and meaning in life.
What is yoga's role in society?
Approaching yoga along new paths the book provides a rare critical view on yoga’s role in society. The book for instance shows how yoga is regularly incorporated into religion. We see how this merger with religion repeatedly throughout history has the effect of controlling people, legitimising social inequality, power and repression. In similar ways various hidden aspects of yoga are uncovered. It demonstrates how yoga is often used to gain power, high status and a professional living. A new image of yoga as culture emerges slowly: yoga seen as symbolic capital: an asset exchangeable with social rank, economic goods, political power, social influence and recognition.
A study of ever changing yoga ideas
How do we study the change of ideas and cultural practices? Often history of ideas is presented as one-good-idea-leads-to-the next: as the product of the minds of great thinkers. This book has developed its own method for studying the change and evolution of ideas and culture. Using yoga as an example it shows how new ideas continuously evolve as part of change in human interaction and life conditions, the social fabric and the struggle of daily life. As new ideas and practices from here spread and mature within society existing culture and power relations then mould them. This book is strongly recommended to anyone with a general interest in the study of the evolution of ideas and culture. This reader will find separate chapters presenting the methodology guiding the study’s investigation of yoga’s cultural history.
Yoga seen as culture
Most yoga books concentrate on yogic techniques and their core ideas. They explain the effect yoga claims to have on the individual. This book also investigates yoga practice and philosophy. However the main target is to examine yoga’s role in society throughout its entire history – including today. It is about the relationships between those who know and master yoga and those who do not.
What advantage do people gain from acknowledging that they are yoga experts? What social distinctions and identities does the claim of yoga expertise create in various historical societies? What meaning does yoga give to peoples’ lives – now and in the past? Why do people write about yoga throughout history – is it only to explain yoga or is there an implicit agenda (a spin)? On the one hand how are the practices and notions of yoga formed by its society and on the other hand what effect does yoga discourse have on that society and its individuals?
This is what A Cultural History of Yoga is about. From reading this book it becomes evident that this cultural aspect is critical to any understanding of yoga and similar practices like Buddhism, Hinduism and Tantra. In fact the book should be of interest to anyone fascinated by the evolution of cultural ideas and practices.