Sunday, December 18, 2011

Yoga in Practice: In and Out of the Labyrinth with Historian David Gordon White, Phd

I think it was W.H Auden who said, "a real book is not one that we read, but one that reads us". This may be truer still for anthologies, short stories and collected fables. At every angle, the collection, in its gathered meaning, looks slightly different. And so you get in closer to read between the lines, only to realize the book demands answers of you...and you'd swear it was no longer a collection of words but a riddle of skin and bone sitting on the shelf.

That's the closest I can get to describing my still rather new relationship with Yoga in Practice, David Gordon White's brilliant and beautiful anthology of primary texts on yoga. Built out of the vitality of yoga's fractured, hybrid history, Yoga in Practice gathers a diverse collection of texts from India, greater Asia and the West into a jumbling whole. And in the process of reading its chapters, you're reminded just how fluid yoga's history is, shapeshifting with colossal dexterity over the yugas. With solid contributions from twenty-six yoga scholars, and sources that span four major religious traditions (Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Jainism), Yoga in Practice has been sitting on my desk, the manuscript bull-dog clipped on certain chapters and and dog-eared on others, as I returned to it over and over again over the last few months.

David Gordon White is the J. F. Rowny Professor of Comparative Religions at the University of California, Santa Barbara.  He received his Ph.D. in history of religions from the University of Chicago in 1988.  He is the author of Myths of the Dog-Man (1991); The Alchemical Body: Siddha Traditions in Medieval India ( 1996); Kiss of the Yogini: "Tantric Sex" in its South Asian Contexts (2003); and Sinister Yogis (2009), all published by the University of Chicago Press. He is also the editor of Tantra in Practice (Princeton UP, 2000). Myths of the Dog-Man was listed as one of the "Books of the Year" in the 1991 Times Literary Supplement; Kiss of the Yogini was the cover review of the Times Literary Supplement of May 21, 2001.  He has been awarded three Fulbright Fellowships for research in South Asia, in 1984, 1993, and 1999.

I interviewed David White last summer in late August. I had just started to settle into one of the last remaining tables at a Pete's coffee in L.A when David darted in the back door half looking like he wasn't quite sure who he might find. His scanning gaze seemed to settle a bit when I stood up and motioned over at him. He had walked in free-handed except for some loose pages in his right hand, the table of contents from his manuscript for Yoga in Practice. As we got to talking it became clear that White was alarmingly alert, as quick to speak his mind as to critique and laugh, argue and persuade. I should have expected as much - imaginative and tactical, affable but provocative, it's clear how David White skillfully writes his way in and out of yoga's historical labyrinth.

What's more, however, is that I wasn't the only one asking the questions. He prepared a fountain of questions aimed at practitioners. In particular, he seemed curious about the verbiage of our contemporary practice, and specifically, why we rely on Patanjali's yoga sutras to anchor the practice. I did wonder why an historian would direct these questions at practitioners... Why was he asking me about this? It seems that despite his many contributions as an historian of yoga, David Gordon White still has a vivid curiosity about what it means to practice modern hatha yoga.

"I realized that there are a lot of other ways to read these yoga texts and combine them. And there's not a right and wrong. It's a chaos of traditions. There's just no way to make them all fit together nicely, because they never did." (David Gordon White)
(David Gordon White, ed "Yoga in Practice")