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")

Priya Thomas Interview with David Gordon White - August 2011:

Priya: What draws you to the study of yoga and religion in the first place?

David: Well, the real answer is historical because I kind of backed into studying yoga. It wasn't something I thought I'd do at the outset.  But when I was a starving student in Paris in the late 70s,  I put up little signs in different Oriental book stores that I can teach Indic languages and translate books. So some French guy approached me, asking me to translate an alchemical text in Sanskrit into French. And I needed the money because I had been accepted to the University of Chicago and I didn't have the money to pay the airfare to get back. So I took the job and I did a terrible job, because A, my Sanskrit wasn't that good and B, translating into French is much harder than Sanskrit into English. And then alchemy has got its own vocabulary, its own set of concepts which I didn't know, so I did a terrible job.

But anyway, when I got to Chicago, the next year I was reading these mystical poems by Gorakhnath. He was this purported founder of hatha Yoga and wrote the text. And I noticed that the language of the yogic transformation that were in his banis, his vernacular poems, not his Sanskrit sort of manuals, was very similar to the language in his alchemical text that I'd translated. So, you know, light bulb. And then that's what lead to the book I wrote called The Alchemical Body, which is as much about yoga and the Nath yogis, as it is about alchemy.

That got me into the back door of yoga, the history of Hatha yoga. And the alchemy book left some questions unanswered, mainly about power substances. And that gave rise to the next book, Kiss of the Yogini, which talked about the substances particularly in Tantric sex. But then that opened up new questions, such as why is the perfected practitioner in these Tantric texts called a yogi so often? Because he doesn't seem to be practicing yoga. So that's what led to the Sinister Yogis book. And it was in writing that that I realized I had to grapple with sort of the conventional history of yoga and respond to it. And so that forced me to read some of the literature on the history of the Yoga Sutras and its interpretations.

And actually, I'm kind of putting the cart before the horse. So yeah, by then I was deeply into yoga studies.  I'm half way through a book now on the reception of history of Yoga Sutras. And that's the next book I'll publish with Princeton. So yeah, how I got into yoga was this sort of step by step process of following the questions that the texts posed to me, eventually drawing me from alchemy into Hatha yoga and into Raja yoga and so on.

Priya: So obviously you knew Sanskrit before you were presented with a text to translate.

David: Yeah.

Priya: Why were you studying Sanskrit?

David: By the time I got to Paris, I had already done a BA in South Asian studies. I had studied at the University of Wisconsin and done one year of Sanskrit there. And then I went to India to study abroad. And when I was in Benares I studied more Sanskrit as well. And then while in Paris, I studied Sanskrit with some of the leading Sanskritists in the French system. So yeah, I was into my fifth or sixth year of Sanskrit by the time I was contracted to do that job. And I'm still learning. I mean, I don't know how much you know of Sanskrit, but it's such a challenging language.

Priya: I've only done a few years of Sanskrit.

David: So you know what I'm talking about.

Priya: I guess so. You talk about the heterogeneous nature of yoga in your introduction. And in reading Yoga in Practice, it's very clear that yoga was never really hegemonic. Were you attempting to make a statement when you put together the essays for this book?

David: No, not really. What you see in the table of contents and the essays is just the lay of the land in terms of scholarship on yoga. So I mean, I know personally through mutual interests virtually everyone in the field in terms of scholars of yoga. So I sent out my letters to all of them. And the ones who wrote back were pretty much the ones that got in. There's a few that didn't for other reasons. So yeah, those are the many yogas that the specialists and the academy are interested in, and that's why you find so many of them in the book. I suppose I could have only sent letters to Yoga Sutras specialists, but that would have been silly.

Priya: Yeah. But you do make a point in the foreword of talking about a sort of flattening out that happens with our contemporary, transnational practice of yoga. Do you find that now practitioners are starting to catch on to the historical diversity of the practice?

David: A little bit. Yeah, I think some. What I know is anecdotal, and I know a lot of people in LA who are into yoga, either as teachers or as practitioners. And people send me emails that have read some of my books, and of course they're the ones who are turned on to sort of the broader viewpoint. So yeah, I do have that impression that there's a widening of people's horizons that's starting to take place.

Priya:  You've been a scholar for such a long time now. Is yoga's scope and flexibility daunting to you? Is it challenging? What's your feeling about it?

David: It is. I mean, I finished that book Sinister Yogis several years ago, it came out two and a half years ago. And I thought, OK, I've said it. I've taken my position and I understand yoga the way no one else has, blah blah blah. And then I've read 50 other articles and chapters and a dozen other books since then and I realize, well, no, I'm wrong about this. Or I'm not totally right about that. And I forgot about that other thing. So I always feel out of my depth. But I think in a way that's a good thing because it forces you to keep renewing yourself.

So yeah, I'm pretty happy with the introduction to this volume that you read. But ask me in a year, I probably won't be that happy with it because I'll see some of the warts on it. And then this book I'm writing now on the reception history of Yoga Sutras is forcing me to read all kinds of stuff I hadn't looked at before, particularly post-Vivekananda stuff. And I realized that there are a lot of other ways to read these yoga texts and to sort of combine them. And there's not a right and wrong there. It's a chaos of traditions. There's just no way to make them all fit together nicely, because they never did.

Priya: Yeah. I like the fact that you like to play with the idea of orienting and disorienting the reader. As well as continuity/discontinuity. I think that's how you put it in this book's forward. You have to be pretty comfortable with instability to be able to do that.

David: Yeah. Yeah.

Priya: And I imagine you must run into scholars as well who are less content with yoga's...

David: Discontinuities? Yeah. Yeah. And particularly since half the scholars of yoga are practitioners, and it kind of comes through.

Priya: I didn't realize that was quite the percentage. Is that right?

David: I would say it is, yeah.

Priya: Wow.

David: Yeah. Yeah. And some of them are really deeply involved. They've built their lives around yoga and it just happens that they write about it too. I won’t name names. 

Priya: Well, then there's a different stake in it. I was going to ask you whether you have a stake in the practice.

David: Stake? No. I mean, I've practiced because I wanted to know what I was writing about. I stopped because I find it kind of boring. I swim instead to stay in shape and feel good and all that other stuff – stretch my legs and arms out. Some of my best friends are yogis, but that's my personal...

Priya: (laughing) So you did it, but weren't totally keen on it?

David: Yeah, that's right. I mean, I never really dove in and embraced it the way so many people do. And that's just I think because – well, two things. I was raised in a fairly strict religious tradition or background and I've fought against that ever since I was able to. So I don't want to be constricted by any particular sort of viewpoint. And then flowing from that, my approach to just about everything is sort of the scholarly, objective approach. I'm trying to stand back and see things as objectively as possible. Of course, total objectivity is not possible.

Priya: I was going to ask.

David: So my greatest sort of loyalty is to history. You can't change history. You can do your best to record history based on the data you have. In this yoga world, there are so many teachers and gurus and nationalists and people on the other side, Christian fundamentalists, who want to rewrite history. They want to say this is the way it happened and the data that we have controverts what those people are saying.

Priya: Yeah. And so would you say writing history is a neutral endeavor?

David: Of course it can't be. But I strive to be (laughs) – which means comprehensive, balanced. Yeah, no, of course you can't.

Priya: So was your interest in religion based on having grown up in a family that had strict religious values?

David: In a way it's true because from so early on – my parents are Christian Scientists. And from so early on I was trying to fight that tradition with its own discourse. So arguing against their philosophy and so on, which got me interested in the philosophical issues that religion presents. And then a brilliant idea. I thought, well, I'll go to university and study the tradition furthest removed from Christian Science and that's going to be Hinduism. And I’ve come to find out that the founder of Christian Science, Mary Baker Eddy, she was very influenced by Hinduism. The Bhagavad-Gita is quoted in early editions of her book, Science and Health. (laughs) So in a way, I got...well…. Anyway it’s kind of ironic.

Priya: (laughing) Yup that's how that stuff goes! In the forward to this book you also talk about the dizzying speed of contemporary yoga’s evolution....

David: Well, so much gets lost in translation. And when you read what some of the contributors to this volume, like Gerald Larson, has to say about every word in Yoga Sutras, and just how difficult it is to render the word in a way that is both true and also fits together with all of the other words, you realize that you can't do yoga-lite if you claim to be teaching the philosophy that goes with the practice. And that of course is totally open to question. (As in, whether in fact there is much, if any relationship between the yoga that people practice, and the yoga that people are taught to think was the basis for that practice, the Yoga Sutras).

So yeah,  about this flattening and the sort of transnational tendencies…it's not a very pleasant word, but I don't know if the yoga gurus who "dumbed-down" the Yoga Sutras are doing it because they don't really understand them, or because they're trying to teach at a level that can be understood by their pupils. But in either case, it's selling the tradition short.

And that tradition is the issue of a long period of historical and philosophical exchanges that enrich what's in the Yoga Sutras as a text in the broader commentarial tradition in ways that you just can't do in a soundbite. And so everything is getting tweeted these days, (laughing) so they're soundbites now. But again, that's just me as the cranky old scholar from my ivory tower that doesn't feel that popular wisdom is wisdom.

Priya: Yeah, I guess I also wondered about the relationship between the Yoga Sutras and Krishnamacarya when I read Mark Singleton's interpretation of the Yoga Makaranda included in this book.

David: Yeah. Well, again, my major quarrel is with the perceived need from the outset of these gurus to even talk about the Yoga Sutras as a support for what they're teaching. And it's interesting with Krishnamacharya. I mean, he wrote that Yoga Makaranda which doesn't talk about the Yoga Sutras at all. He wrote the Yogaasanagalu or something like that…. I'm not even sure if it's late in his life or posthumously that his writing on Yoga Sutras comes out.

And it's the same with Iyengar. You know? He did his Light on Yoga and another book before the Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. It seems like these great gurus of neo-yoga, they got their religion kind of late. Where did that come from? I'm still kind of wondering about it. On the other hand, the authorized biographies of Krishnamacharya by his grandsons and his son, they talk about his search for true yogis and yoga instruction. And he went to all the universities and they ended up sending him to Tibet to find a teacher and so forth. It leads one to believe that he was very intent on learning the philosophy, but then why did he not talk about it for the first 20, 30 years of his teaching career? It's incongruous. I don't know what to make of that. Mark Singleton has done a lot more work than I have on that history. But yeah, again, I come back to my hobby horse to say that if there's a need to talk about the underlying philosophy to the practice, it should be done in a thoughtful way. And I don't see that being the case generally.

Priya: OK. How does this relate to the diminishing emphasis on the siddhis, or the superhuman powers associated with practice of yoga in today's practice? Do you find it curious that an interest in magic persists in popular culture (ie the Harry Potter phenomenon), and despite this, that yoga doesn't display an interest in say controlling the three worlds, as opposed to reducing the fat on one's inner thighs?

(Vivekananda, centre - Chennai, 1897)
David: I think the answer is a historical one. And it goes back to Vivekananda and his context. And that is that in the early 20th century, the Hindu nationalist movement and Neovedanta the Indian nationalist leaders, intellectuals were looking for a discourse that would both be unifying and scientific and grounded in India's ancient teachings. But it couldn't be superstitious. It had to be better than the British at both its science and its religion. And it couldn't be this weird stuff that the yogis were doing. So he had to amputate that from his message, even though in his raja yoga he does translate the yoga – the vibhuti part of the third book that has all of the powers in it. But he hardly gives it any, you know...

Priya: So do you think this was a conscious measure on Vivekananda’s part?

David: Oh yeah.

Priya: As opposed to him just sort of absorbing or possibly inheriting rationalism and British biases?

David: Oh, well, OK. Yeah, if you want to psychoanalyze him. That is what happened, sure. Yeah, all his training was in British schools, after all. And then he met Ramakrishna. But Ramakrishna was this ecstatic mystic when Vivekananda met him. He wasn't giving out a lot of teachings, really. And when he did they were kind of contradictory. But he just became sort of the designated mascot of the neo-yoga movement that Vivekananda...

Priya: So you think that's what persists today in terms of underplaying the siddhis...

David: Yes, I do. It's a strange sort of thing, but I think that is the case. Yeah.

Priya: Do you think modern yoga in America has a sectarian identity?

David: (long pause) Hmm...I think subculture is a good word to describe it. So there is a sort of sense of belonging that practitioners have. But sectarian – I don't see it as a sect. Although that is what some of the Christian fundamentalists are trying to make the case for… by way of prohibiting Christian women from practicing yoga – well, you read the thing about that….

Priya: Yeah.

David:  It’s interesting you know the demographics, it's what, 90 percent women, highly educated. Mainly urban. You know, lots of Jews and Jewbus. So in a sense it's no more sectarian I guess than listening to Prairie Home Companion or something like that. It's kind of the same demographic, I think, you know? For the most part. Yet, there is definitely a feeling of identity when you see people in the context and so on. But no, I like subculture better than sectarian, or sectarianism or something like that.

Priya: When you think about the HAF (The Hindu American Foundation) and their position on who owns yoga. A little while ago we saw some sectarian divisions becoming issues...

David: Oh yeah.

Priya: I wondered if you had something to say to that? You kind of articulate your position very quickly in the foreword.

David: Well, yeah. I mean, they are as guilty as the Christian fundamentalists for instrumentalizing yoga for a broader agenda, which is basically controlling the discourse on what is Hinduism. And they have a very conservative view of what Hinduism is, et cetera, et cetera.  It's a very exclusionist platform that the Hindu fundamentalists have and they tend to be the Hindus whose voices we hear the most loudly here in this country, more so than in Europe, are of that ilk. So many of them are engineers. Do you know that?

Priya: Who? You mean the fundamentalist Hindus in America? (laughs)

David: Yeah. So again, it's that sort of, well, OK, so our tradition is scientific. And that is an argument that you often hear. But again, I mean, that HAF, it's very much in the lineage of Vivekananda in terms of its sort of nationalist, scientific, rationalist, and Indo-centric outlook of Indian superiority. Everyone has the right to consider themselves superior. But I take that with a grain of salt. Whoever is saying it you know?

Priya: Well the question is, is being a Hindu being an Indian? There may be a conflation going on there...

David: Yeah. Sure..

Priya: What disturbs you viewing a tradition as immobile? At one point you talk about how yoga, as with every Indian artifact that has been imported, has been seen as something that is static and..

David: Unchanging.


(Hans-Georg Gadamer)
Priya: Yeah.

David: Because from one century to the next, as far as you can go and as far back as the data goes that we can interpret, it just kept morphing into something else constantly. I mean, I'm only talking about texts for the most part, because that's what we have to go on. But if you sort of translate that into influences on the ground, it was gurus and disciples. It was patrons and clients and so forth. It was constantly being reinterpreted, reconfigured, re-triggered because that's how traditions work. I mean, it's this flow of – are you familiar with Gadamerian hermeneutics?

Priya: No.

David: He's just this wonderful German philosopher who talks about how we read the texts of not just books, but our lives and so forth. And we're always already caught up in this flow of tradition that the past bequeathes to us. And we position ourselves, we define ourselves, we are constantly being transformed as we position ourselves with respect to what's flowing through us, to us, over us, and so forth. Yoga being one of the many traditions that that was and remains the case. So what one could say if you want to be more historically relativist, is that since the 1990s there has been a trend in yoga traditions to do yoga as an unchanging essence that has not transformed over time. But that itself is a transformation. [laughs]

Priya: Which brings me to a point you make about yoga as the Indian artifact. What's the relationship between importer and imported that you're illustrating there?

David: It's about Western perceptions of the East, of India in particular, going back to the Romantics as the home of wisdom and spirituality. An India that was the same in the 19th century as it was in the Vedic time. And if you could just somehow now peel away the priestly expressions, you'd find that essence. And if you go deep enough into the jungles, you'll still find that sort of thing. And it's that sort of essentialization of a golden, good old time religion that never existed.

Priya: Right. Speaking of which, you studied with Mircea Eliade. He was a complicated, colourful personality I'm guessing?

David: By the time I knew him, he was old, tired, sick and unhappy.

Priya: Oh, really?

David: And quite insecure. It’s quite strange. For one thing, he never was that good in English. So I was his research assistant because I knew French very well. And he would talk in French. And he'd dictate his letters in French and I'd write them out in English. And in French he was much more expansive and so on. But in sort of public situations – and again, I don't know if he was different when he was younger, but by the time I knew him, he was in his early 70s, and was kind of withdrawn. He would smoke his pipe and every now and then he would interject something. Everyone would go silent, you know, because the master was speaking. But he was not colourful.

Priya: His history sounds...

David: Yeah, when you read his autobiography, it sounds like in his youth he was quite a firebrand. But none of that was there by the time I knew him. Yeah it was a bit sad…He had so many things wrong with him physically by the time I knew him. He had cataracts, so he could hardly see. He had worse than carpal tunnel, he had rheumatoid arthritis. He had these things that he wore on his forearms because the nerves were so tender. His wife was dying, although she recovered. Anyway, it was a lot of bad stuff happening in his life. So no, unfortunately, I kind of missed the best of Eliade.

Priya: What did you learn from him? Would you say he left a mark on you?

David: Oh yeah, well, he did before I even met him. Because that's why I went to Chicago... for him and Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty. But yes I was so influenced by his approach to religion. The breadth that he had, which I still try to emulate because because I am actually interested in areas broader than Indian myth. But I totally parted ways with his sort of philosophy of history and his dichotomization of a historical peasant culture versus historical modern culture. And he had this broader sort of philosophical agenda that has cast a long shadow on the field of religious studies because it tends to favor ahistorical traditions and look at them as not changing. Even though my degree was in history of religions at the University of Chicago, there wasn't much history going on there. And I've tried to push back against that in all my writing because I think that's really what you have to do. But still, he was the leaven for at least one generation if not more. We are so fortunate to have had him.

Priya:  For sure. Obviously the landscape of yoga practice has changed quite a bit since you would have started your work in the area. Do you think transnational yoga, the way it's going now,  is off course?

David: That would be normative to say that. It's just on a different course. And yeah, that is something I learned. In the first or second chapter of Sinister Yogis, I kind of lambast Vivekananda for kind of leading us all astray. And I realized, he's just interpreting the tradition from a late 19th century standpoint. It's not his fault that he was writing in the late 19th century and had less data than I do now. And I have less data than someone is going to have 50 years from now, when my ideas are quaint. So yeah, I was too normative, particularly in Sinister Yogis...and that was stemming from modern, contemporary readings of yoga. 

Because if you go back 500 years earlier, the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, it’s saying that Hatha is basically preparation for Raja yoga. And that was a totally bizarre sort of detour from the stream of early tradition. And you go further back and you had Muslims interpreting yoga. So no, I don't feel that modern yoga is on the wrong course. It's just on a new course. And what annoys me is that people are confusing parts for the whole, this whole soup of history that's really interesting and really enriches the understanding of the practice if you allow yourself to get into it. I mean, you know the term yoga fundamentalist, there are a lot of people who just, you know repeat whatever Pattabhi Jois said or whatever so and so said. It's not a wrong track, it's just what happens in any religious tradition.

Priya: Or any tradition.

David: Yeah. It's not just religious, yeah. Look at the Tea Party. They're fundamentalist interpretation of the Constitution is just that. It's not strange that the same people who read the Bible in that sort of fundamentalist way are doing it there.

Priya: Yeah, exactly.

David: They've only got one mode.

Priya: Yeah. But it seems to me – and this is just coming from someone who's a practitioner. It seems that's the point of yoga is to break that. To change thinking, to make thinking more flexible, divergent. So I don't understand how it's very compatible with literalist anything. What's your approach?? Would you recommend history as a solution?

David: Yeah, I recommend it as a solution to everything.

Priya: Oh really?

David: Yeah, I do. I mean, I think...

Priya: But history is dangerous territory too.

David: Yeah, of course it is. That's the problem.

Priya: (laughing) So it doesn't work either.

No, not really. It's an ideal that can't be realized because of everything that postmodernism told us. Discourse is power and whoever has the loudest voice and who is going to trumpet their history. It takes you back to all the same problems…

Priya: But this book is a solution.

David: (laughing) Well, it’s another answer to what happened. I mean, I'm always curious when I meet intelligent, articulate practitioners of yoga who have obviously a broader interest in what they do than just good flat bellies and so forth. What is it about this arcane philosophical system that attracts you? Why not some other one? Why do you have to be limited in your minds? I'm saying your minds now because clearly...

Priya: Which traditions though?

David: Well, the Yoga Sutras in particular. Why not embrace the Tantra of the Hatha yoga practice that is much more relevant in a sense?

Priya: I don't know. But I was raised in an environment where I had access to different philosophies of yoga through dance etc. It wasn't narrowly funelled through the Yoga Sutras. So I don't understand the whole Yoga Sutra thing...

David: I know. I don't understand it. I don't understand it.

Priya: It's great. I don't have any complaints, but...

David: I would just like to know what it's talking about most of the time.

Priya: Oh really?

David: Yeah. It's so hard to get my head around the point of most of it.

Priya: Yeah, I was reading excerpts of the Yoga Sutras the other day. And I did think this is just trippy.  Mind you, in yoga classes I've been in, the sutras have been funneled through vague outlines of Samkhya. And then you try and make sense of it somehow.

David: Well, actually it's Samkhya that I'm having trouble with. I mean, the Yoga Sutras is exclusively a commentary on Samkhya. And I understand the part about analyzing the processes of perception and cognition and intellection. And deconstructing those so that in the end the intellect realizes that it has nothing to offer the soul, and it sort of falls back into matter. But that's just the goofiest metaphysics. I don't know. The primordial matter somehow modifies itself in the presence of the soul. I mean, it's just – where did this come from?

It's so counter-intuitive. It doesn't have to be intuitive, but how can you apply this to your life? I just don't get it. And I'm not sure many people, even the commentators, the best commentators do either. And then eventually they Vedanta-ize so much of it, which is the opposite of Samkhya. Vedanta is "all is one" and Samkhya is "all is two". It's just such a strange vision of reality. It's just so alien to what I trust as sort of the foundation of everything. I just don't get it.

Priya: Well, to be honest, I don't think most practitioners are exposed a lot of philosophy anyway.

David: Well, when you say Samkhya that's...

Priya: Well, I know that because I put two and two together. I'm not sure I'm bothered by it too much. My bent is more Vedantic anyway. But that's neither here nor there, what makes sense to me. Right?

David: Well, I don't know. I mean, since tens of millions of people are embracing yoga, what is it?

Priya: What is it? I think they're embracing asana.

David: Yeah. Yeah. Which is the non-philosophical part of the Yoga Sutras. And yeah, that's the part that most often gets carried over into other systems. It's the one that morphs the most easily.

That's right. And then if you add a little bit of philosophy, just tidbits here and there...lifted quotes etc...

Yeah. Soundbites. [laughs]

Priya: Yeah, exactly. But people have hard lives and 80 minutes of of asana followed by 10 minutes of savasana mean something. Relaxation is difficult. When you add philosophy to relaxation, then perhaps people experience something that is otherwise absent in their lives.

David: Uh huh. No, I understand that. Yeah.

Priya:  Although I personally think there is something about asana... I don't know what else to say about it. I think there's something in it that's unusually powerful.

David: Yeah, I don't doubt that at all. And in breath control as well. But you don't have to understand the Samkhya philosophy (laughs) to do those things.

Priya: Fair enough. (laughs)

David: By the way, this will come out in the reception history book – something I spent a lot of last summer doing. Which was I ordered just about every catalog of manuscript archives in India and across the world, to read how many holdings they had for each of the major philosophical schools, to see how important at the time that manuscripts were being collected. Which is generally the 19th century, before the books were being edited. How important relatively yoga philosophy, Samkhya philosophy, Nyaya, Vaisesika, Vedanta, and Mimamsa were. And yoga and Samkhya come in dead last, way behind everything else.

No one was copying those manuscripts. Now I extrapolate from that that people were not interested in them. Where as Nyaya, Vaisesika, 35 percent of all the manuscripts stands in archives from the 19th century were Nyaya and Vaisesika. Vedanta was 40 percent. The other four, the remaining 27 percent, of which 2 percent – 1 to 2 percent yoga and Samkhya together. So these philosophies were not speaking to people by the 19th century. When did they stop picking up people? It seems like around the 16th century is kind of the tipping point where Vendanta just totally blew everything else away. You can see it in the commentaries. You can see it in so many different ways.

So Samkhya had a great run. I mean, you know, 1000, 1500 years. And then it just ceased to be relevant, it seems.

Priya: Oh really?

David: Yeah, So qualitatively, quantitatively, in every respect, yoga and Samkhya were finished. And when you look at the manuscript collections for yoga, it's mostly Hatha yoga. If you just did Yoga Sutras, it would be even a smaller – you know, a fraction of a percent. So people didn't even understand yoga philosophy the way we do in the academy now, which is the yoga of the Yoga Sutras and its commentaries. It was this combination of the Hatha and Tantric stuff.

Priya: That's interesting.

David: Yeah. Yeah. And even with that, it was still sort of the bottom ladder of philosophies in terms of... It was not the idiom of the time.

Priya: Yeah. Yeah. To give credit to some teacher training programs, some include Tantric philosophy as well. Basics.. definitions etc..

David: Well, I hope they've updated their definitions of that, too, because often it goes back to these dinosaurs of Tantric studies that got it wrong themselves.

Priya: Fair enough. I know a number of yogis who are really excited about your work. And, you know, they're doing some reading.

David: That's cool. (laughs) 

Priya: I think so.

David: Until the next thing comes along.

Priya: So what is the next thing?

David: No, some other scholar will sort of say, well, he was wrong. [laughs]

Priya: Yeah. (laughs) That's funny.

David: It's going to happen. Yeah.

Priya: So are you staying in this area? Are you planning to branch out? It sounded to me like you were kind of thinking of moving outwards…


David: Yeah. I mean, I thought I'd written the last word I had to say on these traditions when I finished the Sinister Yogis book, but then  the editor at Princeton made me an offer I couldn't refuse. I'm doing these two other projects. But both of them I kind of dragged my feet. My heart wasn't in them as much as the three books I wrote for Chicago. But I'm really happy that I was forced to do them, because it really has rounded out my understanding. I really think I do have as much of sort of a handle on the entire spectrum as one can have at this point. So I'm happy for that. 

But yeah, I'm going to drop this. And there's two things I want to do. One is Bhairava. He shows up in everything I've written. And actually, when I first went to India in 74, to Banaras, I saw an image of him on the Ghats the first week I was there. And I was so struck by it, because he rides a dog, that it was my undergraduate thesis that I wrote.

Yeah, I remember reading that.

(Kala-Bhairava painting, V&A UK)
David: Yeah, I wrote it somewhere. I don't have any unpublished thoughts. And so he's the god who rides the dog. And my first book was Myths of the Dog Man, there's a lot of dog stuff in there. And he's the god of alchemy, the god of tantra, the god of Tantric yogis. So he's just in all the writing I've done. And I want to write a monograph on his cult which is not just South Asian because it exported as far as China and Indonesia.

And I have another idea of that sort that I'm more than toying with. And that involves the yoginis. They seem to have cognates that are so uncannily similar to them in the Mediterranean world. One of these figures is called striga – a harpy type. But they’re not harpies… But they're harpy type women who take the form of birds that carry off babies from their mother's wombs or tear men apart. The whole nine yards. And then there's a lot of sort of interconnected data from the rest of Asia.

Priya: That sounds exciting.

David: Yeah, I think so. Yeah. And it will be nice to go back to mythology again. Somehow, it's so friendly, mythology, (laughs) in ways that ritual and philosophy are not always. You know?

Priya: What do you mean by that exactly?

David: I don't know. It's like stories... I love stories.

Priya: Yeah. Was that always something that you were interested in before you did your first degree? Mythology?

David: Uh huh. Yeah. Yeah. From fairy tales and into...yeah, for sure.

Priya: Yeah. I guess that's not so different from history - narrative, anyway...

David: It's true, there's something to that. Yeah.

I n his own words, David Gordon White's loyalty is to history. But calling him an historian, and thereby anchoring him to history alone, somehow overlooks the enormous scope of his work with mythology and folklore. What's behind the love of a story and are its moorings the same as historical narrative? What allows an historian to grapple with yoga's fragmented, discontinuous story without the "normative" paralysis of the researcher/observer?

And to that end, David Gordon White has made endless contributions to the history of yoga, revealing the inaccuracies that are inevitably woven into the fabric of contemporary practice...making it clear that our yoga practice contains preferences. And if he seems occasionally worried, maybe he's got good reason.

Occasional preferences are benign enough, but sustained historical preferences are hard to locate and treat. And left unchecked...well, they can turn ugly. You all know this. Surely, you've strained or pulled a muscle somewhere somehow. Ultimately, it's not the strain you treat, it's the habit that got you there. Neutralizing yoga's history seems at least as difficult as getting one's body into a state of balance.

And as for David's question about why it is that we settle with a hodge-podge of philosophies? Or more particularly, why we insist on the Yoga Sutras as a primary text of sorts? Well, my mom once admitted (I was very young and argumentative), that it was true, she couldn't figure out the Nicene Creed's meaning or its significance in the liturgy...but that repeating it at church was about something much larger:  picnics, conversation and cake. It's little surprise that our intellectual arsenal in yoga is made of a similar stew.

Still, it seems wonderful and amazing that our yoga practice made of inaccurate, ill-conceived historical fragments and shambles can have such ritual power. It would seem then that an inaccurate practice is not an entirely ineffectual one...

I suppose I'd like to have another chat with David...maybe when the next book comes out. In the meantime I'm curious to see what would happen if people like David White (who like swimming more than yoga), were to design a new yoga. Would it gently bend to either historical or physical preference? Perhaps in David White's masterful hands, the ubiquitous "downward dog" would become the liminal "downward dog-man", a new canine shape with an ancient folkloric history?? I'd not mind that. Wouldn't you like to see scholarship in the flesh...where the plot is messy and mutable?

Yawl should buy the book for any yogi friend of yours at Christmas. It is extraordinary.


  1. Thanks for sharing the conversation here. I believe in Yoga and it has so many relief measures. Nice sharing and keep posting.

  2. Great article. I wonder if Priyah has studied any of Michael Beloved's books. This acharya has some amazing commentaries.