Saturday, February 25, 2012

A Kind of Yogic Quest for Viveka - Mark Singleton on Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice

T he long lines of white light, high ceilings and the sprung wooden floors of The National Ballet School of Canada are, for a single weekend in August, the hub of Yoga Festival Toronto. I had a keynote conversation with Mark Singleton, author of Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice at Yoga Festival Toronto, 2011. His book Yoga Body has accrued a devoted and loyal following, and it’s rare to meet a practitioner with little to say about the book's articulation of modern yoga’s complex postural history. So by the time we were all gathered together, bodies and silhouettes were stacked against the walls, a few festival-goers still circulating in and out, as the room came to a slow hum.  Behind the ballet barre the sightlines was vertiginous: a steep sky, static and pale, hovered quietly as a few small feedback squeals from microphones introduced our conversation.

Mark Singleton has a Ph.D. in Divinity from the University of Cambridge. He has written extensively on yoga, notably the books Yoga in the Modern World, Contemporary Perspectives (the first ever collection of scholarship on modern yoga) and Yoga Body, the Origins of Modern Posture Practice, (which Yoga Journal said “should be on the reading list of every serious student and teacher training program"). His current work focuses on the translation of early Sanskrit hatha yoga texts. A new collection, entitled Gurus of Modern Yoga, will appear with Oxford University Press next year. He is a certified yoga teacher in the Iyengar and Satyananda traditions. He teaches at St. John's College, Santa Fe, New Mexico.

(Mark Singleton, author Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice)

As perhaps some of you in attendance might recall, Mark and I had an engaging encounter in which he declined comment on the presence of religiosity in his own personal practice. I admitted to Mark - after our interview-, that I wasn’t sure why I had pressed the issue. I suppose I wanted to know what it might be like to be a scholar that gets up in the blue light of morning to do asana/vipassana. Or maybe part of me thinks scholars, (not just their books), are worth studying. In any case, Mark and I have since been back and forth on my assumptions and his answers. Needless to say, like any yogi, I’m answering my own questions. But I thank Mark for the sharing his conversational circuitry. In our conversation, Mark weaves a narrative of postural practice that intersects with modernity’s emphasis on muscular physical culture, and addresses a few popular misconceptions about his book’s key points. Moreover, he shares fond memories of his early days conducting research with the Indic Institute at Cambridge University, and how writing the book was a manifestation of a “kind of yogic inquiry”, its impetus, a “search for viveka”.

(Mark Singleton at Yoga Festival Toronto 2011)

(Mark's cherished reading room at Cambridge University)

 Yoga Festival Toronto Keynote: Priya Thomas in Conversation with Mark Singleton:

(Introduction by Matthew Remski, co-director, Yoga Festival Toronto)

Matthew Remski: I wanted to start by saying that our other keynote speaker, Vamadeva Shastri, if you were here last evening, his talk really had a particular focus. And it was the primal root of yoga culture. And Mark, through his brilliant book that we'll be referring to and that is being held up now, has a somewhat different story to tell. A story of yoga in the sense of how cultures and time periods meet, how East and West had been actually in cultural interchange for a very long time – to the extent that our notions of East and West have become almost indistinguishable, or somewhat meaningless.

And also how that we now understand yoga practice to be is actually a strange and wonderful hybrid of global creativity that's occurring in an age in which we rediscover bodily meaning amidst rapidly changing world views. So this is our topic. And it is intentionally contrasting strongly with the topic from yesterday evening, because it's part of our objective through Yoga Community Toronto and our programming to really sort of irritate the paradoxes of modern yoga practice.

And we hope that we're doing that in a fruitful and productive way for you. So, I'll let Priya Thomas host the discussion from here. If you don't know her blog, she writes a wonderful blog called Shivers Up the Spine, the Yoga Examiner. You can look it up online. Please subscribe to it; it's excellent. And then because we're speaking of hybridization and cultural interchange, it's also appropriate to mention that Priya is also a rock star. [laughter] In her other life. And as I said, this whole evening is about a very fertile blending of influences, so Priya will provide power chords and Mark will solo. And thank you both so much for being here.

Priya Thomas: Thank you, Matthew. I'd like to thank everyone for being here. And I'd like to thank Yocoto organizers and staff because they've just been so wonderful at building a community. And I've heard that over and over from people attending the festival in the last day or so. And that's one of the most amazing things about being part of the yoga community here.

I'd also like to thank Mark Singleton, who's written probably one of the most influential books in the yoga community regarding modern postural yoga. If you haven't read it already, it's well worth reading. So thank you, Mark, for having written the book, and also for being here with us today. Ever since I read the book, I've had a dozen or so questions about the book. And I noticed as I was interviewing people for the blog that everybody had something to say about this book. And for anyone who has been attending the workshops over the last few days, Mark talked about how the perceptions of the book have been so varied. So I wanted to start by letting you address that Mark, so that you could chat about some of the perceptions or misconceptions people might have about what this book is about.

Mark Singleton: So the book came into being as part of a project to try and map this thing called modern yoga – this thing that I was calling modern yoga, and a few other people at the time were looking into. It started out really from my own experience as a yoga practitioner in first of all the Iyengar and Ashtanga traditions, and then afterward in the Satyananda tradition. And also as a meditator and somebody generally interested in the spiritual traditions of the East.

So what I've tried to do here is to offer a kind of cultural history. Rather than giving the definitive answer about where things come from or what a particular thing is, rather than trying to define yoga, say, the book is an effort to paint in a bit of color around these practices that have come west, you know the practices of yoga. And to try and make that canvas a little more vivid.

Some of the reactions to the book…Well, first of all, I'd say that I was warned by some people before the book came out that I should keep my head down and [laughs] lock my doors at night. And largely that hasn't been necessary, thankfully. There's been a very warm and interested welcome given to the book. And a few what I think of as misunderstandings of the message that have caused controversy. One of which, is that I'm saying that asana practice is invented in the modern period by the British, say, or something along those lines. So  what I think of as a very simplistic version of what I've been trying to do.

Now when I speak, I try to start by rectifying that somewhat and saying that I'm not really interested in origins.  My quarry in this book is not where asana comes from, nor who invented what. But rather, I try to fill in those places that people haven't looked before, or haven't looked sufficiently, in order to understand what it is to practice yoga, and specifically, to practice asana here, in the modern age.

Priya Thomas: And in that process of looking at those things, you uncover that the asana practice that many of us understand as ‘traditional’, or ancient, is in fact, an evolving amalgam of disparate practices and cultures. And I’m guessing that's where some of the less nuanced comments and controversies reared their heads. 

Mark Singleton: Yeah. Yeah. I think asana, certain postures go back a long way. And certain asanas are always asanas. Certain asanas come from other  cultural spheres. David Frawley was talking this afternoon about the martial traditions, the wrestling traditions. And that's certainly valid. But it's only in very particular contexts that all those things come together as asana and as the kinds of yoga practice that we know. Some of those occur within India and within the Indian traditions, where there's an incredible amount of fusion and creativity within traditions.

And some of that occurs in the modern period from outside of India from traditions that are not necessarily yogic in any way (or not at first). And some people tend towards the kind of explanation where anything that looks like yoga that we see in Europe in fact derives ultimately from some yogic traditions. But it seemed to me that this is not quite sufficient. I mean, who knows whether those things all ultimately stem from this great Indian tradition which inspired all?

But the meaning of those things changes within the particular context. That's really the main point, that when you do a certain practice, when you have a kind of sequence of things that you're doing with your body, it really depends on how the culture, how your own understanding is informing that. And that itself will radically change the meaning of the practice. And I think it's that that's interesting to follow and key to follow if we're to understand what yoga is or what yoga has become today. So I'm talking really from a non-essentialist point of view here, that yoga is not a unitary thing.

Priya Thomas: Within scholarship in yoga, is it tendentious to come out as an anti-essentialist? 

Mark Singleton: Within scholarship? Not so much these days, I would say. There was a tendency in scholarship prior, maybe even 15 years ago, to identify yoga in a very restricted sense as the classical tradition of Patanjali. And there's a scholar, Gerald Larson in Santa Barbara, who I think I mentioned. He refers to two theses: the yoga is nowhere thesis, and the yoga is everywhere thesis. Yoga is everywhere thesis being everything we see. You know, anybody, Doga and [laughs] all kinds of – anything that calls itself yoga is yoga. Shamanism is yoga. Buddhism is yoga, and so on.

And then on the other side of things, well, you have that restricted sense of yoga just being the classical of Patanjali, say. And scholarship for a long time confined itself to that and was very dismissive of practical yoga. It was also very dismissive of Hatha yoga for a long time. But that would be within scholarship. The sort of practical yoga communities would be a different story.

Priya Thomas: So, you had a yoga practice at the point that you discovered there were gaps? 

Mark Singleton: Yes. 

Priya Thomas: I should just ask you what your practice was…and at what point in your practice did you have that pivotal moment in which you thought, OK, I need to sit down and spend years and years researching to write this vital book!

Mark Singleton: I had been a practitioner of, as I said, Iyengar, Ashtanga and then a little bit later, Satyananda. But before that, before I'd even really heard of yoga, I'd been a meditator, doing Vipassana meditation and other forms of kind of secularized meditation, if you like. Mindfulness type things. It wasn't really until I'd spent three years in India and two years as a yoga teacher in London that I decided to undertake this study. The idea for the book came fairly late, or the actual shape of what I was going to do came fairly late. But the reason I got into it was that I stumbled across an institute at Cambridge University in England where they were doing this kind of thing. There was somebody else, Elizabeth De Michelis, who was working on this kind of stuff. And until that point, I didn't know that one could study modern yoga in an academic setting, let alone at Cambridge which can be so conservative.

So those questions were already there. When I heard what the work was at that institute, it was kind of immediate. It was like, “that's my job”. [laughs] You know? Give it to me. And in fact a job came up there and I started working there as a researcher. And through that, this and other projects in the same area came about. It seems to me a lot of what I'm saying is fairly obvious and will be fairly obvious to many people in the room, in so far as – well, I'm not the first to suggest that what we've got is quite new and unique. And in fact a lot of those scholars who dismissed modern yoga have been saying that all along, but until very recently it's never been worthy of a sort of serious study it seems. But now is the time. There's more and more going on in that direction.

Priya Thomas: Right. And were you maintaining a physical practice while writing the book as well?

Mark Singleton: Yep.

Priya Thomas: And did you find that an unusual balance? Or would you call writing the book a kind of yoga as well?

Mark Singleton: It wasn't an unusual balance. No, it felt quite cohesive.  Some people have expressed a kind of disillusionment or something, a kind of disappointment that they experience when they read the book, followed often by thankfully a kind of resurgence of, I don't know, hope or creativity or energy or something like that. But I think I certainly had those times too, where I was very much questioning what I was doing. And if the research, if the findings were true, then what is it that I was doing? Because it didn't quite fit with the narrative that was usually given. And that was another motivating factor. What I was told I was doing didn't seem to match with what I was finding.

Priya Thomas: So was that disturbing to you personally?

Mark Singleton: It was a very concentrated time in terms of yoga. I'd get up first thing in the morning and practice for a couple of hours and then I would sit down at my desk for the whole day. Then in the evening, I would often go out and teach or practice again. So it was all about yoga. [laughs] And everything was informing everything else. And it seems to me that that was one manifestation of a kind of inquiry, of a kind of yogic inquiry. Or a practice of Viveka or something. Just trying to sort things out and trying not so much to restore meaning, as to get the meaning right. And I'm not sure that I've done that yet and I'm not sure that that's something that you arrive at and then you've finished, or you get the answer to.

Priya Thomas: In the book you talk about how this very physical mode of practice was perhaps tailor made for ‘export’. I don't know what you’d make of the use of that word, ‘export’. But obviously on the Indian side there was an effort to create a kind of practice that was very physical at that time, for specific reasons we can talk about in a minute. But I wondered if you have a sense for the British mandate for yoga as an ‘import’? Do you have any sense of a social or political mandate on the British side, in terms of their interaction with yoga in that very early period? I.e. the 20s or 30s?

Mark Singleton: Yeah. Well, I'll say first of all, I think I'd probably phrase it differently than tailor made for export, in so far as it was much more organic than that. I don't think there was a mastermind sort of making it and then sending it off.

Priya Thomas: Yes, that was loaded. [laughs]

(Warren Hastings, 1732)
Mark Singleton: It often played out much more accidentally and randomly than that I think. I don't know of any British mandate, at that time, with regard to yoga. I talked a couple of days ago about the repressive legislation that was brought in specifically against yogis and whatever that meant to the East India Company and the British at that time…and specifically to Warren Hastings, the governor of India. At that time, yogi was sort of a catch-all phrase meaning sannyasins, fakirs and sadhus generally. And that was a mandate. And that certainly, I think, shaped the way that yoga then reemerged. Since these people had been pretty much made to lose their livelihood as a result of these measures.

(To the audience in the room) Shall I say more about that? For the people that weren't there?

Well, these were a body of – well, many different bodies actually of ascetic warriors who were generally known as yogis by the East Indian Company, who often didn't know any better, didn't know exactly who they were looking at, what they were seeing. These bands, the same kinds of people that you'll see these days at the Kumbha Mela, sort of very fierce warrior types who belong to various Akharas, depending on their religious affiliation. They were very powerful mercenaries and would often be hired out by kings and by kingdoms, and would control trade routes. And they often accrued a great deal of wealth.

These warriors were used by the British to get domination over other parts of India, and then were discarded and repressed with these laws. Warren Hastings was the guy who brought in the turnaround. Well, that was one of the reasons that yogis got a particularly bad reputation. They were associated with these kinds of people who would cause trouble to the British, basically. So that's the background of that little bit.

Priya Thomas: And yet, yoga was a wonderful way in which these militant practices could continue to work covertly. In terms of the book, you do explicitly address nation building and nationalism in the history of yoga. I found that section quite interesting…the idea of “strong body = strong nation” makes some intuitive sense to me. There were similar things going on in Europe in that time period, the 20s and 30s. Did you come across a similar paradigm in terms of the rise of body culture and nationalism in Europe?

Mark Singleton: Yeah, absolutely. And I think that the modern situation is a little different to the one say in the 18th century, with the wandering Nagas and Sannyasins. But 20th century India is referencing that tradition. These nationalist movements are looking to the yogis as heroes and reworking that in a modern nationalist frame. And often also drawing on the kinds of body techniques that will be familiar to many people in that sort of early 20th century body culture in Europe, which was very much linked to the nation state and building a strong nation. 

Priya Thomas: You make a mention in the book also of talking about Health and Strength magazine and its sister magazine, Superman…Those titles are certainly telling. Do you see any link between an increase in physical culture and fascism in Europe?

Mark Singleton: Well, it's certainly there within fascism. It's also there within Maoism. It's there in Britain, which was neither fascist nor Maoist. It occurs in all sorts of nationalism. But I guess the images that are most famous now, for all the worst reasons, are the ones in Germany – those kind of mass movements of physical culture that grew up in the 1930s in Germany. 

(Health and Strength, October 15, 1935)
Priya Thomas: Because I think now when we think of our yoga practice, we think of a very sort of gentle, well-meaning practice that doesn't really embody a political will. Modern practice doesn't have a fierce warrior yogi associated with it. So I found that section of the book quite interesting.

Mark Singleton: I should say, the Superman magazine is not full of supermen or 1930s fascists or anything. It's actually a naturist magazine, which is full of pictures of people wandering through the woods with no clothes on. [laughs] And just a couple weeks ago,  I was in the British Library in London and I wanted to have a look through some of that for references to yoga again. So I ordered it and saw that it had a code, RR, at the beginning. I didn't know what that was. But it turned out it was restricted reading. And I had to go to the rare books room and wait. I went up to the desk and said, oh, I've ordered a book.

And they said, “what's your name?” And I told them my name. They looked through the cards, and the person then sort of looked left and right, said, “just wait there”. And she went to go and get the manager. The manager came out and said, why do you want to use this book? [laughs] Anyway, finally they went to get it and I had to sit and be supervised as I leafed through this book, because, at that time, in the 1930’s, it was considered soft porn, basically.

Priya Thomas: But you needed to be supervised now!? [audience laughter]

Mark Singleton: Yeah, that's the British Library for you. [laughs] [audience laughter]

Priya Thomas: But still…do you find that interesting that it was called Superman… considering what it contained?

Mark Singleton: Oh yeah! And so, the naturist movement I think is very much linked to that time and that place. And the Volk movement in Germany was very much in vogue…. naked sun bathing and cold water and getting back to nature. And I think that's all part of the same period.

Priya Thomas: Yeah naked culture etc. OK. One of the dominant concerns in your book is how our physical practices came to be coupled with a set of religious ideas, and specifically maybe even with a religious canon. I mean, right now many of us look at the Yoga Sutras as an authoritative text for how to do yoga. And it's funny because today I think no one's really sure whether yoga is a religion or not. We see sectarian quibbles, and practitioners seem to have occasional issues in classes re religion. And I wondered in your understanding of yoga’s history, would you call yoga a religious practice? Or you used the word spiritual today. Would you call it a spiritual practice? Or is it now a secular practice?

Mark Singleton: Yes.

Priya Thomas: Oh, awesome.

[audience laughter]

Priya Thomas: You’ve covered it all! (laughing)

Mark Singleton: (laughing) Well, I hate to equivocate, but it really depends largely on what's meant by religious, secular, and spiritual. The category of religion I think is in some respects – well, not in some respects, is quite new. It grew up as an object of academic study in the 18th and 19th centuries and gave rise to a kind of comparative gaze. So a theorizing of Christianity, and abstracting Christianity as something called religion gave rise to a discipline based on that premise, which looked to other parts of the world and to entities or cultural phenomena called religion. And it tried to compare them, usually in the light of Christianity.

But I wonder if there's ever quite the same fit between that kind of understanding of religion and what else is going on. So the division that tends to be made, that can be made between religion and the secular, church and state, say, is something that's institutionalized often within certainly the European secular state and to some extent North America as well. But that's very particular. And it's a particular constellation of understandings about the self in relation to god or the universe. And then you have this third term, spiritual, which is – I don't know what the situation is in Canada, but on census forms in the US, I think you tick a box that says spiritual, but not religious.

Priya Thomas: Oh, do we have that? I don't think we have that.

Anonymous audience member: No!

Priya Thomas: No, we don't have that!

Mark Singleton: OK. [laughs] But there's more and more people identifying themselves as spiritual, but not religious. Right? Now, what exactly is meant by that? I'm not entirely sure. But it seems to me that the understanding, let's say what the scholars would call an emic understanding, that kind of understanding, the constellation, the bits of what make up that term spiritual are quite historically specific. But it's understood as something that transcends and surpasses historical specificity. And that's the strange thing that's happening now, I think.

It affects the strange uneasiness, perhaps, that's affecting parts of the yoga community in the current climate with the arguments and debates that I assume you're referring to, like the “Take Back Yoga” campaign, or the Southern Baptists attacking yoga and saying that yoga is Satanic
. [to the audience] Have you all heard of those? No? I mean, it's big. It's really big. There's a document online called Yoga is Dangerous, the Path of the Serpent is Here. [laughs]

And it all started happening at the same time, a couple of summers ago with that debate that David Frawley was talking about between Deepak Chopra and the Hindu American Foundation. And then the Christian right was also attacking yoga. And it seems to me that might be the first time for a while that this – what I think of as a secular, humanist spirituality – was threatened by denominational religion. It sounds a bit like a paradox. But as I was saying this morning, the idea of the secular contains the idea of the spiritual right from the beginning. The first person to coin the term secularism was deeply interested in the spiritual. That's to say, the unchurched, not mainstream religion, but this other thing that is rational, scientific, and ultimately personal. So let me try and get this right. I think it's assumed often that everybody will ultimately come around to this understanding of spiritual, which is above and beyond religion, that is open and accessible to all, that is nonjudgmental and incorporates all faiths, all religions. It's democratic, open, welcoming, and the ultimate truth about which all religions speak. Unfortunately, so this view goes, religions have become dogmatized and so on.

That's a common story. But it seems to me that religion has made a comeback in these particular debates with people saying, “well, no, we don't accept your version of spirituality. Actually, that's not what we're doing. We don't want our adherents following your methods. We're doing something else”. It belongs to a particular religious tradition, whether that tradition be Hinduism or Christianity. So it's an interesting time for rethinking whether yoga is religious or not, and how religion reacts with that, and whether spirituality, as we've understood it, is actually compatible with religion, or how it relates to it.

Priya Thomas: Right. And yet, the practice of yoga is amalgam of so many different religious traditions. Anyway. Isn't that right? Would you address what the contributions of say Buddhism and Hinduism, Jainism and Islam? I believe Islam had contact with yoga as well. And so they all made contributions back into yoga culture. And yet there are certain dominant strains, religious strains that are associated with yoga more than others. And that seems to be part of the quibble, anyway, is which ones are dominant and which ones are silent.

Mark Singleton: Sure. Yeah. Yoga is associated with a number of those movements that are now referred to as religions. You know, the world religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam even to an extent. Mystical Islam in Sufism. And also, Jainism, Sikhism in the modern period, you know, with Yogi Bhajan and so on. [laughs] It's a fraught question. But I think it would be wrong to, for instance, downplay the contribution of Buddhism to the development of yoga. So my premise is that yoga builds, yoga develops. It's not that yoga simply was, let's say, once and for always in its fully fledged form.

It's not that it was there and is then simply repeated and taken through time until the present day. Actually in some sense, maybe the primary sense, yoga is constantly created, constantly built upon, constantly relearned. And in various different places. The cradle of Buddhism is one of them. Those practices become very important, particularly within Tantric Buddhism there are many sort of yoga practices, including Hatha yoga practices that went there from India, from Kashmir particularly that got mixed up in various Tantric traditions. Which may or may not consider themselves Hindu.

And there are many traditions which certainly did not consider themselves Vedic. Traditions, which, in fact, defined themselves in opposition to Vedic culture, particularly Tantric traditions. So I think you said yoga is an amalgam of so many different things. Well, it depends really what you mean by yoga. 

Priya Thomas: I should have qualified. I think we could say that about our modern physical practices? 

Mark Singleton: That it's an amalgam? 

Priya Thomas: Yes.

Mark Singleton: What isn't? [laughs] Yeah. Yeah. 

Priya Thomas: As a practitioner, though, if you were given the number of boxes to tick off in terms of religious, spiritual, secular. Not from a scholarly standpoint… Just as a person filling out that form. Would you say yoga was best described by the religious box, the secular box, or the spiritual box? 

Mark Singleton: You mean, am I… 

Priya Thomas: Yeah, personally. Yeah, not as a scholar. I mean, if you were to separate those things out. 

Mark Singleton: You know, I really don't know how to answer that. I would have to tick them all or tick none of them.

Priya Thomas: OK.

Mark Singleton: I'm not sure how you make that division. And I'm not sure that that kind of division would pertain actually to many yoga traditions. I'm not sure that the boundaries of those categories are the same in the eyes of the US government, let's say, as they would be in... 

Priya Thomas: And so the discussion is sort of pointless, is what you're saying.


Priya Thomas: Maybe?  

Mark Singleton: [laughs] It all hangs on how we're going to understand yoga. And the same problem, the reason that I'm hesitating, is that each time you say the word yoga, which box is going to be ticked, I run into a wall. I'm not sure what exactly is being referred to. If I'm being asked to describe...

Priya Thomas: Your personal practice that you do in the morning. 

Mark Singleton: The personal practice that I do in the morning? I don't know how to quantify that. Because I'm not sure what it means, what spiritual means really, honestly, just speaking from the heart. I have an extended sitting practice, I do pranayama practice. But the further I go, the less I understand what spiritual means. And that's not to say that the practice is thereby secular, or that I'm therefore just doing physical practices, or the practice has sort of lost its juice or something. It means I guess that I'm reluctant to elevate those things that are labeled as spiritual above the very ordinary things that go on through the course of my practice. And they all belong in the same realm. To separate something out as spiritual, to raise it up, to make a differentiation between asana and the spiritual is to, in some sense, fetishize that thing called spiritual. And suddenly you're clicked into the whole business of the spiritual, which is so important and upon which empires are built. I get very uncomfortable with that.

Priya Thomas: Yeah. I see. Yeah. Of course. That's well answered. Thank you. In the book you address the demographics of modern posture practice. You talk about how the demographic is really skewed towards a female demographic, and yet the origins of modern posture practice, at least through the 20s and 30s, is, in your observation, largely male dominated. Do you have any sense as to why it's skewed to a female demographic?  

(Genevieve Stebbins, Deslarte teacher)
Mark Singleton: One of the reasons that I give in the book is that there was already, by the time yoga arrived in the West, so from the 1890s onwards,  a tradition of spiritualized gymnastics that was developed largely by and for women in Europe in the somatics movement and the German gymnastic movement. There was a spin-off of a technique called Delsartism in the United States headed up by Genevieve Stebbins. These things were incredibly influential in shaping what it was that women did as exercises, as gymnastics.

And it was always oriented towards the spiritual. It is always  a means of using the body to develop mind, body, and spirit. And it seems to me that that tradition later on in the 20s and 30s started to merge with yoga and occasionally even call itself yoga. That dominant tradition of stretching, breathing, focusing the mind in particular ways that was independent in many respects from yoga traditions is what we have inherited – again, to a certain extent – as Hatha yoga. So many of those forms, many of the rationales for practice, many of the intentions and the belief frameworks that surround those forms, it seems to me, have a lot more to do with that tradition, than say, Tantric Hatha yoga, or classical Hatha yoga, if you like. So that would be one reason.

Priya Thomas: So that’s of a pivotal moment in which the shape of the practice changes, the meaning of the practice changes… 

Mark Singleton: Yeah.

Priya Thomas: There's a great section in the book on the Victorian era and photographs that pertain to yoga. And I thought it was really interesting because you talk about how the Victorians – and I think we're all probably somewhat familiar with this…swing between being fascinated, voyeuristic (you include a number of highly eroticized photos of yoga in the book) and alternately, puritan and restrained in their attitudes towards yoga. I wondered if you think this kind of attitude persists today in terms of our visual culture with yoga?

I was thinking specifically of say the covers of Yoga Journal magazine or even the toe sox ad from say a year or so ago when everybody was up in arms because our photographs of yoga were eroticized. But sex in yoga advertising, well that's not really news in our culture. But at the same time, the discourse on yoga and the philosophy/ideology taught in classes….it tends to read as nonsexual. So I wondered if you saw a parallel there, if you had anything to say to that.

Mark Singleton: Yeah. I would highly recommend the next time anybody's in London to try and go to the British Library and get the Superman.


Mark Singleton: I think things are quite different now in a way, but the shocking thing about those magazines is not the pictures, which are far tamer than the yoga socks ads even. But next to those kinds of images and interspersed are editorials about the immorality of sex, tips from men directed often to women on how to reduce sexual appetite and quell it and quash that in themselves. It's a very Victorian kind of moralism. And obviously the situation is different today where that stuff (I mean images of sex) is openly accessible. It's not hidden and it's not partially revealed anymore.
Everything is fully revealed, everything is accessible. Everything is on the internet. And so the modern situation is different, but you still have that double kind of discourse where there's a kind of highly eroticized element, it seems to me, that's been exploited in films, in adverts, often to comic effect. For example, the class full of women with the lecherous guy who's gone along just to check people out. So I don't really know what to do with that, why that should be. But it seems to me that in some respects it's similar to those older discourses. I don't think we're quite free of that tension from within society.

Priya Thomas: Just to close, because I think we've run out of time. What areas are looming in yoga that you found gaps in? What are you working on now? What interests you? You've written this extraordinary book. What's next?

Mark Singleton: I am working on translations – well, a particular translation of an older Hatha yoga text called the Viveka Martanda. That’s quite a short text that I'm doing. I'm really interested in broadening the spectrum, I guess, of my own understanding and for others, of what yoga practices are and have been. I mean, you were talking about the Yoga Sutras. It seems like the gaze is very much on that text and about that text. And I think it's true that that has not often been an essential text of many yoga traditions. And the knowledge of yoga traditions is fairly limited. So I'm looking forward to doing a lot more work in those kinds of areas. 

Priya Thomas: Wonderful. Well, thank you so much for sharing your time. I think all of us will be looking forward to the next book. Thank you for writing this one! 

Mark Singleton: Thank you very much.


(Man Ray with his magnifying glass)

A t one point I got an email from Mark noting that my question had required him to answer not as a scholar, but as a person. I laughed out loud. Yes, I very well meant to imply scholarship is fractured from personhood! Can you blame me? As I sit in a chair, reading hour upon hour, (I’m trying to complete my first year of PhD coursework) my eyes my only conduit, I wonder at what point does this study become incorporated? I can hardly feel my flesh at all. How do I become these words I read? And isn’t that what the physical practice (or any practice) is about, at least partially? Isn’t all this about mutating, shape-shifting…some kind of substantive change? Give me alchemy.

And as much as I know I’ll be accused of getting hung up on the question: “is yoga a religious practice?” - I want to ask it again. I find the plasticity of words like “religious”, “spiritual” and “secular” endlessly intriguing. I’ll admit, I did some reading in the last few months, and it appears I’m not the only one wondering about the porous boundaries of those words. So even though such questions about religion usually kill polite dinner conversation, they’re high on my list of things to ask…

All kinds of things are said in response:

(Pris, Blade Runner, 1983)
“no I’m spiritual” or “I believe in the true self” or if, like me, you’re on a posthuman kick you say, “I’m really into cyborgs these days”. Mark’s answer, as I understand, was that each of the words I offered up, posed a risk of elevating ordinary experiences beyond the quotidian. And hence, those experiences, those categories, are open to abuse. Very true.

Plus, as Mark later mentioned in an email, he is a private person, and doesn’t much like sharing his yoga journey for all of the good reasons that he carefully lists in our interview. He stayed mum. It was very British of him I think.
And there is something to be said for leaving the trickier things unspoken.

Curiously enough, in an email not long ago, Mark said, “I do think, though, that ‘my yoga story’ is far less interesting and useful in comparison to what I can offer through my work. I don't have spiritual wisdom like some of our colleagues in Toronto”…But that’s doubtful. He described his book as a “kind of yogic quest for viveka”…and then said not a peep more. Sure seems like wisdom to me.

•     •     •      •      •      •

Purchase a copy of Yoga Body if you have not already. Seriously, you’re the last yogi that doesn’t own a copy.

Learn more about Yoga Festival Toronto

Matthew Remski who introduces our conversation is an ayurvedic practitioner who writes a blog.
Along with Scott Petrie he is co-creator of the Yoga 2.0 project and co-director of Yoga Community Canada. Huge thanks to both Matthew and Scott and the rest of the YOCOTO team for making the keynote a memorable event!

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