A NEVER-ENDING STORY
Mark and I chatted over the Internet and conversation began with chat about the fact that he’s selling his house in Santa Fe, and our respective connections to Ireland. Then we got down to business.
Ivan Nahem, Yoga Teacher Magazine: So Mark can you tell us something about where you come from, and how you came to have an interest in yoga?
Mark Singleton: I started studying meditation in adolescence, from books by Christmas Humphreys, who I think headed the Buddhist Society in England. It's a bad way to start, probably, but it got me on the track of meditation and yoga. Later on I did some courses as an undergraduate that included bits of Buddhist and Hindu philosophy. A friend introduced me to yoga some time after that: Iyengar-based practices. I did an Iyengar teacher training, a Satyananda teacher training and lots of Ashtanga for a while. I started the academic study of yoga at Cambridge as a research assistant at the Dharam Hinduja institute of Indic Studies and went on to do a PH.D in the Divinity Faculty.
Nahem: Did you have a religious background before this?
Singleton: I was raised Catholic.
Nahem: Do you teach yoga these days, Mark?
Singleton: I don't teach regular classes these days. Once in a while a workshop. When I'm invited.
Nahem: Did your interest in history precede your focus on yoga?
Singleton: I've always been interested in history, and the ways that cultures interact. The interest in yoga history came after I'd started practising yoga.
Nahem: There certainly has been quite a bit of interaction of cultures in the history of yoga!
Singleton: In the modern period particularly, there was a lot more change due to interactions with foreign cultures, but that kind of interaction has always been there. Countries and regions and cultures have always been porous, and there has always been trade in merchandise and ideas. Same in India.
Nahem: You have said that it's an "immense history" and I know that in my forays into it I've sometimes felt somewhat overwhelmed. So many strands, entanglements, threads.
Singleton: Very true. It's a never-ending story, especially if you try to deal with the yoga traditions of India and the modern yoga diaspora. Too much ground for any one person to cover, I think.
Nahem: Then there are those who will say that it's not worth much anyway. Not everyone will think that delving deeply into yoga’s history is necessary or even desirable. Pattabhi Jois famously said that yoga is 99% practice, 1% theory. Of course there are many platitudes defending the study of history, but how would you rate the importance of knowing some history for the practitioner?
Singleton: I'd say that Pattabhi Jois's statement is an accurate representation of hatha yoga traditions in which philosophy plays a minor role. The practice works regardless of creed or metaphysics, say some of the texts. That said, he and most other yogins are deeply rooted in religious tradition and lineage. For modern practitioners outside of India, their sense of religious tradition and lineage may be a little less clear. I think it's important for such practitioners to be informed about ancient and modern histories to know how to situate themselves with regard to yoga. It doesn't mean they have to sit around reading boring history books all day, but my sense is that a better understanding of history gives a better idea of the meaning of practice.
Nahem: I would agree, on a personal level too. One way in which I've found my teaching to be impacted by the more recent information about yoga history is that I felt it to be liberating to know that there has been so much recent innovation in yoga, particularly with regard to asana.
Singleton: That would be one reaction to such history. Another would be to lament that such change is taking place, and that "real yoga" is being tampered with.
Nahem: Of course innovation has to be contextual and I wouldn’t endorse an anything-goes idea of yoga either.
Singleton: I'd also say that innovation in asana isn't just a product of the twentieth century. There is evidence of similar experimentation in earlier centuries. What's interesting is the particular formations it takes in the modern period.
Nahem: Absolutely. As I understand it your project with James Mallinson, Roots of Yoga, will focus on practices through the ages.
Singleton: Yes, Roots of Yoga is extracts from mainly Sanskrit texts, mainly about practice rather than philosophy, through the ages. I think our earliest text is the poem about the flying munis from the Rg Veda, and we go all the way up to the 1850s. We're hoping to show the developmental history of yoga through the primary sources available to us. There will also be some examples from Hindi and Persian texts.
Nahem: That sounds really very exciting. So to take a step back a moment in terms of the history, could you name a few of the most powerful revelations to come from the recent studies of yoga history in your view? What have we learned that's essential, in other words?
Singleton: How about these: there are expressions of yoga through time that are so different that it is difficult to consider them as in any respect the same practice. Not only are the practices different, but the end result is also divergent. This challenges the oft-repeated idea that there are many paths, one goal. Actually, the goals can also be quite different.
Nahem: And these are just goals within yoga, yes? Because there have been vastly different philosophies behind the practice.
Singleton: Yes, goals within yoga. The perennial philosophy, popularized by Huxley, Huston Smith et al was not always the predominant philosophy of religion in yoga! I mean, the philosophy which says that all religions are one, many paths, one goal etc.
To take an example from yoga's recent history also: I am fascinated by the history of women in yoga, and the interplay between "spiritual gymnastics" traditions of Europe and America and yoga traditions. I wish someone would undertake a serious study of this.
Nahem: Your Chapter 7, presenting the work of Stebbins, Ali, Stack and others, that could be a fascinating in-depth study.
Singleton: Yes, it could indeed.
Nahem: Have you had much negative reaction to your work? (Some people have entrenched opinions. I'm thinking of Wendy Doniger being the target of a hurled egg during a lecture.)
Singleton: I was actually there at SOAS in London when that happened. No, I haven't had anything like that: there's no reason. However, I think it's vital that people are aware of the increasing intolerance with regard to academic writing that challenges certain ideological views. The recent scandalous withdrawal of her book The Hindus: An Alternative History from bookshelves in India is a good example of recent trends that we are sure to see more of in the current politico-religious climate. Very good for yoga students to be informed about all this. (Ed. Note: see http://india.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/02/11/penguin-withdraws-book-by-american-scholar-of-hinduism-to-settle-lawsuit/?_php=true&_type=blogs&_r=0)
Nahem: Absolutely. Have you witnessed or heard of change in the contents of teacher trainings in terms of adjusting to new insights about yoga history?
Singleton: There seems to be more sophistication in yoga teacher trainings in the U.S. these days as ideas about yoga history filter through. But that's only anecdotal. What do you think?
Nahem: I would agree that there's been a shift. The history is so murky and complex, I'm not sure if it's always approached with the depth that it might require. But much more material is there now. I'm not surprised to hear from certain quarters that "yoga is six thousand years old" ‒ and that’s true, but only in a qualified sense, which needs to be explored.
Singleton: One thing that I hear quite a lot of these days is the notion that yoga, and in particular asana, "is just made up", by which I think people mean that it's been invented in the recent past. That would be an unfortunate interpretation of the work on modern yoga from scholars, if that's what it is. It's not the case that asanas were invented in the recent past. It's not the case that yoga is new. What's important (at least in my work) was to demonstrate the adaptations and mutations that emerge in the encounter between different cultural spheres. It would be really unfortunate if people got the impression from this scholarship that yoga was just "made up".
Nahem: The second time I read Yoga Body I paid careful attention to how you set the parameters of the book. I can see that some people came away with only the headline that the asana-oriented yoga in the modern studio was quite influenced by physical culture developments in places outside of India. But I’d say that’s far from the whole story.
Singleton: In Yoga Body (and in my edited volumes) I am interested in the dynamics of conservation and innovation as they play out in modern yoga. I say nothing about the genealogy of particular asanas. The point of the book is to offer a cultural history of certain strands of yoga practice in the modern, transnational world, not to assert the recent invention of particular asanas. One may reasonably say that over the past 100 years certain forms of yoga have developed which are very interesting and unusual, and which have developed in dialogue with technologies and philosophies that were not previously part of the yoga traditions. That is the basis for an interesting cultural history. But one would have to be blind not to see that yoga has other histories, some of which stretch back a long, long way.
Nahem: One nagging question I’ve had regarding relatively recent yoga history: I couldn't help but wonder when I read Robert Love's book The Great Oom, which presents the story of Pierre Bernard, is whether there was material there you might have included in Yoga Body. It seemed like his work came from a somewhat different direction, and of course there’s the intriguing figure of Sylvais Hamati, the Syrian-Indian who taught Bernard yoga.
Singleton: Yes, I did read Robert Love's book, and his earlier article on Pierre Bernard. If I were writing the book again, I'd certainly want to include more material on Bernard. He’s an important figure.
Nahem: So what's coming up for you, Mark? Roots of Yoga, of course...
Singleton: Yes, Roots of Yoga is what it's all about at the moment. We are supposed to have the manuscript to Penguin by June 30. I will be finishing up a fellowship in Jodhpur, Rajasthan, where I've been living for the past six months. After that, there are a few more projects to be getting on with.
Mark Singleton has a Ph.D in Divinity from the University of Cambridge, and is currently Senior Long-Term Research Fellow at the American Institute of Indian Studies, based in Jodhpur, India. He has written extensively on yoga, notably the the books Yoga in the Modern World, Contemporary Perspectives (2008, the first ever collection of scholarship on modern yoga) and Yoga Body, the Origins of Modern Posture Practice (2010). Another collection, Gurus of Modern Yoga, appeared in 2013. Hisforthcoming work, Roots of Yoga (Penguin Classics, with James Mallinson), is a collection of translations of yoga practice texts from the Sanskrit traditions.