Yoga Poses Ancient History

Are Yoga Poses Ancient History?

The dramatic change in the number of practitioner-scholars ushers in an era of authentic conversation

A Quest for Answers with Mark Singleton

Deep Peace Yoga asked Mark to share the context for what promises to be a significant community conversation.

An inquiring and deeply reflective approach

Susan Maier-Moul Mark, this is really great news. You’re giving a public lecture on your work in one of the most talked about areas of practice these days – what’s really ancient and what’s really misinformation about yoga.

What made you decide to accept this invitation?

Mark Singleton I think the time is ripe for scholars and yoga practitioners to engage in dialogue. For a long time, the modern practices of yoga were not something that scholars investigated.

Susan It seems scholars may have been as unaware of contemporary practice as practitioners have been of scholarship.

Mark That situation has changed dramatically over the last ten years, and now the interests of many researchers overlaps squarely with the interests of lots of people in the yoga community.

There’s also been an enormous increase in the number of ‘scholar-practitioners’ and ‘practitioner-scholars’ — that’s to say, folks who practice yoga, but have an inquiring and deeply reflective approach to the meaning of yoga in a broad sense.

This is a moment of opportunity for yoga in the West.

The time is ripe for a new dialogue

Susan At the time I did my teacher training, various findings of scholarly yoga studies – such as accurate dating and the evolution of asana – were often generally dismissed as cold or wrong-headed. I remember having it impressed upon me that people who “do yoga” have a different, more authentic understanding than that of people who “study yoga.”

Mark What’s unfortunate is when practitioners reject scholarship, or scholars, as being antagonistic or irrelevant  to ‘real practice’.

This is to take a very narrow view of the range of tools we have for engaging with knowledge. Scholars have bodies, and yoga practitioners have minds.

Such a view also doesn’t give sufficient credit to the ways in which the rational inquiring mind is central to yogic traditions.

Susan It has seemed to me as more and more people have begun to explore yoga, no matter where they enter into practice, a kind of willingness to engage yoga as something other than only samkyha philosophy has grown exponentially. There’s a growing hunger for the materials and critical thinking with which to do it.

Building deeper engagement on a solid foundation

Mark I’m excited about the possibilities that are open to yoga practitioners today.

There is a solid foundation of learning and inquiry in the community that just wasn’t there ten years ago. There are many more yoga teachers out there, and many more serious practitioners.

This should provide the bedrock for taking our knowledge and experience of yoga to a new level. I’m excited to be involved in the discussion.

Susan You have a background of teaching in India, don’t you? You were also responsible for developing educational materials there, prior to your current position.

Mark Yes. Among other things, I taught and edited publications for three years on an experimental “yogic education” project in India – the Alice Project.

Susan You seem to believe in bridging communities and in seeing yoga fulfill its potential to transform lives on a very real and fundamental level. The Alice Project, after all, is a children’s universal education program in India, isn’t it?

Mark Yes. After that, I taught yoga to children in schools in London and elsewhere, based on the methods of the Alice Project. There’s no doubt about yoga’s efficacy in transforming the lives of children–I’ve seen it work its magic again and again.

Are Yoga Poses Ancient History?
A Quest for Answers with Mark Singleton

It’s often said that yoga is a 5000 year old tradition from India. But what about the practices we do today? Is there really a direct link to the ancient past, or is the story more complicated? Today yoga is virtually synonymous in the West with the practice of āsana. And yet, in spite of the immense popularity of yoga worldwide, there is little evidence that āsana has ever been the primary aspect of any Indian yoga practice tradition—including the medieval, body-oriented hatha yoga. How did this strange situation come about? What can we learn from the modern history of āsana? And what does it mean for our practice today? Come along and find out what the debate is all about.

Mark Singleton has a Ph.D in Divinity from Cambridge University. He has published extensively on modern yoga, including the first collection of scholarship on the topic, Yoga in the Modern World (2008), and the ground- breaking study of the modern history of āsana, Yoga Body, The Origins of Modern Posture Practice. He is a yoga teacher in the Iyengar and Satyananda traditions. His opinions on yoga have appeared (among other places) in the New York Times and Yoga Journal.

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