The Path of Modern Yoga: The History of an Embodied Spiritual Practice

The Path of Modern Yoga: The History of an Embodied Spiritual Practice

by Elliott Goldberg


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A history of yoga’s transformation from sacred discipline to exercise program to embodied spiritual practice

• Identifies the origin of exercise yoga as India’s response to the mania for exercise sweeping the West in the early 20th century

• Examines yoga’s transformations through the lives and accomplishments of 11 key figures, including Sri Yogendra, K. V. Iyer, Louise Morgan, Krishnamacharya, Swami Sivananda, Indra Devi, and B. K. S. Iyengar

• Draws on more than 10 years of research from rare primary sources and includes 99 illustrations

In The Path of Modern Yoga, Elliott Goldberg shows how yoga was transformed from a sacred practice into a health and fitness regime for middle-class Indians in the early 20th century and then gradually transformed over the course of the 20th century into an embodied spiritual practice—a yoga for our times.

Drawing on more than 10 years of research from rare primary sources as well as recent scholarship, Goldberg tells the sweeping story of modern yoga through the remarkable lives and accomplishments of 11 key figures: six Indian yogis (Sri Yogendra, Swami Kuvalayananda, S. Sundaram, T. Krishnamacharya, Swami Sivananda, and B. K. S. Iyengar), an Indian bodybuilder (K. V. Iyer), a rajah (Bhavanarao Pant Pratinidhi), an American-born journalist (Louise Morgan), an Indian diplomat (Apa Pant), and a Russian-born yogi trained in India (Indra Devi). The author places their achievements within the context of such Western trends as the physical culture movement, the commodification of exercise, militant nationalism, jazz age popular entertainment, the quest for youth and beauty, and 19th-century New Age religion.

In chronicling how the transformation of yoga from sacred discipline to exercise program allowed for the creation of an embodied spiritual practice, Goldberg presents an original, authoritative, provocative, and illuminating interpretation of the history of modern yoga.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781620555675
Publisher: Inner Traditions/Bear & Company
Publication date: 08/01/2016
Pages: 512
Product dimensions: 8.30(w) x 9.90(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

Elliott Goldberg is one of the few scholars in the emerging field of modern yoga studies. He has presented papers at the Modern Yoga Workshop at Cambridge University and at the American Academy of Religion (AAR). He lives in New York City.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 34


Making Asana Practice into a Meditation of Insight

Samyama in Iyengar Yoga

Dedicated to the precise and dynamic performance of often challenging asanas, the hatha yoga developed by B. K. S. Iyengar seemed particularly ill-suited for being made into a spiritual practice, let alone into the eightfold path of liberation explicated by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras. What made it the ripest form of late 20th-century hatha yoga to undergo a spiritual transformation, however, is exactly its emphasis on the performance of asanas, not on the benefits of asana practice to our lives outside the classroom—even such worthwhile benefits as acquiring good health, maintaining flexibility, relieving stress, becoming a better person or facilitating steadiness and ease in seated meditation.

Iyengar was by no means the first yogi to analyze asanas, separating the poses into their constituent parts and closely examining the parts. But Iyengar comprehended the complexities of asanas to a greater degree than his predecessors and contemporaries. And it’s the great concentration demanded by his exquisite, intricate instructions to address these complexities that makes performing asanas in an Iyengar classroom a suitable object of the eight-step meditation, including the three interiorized components, collectively called samyama, which Iyengar translated as “total integration.”

In The Tree of Yoga, Iyengar describes how a continuum of concentration on asana in samyama can be extended from dharana (single-pointed concentration) to dhyana (widened concentration) to samadhi (prolonged concentration). Concentration on the first stage of asana—placing the body in the preliminary position and then assuming the basic configuration that defines the pose—embodies dharana. Concentration on the second stage of asana—refining the pose through subtly adjusting the parts of the body that perfect the pose, then assessing and further adjusting the pose and lastly extending the pose—embodies dhyana. Concentration on the third stage of asana—dwelling within the pose—embodies samadhi.

Paschimottanasana is commonly translated as Seated Forward Bend but is literally—and poetically—translated as the Stretching from the West Pose, from Paschima (west), uttan (stretch) and asana (posture). (Because prayers are traditionally observed facing east, the entire back of the body—from head to heels—faces west.) . . .

According to Iyengar, after sitting on the floor with the legs stretched straight in front and putting the palms on the floor beside the hips, we begin Paschimottanasana proper by bending forward exclusively from the hips (the region around the joint that joins the pelvis with the upper part of the thighbone [femur]), not from the waist (the part of the trunk between the pelvis and ribs). . . .

Bending forward from the hips is an unnatural and difficult movement. Despite moving with gravity, the upper body, tipped far off its axis, must work mightily (with the assistance of the abdominal muscles) to internally support its straightness as it slowly progresses downward. This movement can be performed only with a great deal of strain. . . .

After bending as far as we can from the hips, we lower our back from the waist—in effect, rounding the back: “[B]end and widen the elbows, using them as levers, pull the trunk forward and touch the forehead to the knees. Gradually rest the elbows on the floor, stretch the neck and trunk, touch the knees with the nose and then with the lips.”

Respecting their limitations as well as recognizing their potential, Iyengar didn’t push students to the point of injury. He cautioned them that minutely moving toward perfection (in this case, folding the torso toward the legs) is more important than overreaching to achieve perfection.

As practiced by Iyengar, Paschimottanasana is first refined by making adjustments to the feet, legs, trunk, arms, hands, neck, and head. . . .

The pose is further refined by what Iyengar, in The Tree of Yoga, calls “reflection”—determining whether all parts of the body are in their correct position, and, if they’re not, making any necessary adjustments. “You reason: ‘Am I doing this right? Am I doing it wrong?” Iyengar explains. “Why have I got this sensation on this side? Why am I getting that sensation there?” Any pain or discomfort we feel in parts of the body, he’s saying, may be an indication that we’re doing an asana incorrectly. . . . “Are you aware of all these things?” he asks. “Perhaps you are not, because you don’t meditate in the poses. You do the pose, but you don’t reflect in it.”

Lastly, the pose is refined through extension.

When [touching the knees with the nose and lips] becomes easy, make a further effort to grip the soles and rest the chin on the knees. When this also becomes easy, clasp the hands by interlocking the fingers and rest the chin on the shins beyond the knees. When [this position] becomes easy, grip the right palm with the left hand or the left palm with the right hand beyond the outstretched feet and keep the back concave. . . . [R]est the chin on the shins beyond the knees. If [this position] also becomes easy, hold the right wrist with the left hand or the left wrist with the right hand and rest the chin on the shins beyond the knees.

An essential aspect of Iyengar yoga, extensions are performed until the final pose is achieved.

Paschimottanasana is completed when our head is resting on our shins without further effort. We are still. With our body in a state of equilibrium between tension and relaxation, work and play, pain and pleasure, past and future, our mind is emptied. There’s no more thinking. “[T] o remain positively and thoughtfully thoughtless [in this way],” Iyengar explains in a daft but illuminating formulation, “is samadhi.”

In the absence of thought, the illusion of ego-identity is dissolved. The meditator (the “I”) and the object (the body in asana) are one. We are the pose.

Table of Contents

Foreword by Karl Baier, Ph.D.


Part I
Divesting Yoga of the Sacred
Yogic Physical Culture and Health Cure

1 Shri Yogendra
Rejecting the Role of Yoga Guru

2 Shri Yogendra
Creating the Profession of Yoga Teacher: The Yoga Class

3 Shri Yogendra
Making Yoga into Calisthenics

4 Shri Yogendra
Taking Practical Yoga to the New World: Hatha Yoga in America

5 Shri Yogendra
Making Yoga Gentle

6 Swami Kuvalayananda
Claiming Yoga Is Science

7 Swami Kuvalayananda
Promoting Yoga as Health Cure: A Yoga Journal and Yoga Institute

8 Swami Kuvalayananda
Investigating the Yogic Phenomena: Yoga Research

9 Swami Kuvalayananda
Standing Up Straight: Yoga and Good Posture

10 Swami Kuvalayananda
Youthifying the Spine: Yoga and Chiropractic

11 K. V. Iyer
Mixing Bodybuilding and Yoga

12 S. Sundaram
Publishing a Yoga Manual

13 S. Sundaram
Meditating on the Body in Yoga

Part II
Making Yoga Dynamic
The Sun Salutations as Yogic Exercise

14 Bhavanarao Pant Pratinidhi
Reviving Surya Namaskar

15 Bhavanarao Pant Pratinidhi
Promoting Surya Namaskar as Health Cure and Strengthening Exercise

16 Bhavanarao Pant Pratinidhi
Making Surya Namaskar a Part of Physical Education: Mass Exercise

17 T. Krishnamacharya
Keeping the Flame: Yoga at the Palace

18 T. Krishnamacharya
Incorporating Contortion into Yoga

19 T. Krishnamacharya
Infusing Yoga with Surya Namaskar: Yoga as Performance

20 K. V. Iyer
Mixing Bodybuilding and Yoga at the Palace

21 K. V. Iyer
Presenting Surya Namaskar as Stretching Exercise

22 Louise Morgan
Making Surya Namaskar into an Elixir for Western Women

23 Louise Morgan
Pointing the Way to Health through Surya Namaskar

24 Louise Morgan
Becoming Aware of the Body in Surya Namaskar

25 Apa Pant
Making Surya Namaskar into a Meditation

26 Swami Sivananda
Using Surya Namaskar as a Warm-up Exercise for Yoga

Part III
Making Yoga Sacred Again
Yogic Embodied Spirituality

27 Indra Devi
Becoming a Western, Female Yoga Teacher

28 Indra Devi
Treating Anxiety with Yoga

29 B. K. S. Iyengar
Enduring Cruelty: A Yoga Student

30 B. K. S. Iyengar
Making Yoga Fierce: A Yoga Teacher

31 B. K. S. Iyengar
Making Yoga All-Encompassing

32 B. K. S. Iyengar
Making Yoga Precise

33 B. K. S. Iyengar
Spiritualizing the Domain of Acrobatics: Asana Practice as the Eight-Limbed Path

34 B. K. S. Iyengar
Making Asana Practice into a Meditation of Insight

35 B. K. S. Iyengar
Teaching Asana as Embodied Spirituality




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