The disputed origins of Yoga

As much as I would like to write something about the ongoing events in Japan, events are developing too quickly to really write anything intelligent about it. The situation with their nuclear reactors could really go anywhere at the moment. Obviously, I hope that things go well. The Japanese sure could use a break.

Instead, here’s a link to an article disputing the Hindu origins of yoga. It has since evoked a great deal of controversy and ignited a significant debate over the issue. Considering how popular yoga is in Malaysia now and how it has stirred some debate over here as well as to whether or not it is a religious practice, I thought it would make for interesting reading.

Part of the article is a reaction against the “Take Back Yoga” campaign in the United States by the Hindu American Foundation who are upset that the modern practice of yoga is, more and more, shorn of its Hindu elements. In response, the author roughly makes the following points:

  1. Yoga, as it is popularly practiced and known throughout the world, is really just the physical component of yoga, hatha yoga. This style is extremely popular in India as well and has little spiritual or meditational content.
  2. This form of yoga is not really that old after all. The author claims that it was born in the late 19th or early 20th century as a form of exercise during the Hindu Renaissance that incorporated Western ideas of science, evolution, health and physical fitness.
  3. Effectively the techniques were drawn from drills, gymnastics and boidy-building techniques borrowed from Sweden, Denmark, England and the United States and then grafted together with the Yoga Sutras. In particular, the author traces the teachings to physical yoga to a school based at the Jaganmohan Palace of the Maharaja of Mysore in the early 20th century. In the 19080s, a Swedish yoga student found in the library of the Palace of Mysore a book entitled Sritattvanidhi that illustrates many of the techniques of modern yoga but also included rope techniques practiced by Indian wrestlers and traditional Indian gymnastics. It may also have drawn from exercises developed by a Dane and introduced to India by the British in the early 20th century. The palace at that time was certainly equipped with a Western-style gymnasium including wall ropes and props.
  4. Finally, the author claims that it is impossible to trace the ancient origins of most yoga sutras. Some yoga teachers claim that the sutras exist in some texts that now no longer exist. Others claim that a particular text contains some of these sutras yet other scholars cannot find them. One prominent yoga teacher claims that he traces his teachings to a text that dates from over a thousand years ago but now no longer exists. He knows of it because the ghost of an ancestor dictated it to him while he was in a trance.

Obviously, all of this is strongly disputed by opposing parties and the magazine even hosts a rebuttal by another author who fiercely disputes these conclusions.

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