Alistair ShearerJan 12, 2022
The Story of Yoga
From Ancient India to the Modern West
Today we are joined by Alistair Shearer, a freelance scholar of South Asian religion and culture, and teacher of yoga and the psychology of yoga. He is also the author of The Story of Yoga: From Ancient India to the Modern West (Hurst and Co, 2020). In our conversation, we discussed the origins of yoga, the differences between mind and body yoga practices, and the fascinating individuals responsible for the transmission and reception of yoga practices around the world.
The Story of Yoga is a comprehensive account of yoga practices from the Vedic period. It defines and focuses on the differences between mind yoga and body yoga. The former was and is a spiritual and older body of practice that was discussed in religious texts including the Bhagavad Gita. Its practitioners used yoga to search for transcendental experiences, magical powers, and union with the universe. By contrast, body yoga centred around asanas (postures) developed later but now dominates a $20 billion-dollar global yoga industry.
Shearer’s book is roughly divided into two sections: the first deals with yoga’s always tumultuous and often humorous history. He shows how mind yoga spiritual practices spread from the movement of forest sages, tantric yogis, and rebellious brahmin. Shearer’s discussions of the original religious texts, such as Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, include linguistic analysis and close readings of the text. He carefully explains the meanings of different words, including yoga, which means union, to help to explain how the two dual and at times duelling approaches to yoga, namely mind and body yoga developed at different times, in different places, and for different purposes.
From their origins in the subcontinent, both mind and body yoga spread around the world. Yoga’s internationalisation happened especially quickly during times of conflict, notably during the Islamic invasion of the subcontinent and the British Raj. The Story of Yoga includes Western colonizers who sought out yoga for scholarly and spiritual reasons, such as the Theosophical Society, but it does not neglect the perhaps more compelling and certainly more enterprising South Asians, including Swami Vivekananda, K. V. Iyer, and B. K. S. Iyengar, who developed yoga philosophies and styles and popularised them outside of India. The first section of the book also includes a long discussion of women and yogic practice, particularly in the 20th century.
The second half of the book engages with contemporary issues in yoga, such as the psychology of mind yoga practices, particularly its use in mindfulness therapy, the health benefits and consequences of popular body yoga styles, and the use of yoga by nationalist’s movements in India.
The Story of Yoga is a rich, very compelling, and often funny history of yoga from antiquity in South Asia to its global present. It is an ambitious and comprehensive account that includes both mind and body yoga that will appeal to scholars interested in yoga and sport, South Asian history, intellectual history, and globalisation.
Keith Rathbone is a senior lecturer at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia. He researches twentieth-century French social and cultural history. His book, entitled Sport and physical culture in Occupied France: Authoritarianism, agency, and everyday life, (Manchester University Press, 2022) examines physical education and sports in order to better understand civic life under the dual authoritarian systems of the German Occupation and the Vichy Regime. If you have a title to suggest for this podcast, please contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him at @keithrathbone on twitter.