The complicated story of the yogi as warrior

There’s a must-read piece on yoga in the upcoming New York Review of Books. It’s pegged to the “Yoga: The Art of Transformation” exhibit, which just left the Smithsonian and is now out in San Francisco. You can choose how to interpret the title: “Under the Spell of Yoga.” (A blurb for it even makes the cover.)

It’s must-read in that it’s another look at the history of yoga (through art, naturally) — and that history seems inexorably to become ever more opaque with each re-telling.

A few pieces that jumped out at me:

So it was that seventeenth-century Allahabad/Prayag became the confluence not just of two holy rivers but of several traditions of sacred art in a way that today might be considered implausible to anyone who takes at face value the idea of a clash of civilizations: a Hindu artist painting the first-ever systematic set of illustrations of yogic asana positions, while working for a Muslim patron, and borrowing for the yogis the features of Jesus Christ.


The Sackler exhibition explores the visual culture of yoga in all its rich variety, aiming, according to its curator Debra Diamond, to show “yoga’s rich, protean diversity—its varied meanings for both practioners and those who encountered and interacted with them—over the last 2,500 years.” For as the exhibition makes clear, while the use of meditation, posture, and breathing techniques has been widespread in India since remote antiquity, yoga was never a unified construct and has clearly meant quite different things at different times to different people, whether Jain, Buddhist, Sufi, or Hindu.


The Khecarividya of Adinatha, an early hatha yoga text that dates from 1400 AD, which has recently been translated into English for the first time by James Mallinson, goes further and explictly promises to give the adept magical powers and ultimately immortality. “One becomes ageless and undying in this world,” writes Adinatha, “all obstacles are destroyed, the gods are pleased and, without doubt, wrinkles and grey hair will disappear.”


Today in modern India a yogini is understood to be a female yogi, a seeker after peace and enlightenment. But in ancient India yoginis were understood to be the terrifying female embodiments of yogic powers who could travel through the sky and be summoned up by devotees who dared to attempt harnessing their powers. They were also the policewomen of the yogic world, who Adinatha says will quickly eat up “he who makes this supreme text public to all…at the order of Síva.”

The piece then moves to even more “controversial” subjects: sinister yogis, “the Naths, a sect of wandering ash-smeared followers of Shiva mystics who codified hatha yoga in the twelfth century, claiming that their practices gave them superhuman powers: the ability to fly, to see into the future, and to hear and see over great distances.” It includes references to the 2009 book Sinister Yogis and a 2006 treatise on militant yogis. These aren’t the yogis of ahimsa, by any stretch.

And then the Review piece, following the trajectory of the traveling art show, moves to a point that I think is pretty critical to our 2014 engagement with yoga:

[It is] a story of cultural misunderstanding, as the complex and sometimes contradictory body of yogic knowledge was cleaned up and rebranded as a vogueish health trend open to all—men and women, Indian and foreigner—to be marketed to a sometimes credulous Western public through celebrity yoga faddists beginning with Marilyn Monroe in the 1950s. It was only at this very late point, under the influence of Swedish body building, gymnastics, and British military drill, that it became a method of fitness: almost all pre-twentieth-century Indian yoga involved staying for a prolonged period in one asana, not moving rapidly from one to another in a yogic workout.

It’s a lengthy piece, so be prepared. Much shorter are a new round of reviews of the art exhibit on the West Coast, now that the yoga art exhibit has moved from D.C. to San Francisco. Here are two from the main media players in the region:

  • The San Francisco Chronicle‘s: “The pop culture artifacts that end the exhibition – early film and stage show mistranslations of Indian culture – hint at the long process by which the complexity of yoga’s native cultural influence was forgotten. I can hardly imagine better correctives to that amnesia than this exhibition and its irreplaceable catalog.”
  • Bay Area News Group: “As today’s practitioners bicker over yoga styles — Iyengar versus Bikram or Ashtanga — they re-enact a historic debate: “In modern yoga, there’s a lot of criticism: ‘Oh, this isn’t authentic yoga,’ ” Kaitlin Quistgaard, former editor-in-chief of Yoga Journal and now an adviser to the exhibit, said in an interview. “So the exhibit is timely and fun in showing us that this isn’t even our argument. This is a fight that’s been going on for hundreds or even thousands of years, take your pick.””

We got an offer to join the media opening, but, alas, could not make it up there.

Final thing: Quick story in the U.K.’s Guardian on Mysore-style practice. Pretty much what you already know.

Posted by Steve

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Two Ashtangis write about their practice and their teachers.

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