Book review: The story of yoga by Alistair Shearer – Stuff.co.nz

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The ancient practice shocked Victorians, was embraced by psychologists and finally co-opted by celebrities.

Yoga, Alistair Shearer notes, in this erudite, scholarly and engrossing study, is not itself a religion. But when practised in the right spirit, it may gradually align the practitioner with "those eternal principles on which all true religion rests".

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In much the same way as "mindfulness" has stripped Buddhist meditation of its spiritual or religious connotations to become a secular therapy for relieving stress and maximising efficiency, so yoga has long been stripped of its sacred associations. If the classic image of the yogi was once of the solitary contemplative in his Himalayan redoubt, it is now of lithe, sunkissed bodies enacting the "downward dog" at expensive retreats in the Greek islands or on the polished wood floors of the yoga studio with its aroma of incense, its New Age music and its air of cultivated narcissism.

As Shearer writes, yoga is now aUS$18 billionindustry, its rise no better illustrated than in an exhibition, Yoga: The Art of Transformation, held in 2013 at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, where tables for the opening gala were $50,000 a pop.

It is often said that yoga practices date from "5000 years" ago, but as Shearer points out, nobody knows for sure. There is no mention of what he calls "posture yoga" in the Vedic teachings, which date from roughly 2500BC to 500BC. But there are 900 mentions in the later Mahabharata, the great Sanskrit epic of ancient India, which includes the Bhagavad Gita, the most important text in what came to be known as Hinduism.

The seers of early yoga scriptures were interested in physical postures only insofar as they aided meditation and breathing.

Yoga was a physical practice only insofar as it served a spiritual objective. None of the great authorities, Shearer writes, saw the practice of yoga as a means to perfect the human frame, "but as a way to transcend its irksome limitations altogether". .

Shearer, who has written extensively on Hindu and Buddhist philosophy, provides a fascinating chronology of the changing attitudes towards yoga in the West. To the Victorians, Indian holy men were held to be objects of reproval.

A deeper understanding came with Swami Vivekananda, whose appearance at the first World Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893 galvanised popular interest in Hindu teachings. The Fabian turned theosophist Annie Besant, who saw Vivekananda speak in Chicago, would go on to publish a book on Maharishi Patanjali's yoga in 1907. In 1932, Carl Jung presented a seminar on kundalini yoga to the Psychological Society in Zurich, which, Shearer writes, was regarded as "a milestone in the Western understanding of Eastern thought".

Further enlightenment came with Aurobindo Ghose, the Indian nationalist turned mystic, whose teachings inspired the founders of the Esalen Institute in California the crucible of the so-called "Human Potential" movement in the 60s.

It is significant that some of the most popular forms of yoga today are the least contemplative. Shearer describes the "no pain, no gain" variation of Ashtanga yoga, popularised by K Pattabhi Jois and much espoused by celebrities such as Madonna, Sting and Gwyneth Paltrow, as "a sweat-based path for a nation of self-actualising achievers".

Then there is hot yoga invented by "the pony-tailed, waxed-chested" Bikram Choudhury a technique combining heat and vigorous activity. It's not unheard of for people attempting hot yoga "to vomit, break down and pass out, or lose bladder control in a room full of their fellow students". This too attracted the predictable celebrity following, and made Choudhury a multi-millionaire, before he fell to Earth after a Vanity Fair article accusing him of rape. (He has since denied any wrongdoing.)

In 2017, a survey in The Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies reported that yoga was the cause of more injuries than all other sports combined, with one in 10 practitioners developing musculoskeletal pain from their practice, and a third of those experiencing pain so severe they were out of action for three months.

Something for practitioners to meditate on, perhaps. Those adopting the determined sedentary position may find these statistics strangely vindicating.

The story of yoga by Alistair Shearer(C Hurst & Co, $50)

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Book review: The story of yoga by Alistair Shearer - Stuff.co.nz

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