What is this thing we call ‘Yoga’?

Yoga means a wide spectrum of things, and different things to different people. Some see it as a form of exercise to keep fit. Some see it as sitting cross legged and chanting. Some see it as a physical practice. Some see it as a spiritual practice. Some see it as varying combinations of all of these. I think the term encompasses all of these aspects. I must also stress that this is my opinion now – which is different to what it was ten years ago and could well be different to what it will be in ten years time.

For most people living in a typical western style society, if you look on the web for local yoga classes, what you are most likely to find is some form of physical exercise class. So, a common perception of yoga is as exercise in one form or another. The nature of the exercise varies widely. On the one hand yoga can be very slow and gentle. On the other hand it can be pretty extreme in strength, flexibility and endurance – yet fundamentally a physical exercise regime.

In the context of economics, in 2008 it was estimated that US yoga practitioners spent around 5.7 billion dollars on yoga classes, vacations and products per year (Yoga Journal 2008). This is around half the GDP of Nepal (Singleton p3) (CIA 2008). Whatever else it is, it has become a profitable industry and a global phenomenon. You can make a lot of money in it, and there there are a lot of charismatic people doing so.

Yoga as a concept is old, and has its roots many thousands of years ago. Traditionally, it was more of an internal practice (for example, see the Upanishads and Yoga Sutras). The Sanskrit word āsana comes from āste = he sits; akin to Greek hēsthai = to sit. (http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/asana). In the more historic context of Yoga practice, asana refers to two things: the place where a practitioner sits and the manner (posture) in which he sits. In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali (2:46) suggests that asana is “to be seated in a position which is firm but relaxed “.

If yoga has such a long tradition as an internal practice, how come the common perception of it today is merely as something to do to keep fit? This is also probably influenced by organisations like the British Wheel of Yoga who, according to the official website (www.bwy.org.uk), “The BWY is recognised by Sport England and The Sport and Recreation Alliance (formally the CCPR) as the National Governing Body for Yoga in England.” Add to this the concept of Yoga Championships. Is it any wonder that a common perception is “yoga = sport”?

Also, possibly because yoga as a concept is old, the assumption is made that yoga as an exercise regime is old. However, as an exercise phenomenon, it is relatively recent.

Yoga as a Physical Modality

In an excellent book “Yoga Body – The origins of modern posture practice ”, Mark Singleton writes about this development. He calls it contemporary transnational yoga. I think this is a hugely significant book, and I think that all yoga teachers and students would gain by reading it. He talks about the influences into the pot of what has become this contemporary transnational yoga, and when these influences occurred. He talks about a number of people who had a significant influence.

The Swede Per Henrik Ling (1766 – 1834) (p84) developed a system of Swedish gymnastic built on the work of CJ Tissot and others. It was primarily therapeutic, aiming at dealing with disease through movement.

Eugene Sandow (1867-1925) was credited with initiating the world wide phenomenon of body building (p 88). He helped to make “physical culture” a household name. He did various promotional tours and demonstrations, including India where he was a cultural hero. Joseph Alter commented that Sandow was more influential on popular modern yoga than Vivekananda or Aurobindo.

Francois Delsarte (1811 – 1871) was a French teacher of acting and singing (p 144). He came up with a spirito-physical set of exercises around the coordination of voice, breath and bodily gesture. His work was mainly within theatre and opera, but it did extend beyond these. A prominent student of his was Steele Mackaye in New York, who overlaid her own ideas of gymnastic movement and relaxation. Working with Steele was Genevieve Stebbins (1857-1915). Stebbins was also a member of the “Church of Light”, an order with close links to the esoteric group the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor. Stebbins interpreted Delsartism in the light of these esoteric influences along with those of Mackaye, Ling gymnastics and yoga. Her training regime included relaxation exercises, posture works and “harmonic poise”, breathing exercises and exercises for freedom of joints and spine, and later to dance-like flows and transitions between poses. Compare that to the average yoga class of today. Shiva Rea’s fusion of asana and dance could well be considered late heirs to the work started by Stebbins.

Dane Niels Bukh (p 199) (1880-1950) developed a system of Gymnastics which emphasised continuity of movement, rhythmic exercise and intensive stretching to seek elasticity, flexibility and freedom. Danish gymnastics became so popular that it became part of the British Army training programme. Also the YMCA National Physical Director ranked it only second to Ling among exercise regimes in India. His sequences were similar in many ways with those that Krishnamacharya was developing. This is not to say that one “borrowed” from the other, or vice versa. However, there are many similarities. Also, people were not working in isolation.

It is also interesting to note the general context around which this was all happening, especially in India from around the middle of the nineteenth century (p95). Much of what was happening in the physical practice area was in response to the perceived Colonial opinion of the Indian physique. For example, Singleton noted that Baden-Powell, the founder of the modern scout movement, considered the task of colonial education in India as “the great work of developing the bodies, the character and the souls of an otherwise feeble people” (Sen see p95). This was typical of the British conviction of the physical, moral and spiritual inferiority of Indians, as judged against the idealised masculine body and perfect conduct of the English gentleman. It is hardly a wonder that Indians were actively developing and promoting “Indian” exercise regimes.

The influence of T Krishnamacharya

It is interesting how pivotal to contemporary transnational yoga was T Krishnamacharya (1888 – 1989), a remarkable man. As Singleton points out (p176), Krishnamacharya was employed by the Maharaja Krishnaraja Wodiyar IV in Mysore and was tasked with popularising the practice of yoga. He opened his yogasala in 1933 in the Jaganmohan Palace.

Some of Krishnamacharya’s students went on to become very influential proponents of yoga. These included:

  • K Pattabhi Jois (Ashtanga Yoga and Power Yoga)
  • BKS Iyengar (his brother in law) (Iyengar Yoga)
  • Indra Devi
  • TKV Desikachar (his son).

The Maharaja Krishnaraja Wodiyar IV ruled the city and state of Mysore. H e was a strong proponent of physical education. He had appointed Professor MV Krishna Rao as a full time organiser to oversee the development of this “indigenous physical culture” (p178). It is interesting also to note (p181) the influence of KV Iyer and his senior student Anant Rao. Anant Rao was teaching his body building classes just meters away from Krishnamacharya, and at the same time of day. Iyer (1897 – 1980) was a nationally admired physical culture celebrity and body builder. He would meet with Krishnamacharya socially, and would offer the yoga teacher advice on his classes at the palace.

This gives a very brief flavour of some of the influences that have become what we see as contemporary yoga.

One fundamental principle of Krishnamacharya’s teaching (p188) was that yoga practice must be adapted to suit the period, location and specific requirements of the individual. The age and the constitution of the students, their vocation, capability and the path to which they feel drawn all dictate the shape of a yoga practice. Desikachar asserted that this was the basis of Krishnamacharya’s teaching.

Another interesting thread is how some of the proponents of the modern schools of yoga claim to be a part of a long tradition of yoga. However on closer study, the evidence doesn’t really stack up For example, interested readers can read further (p 184) the discussing the Yoga Kurunta and how it was “discovered” in the Calcutta library then unfortunately eaten by ants. Thus making it difficult to verify the truths of the assertions. As Singleton points out, this does not necessarily detract from the practice. But I think it does cloud the issue of what yoga is, and where it comes from.

Elizabeth De Michelis was Mark Singleton’s PhD tutor. She also wrote a very interesting book, “A History of Modern Yoga: Patanjali and Western Esotericism “. The opening phrases of her book is “What is this yoga? This was the question that started haunting me in the late 1980’s, a decade after attending my first ‘yoga class’”This pretty much parallels my experience. I won’t summarise her work here, but I think one point she makes is hugely significant. She says (p130), “Over time, various authors have attempted to translate and contextualise in a different language (English) and mindset (modern) the central concepts of [yoga].” To understand yoga as an exercise regime is relatively easy – understand the anatomy and physiology, and you will understand the asana. But yoga as a whole? How much has been lost or effected by the translations of both language and context? How much have the explanations of the concepts of yoga been effected by the modern mindset or cultural world view? How do we interpret the concepts of yoga in the context of our own world view?

In Summary

Establishing what yoga is, is not as easy as it first sounds. In this essay we look at some of the influences around yoga as a physical modality. I think yoga encompasses a physical modality, but it is much more than that. We will explore other elements of this in later essays. In addition, I am exploring these other areas of yoga – eg pranayama, philosophy, philosophy of yoga and the Yoga Sutras – in greater depth in a series of workshops. The overall aim is to look more deeply at what yoga is.


Elizabeth De Michelis , “A History of Modern Yoga: Patanjali and Western Esotericism“, Continuum, 2004.

Mark Singleton, “Yoga Body – The origins of modern posture practice ”, Oxford University Press, 2010.