As Shearer writes, yoga is now an $US18 billion ($26 billion) industry, 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 – a handbook for life, as Shearer puts it, which makes clear that the most ‘‘skilful’’ action of all is that which leads to yoga, or union with the Divine.
The seers of early yoga scriptures were interested in physical postures only insofar as they aided meditation and breathing. The oldest known text devoted solely to yoga – now regarded as its de facto bible – is the Yoga Sutra of Maharishi Patanjali, composed sometime before AD350.
Patanjali devotes only three short verses out of 196 to physical postures, making clear that the mastery in asanas – or positions – lies not in athleticism or flexibility, the ability to bend, twist and work up a sweat, but in the fact that it facilitates an effortless state of mental absorption. In short, ‘‘the purpose of body work is to refine the mind’’; ‘‘yoga is the settled mind’’.
The highest status in Indian society was afforded to the ‘‘maharaj’’, or great king, who, stationed serenely under his tree, was ‘‘the unattached lord of all he surveyed and more’’. The Buddha, realising enlightenment while meditating under the Bodhi tree, is the most potent symbol of this.
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’’. The fierce asceticism and punishing physical contortions of the sadhus and fakirs were steps in the cultivation of siddhis, or powers – not as an end in themselves, but as a means of self-transcendence.
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 either of reproval – the emaciated yogi lying on a bed of nails provided the perfect illustration of the perceived laziness and moral turpitude of the native Indian, in stark contrast to the doctrine of ‘‘Muscular Christianity’’ served up by the social reformer and evangelist Charles Kingsley, whose recipe for moral improvement was a cold morning bath – or of a kind of appalled amusement.
Shearer neglects to mention the ‘‘religious posturist’’ Bava Lachman Dass, who exhibited himself at the Westminster Aquarium in 1897, demonstrating 48 yoga positions, drawn from what The Strand magazine described as the ‘‘repulsive’’ Indian religion. Queen Victoria, meanwhile, once held a tea party for a group of sadhus recruited from Jaipur jail, so she could sketch them.
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 – ‘‘Purposeful, virile, strong, he stood out, a man among men, able to hold his own’’ – would go on to publish a book on Maharishi Patanjali’s yoga in 1907.
The psychologist William James (Henry’s brother), who was similarly impressed, remarked that ‘‘yoga makes of its disciples, good, healthy and happy men’’. 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 1960s – whose program today boasts any number of bodywork techniques that would have been unknown in ancient India, including ‘‘shadow yoga and grief yoga’’, which ‘‘blends postures, movement, breath and vocalisation in ways that help students process the grief that follows any loss’’.
Shearer adds to this list with the galaxy of new variations including flow yoga, rocket yoga and ‘‘kilt yoga’’, as demonstrated by Scottish teacher Finlay Wilson, whose headstands, Shearer notes, finally answer the question of what a Scotsman wears under his kilt.
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, including Shirley MacLaine, Lady Gaga and Paltrow (again), and made Choudhury a multimillionaire, before he fell to earth after a Vanity Fair article accusing him of rape, sexual harassment and false imprisonment, as well as discriminatory behaviour against gay people, women and racial minorities. (He has since denied any wrongdoing.)
‘‘The physical postures should be steady and comfortable,’’ Patanjali wrote in the fourth century. ‘‘They are mastered when all effort is relaxed and the mind is absorbed in the infinite.’’ But nobody said it would be easy.
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. As Shearer puts it: ‘‘Body-yoga has enjoyed 50 years of astonishing popularity in the West; now the casualties are limping in.’’
Something for practitioners to meditate on, perhaps. Those adopting the determined sedentary position may find these statistics strangely vindicating.
The Telegraph, London