Elliott Goldberg Rides the Elephant: An In-Depth Review of The Path of Modern Yoga

 4.5/5 stars: Highly recommended. One bump, and some questions about framing.

Inner Traditions | 544 pages | ISBN 9781620555675 | August 4, 2016

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Remember that old Indian fable of the rajah who blindfolds his pundits, asks them to grab onto different parts of an elephant, and then report on what the object is?

The guy grabbing the leg announces that the elephant is a pillar. The one touching the ear says it’s definitely a woven basket. The pundit touching the head is convinced it’s a big clay pot. The rajah compliments each confident answer, and then reveals what they’ve missed.

It’s an apt metaphor for the recent explosion of modern yoga research in English. So many pundits, so many hands on the elephant. But who’s the rajah in this parable?

In 1996, Norman Sjoman uncovered the influences of South Indian wrestling exercises on modern vinyasa sequences. In 2004, Joseph Alter detailed the tensions between esoteric and scientific aspirations amongst early Indian yoga modernizers like Swami Kuvalyananda. Mark Singleton bootstrapped these and other findings into 2010’s groundbreaking Yoga Body. Singleton’s thesis boils down to this: the modern yoga we know today in studios and gyms from Boston to Mumbai developed from a turbulent early-20th-century collision of Euro-American physical culture movements and older Indian practices of embodied spirituality. It found expression through a tangle of colonial tensions, technological shifts, and the identity crises of actors negotiating “modernity” from either side of a blurring West-East divide.

These academic bones have been wrapped in more journalistic flesh: William Broad’s brusque tour through the dodgy medical claims of yogapreneurs, Stephanie Syman’s history of America’s peculiar romance with yoga’s “subtle body”, and Elizabeth Kadetsky’s poetic account of her ambivalent romance with B.K.S. Iyengar, his yoga, and his family.

The rajah in my comparison here is yoga culture en masse. It’s praised each of these reports in varying degrees. But there are always reservations. In reading about their cosmopolitan yet private religion, modern practitioners yearn for something both more intimate than scholarship and more precise than the confessional. They want books that grasp beyond the trunk and tail.

Along comes Elliott Goldberg with a dozen years of dogged research, a sleuthing style metered out in engaging chunks, a deep appreciation for the embodied sensations offered by competing visions of asana practice, a sharp eye for human foibles and historical oddities, and no shyness around sharing his own aspirational definition of the yogic goal: to open up or attune to “Being”. With his weighty tome The Path of Modern Yoga: The History of an Embodied Spiritual Practice, Goldberg makes a bold attempt to ride the elephant. As blindfolded as everyone else, he wobbles a bit, but hangs on for long enough to produce something that a lot of people have been waiting for: a penetrating, body-aware cultural history of a modern spirituality, written through richly realized characters. Ken Burns should option it for PBS.

The Path spins its tale through the works and days of a diverse cast of 20th century yoga evangelists: nine Indian men, one American-British woman, and the woman from everywhere and nowhere — Indra Devi. We have the romantic earnestness of Sri Yogendra, the forbidding austerity of Tirumalai Krishnamacharya, and K.V. Iyer, the strutting bodybuilder. We catch the infectious enthusiasm of Louise Morgan, ghostwriter for the imperious Rajah of Aundh, Bhavanarao Pant Pratinidhi, injecting his public-health teachings on suryanamaskar with early-feminist self-help values for her bourgeois British readers. We moon along with Bhavanarao’s son Apa Pant, a landless prince after the nationalization of his kingdom, a melancholic mystic in the shadow of his father’s sun worship. We puzzle over the traumatized pathos of B.K.S. Iyengar.

Goldberg lets his Indian subjects confess how scintillated they were by an emergent Western muscularity, even as they resented its colonial sourcing and overtones. He lets their Euro-American followers show their orientalist longing for an antiquity lost to industrialization. Together, he lets their voices reveal the shifting meanings of physical movement in yoga: from religious ritual to the machine-like productivity of group-exercise, to movements that are therapeutic/functional, stripped of both “mysticism and inertia”, as Sri Yogendra asserted they should be.

Building on previous scholarship, Goldberg presents an elegant arc across three balanced sections and thirty-five tight chapters. Early modern yoga first saw itself as “desacralized” from its liturgical roots. It could then be transformed into a health and wellness discourse, and finally surreptitiously “resacralized” through the athletic non-dualism of teachers who, like Iyengar, “erased the distinction between the physical and the spiritual in yoga.”

The Path’s heroes are caught up in the modern anxieties they aim to calm with their evolving art. As entrepreneurial outsiders to both traditional and academic economies, they’re always on the lookout for new patrons and markets. Wary of the traditional guru’s role, they must carve out new spaces for transcendent expertise between holistic exercise instruction and self-help. Self-consciously, they test drive the new paradigm of photography, in which yoga practice can suddenly be “seen” and therefore must be performed (– not to mention both delocalized and eroticized, as we see in the beefcake shots of K.V. Iyer that could well have been taken by Leni Riefenstahl). They struggle to understand the first impacts of a globalizing feminism upon physical culture. And they straddle centuries in their attempt to embellish their medieval art with scientific respectability.

This last task often sees auto-didacts nervously banking their charisma into credentials, while producing assertions that can go unquestioned for generations. The finest example emerges from Goldberg’s revealing chapters on Jagannath Ganesh Gune, who gave himself the pen-name of Swami Kuvalyananda when writing poetry in his thirties. Expanding upon the work of Joseph Alter, Goldberg shows that Gune largely succeeded in legitimizing yoga as a viable indigenous health care practice, equipped to supersede the colonial intrusions of biomedicine. But he did it – believe it or not – with little if any formal scientific training. Ardent, celibate workaholism was all it took to attract nationalist patronage and propel Gune to the top of India’s premier yoga research institute.

At his Kaivalyadhama Ashram, Gune worked as a lab-coated shaman-in-reverse, transmuting the esoteric into the scientific. He forged speculative links between chakras and nerve plexuses and waxed poetic about the effects of shoulderstand on the endocrine system. But his expertise was as precarious as that of today’s yoga-therapy pioneers, as Goldberg illustrates in one of his numerous set piece stories, told from personal letters:

Mahatma Gandhi himself once came to the “Swami” for relief from his poor circulation and high blood pressure. Kuvalyananda prescribed corpse pose and shoulderstand. The Mahatma’s blood pressure continued to climb despite earnest practice. Gandhi bailed. The Swami begged him to keep mum about the failed treatment.

Goldberg later shows how Kuvalyananda’s exuberant medical claims for shoulderstand were uncritically borrowed, chapter and verse, by his contemporary Sundaram, and then propagated down the years by the likes of Iyengar and the American yoga therapist Gary Kraftsow. In his analysis, Goldberg avoids the quicksand between empirical and experiential evidence on which the yoga tent is staked. He also refrains from commenting on how deference to authority figures might reframe what seems like endemic poaching between authors as homage. But on the whole he honours the Swami with a studied balance between skepticism and enthusiasm. “[Kuvalyananda’s] claims for the beneficial effects of yoga on health were largely inflated,” Goldberg notes. “But his prescriptions for yoga as fitness were inspired.”

As an elaboration on the work of Alter, Singleton, and others, Path fills in welcome detail. But where Goldberg uniquely shines is in the interpersonal sphere, poking away at the intense homosocial relations, both loving and brutal, between teachers and students. He pulls back the curtain on the culture’s paternalistic patterns to show that almost every tumultuous discipleship is preceded by a father’s neglect or untimely death, which the guru is positioned to either heal or exploit. Yogendra’s father was “forbidding”, Kuvalyananda was orphaned at fourteen, Sundaram’s family fell apart when he was eight, Krishnamacharya was sent off to a monastic school at the age of ten after his father died. Iyengar’s father perished when he was nine. All of these men were likely yearning for love, support, and confidence in their bodies.

Early on, Goldberg marshals the (perhaps-too-broad) insight of psychoanalyst Sudhir Kakar to suggest that these luminaries were already primed for complex devotional relations by their abrupt “second birth” at the age of four or five from the Indian mother’s indulgent love to the father’s world of absolute obedience. “Indian men,” Goldberg writes, quoting Kakar, “have ‘a heightened narcissistic vulnerability, an unconscious tendency to ‘submit’ to an idealized omnipotent figure, both in the inner world of fantasy and in the outside world of making a living; the lifelong search for someone, a charismatic leader or a guru, who will provide mentorship and a guiding world-view, thereby restoring intimacy and authority to individual life.’”

To underscore the point, Goldberg opens The Path with the stunning account about how the intimate side of this dynamic played out for the young Yogendra in relation to his teacher, Paramahamsa Madhavadasaji: “the unfolding of Yogendra’s relationship with his guru,” he writes, “while ultimately being a chronicle of the quickening of his soul by the soul of another, more nearly resembles a mad love affair.”

In short order we’re told of Ramakrishna’s tearful doting on Vivekananda, Yoganananda’s trembling love for Yukteshwar Giri, how Kuvalyananda would lay his head in the lap of his martial arts teacher, Manikrao, and how Seetharaman Sundaram, years after concluding his close apprenticeship with yogic body builder K.V. Iyer, had a brief and entranced connection with Swami Sivaprakasa Ananda Giri, who spent much of his waking hours in ecstasy. Over several hundred pages, we begin to hear a subtle counterpoint to the logistics of how the postures spread, or how suryanamaskar itself flowed through a vinyasa of transcultural changes. The technical scholarship quietly points at a non-academic mystery: that yoga is always communicated between bodies in relationship.

Goldberg seems so entranced by the student-teacher love stories, however, that he almost falls off the elephant when he bumps up against the troubling specter of Tirumalai Krishnamacharya, whose influence upon global yoga today outshines that of every other figure combined. After a brief biographical sketch – and out of nowhere – Goldberg virtually diagnoses Krishnamacharya as a sociopath, suggesting that he enjoyed “mistreating others” and “bullying children”. Later, Goldberg writes that “he saw the children as extensions of himself…” and taught them “in order to glorify himself.” He seems triggered by this patron saint of modern yoga, and the research suffers.

There’s no shortage of data that casts shadow on the behaviour and scholarly pretensions of the famous curmudgeon of Mysore. Both Iyengar and Pattabhi Jois report that Krishnamacharya physically beat them and his other students mercilessly. Iyengar reports that he was driven to the edge of suicide by the guru’s violence. “My sister also was not spared from such blows”, he writes, referring either to Jayalakshmi, who Krishnamacharya trained in asanas, or to Namagiriamma, who was given to the guru in marriage at the age of eleven.

Further, yoga scholar David Gordon White has shown that the Krishnamacharya biographies written by his children and close devotees are mutually contradictory, and his central claim to authority – that he studied for seven years with a yogi in Tibet that no one else knows anything about – is likely a complete fiction. Unfortunately, Goldberg overlooks White’s work and asks readers to accept a single elliptical paragraph from Kadetsky that throws the Tibetan pilgrimage into doubt. (But not completely in doubt, as he goes on to treat the guru as if most of his self-reporting were simply true.) Then he makes the reader wait for 150 pages before backing up his character attack on the guru with citations from Iyengar’s memoirs. He misses Jois’ account of Krishnamacharya’s savagery, which could have supported his angle, if not his speculations into the guru’s internal state.

The “nastiness and volatility” of Krishnamacharya’s Mysore reign, as Goldberg calls it out, was real. Yoga historian Eric Shaw posted on it last year. It’s a deep stain on a culture that fancies itself as progressive, pious, and nonviolent. It’s also cognitively dissonant with modern yoga marketing, which is built on the living memory of Krishnamacharya’s surviving family and senior Western students, who don’t describe a tyrant. They cherish a little old man in semi-retirement in sunny 1970s Chennai, clad in a spotless dhoti, teaching shlokas and mantras and ministering to clients with a punctual discipline they took as austere kindness. If Goldberg reported on the conundrum of Krishnamacharya as delicately as he does his other subjects, we might gain insight into how tyrannical behaviour gets erased in the name of yoga, why difficult fathers are so often forgiven, and perhaps what could lie beneath the surface of Iyengar’s ramrod-stiff tadasana. Such nuance could be especially useful when Krishnamacharya’s family and zealous devotees of all things guru-like can easily red-ink a few paragraphs to discredit 500 pages of otherwise careful work.

My only other reservation about this engaging book is either niggling or grave, depending upon your perspective and politics. I offer it here not as a critique of The Path’s research nor the heroic effort behind it, but of its scope and the position of its authorial voice. This critique is about blindfolds, and wonders whether yoga writers can ride this elephant in a different direction.

The Path of Modern Yoga is a great work for what it is: an English-language account of the invention of “modern yoga”, told from an exclusively Western perspective, using mainly English-language resources, in which the relevance of an Indian yoga innovation is usually framed through several pages of the western cultural history with which most of its readers will already be familiar. The voice of this book, however, does not position itself as perspectival. It speaks in an unapologetic third-person omniscience, looking Eastward from the tower of progress-oriented history. Its reach is limited neither by formal academic framework nor any prefatory remarks from Goldberg explaining how and why his interests have been focused, and what he’s leaving out. Its scope is encyclopedic, and with 75 pages of end-matter, The Path presents itself as conveying a complete story. Echoing the period of its focus, it speaks with a high-modernist authority that’s rare for a book published today. There’s a lot at stake when you try to ride the elephant.

Such a voice can foreclose interest in what lies beyond its reach. The Path is reporting on the evolution of an artform that originated within an indigenous, largely oral culture, in which Sanskrit provides the bedrock of embodied contemplation. But the book’s framework largely footnotes an Indian cultural and spiritual milieu so intrinsic to the lives of the early yoga modernizers it may never have made its way into the English texts they wrote for international export and to secure late colonial dignity.

What we don’t learn from The Path is what the ethnographic arm of the Hatha Yoga Project is trying to find out – precisely because it’s hidden from bookish Anglophone researchers and readers, and because the very event of “modernization” erases it. What was Indian physical yoga prior to the colonial collision? Who were its practitioners? How were its wellness ideals informed by Ayurveda before they were “scientized”? How were its aesthetics determined by Vastu? How were its ideas about manly beauty and courage informed by the literature of Ayurvedic elixir, religious iconography, Indian wrestling, or martial arts like kalaripattayu — long before photographs of Eugen Sandow began to circulate? (And how did those photographs — and photography itself — erase former ideals and ways of being?) How were its timings and rhythms informed by Jyotisha (astrological practice) and religious ritual, long before the fascist influence of coordinated group exercise?

In a few instances, Goldberg fills these absences with shaky claims. Like when he misses the ancient and ongoing influence of astrology upon Indian conceptions of the sun. “Although the therapeutic effect of sunlight may have been known to Indians in ancient times,” he concedes, “sunlight—or, rather, the burning concern with the curative value of sunlight—was rediscovered in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in the West.” Or here: “The claim that a mere sound can have an effect on the internal organs wouldn’t have been made before the late 19th or early 20th century. Chanting mantras had long been held to be a technique of mystical physiology used to awaken a divine manifestation through the chakras, centers in the body where aspects of spiritual consciousness and physiological functions merge.” This occludes the animistic mantra practices of Ayurveda, prescribed for millennia to heal specific tissues and cure specific diseases. The Path also claims that the systematic relaxation technique developed by Sundaram for Savansana has “no precedent in yoga literature or practice.” But Indologist Jason Birch has actually compiled several possible precedents.

Goldberg’s blindfold isn’t so tight, however, that he can’t peek around it to regularly honour the sublime yoga of the cultures he’s exploring. Consider this gem of a sentence about K.V. Iyer: “An Indian enthralled with the bodybuilding systems of Europeans, yet proud of and indebted to the centuries-old Indian practice of hatha yoga, Iyer forged a dynamic West-meets-East physical exercise system, in which movements to resist opposing forces are coupled with movements to surrender to opposing forces.”

The Path of Modern Yoga should be read and studied by every serious yoga student, with this caveat: big books cast long shadows. But if shadows can be inviting, we can someday expect a response to this powerful volume from a more Indian perspective, privileging oral history over library stacks and continuity over newness. Such a response might dig into Iyengar’s homeland and childhood for the roots of his fascination with alignment, rather than correlating it with Cubist painting and Bauhaus theatre. It might unearth what Kuvalyananda — or his mother — knew about alchemical medicine, before geopolitics encouraged him to stuff the round peg of yoga into the square hole of science.

It could be a response that shows we can ride the elephant of yoga against the modernizing narrative, towards the memory of what modernism has erased.


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