“Yoga Gymnastique”, response from Mark Singleton

This letter was sent to Srivatsa Ramaswami as a response to his article “Yoga Gymnastic” by Mark Singleton, author of  “Yoga Body”.

It is reproduced here with the consent of Mr Singleton and Mr Ramaswami.

Dear Mr. Ramaswami,

Thank you for your recent article “Yoga Gymnastique”. I am not a
subscriber to your newsletter, but several people have forwarded it on
to me since the article appears to be talking about my book, Yoga
Body, The Origins of Modern Posture Practice. Neither I nor the book
are mentioned by name, so it’s possible that I (and they) are
mistaken. But it seems obvious enough that you are engaging on some
level with my material and not somebody else’s. That said, there is
something very puzzling about the article: in general it is very clear
that your responses are not in any way a pertinent critique of my
thesis. I therefore have to wonder whether you yourself have had the
chance to read the book yet. In other words, there is little doubt in
my mind that you generally have missed the point of my argument, and I
therefore have to surmise that it has been represented to you in
accurately or out of context.

Actually, I believe that we find ourselves in agreement on most of the
points you raise. I would therefore like to take a few moments to
address some of the ways that my arguments are misrepresented in your
article. Now it could be (since you don’t name me) that you are
talking about a different “research scholar”. If that is the case,
please forgive my presumption. However, it seemed obvious to everyone
who forwarded the newsletter on to me that you were in fact critiquing
Yoga Body. I greatly admire your work and trust your judgement on
matters of yoga. Because of this, I’m particularly concerned about how
you appear to have misunderstood my thesis, and that as a result of
this newsletter your students will also form a negative and ill-
informed notion of it. I fear that the result will be a lost
opportunity for discussion. So I hope you will allow me a few

I am intrigued by your opening anecdote about the Texas yoga
conference that you attended some years ago. At that conference, you
relate, a well known teacher wondered at what you might have been
doing with Sri T. Krishnamacharya for thirty years-his hasty
conclusion was that you must have been doing a daily practice of the
six series (presumably of Ashtanga Vinyasa as taught by the late Sri
K. Pattabhi Jois). You use this example as a prelude to an explanation
of the immense and multi-faceted learning of T. Krishnamacharya, of
which this particular high profile teacher was oblivious.
This kind of encounter is precisely where my book’s inquiry begins.
How is it possible that such misunderstanding can occur? How is it
that this American teacher (and, presumably, thousands of other
teachers and practitioners like him) can have such a narrow vision of
the totality of yoga on the one hand, and of the vast learning of T.
Krishnamacharya on the other? How can this teacher assume that these
six series represent the sum of Krishnamacharya’s yoga legacy over his
sixty year teaching career? I’m not entirely sure of the meaning of
this anecdote in relation to the whole article, but I presume you are
suggesting that I am making the same mistake as this American

The fact is that such misunderstandings do occur on a very regular and
widespread basis. My book is an attempt to explain why this is so.
Just to be clear, I am *not* making an argument about the relative age
of asanas, nor whether they came before or after physical culture
exercises: I agree with you completely that such a genealogy is futile
and beside the point. Rather, I am interested in showing how certain
meanings become attached to physical practice, whether it be yoga or
gymnastics, and how these accreted meanings inevitably change the way
people approach these disciplines. In sum, my investigation aims to
show how modern understandings have altered the meaning of yoga
practice for many people. It is not an attack on the venerability of
yoga as such, but on how yoga has been taken and shaped by modern

Let me take an example. You write, “The head stand, the sarvangasana,
padmasana are distinctly different from gymnastics and each one of
them has scores of vinyasas that are uniquely yogic and no other
system seems to have anything like that.” While that is true in one
sense, it is also true that “gymnastic” systems from the early
twentieth century did in fact routinely use positions such as the ones
you mention. Physical culture journals are full of representations of
these postural shapes. However, it should be clear that the meaning is
quite different in the modern, non-yogic context. To take one
instance: a shape very much like sarvangasana was the emblem of the
British Women’s League of Health and Beauty during the 1920s. It was
not associated with yoga, but rather had its own characteristic set of
meanings. It helped one to stay young, trimmed fat around the waist
and so on. Obviously, this cosmetic reading of the posture makes it
something wholly other than the meaning of the posture in a medieval
hatha yoga context (notwithstanding some overlaps). My study is really
about how these other meanings come to attach themselves to yoga. It
investigates how modern, scientific, physical culture-oriented
understandings are read back into the original yoga posture, and how
they thus alter the original meaning of that posture.

It is as if one were to take two pieces of tracing paper and on the
first draw a yogi in sarvangasana. On the other, one draws the emblem
of the Women’s League. Placed one on top of the other, these figures
appear identical-and yet they carry vastly different meanings. But
what happens as yoga begins to enter the modern gymnastic-dominated
world is that these two meanings compete and sometimes merge. The
sarvangasana that many people know today (especially in “gym yoga”
contexts) incorporates some mix of both. This is what is interesting
about how yoga has developed, for better or worse, in the West. One
might well lament this as a degradation of the integrity of
sarvangasana (or whichever posture is in question), but it seems to me
that this describes quite well the actual process of yoga’s
transformation in modern Western society, as it is reflected in the
understandings (and misunderstandings) of its practitioners.
When one makes this process the primary focus of study, it then makes
little sense to argue about whether gymnastics or yoga came first, or
to squabble about the relative age of asanas. This is a false debate,
and it is largely irrelevant to my project. It seems to me that you
have wrongly assumed that this is what I’m up to, which is why I have
to assume that you haven’t yet had chance to read the book thoroughly.
Of course there are postures that date back a long time. I, for one,
would certainly not want to assert otherwise. And of course yoga is
not just gymnastics: as I argue consistently in Yoga Body, this is a
spurious claim-often made by those that want to denigrate yoga,
particularly hatha yoga. That said, I do think that a lot of the body
practices that we see emerging in the modern period reflect a very
particular zeitgeist, and that many people (in India and elsewhere)
were innovating new, radically adapted physical practices in the name
of “yoga”. Let me be clear: I am not judging one way or another on the
desirability and integrity of these experiments, but merely presenting
the facts as I see them. This period of experimentation is a
historical fact. It also seems incontrovertible that many of these
systems were in some sense new, insofar as they incorporated modern
understandings into yogic knowledge. Regardless of whether you
consider these experiments as lamentable betrayals of yoga per se, or
as developments of tradition, there is no doubt (historically
speaking) that things were changing very quickly in the early years of
the twentieth century. We only have to look at the self-consciously
gymnastic experiments in yoga of the likes of B. C. Ghosh, Prof.
Sundaram, Shri Yogendra, Swami Kuvalayananda and others to see that
this is the case.

But it is also important to note the narrowing of the term
“gymnastics” from the 1960s onwards, such that when people hear the
word today, the immediate association is with televised displays such
as those of the Olympics. This is clearly also your primary
association. But it is inadequate. The term used to carry a much
wider, richer meaning that has far less to do with Nadia Comăneci and
her ilk than most people today assume. Imagine that Bikram Choudhury’s
attempt to make yoga an Olympic event is successful: millions of
people around the world will begin to associate yoga primarily (and
probably uniquely) with a particular kind of asana display. This would
be as narrow and skewed an understanding of “yoga” as is our
contemporary understanding of “gymnastics”. As well as being ways to
stay fit and healthy, early modern gymnastics traditions were often
deeply spiritually oriented-they were understood as methods of using
the body to access the divine. In many ways, they match the
predominant understanding today of the practices and function of yoga
itself. This is no accident. You write:
“We do not find deep movement, synchronized breathing, and the
significantly profound exercises like the bandhas– which are an
integral part of Sri Krishnamacharya’s asana practice– in other forms
of physical exercises, especially gymnastics.”
Well, the fact is that we do find all these things (or close
approximations of them) in early modern, non-Indian gymnastics
traditions. Deep movement is usually a cornerstone of the gymnastic
traditions I investigate, and it is often assumed that such movement
must always be accompanied by synchronized breathing (termed “rhythmic
breathing” in the parlance of the time). Surprisingly, exercises that
appear-at least in form-to be identical with the mula, uddiyana and
jalandhara bandhas also crop up in these early gymnastic practices. So
“gymnastics” is historically a tradition that is much richer, and
structurally closer to Sri Krishnamacharya’s method, than you are
giving it credit for.

That said, the meaning of the deep movement, the synchronized
breathing, the gymnastic “bandhas” is obviously different in this
context. Compare a gymnastic manual of the time with the Hatha
Pradipika and one sees in a moment how distinct the frames of
understanding are. However, this historical perspective is not
immediately available to practitioners of yoga. And the result, once
again, is that meanings start to merge. It’s not hard to see why this
happens: the gymnastic frame of reference was likely to be more
familiar to modern audiences, and so the practices of yoga which
appear to overlap with gymnastics are interpreted and (mis-)
understood in that context, rather than in the unfamiliar, and
apparently arcane, context of classical yoga. The learning was just
not available, and besides, people were happy and comfortable with
their “gymnastic” understanding of yoga. Once again, this is not judge
this process for better or worse. My job has been to show how it came

You focus particularly on the aspect of breathing as a distinguishing
feature of the yoga tradition. I have already mentioned the key role
that synchronized breathing played in many of the “spiritual”
gymnastics traditions of the time (there are more details in my book).
Further, you note that in yoga the respiration rate is often reduced
to 3-5 breaths per minute, as opposed to “contemporary aerobic
exercises including gymnastics and gym workouts”. While this is very
true, a quick review of the audio CD of the Ashtanga Vinyasa primary
series by Sharat Rangaswamy (grandson of K. Pattabhi Jois), shows that
each full pose (not including entry and exit) takes about 20 seconds.
As you know, there are five breaths per pose, which makes about one
breath every four seconds, or one inhalation and one exhalation every
two seconds. This is, from my own experience, also roughly the speed
that the sequence, as taught to him by T. Krishnamacharya, used to be
counted through by Sri K. Pattabhi Jois (with the entire series often
being completed in just over and hour). These are just rough
estimates, but it seems clear that the Ashtanga system moves away from
the principles of breathing that you lay out as being in some senses
defining of “yoga”, and particularly of the yoga of T.
Krishnamacharya. How do we explain this?
Well, you yourself have contextualized this particular aspect of
Krishnamacharya’s teaching as srustikrama, a method of practice for
youngsters, and which was particularly suited to group situations.
Children like to move, and breathe, faster than adults, generally
speaking. T. K. V. Desikachar has expressed a similar opinion on more
than one occasion, and has added that during that period his father
was experimenting with the vinyasa forms that have become so familiar
to us through the Ashtanga Vinyasa of Sri K. Pattabhi Jois. What I
point out in chapter 9 of my book is that this particular method has
many similarities with the standard pedagogical gymnastics of the time
in India. Two of the closest relatives of this system, I propose, are
Swami Kuvalayananda’s immensely popular and widespread regimens of
children’s gymnastics (“yaugik sangh vyayam”), and a system innovated
by the Dane Niels Bukh called “Primary Gymnastics”, which was the
second most popular system of physical exercise in India at the time.
If you read the book you will see that I am careful NOT to propose
that Krishnamacharya borrowed his system from either of these sources.
There is no way of knowing this apart from suggestive speculation.
Rather, I suggest that this teaching format appears to closely match
the wider zeitgeist of the time. If Krishnamacharya was innovating in
response to that zeitgeist (as Mr. Desikachar suggests he was), then
it seems reasonable that he would have come up with similar methods,
particularly in his capacity as a yoga teacher to the royal youth. It
also seems perfectly in accord with the principle of adaptation (to
constitution, age, country etc.) that is, to my understanding, central
to Krishnamacharya’s teaching ethos. It seems reasonable to look to
this principle in order to understand the way Krishnamacharya taught
in that particular time and place.

And, incidentally, I do not suggest that his position at the Palace
compromised his teaching: merely that he had a job to do, and he used
all the available resources to do it to the best of his ability.
Please correct me if I am wrong about any of this. To say that I
portray Krishnamacharya as “a hata teacher who plagiarized some
exercises from gymnastics and called it yoga to make a living, and
nothing more” is very saddening to me. It is the cartoon version of my
research. It’s very unfortunate that now your readership considers
that I am a disrespectful ignoramus who neither knows nor cares about
Krishnamacharya’s vast learning and scholarship. For the record, that
is not the case.
Note also that I am very careful to point out in the book that this
innovation within tradition is perfectly consistent with standard,
orthodox procedures of knowledge transmission, as I understand them.
The fact that Sri Krishnamacharya was adapting and innovating is not,
as far as I can see, inconsistent with his status as the most learned
and influential yoga teacher of the modern age, nor with his being
steeped in and faithful to tradition. You yourself write that
“dandals” were “outside the pale of yogasanas”. However, we see their
entry into the popular yoga lexicon in the early twentieth century via
the system of suryanamaskar. Around this time, Sri Yogendra is
complaining that suryanamaskar has been mixed up with yoga by the
uninformed: it was, in other words, a new addition to the standard
body of practices as he understood it. This is a fact whose
implications are often misunderstood. I am not claiming, as your
article seems to imply, that there are not ancient traditions of
prostration to the sun. Of course there are. I recognize this
explicitly in the book, and I have recently commented on the same
topic in Yoga Journal. Again, this is to take the mistaken view that I
am primarily interested in showing which practices are old and which
are new, presumably with the aim of debunking the new ones (?). No.
No. What I am interested in is how innovators like the Raja of Aundh
revived suryanamaskar in the context of vyayama, and how it was
initially promoted as an Indian alternative to Sandow bodybuilding. I
am also interested in how (to Sri Yogendra’s chagrin) it was
subsequently incorporated by others into physical culture-oriented
yoga practices.

You ask, “Are these physical drills, yoga exercises or devotional
practices? Which came first? God knows, Lord Ganesa knows”. Well, the
answer is that it depends entirely on context. In modern times the
context can often be radically different. For example, into which
category should we place a mass drill-type practice of suryanamaskar
for children led by the Raja of Aundh circa 1935? Certainly he did not
categorize it as yoga himself. It would have looked to many like a
standard drill gymnastics of the time, and was to some extent
conceived by the Raja as a replacement for this. And yet he clearly
also recognized the “traditional” meaning of sun prostration. So how
one answers your question depends on which aspect is foregrounded.
Modern yoga practice, in its popular form, is usually a similar kind
of mix of meanings. Once again, to protest that sun worship in India
is ancient, and to believe one has said something counter to my
thesis, is to entirely miss the point of my inquiry. What is far more
interesting to me (given that the age of sun worship is not at all in
question) is how divergent meanings become attached and harmonized in
modern expressions of yoga.

To sum up: I am not particularly interested in judging the relative
value of these experiments in yoga, but rather in describing how a
particular set of historical factors contributed to the creation of a
distinctly modern form of practice. One may wish, in some cases, to
judge these innovations as modern “misunderstandings” of the yoga
tradition. But my job has been simply to document them. No doubt on
account of a lack of such outspoken condemnation on my part, some
people superficially read my book as an attack on yoga itself.
It could be that yoga has been handed down whole and entire from time
immemorial. It could be that all expressions of yoga are traditional
and immune from the historical forces of modernity. But this seems
hugely unlikely to me. To assert that yoga adapts to the conditions it
finds itself in does not seem like a contentious assertion. Nor does
it necessarily impugn the “authenticity” of the teachings. I believe
that modern Western practitioners today sorely need tools to navigate
through the bewildering, and often crass, market place of yoga. Such
practitioners do not, in general, have access to truly qualified
traditional teachers, nor are they born and bred in places where there
are adequate societal frameworks for understanding yoga practice. This
problem becomes increasingly acute with the sheer volume of
misinformation about yoga on the internet and in books. Being aware of
the recent history of yoga, and how it has changed, adapted and
diversified in response to modern and global concerns can help
practitioners to understand where they are coming from, and spur them
to go deeper into their inquiry into yoga traditions.

I hope that my study goes some way to aiding yoga practitioners in
this process. I have already seen it happening in response to the
book, which is heartening. But if Yoga Body is misrepresented simply
as an attack on the authenticity of yoga, then I have utterly failed
to get my message across. The tired old debate of whether yoga is old
or not is a boring and fruitless one. Practitioners squabble over this
in yoga studios all over the world. It’s not surprising, then, that
some of them instantly assume that my book is part of the same
squabble. I am disappointed that your article tends in a similar

I hope you will receive this in the spirit is intended. I am a yoga
practitioner and teacher (in the Iyengar system) as well as a devoted
practitioner. I have given the last fifteen years to deepening my
understanding of yoga, through my sadhana and through my research. I
remain committed to the practice and study of yoga. Your books have
been very helpful in my understanding over the years, and for that I
humbly thank you. However, I do think that you have missed the point
of my work, for reasons that I can only speculate about. I hope you
don’t mind me trying to set the record straight here.

I would be happy to talk about any of this further, perhaps in person
one day. I will be visiting Loyola Marymount University in the near
future (for possible collaboration with Chris Chapple), so perhaps if
you are around we can meet and get to know each other a little. I
would also be interested in perhaps recording a conversation with you,
perhaps for publication somewhere, if that seemed appropriate. In the
mean time, you are welcome to reproduce any or all of this letter,
should you wish. And I would be happy to send you a copy of my book.

Yours Sincerely,

Mark Singleton

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