If Lieutenant Columbo ever wrote a book about yoga, it would read like Yoga PhD. Perusing the culture of modern American yoga with Carol Horton, we’re intrigued by nearly everything we see: “spiritual” lines of clothing promoted by manifestly soul-less companies; a chock-full meditation class in the heart of the dairy-belt; a movie starlet glibly declaring that yoga poses are about 2000 years old (recent scholarship demonstrates most aren’t much more than 100.)
“I wonder why is it that way!?” the author chuckles, scratching her head. And her iconoclastic answers, like Columbo’s, are supported by evidence most of us wouldn’t even think of. A poli-sci-professor-turned yogi, Ms. Horton liberally buttresses her own thoughts with the most up-to-date scholarship about yoga as well as insights from other cultural greats who range from Jung and Thoreau to the creator of Nike’s “Just do it” campaign.
In essay after essay, Ms. Horton raises tough questions about modern yoga and then skillfully goes through the evidence. When the only honest answers are full of ambiguities, she isn’t afraid to say so. I love that!
Take her essays on the history of yoga. There’s a brief discussion of the archeological basis for yoga’s ancient origins. (It’s inconclusive – and what a relief it is to have someone say so.) Then she tells us how Swami Vivekananda brought his vision of yoga to the United States at the turn of the 20th century – the singular “big bang” event from which all of western yoga has arguably proceeded*. At the end, having painted the picture of yoga’s history in broad and clear strokes, she creates a conceptual frame to hang it in. It’s a frame that highlights the best features in the picture, gives it new meaning.
Which is that we really don’t know much for certain about the ancient antecedents of modern yoga. But we do know for sure, even amidst the delightful ambiguities in yoga’s history, that we share with our ancient forbears a desire to practice something that helps us to grow. And we also know that contemporary yoga reflects our uniquely modern character: it is freely available worldwide and practiced by tens of millions of people; it blends spirituality with modern science. In this way our yoga is builds upon but is different than anything that came before it. These are roots and differences that would make any practicing yogi proud.
This kind of insight characterizes Ms. Horton’s writing elsewhere in the book. Her essays run the gamut of modern concerns from consumerism to body image to psychotherapy, each one delivering fresh insights in a succinct and thoughtful package. And underneath all of them, which makes the book a real delight to read, is a kind of wonderment about the whole shebang of modern yoga.
Here’s how she says it in one of her final essays. ” When practiced in a way that integrates body, mind, and breath, yoga offers an accessible means of developing an infinitely more healthy and empowering relationship to the body….Even within our soulless landscape of parking lots, prefab buildings, post-industrial detritus, and big-box stores, reconnecting with the deep inner experience of our own embodiment enables us to discover that the world really does retain its essential mystery and magic.”
Amen to that! It’s why I do yoga, and I’ll bet the same is true for millions of others. And so, to this and so much else in the book, one can only thank Ms. Horton. Thanks for getting it so right, so clearly, and for putting it out there for all of us to read.
* For more about on this subject, Elizabeth DeMichelis’s A History of Modern Yoga provides a fascinating and nuanced account of Vivekananda’s impact. Ms. Horton’s summary presents essentially the same case in a few lucid pages.