Roots of Yoga
January 29, 2018
Dear Yoga Vida community,
Our philosophy at Yoga Vida is to "make yoga accessible and inclusive" and our mission is "to build a community that supports happier, healthier lives." As you may be aware, we are holding a workshop series on a recent scholarly publication entitled, Roots of Yoga. One of the posters promoting these workshops provoked some incendiary reactions, and we have since taken the poster down. I’d like to apologize, both personally, and on behalf of the studio for any negative feelings that this poster produced. I authorized this poster with an earnest intention, rather than an ironic one, and I’m sorry for missing the mark so badly for some of you.
The following briefly addresses the context for the poster’s construction:
Yoga Vida is dedicated to creating a space that is respectful to the myriad of traditions surrounding yoga and grounded in contemporary scholarship around yoga's various disciplines. The workshop series in question highlights much of this diversity in a premodern South Asian context through textual translations. The studio has a deep respect for South Asian yoga systems, teachers, scholars, and institutions. Over the years, we have led five cultural based education trips to India, partnering with traditional North Indian scholar-practitioners and institutions. We have also invited male and female Indian teachers for special programs at Yoga Vida annually. The place of South Asia and the people who live there play instrumental roles in yoga’s history.
A wave of scholarship of the past fifteen years has proposed the idea of “modern yoga” to characterize the postural focused approach common at Yoga Vida and yoga studios around the world. Elizabeth De Michelis's landmark work, A History of Modern Yoga, suggests that transnational anglophone yoga may be more accurately conceived as its own tradition, rather than one with a lineage in premodern South Asia. In Yoga Body, Mark Singleton makes a very compelling argument that the series of postures practiced in America and around the world today maybe best explained as a 20th century construction from diverse cultural movements: international physical fitness, Danish and British gymnastics, and Indian nationalism. Norman Sjojman's The Yoga Tradition of the Mysore Palace offers important antecedent evidence in this regard. The more recent work of Andrea Jain, David White, and Anya Foxen further contributes to the idea of a transnational modern yoga movement, which is distinct from (though perhaps inspired by) premodern yoga traditions. Jain's work, Selling Yoga, particularly emphasizes the understanding that "postural yoga is a product of yoga's encounter with global processes."
While yoga’s premodern roots are found in South Asia, contemporary scholars describe yoga’s modern roots to be global ones, constructed through exchanges between diverse actors: men and women, brown people and white people.
Yoga Vida honors the roots of premodern South Asian yoga and transnational postural yoga, though we specialize in the latter. While the Roots of Yoga workshops highlight the former, the posters were designed to reflect the variegatedness of yoga’s roots. Most importantly, we did not want to suggest in anyway that the “roots of yoga” as practiced in our studio are exclusively found in an imagined South Asian past.
As a consequence of our earnest attempt for accurate historical representation and desired inclusiveness of those who may not identify with the “roots of yoga” found in premodern South Asia (which by and large look much different from transnational posture practice), we created two posters for the series. One poster featured the book’s cover and the other featured Indra Devi, a white woman wearing a sari, with one of her female students, who was also white. Many, including myself, would contend that Indra Devi is one of the most important people in the construction of modern yoga. It is for this reason (and an interest in highlighting important female voices in yoga’s history) that we picked Devi’s image for the poster.
Indra Devi was born Eugenia Vassilievna Peterson in Latvia in 1899. She studied yoga in Mysore, India under the now-renowned T.Krishnamacharya. She taught yoga all over the world through the twentieth century, but was largely based in Los Angles, where she had several celebrity clients. Conceptions of Devi paint a round picture of a talented and complex person. She always taught in a sari, yet is largely credited for her leading role in making yoga accessible in the United States, and associating it with health and wellness.
We attempted to show the parallel and equally valid perspectives on yoga's roots between the two posters. What I failed to consider is how an image of a white woman dressed in a sari associated with yoga’s roots may be deemed offensive. I apologize for any offense this decision may have caused and thank those of you who shared your feedback.
Director of Philosophy