With all the modern talk of cultural appropriation the practice of yoga, which has gained rapid mainstream popularity over the past generation, tends to get hit from all sides.
Some Christians claim that Yoga is too Hindu, that the health poses and stretching forms cannot be removed from their Hindu roots and thus the practice is unChristian at best and sinful at worst. Alternatives such as Praise Moves and Christian Yoga have sprung up in response to this idea.
On the other hand some claim that Yoga is an ancient and traditional practice of Indian origin and that white Westerners have committed the ultimate sin of cultural appropriation by taking Yoga, modernizing it, and setting up a white owned Yoga business on every hipster street corner in the Western world.
It turns out that both outlooks may be very wrong. Yoga is neither anciently Hindu, and thus inextricably linked with a non-christian theology, nor has it been culturally appropriated from Indian culture, in fact, evidence suggests the reverse may have happened.
In 2010 author and researcher, Mark Singleton wrote the book The Yoga Body (published by Oxford University Press) After much research he discovered that a few a yoga poses can be found in Hindu sacred texts but they are nothing like the Yoga we know today which is a physical practice. Nothing resembling a physical practice can be found in Hinduism.
So where then did Yoga as we know it today come from? Singleton tells us that in the middle of the 19th century a man named Per Henrik Ling had a system of Swedish gymnatics which quickly spread throughout England and Europe. Ling’s approach was not dissimilar to that of the YMCA’s, that is to say, that it was geared toward the developing of the “whole person,” as opposed to just the body. It became a popular system for exercise because it required no weights or machines and could be practiced anywhere at land or sea.
When Swedish gymnastics met Dane Niels Bukh’s rhythmic exercises at the YMCA in India, along with some Hindu pose names, it seems Yoga, as we know it, was born. Singleton is clear in his research that when the YMCA brought its message of social transformation through bodily transformation to India, they found “no “system” or “brand” of physicalalized yoga that could satisfactorily meet India’s need.” So they simply created one from a fusion of a few posture-based practices found in India at the time, along with gymnastics, calisthentics, and body building.
But how much influence did the ancient Hindu poses have on what is modern day Yoga? It seems they had very little influence. Many of the postures and practices similar to our modern yoga were very popular in Britain, but we’re derived from the Scandinavian systems of gymnastics. In fact, when one reads Niel Bukh’s Primary Gymnastics (1925) they will find that “at least 28 of the exercises in the first edition of Bukh’s manual are strikingly similar (often identical) to yoga postures occurring in Pattabhi Jois’ Ashtanga sequence or in Iyengar’s Light on Yoga.”
Does that mean that those early Hindus who claimed to be teaching first, the Indian Royal Court, and then the Western world “Yoga” knew they had culturally appropriated Scandanavian Gymnastics? Most likely not. In that day and age the trail of how information was spread and adapted was not easily traced by the average person and it’s reasonable that Jois, Iyengar and other Yoga pioneers honestly thought Yoga was an ancient cultural practice of their nation.
So where does that leave us today now that we know the true origins of Yoga? First, I think we can rest assured that removing the Hindu names and using the English names for poses erases that stigma that may have been preventing Christians from partaking in the practice. Second, I think it leaves us Europeans with a wonderful legacy of Scandanavian Gymnastics to research, explore and revitalize. Lastly, the next time you’re headed off to Yoga class you can tell everyone you’re actually headed off to Danish Gymnastics class and watch everyone furrow their brows.
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