Positioning Yoga: Balancing Acts across Cultures

By Sarah Strauss | Go to book overview
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Re-Orienting Yoga

Bombay, India March, 1992

The train pulled out of the station. I was riding in the famed Rajdhani Express, on the
way back from Bombay to Delhi. Across from me in the compartment, two middle-
aged, middle-class businessmen looked hot and uncomfortable in their standard
Western style business attire jackets, ties, the works. They wondered what a
young, unaccompanied, non-Indian woman was doing dressed in salwar-kameez
(women's dress of long tunic and loose trousers) and studying a Hindi grammar
book. When I explained that I was an anthropologist, and had come to India to study
yoga in Rishikesh, they became quite attentive, and began to discuss the subject.
Their primary sentiments were regret and amazement: regret that they knew so little
of their heritage themselves, and what they knew derived solely from hearsay;
amazement that I should travel so far from home, learn Hindi, and wear Indian
clothing out of preference, all to study a subject they considered important to their
own past, but not likely to loom large in anyone's future. Nevertheless, they agreed
that Rishikesh was an ideal place to carry out such a study, since it was well known
as a site of great spiritual power. As was often the case when I mentioned yoga, the
businessmen inquired whether I had met any “real” yogis in my travels, and specu-
lated that there were very few left in the country. In the time of the Mahabharat and
the Ramayan, the great epics of India, they mused, there had been many yogis
across the land. Perhaps, one said, if I went south to Tamil Nad, where people were
still in touch with the traditions, I could find some there. The other commented that
he had once encountered a man lying on a bed of nails, unscathed: “Was that
yoga?”


Locating Yoga

Yoga. The word evokes a range of images and ideas, from white-bearded Indian mystics on mountaintops to cross-legged hippies burning incense and urban business people at a lunchtime fitness class. Although there is no single “correct” version of yoga, a close examination of the variety of ideas and practices that is identified with yoga yields a common core. This book asks how the set of ideas and practices known as yoga has moved from its birthplace on the Indian subcontinent to become a global phenomenon, and how this transnationally produced yoga has

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