Positioning Yoga: Balancing Acts across Cultures

Positioning Yoga: Balancing Acts across Cultures

Positioning Yoga: Balancing Acts across Cultures

Positioning Yoga: Balancing Acts across Cultures

Synopsis

Last year, more than seven million Americans participated in yoga or tai chi classes. Yet despite its popularity the real nature of yoga remains shrouded in mystery. A diverse range of practitioners range from white-bearded Indian mystics to celebrities like Madonna and Gwyneth Paltrow. Positioning Yoga provides an overview of the development of yoga, from its introduction to Western audiences by the Indian Swami Vivekananda at the 1893 Parliament of the World's Religions in Chicago to forms of modern practice. What makes yoga practitioners affiliated with Swami Sivananda's Divine Life Society of Rishikesh, India unique--whether they hail from Indian, North America, or Europe? What values around the world have supported the surging popularity of yoga over the past century? This absorbing book considers how lifestyle values have made yoga a global industry and shows how this popular "lifestyle" is produced and disseminated across boundaries.

Excerpt

In this book, I have tried to tell a fairly simple story about the ways that certain ideas and practices of yoga, primarily those of Swami Sivananda of Rishikesh, have moved from India to elsewhere in the world and back. In the telling, I explain how, over the past century, the practice of yoga has transformed from a regional, male-oriented religious activity to a globalized and largely secular phenomenon. The story can be read in different ways that make it useful to different kinds of readers - both those who are at home in the academic circles that comprise the social sciences, and those rooted more squarely in the wider world.

Students of anthropology who may be reading this book for a class will find descriptions of multi-sited ethnographic fieldwork that follow the paths of transnational cultural flows of the ideas, practices, and people who comprise one particular “brand” of yoga, that of Swami Sivananda of Rishikesh, India. If I have succeeded in my task, you will feel that you have come to inhabit a world that is both similar to and quite different from the one you wake up to on a daily basis. You will recognize the value of cultural anthropology's primary methodology, participant-observation, as well as the necessity of informed historical context for making sense of the richness of ethnographic data. By following the twists and turns of the ethnographer's path, you will come to understand that, for any given subject, many different stories could be told. You will, I hope, look at the ordinary world around you in a slightly different way for having read this book, and see that in order to make peace with ourselves and others, we need to be able to put into practice that fundamental tenet of anthropology, cultural relativism, and see the world from another vantage point.

Anthropologists and other scholars may find utility in learning the details of one specific example of a transnational cultural process that shares both similarities and differences with other instances of that which is often reduced to the simple rubric of “globalization.” By telling the story of Sivananda's yoga as it was developed and disseminated through India and other parts of the world, I try to convey the ways that a variety of what Raymond Williams (1988) has called “keywords” modern, nationalist, liberation, wealth (in its original sense of well-being) - have converged to produce a particular cultural form that is recognizable in many parts . . .

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