MPY is an outdated term

Seven years ago, Mark Singleton published a made-for-the-average-Joe version of his thesis in Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice which states in so many words that yoga as we know it today is less than 100 years old. This has started a whole wave of thinking that yoga is some kind of scam dreamed up by Hindu nationalists who pirated asana-s from Kerala wrestlers and Swedish gymnastics manuals. Sadly, this has also inspired a new wave of yoga commentators in pushing a hate-filled anti-Indian agenda that is critical of teaching techniques by Krishnamacharya and his disciples. It has also given a slew of yoga teacher trainings self made license to do what ever kind of contortions they want to do and call it “yoga” which has led to an epidemic of yoga-related injuries. I have been reticent to delve into this debate as I had to educate myself more on the issue before having an intelligent voice in the matter.

Recently Singleton has teamed up with researcher James Mallinson to go on a fact finding trip to India to really find out where yoga came from. In the forthcoming press about Mallinson’s recent book Roots of Yoga, he states that yoga is not exclusively Hindu, but draws from Buddhist and Jain practices as well. Just like in a rainforest, a botanist finds a mysterious leaf peeking out of dense foliage and tries to find the root of the leaf only to find it is part of much larger matrix of life from which it is impossible to find a single source, it seems as though Mallinson et al. have found themselves in a similar conundrum. I have yet to read the book, but the press that has come from the findings of this team is leaving one with more questions than answers.

Which brings me back to the point of the title of this post: MPY or Modern Postural Yoga is an outdated term. We are not sure how old asana-s are and if what we are practicing today even resembles asana-s of yoga past before photography. What some of us know who are Iyengar practitioners is that the asana-s that our teacher taught have given us far more than we bargained for when we first stepped foot in class. Iyengar’s method of teaching and asana-s that he presented are transformative to one both physically and mentally. For those of us who stuck with it for several years, the practice continues to bring us more fruit with each consecutive year. At least that has been the case for me.

I am not a scholar, but a practitioner. But being a good practitioner means one has an element of scholarship in one’s sadhana, particularly in reading the classic texts like Patanjali Yoga Sutra-s. I read several translations as I am not fluent in Sanskrit so I can get a better gist of what the Sutra-s are trying to impart. The one truth I continually glean from my readings is that when one’s mind is silent from practice, one gains insight based on one’s own reality. The true yogic knowlege is gained from direct experience. Just like when you first learned to tie your shoes without help from your parents, you were forever empowered with that skill. There are many “tied shoe” experiences with continued uninterrupted practice.

So may the term Modern Postural Yoga find its way into the lexiconic trash bin of tired phrases. The yoga we practice today is from the same body infrastructure of humanity’s several millennia. The body of 2017 reacts the postures the way the body reacted to it in the times of the Upanishads. In case you didn’t know, that is far more than 100 years old.

 

 

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14 thoughts on “MPY is an outdated term

  1. So...

    Our temple architecture has beautiful sculptures of Gods, rishis etc in various asana positions. These date back many centuries and look very similar to the asanas we practice today. One of Guruji’s early students, a very senior teacher, shared some beautiful images from his travels and research at the annual function. Maybe someday you can visit a few to marvel at the exquisite beauty. Satyam, shivam, sundaram…

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  2. mahasadhu

    As far as I know, Yoga asanas came later, in Hatha yoga pradipika, and texts like that, Shiva samhita etc. Gheranda samhita came later along with more books over the years.
    Asana actually means to sit in Sanskrit, I guess that has been the first posture, sit still and concentrate.
    In India people mostly practise Surya Namaskar and concentration. The march of the west to ‘bagel’ asanas as I call it, made it more of a gymnastics.

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    1. yogibattle Post author

      I agree about the “bagelization” of yoga. As I was reading today that beer and wine yoga now has an actual training program, I realized that the term “yoga” has lost almost all of its original potency. Upanisad has the root word “upa” to “sit.” My inkling is that there was an oral tradition of asana well before they were written in the texts listed above, even if the only asana was to sit comfortably via padamasana etc. My quarrel is how Singleton presented his facts that made it sound like Krishnamacharya just made his way of teaching up from modern texts at the time to further Hindu nationalism. I strongly disagree with that assertion.

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  3. Anonymous

    The ethics are rooted in your body that’s where you should learn them
    That is a Annamaya Kosa your muscles and bones . Then you go to the next pranamayakosa the manomaya Kosa. The philosophical body and from those you gain wisdom vijnanamaya Kosa and if you are blessed you reach anandamaya Kota. The blissfull space. It is a life’s adventure

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    1. yogibattle Post author

      No problem with the typos. I see that you are writing about the kosa-s. I appreciate that Iyengar corrected someone to state the the “alignment” of his method is not just physical alignment, but alignment of all the kosa-s. Always fun to see how Siri interprets Sanskrit words 🙂

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  4. babycrow

    I too am practitioner not scholar (and pretty novice practitioner at that, as you know) but I did read Singleton’s book some time ago and I have Roots of Yoga awaiting me on the ‘to read’ pile. There are so many things I’d like to say in response to your post (without turning your blog into my blog!). Bear with me; I offer this out with great respect to you and your readers.

    First I’d like to say that these guys are (the ones I know of) scholar-practitioners. They don’t just sit in libraries all day; they have their own yogāsana practice in many cases.
    The reception of Singleton’s thesis was pretty dramatic, sure. Personally I think his work is invaluable in pointing out the evolving nature of the yoga tradition (as many traditions). Some rather naive practitioners and teachers fall into assuming that because something has a Sanskrit name it’s inherently ancient or because it has the same name as something described in an ancient text it’s entirely the same practice, and then they are able to present their teaching with some spurious authority and cash in on the apparent age-old wisdom of what they teach. One simply can’t (yet) evidentially trace back all the things people want to through the millennia (the variety of āsanas we habitually practise now, for example). You could take it on faith of course, or you could accept that innovation and evolution isn’t something to be frightened of and that there are many ways to the same end result. The practice of academic scholarship is to look for evidence, it isn’t based on belief.
    I don’t think any of this interesting scholarship undermines the nature of one’s experience or the value of the practice or even that at least some of us some of the time (in east and west) aim towards or achieve some of the same states/understanding/experience as did the writers of yoga texts through the ages; that’s why they speak to us. But āsana practice is both more and less than that.
    I’d suggest we must allow there to be a multiplicity of yogas today as there was in the past (yes buddhist, jain, hindu and other influences must have meant a huge diversity of practices, not all of which were documented in any way that survives).

    …and sure there are flaky tt programs out there and the definition of yoga is tricky these days, and what can we do about that
    …and the debate about whether injury levels have increased as a result goes on

    I’m not sure Singleton et al set out to undermine your practice and I think it’s really regrettable if yoga practitioners see this as some kind of attack.

    I hope some of these brief thoughts are interesting and that I haven’t misunderstood what you were intending. Of course feel free delete my comment after reading! I just wish we could chat about this in person. It would be fascinating and I know I’d learn so much from you.

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    1. yogibattle Post author

      Thanks for your thoughtful response 🙂 I agree that Mallinson and Singleton do not have bad intentions in their projects and have actually uncovered valuable data, particularly in how Sadhu-s define Hathayoga. My concern is that since Singlton’s book Yoga Body and his thesis which asserts that asana-s used and taught by Krishnamacharya are less than 100 years old is simply not true. I believe even Singleton himself has recanted this notion, but has not done well in correcting this assumption. There have been some writers who I don’t feel like naming here who have used Singleton’s thesis to go on hateful tirades against Krishnamacharya and his teachings. And it is a common meme in commercialized YTTs that asana-s are made up 100 years ago and have used that to invent dangerous poses like “wild thing” which has accounted for many scapular injuries. Iyengar did take what he learned and innovated using props and finer attention to the efforts that are put into each asana. This can be misinterpreted as he took liberties to invent these postures, and he has certainly had a lot of criticism for that. My point of this post is that MPY is an outdated term as the asana-s that we practice today are not modern at all. It still may be debatable about how old, but they are far more than 100 years old as Yoga Body asserts. I appreciate your feedback BC 🙂

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  5. resolvesofttissue

    Great article, and the point you make is a fair one. Both Singelton and earlier Norman Sjoman rather flippantly in my opinion dismissed Krishnamacharyas sources as having no link to anything that resembles MPY. They didn’t however take the time to read, find, translate any of the more obscure source texts Krishnamacharya references in his book “Yoga Makaranda” and if they did they would have soon discovered that their entire thesis falls apart. I would direct anyone interested in this topic to look into the work of the scholar practitioner Christopher Tompkins, it is truly groundbreaking research and needs to be made widely known and available.

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