Since the 1960s, yoga has become a billion-dollar industry in the West, attracting housewives and hipsters, New Agers and the old aged. Marketed as a clear path to self-realization, mind expansion, and taut abs, yoga is also perceived as an ancient and unchanging Indian tradition based on the revelations of benign and limber sages. But this modern conception of yoga derives from nineteenth-century European spirituality, Sinister Yogis reveals, and the true story of yoga’s origins in South Asia is far richer, stranger, and much more entertaining.
To uncover this history, David Gordon White focuses on yoga’s practitioners. Combing through millennia of South Asia’s vast and diverse literature, he discovers that yogis are usually portrayed as wonder-workers or sorcerers who use their dangerous supernatural abilities—which can include raising the dead, possession, and levitation—to acquire power, money, and sexual gratification. As White shows, even those yogis who aren’t downright villainous bear little resemblance to Western assumptions about them. At turns rollicking and sophisticated, Sinister Yogis tears down the image of yogis as detached, contemplative teachers, finally placing them in their proper context.
Most of us, in America at least, tend to think of yogis as benevolent beings, and yoga as that series of semi-spiritual stretches that can really stretch those tight places in our hips on a Sunday afternoon. We can channel our breath, open our hearts, and do a few Sanskrit poses whose names derive from animals or the natural world: dog, pigeon, lotus, tree. But in this fascinating counter-history of yoga, White shows us that the slim slice of yoga we Americans practice, and even the yoga most academics study, is leaving quite a lot of yoga's deep roots out. He argues that yoga, an ancient practice whose word derives from the Sanskrit yuk -- to yoke -- has a much wider purview. In this deep genealogy of yoga, White isolates how yoga's yoking, while ultimately in the service of actually losing oneself to practices, is sometimes about practicing unyoking the self entirely -- and not necessarily just to reach a peaceful inner heart space. Instead, White studies a tradition of yogis who practice tricks, move between bodies, and use their powers in morally dubious, if always fascinating ways. This tradition of yogis is, in White's words "far more interested in supernatural powers and self-externalization" (crossing into and out of bodies) "than in the quietistic, meditative realization of the divine within." While yoga could hardly spring from Indian roots if it weren't multiple, immensely complex, duplicative, and even contradictory, White offers a surprising, counterintuitive take on the roots of an extraordinary, sometimes mystical discipline. The book is a tad academic, but anyone with a few guideposts in South Asian history should be able to navigate its path. --Tess Taylor