Yoga for Skeptics

"So what if you can't pin down the exact history of yoga..."

"So what if you can't pin down the exact history of yoga..."

At a recent reading for my book, First There Is a Mountain: A Yoga Romance, a memoir that also recounts the development of modern yoga in India,one recent convert to the religion of yoga asked,”What do you make of the crass debasement, the deracination, the pollution, even, of yoga in America?” His expression then shifted from one of sarcasm to repose, his tone settling into the sort of reverence designed for questions to which the answer is a generally accepted truth.

“Is it very different in India?” he went on. A mist formed in his eyes.

Perhaps because its jacket copy espoused my book as bringing “a good dose of journalistic skepticism” to the topic of yoga, the questioner apparently expected my commiseration. And I did share his misgivings.

In this age of smoking bans, sticky mat sightings and gymnosophistry of all sorts, yoga in America is an apt target for eye-rollers fed up with such “Oughties”-era spirituality-and-fitness fads as “hot yoga,” “power yoga,” “midnight yoga” and “yoga for couples.”

Most anyone who’s examined yoga thoughtfully enough to learn the Sanskrit word for triangle pose might agree that, in America, such dubious messengers of spiritual truth as Bikram Choudhury and Christy Turlington have introduced a rot of commercialization. The result is a monster: Tattooed 20-year-old gym instructors spew pseudo-philosophical platitudes to the sounds of hip-hop sampled over chanting Gregorian monks; stockbrokers meditate on their winnings while performing exercises that resemble jumping jacks; gullible fitness hounds extol the light-headed, rather numinous sensations experienced after an hour spent losing sweat in a 90-degree room.

At subsequent readings, I sensed that many American aficionados mistrustedthe yoga of their own land, but venerated, in almost equal and opposite proportions, yoga from the source — India. Indeed, even for today’s harshest yoga cynics, a virulent Orientalism seemed to prevail, projecting simplicity and spiritual clarity onto exotics from this distant land.

“So what if you can’t pin down the exact history of yoga?” asked another man — a longtime yoga instructor — at a reading at a yoga studio in Northern California. “Your tone is rather tongue-in-cheek.” The participants sat in a circle on the wood floor. Images of Buddha and the Om symbol decorated the foyer. “Do you mean to say that yoga doesn’t follow directly from the practices laid down by Patañjali, in the second century B.C.?”

“In India the mythology is very much alive,” added an Indian woman. “You don’t have to prove its history to know it has deep roots. Its truth is simply felt.”

I disagreed. I explained that for my research, I spent a year in India as a Fulbright scholar exploring the history of yoga and studying with the yogi B. K. S. Iyengar, whose teachings I’d been practicing in the U.S. for fifteen years. After poring through material that might connect modern yoga to the ancients, I came to agree with the 19th-century Indian Swami Dayananda, who traveled for nine years in the mountains of Tibet trying to document the same link. He determined there was no evidence for it.

The current tendency to idealize India makes it easy to forget the fact that news from the subcontinent of floating yogis or men who could survive for several weeks in airtight boxes used to be greeted with disbelief — in India and the West alike. Disbelievers today have set their sights so exclusively on the spectacle of American yoga that they must be reminded that the ground zero of spiritual quackery has always been India. A tradition of rooting out Indian snake-oil sellers and charlatans once flourished in the West. But one wonders what respect today’s chroniclers might offer, for instance, the Madras yogi described in the Asiatic Journal in 1829 who maintained that he could levitate in lotus position for as long as forty minutes. After witnessing his stunt, the journal’s correspondent concluded that the yogi’s “trick” depended on a metal “contrivance” to prop him up. It was, the writer reported, “hocus pocus.”

A yogi appearing at the Millennial Exposition in Budapest in 1896 encountered a similar skepticism. He planned to demonstrate his ability to hold a hypnotic trance in an airtight glass coffin for two weeks. But alas, he too was unmasked when two Western reporters witnessed him creeping from the coffin in the middle of the night for cake and a bottle of milk. Another interring, performed by the infamous yogi Haridas in the South Asian kingdom of Lahore in 1837, was regarded by one British chronicler as a “mere Hindoo trick” — regardless of the fact that, in this case, there was indeed evidence that the yogi suspended vital functions during his 40-day self-imposed burial.

Through most of the next century, The New York Times — which these days writes about Indian yoga’s “principles of precision, heat and healing” — led the charge. The paper couched the details of a similar burial in Bombay in 1950 in qualifiers. The yogi, the Times reported with a plethora of irony-heavy quotation marks, was “‘buried'” in an “‘airtight'” crypt that was “‘completely submerged in water.'” In other words: Let the buyer beware.

By 1962, the paper of record was debunking with glee. Reporting on the results of a scientific investigation into certain yogis’ claims that they could stop their heartbeats, the paper reported that the yogis were in fact performing the Valsalva maneuver, which creates the appearance of stopping the heartbeat but cannot, the paper relished, “fool the electrocardiograph.”

Four years later, the yogi L. S. Rao gathered several hundred paying spectators in Bombay to witness him walk on the surface of a pool of water. Unfortunately, at the appointed moment he did not walk but, rather, crashed into the pool. News reports from India and the U.S. tittered at the travesty.

The Maharishi Mahesh Yogi — guru to the Beatles, the Beach Boys, Donovan and Mia Farrow — had the bad luck to encounter Western reporters at their nadir of faith in Indian gurus. Reporting in the Times in 1968, Joseph Lelyveld, currently the paper’s interim executive editor, wrote that the yogi, “[when] asked the other day what he thought of the Hindu holy men who live in caves in the hills near his Ashram, inflicting an excruciating ascetic discipline upon themselves in order to achieve a peace he promises on the easy-installment plan in air-conditioned rooms, was inspired to change the subject. ‘Have you seen this week’s Life?’ he asked. An innocent newcomer to the Ashram could have mistaken this for one of the Maharishi’s transcendental thoughts. But he was only talking about the magazine, which had published his picture.”

Today’s tendency to impose a false dichotomy that splits the phenomenon of modern yoga into the “ersatz” American and the “authentic” Indian might descend from a misunderstanding in which India’s modern yoga seems to have legitimate roots itself. But these roots are so difficult to document that no one can make this assertion with any authority.

Today’s Indian luminaries, however, make such declarations. The yogi T. K. V. Desikachar, son of the celebrated early-twentieth-century yogi T. Krishnamacharya, says he is, through his father, a descendant of the Lord Vishnu. The father, in his lifetime, claimed to have resurrected a lost medieval yoga text in a mystical dream, and to have learned the teachings of another lost text from a 230-year-old monk who lived in a cave on the holy Lake Mansorovar in Tibet.

He somehow pieced together those lost texts, and they went on to inform his teachings and, by extension, those of his three famous disciples — his son Desikachar; my teacher, B.K.S. Iyengar; and Pattabhi Jois, promoter of the system known in the U.S. today as “Ashtanga Yoga.” He also presented himself as a direct descendant of a legendary medieval yogi named Nathamuni, though his proof was not birth records but his mystical dream, in which his ostensible forefather gifted him the lost text beneath a cypress tree.

Iyengar too purports to have an illustrious lineage through fuzzily constructed genealogical tracings, these linking him to another legendary spiritual figure, the 11th-century philosopher Ramanuja.

Pattabhi Jois, for his part, has reportedly said that his technique derives from a discovery he ostensibly made alongside his guru of a lost manuscript — this one in tatters and subsequently lost again — eaten by rats in a library in Calcutta. Many people dispute the assertion that Jois and his teacher ever made this journey to begin with, and Jois has since revised his story to say he never went.

The evidence was clearly shaky, but questions postulating Indian yoga’s superior pedigree did not abate. I did a reading in Southern California at which a young yoga teacher who was well-traveled in India asked me what I thought of this guru, Krishnamacharya’s, claim that he learned what we now call “Ashtanga Yoga” from the 230-year-old-monk at Lake Mansorovar.

I recounted my unsuccessful attempts to verify the story. “What do you think?” I counter-posed.

“I went to Lake Mansorovar,” the teacher responded. “It was incredible.”

“What could you document?” I pressed.

“There could definitely have been yogis there. You could just tell. It was a spiritual place.”

And in fact, perhaps it was. The exchange left me wondering less about his naïveté than about why the legitimacy of yoga’s provenance really mattered. If people find these teachers’ idiosyncratic philosophies and theories useful — as did this traveler — perhaps that was their only importance. The idea that a yogi — Indian or Western — is imbued with divine genius more than any American artist or therapist or soccer coach is what’s so misguided in the desire to write off as fraud any spiritual wisdom that can’t aspire to an ancient patrimony. In truth, we really can’t ever have access to what the ancients thought, and even if we did, it might be so historically acontextual as to be useless, or we might find they were no more enlightened than we are.

I once heard a yoga teacher say she found God on a bus ad. “God,” the ad said. At first I resisted her simple words, but in retrospect I think maybe she was right. If God appeared in your gym, in your plate of lasagna, in the virus on your computer, wouldn’t it behoove you to pay attention?

Rather than idealize one form of modern yoga while dismissing the next, I prefer to follow the wisdom of James Braid, a British advocate of hypnotism who, in the 19th century, argued for the possibility that the famous yogi Haridas’s burial may truly have been a mystical feat. “Unlimited skepticism,” he wrote, “is equally the child of imbecility as implicit credulity.”

Elizabeth Kadetsky ( is the author of First There Is a Mountain, released by Little, Brown and Co. this year. She teaches writing at the Columbia School of Journalism and now studies the teachings of Pattabhi Jois at the Ashtanga Yoga Shala in New York.