A few years ago, during a sleepless night halfway through writing my dissertation, it occurred to me that Paramahansa Yogananda—the guy on “that book with the guy on it” that every new yoga practitioner picks up at some point—was pretty much the perfect embodiment of an early American yogi. And yet, we really only know him as the guy on the cover of that book. If we’ve read the book, we know that it contains some interesting claims about science and more than a few stories about yogis that levitate and make flowers smell like other flowers. However, we also know there’s very little in there about the kind of posture-based physical yoga that we mostly practice. This makes us a bit confused and maybe even anxious. What does it mean that the yogis whom Yogananda describes levitate rather than doing sun salutations? Are we doing real yoga? Or have we been sold faulty wares? And what do the Yoga Sutras have to do with all of this?
Now, by “we” I really mean “I”—or at least I, about 10 years ago, when I first read Autobiography of a Yogi at my yoga teacher training. But I have a feeling that my own questions—and, yes, the anxiety that the yoga I was doing was somehow inauthentic—are shared by quite a few other practitioners.
The thing about history is that it rarely offers simple answers.
This is because history is the interweaving web of stories about how everything changes. The place you start often looks nothing like where you end up. So here’s an interesting story: Yogananda did teach the kind of yoga we practice today, arm-balances and all. Why isn’t it in his book?
Because that wasn’t the story Americans were telling themselves about yoga in those days.
In fact, Yogananda only taught complex poses to his inner-most circle of (male) followers. For the rest, he prescribed basic exercises of the kind that were popular in America and Europe at the time. He figured headstands and arm-balances would not only be too difficult for most of his audience but also that they would find such poses just too plain weird.
Back then, as today, the reason you chose yoga over a variety of other comparable exercise methods (today it’s pilates, barre, SoulCycle—back then it was Ling gymnastics and Delsarte) was because yoga promised you something more than just exercise. Turn-of-the-century Americans were fascinated with the powers of the mind that science was only just beginning to understand. Yogis like Yogananda capitalized on the fact that Americans were much more likely to believe that extraordinary displays of mental control over the body (think the yogi and his bed of nails but, yes, maybe also levitation) were possible using the exotic and esoteric techniques of the mystical Orient. It’s an old way of thinking—people “Over There” are strange and mysterious and maybe know all sorts of stuff that we don’t.
This was actually partially true. While the West had its own ways of talking about the connections between body, mind, and spirit, such things had been developed far more elaborately on the Indian subcontinent, and specifically in yogic lineages of philosophy and practice. And so, yoga appealed to early-twentieth-century Americans because it took their preexisting notions of how moving one’s body could mean something beyond just the physical and made the whole thing… richer… more. Yogananda’s fantastic stories about yogis with superpowers were in part a marketing tactic—this is what yoga makes possible at the extreme.
What does it all have to do with the Yoga Sutras?
I’ve come to peace with the fact that: maybe not much. Incidentally, Yogananda mentions the Sutras (and the Bhagavad Gita) in his book, but only in passing. Only to say, “Hey look! This yoga I’m telling you about is here too!” Yogananda, the famous transnational yogi master was also concerned about authenticity. It helps to remember that texts like the Yoga Sutras and the Bhagavad Gita, which—along with later medieval texts like the Hatha Yoga Pradipika or the Gheranda Samhita—are frequently trotted out at teacher trainings were written at a specific time, in a specific place, and for a specific group of people with specific concerns.
Are we those people?
Not really. We could be, if that’s our thing. But before we double down on the importance of that, it also helps to remember that we reinterpret and even ignore vast sections of incredibly holy books (think, the Bible) because we recognize that these are historical documents, whatever else they may be. And sometimes we’re faced with the fact that these are not the precise documents for us. Yoga has never been just one thing.
If Yogananda teaches us anything (and I think he actually teaches us quite a lot), it’s that it’s possible to be completely serious and earnest about one’s practice and to recognize that this practice is also a human undertaking.
That means that it’s subject to adaptation; it’s subject to our changing interests and goals as a culture; and, yes, because of our interests and goals as a culture, it might be bound up in all sorts of things that we don’t consider very “spiritual” like studio memberships, and expensive pants, and how good our butt looks on any given day. The bottom line is: the practice either does something for you, or it doesn’t. For those of us that keep going back to whatever yoga we practice—well, that’s likely because it does.
I teach history to college students. Not yoga history, for the most part—just “regular” history. And even there, it takes them a while to get used to the fact that there are no easy answers or clean stories. To make a story neat and tidy in order to give it a catchy name—like, “Second Wave feminism,” say—we need to erase a lot of the human messiness that doesn’t fit our grand narrative. To talk about yoga as something that hasn’t changed since the time of the Yoga Sutras, we need to do a lot of erasing. To me, it’s much more interesting to talk about the messiness, the human actors who were involved in it, the junctures at which it all doesn’t really make sense—and then to get meaning out of it anyway.
I think meaning is ultimately a huge part of this thing we call “wellness.” I like to tell people my book is about “yogis and superpowers.” I do this to be funny, but it’s also kind of true. Historically, if there is any consistency to be found in the kind of person who gets called a “yogi,” it’s that this is a person who has become, through practice, somehow more than just human. Now, this is a big claim in our rational, secular day and age. It’s why Yogananda’s stories of levitating yogis make us raise an eyebrow. But really, skeptical though we may be, we’re not really over the idea of the superhuman. It’s why superhero movies make so much money. For many of us, meaning rests in the notion that we can do something to become better—more “super”—versions of ourselves. It might be silly to think that we can achieve this by doing sun salutations. But then again…
The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali: A Biography, by David Gordon White
First There is a Mountain: A Yoga Romance, by Elizabeth Kadetsky
Yoga Bitch: One Woman’s Quest to Conquer Skepticism, Cynicism, and Cigarettes on the Path to Enlightenment, by Suzanne Morrison
Hell-Bent: Obsession, Pain, and the Search for Something Like Transcendence in Competitive Yoga, by Benjamin Lorr
The Goddess Pose: The Audacious Life of Indra Devi, the Woman Who Helped Bring Yoga to the West, by Michelle Goldberg