A History of Modern Yoga

From time to time, in this blog, we will offer short summaries or critiques of books about yoga.  Initially we will focus on current scholarship in the field of contemporary yoga studies.

Elizabeth De Michelis, A History of Modern Yoga, Continuum, 2004.

Summary of Part I

In the first part of this book, De Michelis traces development of modern yoga from its prehistory to Vivekananda.  She places the developments within Hinduism in India during the 19th century in the context of other religious and spiritual movements in the West.  In general, she views the movement from Classical Hinduism to forms of modern Hindu expression as due in part to the influences of occultism and mysticism, the Brahmo Samaj monotheistic movement, and such western influences as Theosophy, Unitarian ideas, etc.

In laying the foundations for her arguments, De Michelis explains important terms such as mysticism, cult, and sect.  The somewhat fluid movement between these terms, and the obvious related experiences of people, is a theme that runs through the book up until the final chapter when she is discussing the actual happenings in a MPY class. Spiritualism and its incorporation into what she terms New Age Religion (and later New Age Movement) is another strand that runs through her analysis throughout the book.  Another leitmotif that De Michelis lays out in the Introduction and first chapters is East-West dialogue and mutual influence.  As someone who has spent a lot of time reading and teaching Thoreau, Emerson and the Concord School of Transcendentalists, I personally loved her comments about both Emerson and Thoreau.  I knew of their use of ideas from the Gita and their regular reference to “Hindoo ideas” (sic) but I did not know that Thoreau was the first American to refer to himself as a yogi.  And, I knew of the influence of Hindu and yogic thought on that American school of thought but I did not realize that the influence was mutual.  

An important historical chain of influence was the development of Neo-Vedanta from Rammohan Roy to Debendrath Tagore (the famous poet’s brother) to Keshubchandra Sen to Swami Vivekananda.  De Michelis showed how the earliest developments in Neo-Vendanta in the late 18th century, which focused on rationalized monotheistic theology, led to the growth of the Brahmo movement as well as a growing emphasis on social reform, ethical ideas, and universalism.  These themes were developed through the 19th century by the trajectory of those listed above. These men each contributed their own emphases. For example, Sen (1838-1884) brought to Neo-Vedanta his notion of “enthusiasm” as the center of religious life. The discussion of “initiation” was interesting in general, but I found the discussion of Swami Vivekananda’s initiation particularly interesting, even though possibly suspect by some critics.  And, once again, this theme foreshadows some of what the author will posit as the place of modern postural yoga (MPY) in a secularized Western society.  Her discussion early in the book came to mind as she gave her interpretation of the ritual aspect of MPY in later chapters. 

Much of the third and forth chapters (which constitute half of Part I of the book) is dedicated to Swami Vivekananda.  Chapter three discusses his background, schooling, involvement as a Freemason, and involvement with Ramakrishna. There was some discussion of Ramakrishna’s transmission to Vivekananda.  One slight critique is that I found the discussion of Ramakrishna a bit thin.  The other influences in the development of Neo-Vedanta and how the trajectory of these men had an impact of Vivekananda was much more thorough and nuanced.  It seemed that Ramakrishna had a more direct and immediate impact of Vivekandan and I feel like I need to know more about that relationship.

De Michelis then turns to VIvekananda’s “turn to the West”, which began with his famous trip to the World Parliament of Religions. There began in earnest Vivekananda’s incorporation of Western occultism and spiritism.  He began to use Western terminology to explain his theology. De Michelis points out that Emersonian Transcendentalism had an influence on Vivekananda, particularly in how Emerson’s idea of “Over soul” fit with Vivekananda’s notion of the one transcendent reality (Brahman = Atman = Over soul).  (Incidentally this also obviously comports with the development of Quakerism in America with its emphasis on “the Inner Light”, which serves the same role.) In this milieu of stress on the esoteric and occult aspects of “religious life” yoga practice came to be the physical complement.  In that way it also fit the need for ritual. 

Vivekananda developed the “four yogas” in the 1890’s. This schema is commonplace in the current understanding of yoga. Recognizing that different people seek and serve God in different ways was one of those developments that De Michelis links to the Swami’s teaching taking root in America. Then in his books Karma Yoga (1896), Raja Yoga (also 1896 and immediately sold out and in a second printing), Vivekananda laid out his view of a secularized and psychologized, universalist Neo-Vedanta in a way that attracted Westerners.

In the final chapter of Part I, De Michelis discusses “God realization” and “Self realization”in Neo-Vedanta. She reviews the major influencers of Neo-Vedanta from Roy onward.  But, it is in Vivekananda that ätma- and brahmajñãna come together. And, these concepts, De Michelis sees as integral to New Age religion.  And, in this way Vivekananda’s occultism becomes so important in Western religion.

Summary of Part II

Part II begins where part I ended with a discussion of Vivekananda’s Raja Yoga. Self-realization is central to Neo-Vandanta.  At this point this personal and experiential aspect of Yoga forms the core of the occult teaching.  In this chapter, De Michelis explores Vivekananda’s philosophy in some depth.  She explores the two models, both of which appear in Vivekanda’s writing and lectures.  The Praña Model and the Samādhi Model are different.  But, I confess that after reading those sections a couple of times, I cannot succinctly and clearly explain the two.  She also discusses the concepts of Prãna and Ākāśa and how they interact with the two models. (The four elements of the Prãna model are discussed on pages 160-168) and the three aspects of the Samādhi model are found on pages 168-175.). I absolutely loved the discussion but was a bit lost.  So I have noted this section to re-read.

Chapter 6 is the transition in the discussion between the foundations of modern yoga and modern yoga and, with special emphasis on Inyengar. After 180 pages dedicated to a very thorough, detailed, and well-footnoted discussion and analysis of the roots of modern yoga from about 1800 to 1900, it felt like the book “jumped” to Iyengar.  Actually a better analogy would be pole-vaulted over the transition from Vivenanda’s Raja Yoga to 1950. 

De Michelis did a wonderful job of placing Vivekananda in the line of thinkers/teachers who developed Neo-Vedanta.  As mentioned above I did wish that there had been a bit more about Ramakrishna. In the same way, she placed Iyengar in the line of development of Neo-Hinduism and she clearly showed how his MPY grew out of Vivekanda’s Raja Yoga.  But the discussion of Krishnamacharya was too thin, in my opinion.  I have always viewed Iyengar as one of the key figures in the Krishnamcharya “lineage.” She mentioned him but only devoted less than a page to him. As with the above, I feel like I need to go back and do some study on Krishnamacharya to round out my understanding of the development of MPY.

The final chapter was entirely devoted to the growth of Iyengar’s ideas, philosophy, and practice of yoga.  De Michelis devoted a significant section to expounding each of Iyengar’s three major works: Light on Yoga, Light on Pranayama, Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patañjali. I appreciated the summary of each.  And, in addition to a summary, De Michelis also locates his arguments in the context of the ideas developed in the book.  I have read two of those books by Iyengar and found the summaries and discussion in this book to be extremely helpful in giving a clear, brief, and understandable summary.


In the concluding chapter, De Michelis lands the book in the bullseye at the end of the trajectory of her argument.  She takes readers into a short discussion of MPY and then into a typical yoga class. She shows how MPY fits into the nexus of three themes of modern life: emphasis on youthfulness and fitness, the need to deal with the stress of modern urban life, and the human need for some for of “sacred” ritual in the midst of secular culture.  MPY fits exactly into the void in the center of the Venn diagram of those needs.  She relates this to the spiritualism and universalism of Neo-Vedanta.  And, although there is more or less awareness of that taproot, MPY is clearly an outgrowth of it.  She concludes by walking readers through a typical modern, secularized yoga class and relating even the usual tripartite structure to rituals and ritualized rites of passage.

I have expressed some of my own reflections and critique ad passim.  But, as I reflect on the book as a whole, it is, for me, a wonderful treatise on (as the title claims) the history of modern yoga.  I appreciated learning the history of the development of Neo-Vendanta and the amount of East-West exchange that took place in both directions in the formation of modern yoga.  In some ways this book helped alleviate some of my concerns about culture appropriation.  I can see (as mentioned in class) the “pizza effect” in the development of MPY.  Because I have loved the study of philosophy and religion, I found this book to be “brain candy”, not because it is an easy read—it isn’t, but because the topics were very interesting and the presentation had both a very readable quality and reflected solid scholarship.