Christian Yoga

It gets even better. Yoga as we now know it both in East and West--specifically, as a system of postures and other practices intended for the physical health and spiritual well-being of the individual as opposed to an ascetic discipline akin to the austerities of the Desert Fathers of antiquity--is not just Western, it's Christian. According to historian and yoga teacher Mark Singleton, Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice (Oxford, 2010), Kindle location 1855ff. (emphasis added),

"No organization had a greater influence on the international diffusion of physical culture than the YMCA. Indeed, it was in the creation of a hybridized but distinctly Indian culture of sport and exercise that the YMCA offered its most significant contribution 'to the making of modern India' (David 1992: 17). Its physical culture programs were explicitly intended to function as a somatic tool of moral reform, whose core values were those of the Christian West, and in particular Christian America. The emphasis was on 'wholesome living' and on the power of 'physical education [as] a socializing agency' ('Curriculum of Studies,' n.a. 1931:29-30). Physical culture, as conceived by the Indian YMCA, was education through the body, not of the body (Gray 1931: 15) and was intended to contribute to the even development of the three-fold nature of man--mind, body, and spirit--as symbolized by the famous inverted red triangle logo devised by the influential YMCA thinker Luther Halsey Gulick (1865-1918), head of the YMCA training school in Springfield, Massachusetts. As such, it was of a piece with the holistic preoccupations of much of early European gymnastics. It was meant, furthermore, in no uncertain terms 'to inculcate in young people the ideals, value structures and behavioral patterns implicit in the Christian way of life' (Johnson 1979: 13).

"If, prior to the 1920s, 'physical education was a term unknown to this country [i.e., India] and its education system' (Govindarajalu 1949: 21), by 1930 the national physical director of the organization, J.H. Gray, could confidently declare that with regard to physical education, 'India is perhaps the "hotspot" of all the nations of the world' (Gray 1930: 5). In Gray's assessment of the relative popularity of physical training systems in India at the time, Ling ranks first, followed by the 'primary gymnastics' of Niels Bukh (1880-1950) which, as I shall argue later with regard to T. Krishnamacharya and Swami Kuvalayananda, exercised considerable influence on the modern 'power yoga' movement. Significantly, even at this relatively late date, neither 'yoga' nor 'asana' appears in Gray's catalogue of physical culture, indicating that the semantic and practical merger of 'exercise' and 'yoga' was yet to become pervasive, as it would in the next two decades.

"The 'Physical awakening of India' (Johnson 1979: 14) initiated by Gray was greatly furthered by H.C. Buck, who set up the first school for Indian physical directors in 1919 and trained the first Indian national athletics team for the Paris Olympics of 1924.... Broad-ranging and adaptable in his choice of fitness regimes, Buck 'devised programmes and courses which combined both Indian and Western physical exercise so that the YMCA college offered the best of the East and the West' (Johnson 1979: 177). In the hands of the YMCA, physical culture was eventually elevated to a position of social and moral respectability, a status that it had not previously enjoyed in India.

"Buck and his organization were 'constantly searching for attractive indigenous activities which are suitable for physical education' (Buck 1930: 2), and the eclectic and wide-ranging syllabi they devised largely became the face of Indian physical education in the early to mid-twentieth century. Buck made postural yoga 'an integral part of the YMCA physical education programme' (Johnson 1979: 177), promoting asana as a component of the overarching ethos of Christian piety and service at the heart of the "Y" ideology....

"While there is evidence to suggest that Buck had misgivings about the ultimate value of asanas...there is little doubt that his efforts to meld indigenous Indian exercises with YMCA philosophical principles...did much to create an environment favorable to the emergence of athletic postural yoga conceived as a system for the holistic development of the individual. That is to say, the enormous and pervasive influence of YMCA physical education in India altered not only the cultural status of exercise but brought its ontological function into line with "Y" policy. Partially as a result of this, international postural yoga became (and remains) perceived as a system for the holistic development of the 'mind, body, and spirit' of the individual--a feature it has in common with a whole gamut of gymnastic systems (including Ling) that developed within and outside India in the first half of the twentieth century."

References:

Buck, H.C. 1930. Syllabus of Physical Activities for Secondary Schools and Manual of Instructions for Teachers. Madras: Government Press.
David, M.D. 1992. The YMCA and the Making of Modern India (a Centenary History). New Delhi: National Council of YMCAs of India.
Gray, J.H. 1930. India's Physical Education What Shall It Be. Vyayam 1(4): 5-9.
________. 1931. Physical Culture: Physical Training: Physical Education. Vyayam 2(3): 15-16.
Govindarajulu, L.K. (ed.). 1949. Buck Commemoration Volume: Being a Memorial, Dedicated to Harry Crowe Buck. Saidapet, Madras: Buck Commemoration Volume Committee of the Alumni Association of the YMCA College of Physical Education.
Johnson, E.L. 1979. The History of YMCA Physical Education. Chicago: Association Press.

Comments

  1. At least I've never been required to sign a declaration that I "accept Jesus Christ as my personal savior," as I was when seeking to use a YMCA pool in Cincinnati. (I confess: I perjured myself and signed. It was a great pool.)

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  2. LOL! Which does make me wonder: what else did the Indian YMCAs teach other than physical education? What struck me is the emphasis on the integration of mind, body and spirit, which has always been huge in every yoga class I've taken. Perhaps one could say, more accurately, that yoga as we know it is working from a Christianized anthropology. Pre-YMCA yoga did not give such a positive role to the body, which is Singleton's larger point here.

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