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Yoga BodyThe Origins of Modern Posture Practice$

Mark Singleton

Print publication date: 2010

Print ISBN-13: 9780195395358

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: May 2010

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195395358.001.0001

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Yoga as Physical Culture II: Harmonial Gymnastics and Esoteric Dance

Yoga as Physical Culture II: Harmonial Gymnastics and Esoteric Dance

(p.143) 7 Yoga as Physical Culture II: Harmonial Gymnastics and Esoteric Dance
Yoga Body

Mark Singleton

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

Chapter 7 takes another facet of modern postural yoga's relationship with physical culture: the “harmonial gymnastic” tradition. Largely practiced by women, such “spiritualized” methods of movement and dance became firmly associated at the end of the nineteenth century with Hindu yoga. In this chapter is the claim that “hatha yoga” classes, as practiced in many twenty‐first‐century urban settings, recapitulate the philosophical, practical, and demographic circumstances of women's physical culture classes of the early twentieth century.

Keywords:   modern postural yoga, modern yoga, āsana, physical culture, women's gymnastics, gender

The modern yogic body regimes that I outline in the previous chapter are strikingly congruous to certain forms of unchurched Protestant religiosity that Sidney Ahlstrom has termed harmonial religion (1972). New Thought is perhaps the most demotic, practical expression of this diffuse movement, which represents a rejection of the Calvinist denigration of the body in favor of the soul. In this “harmonial” religious model, as Fuller summarizes it, “spiritual composure, physical health, and even economic well-being are understood to flow from a person's rapport with the cosmos” (2001: 51).1 In terms of the new forms of haṭha yoga, one of the most important branches of such practical religion applied to the body is a subtradition I will refer to as “harmonial gymnastics,” which is exemplified by the work of two American women: Genevieve Stebbins and Cajzoran Ali. Both were extremely influential in forging esoteric systems of “harmonial” movement associated with yoga that directly prefigure (and enable) the “spiritual stretching,” breathing, and relaxation regimes in the popular practice of yoga today. In Britain, practices analogous to many contemporary yogāsana forms were promoted by Mollie Bagot Stack of the “Women's League of Health and Beauty” during the 1930s, within a similar “harmonial” framework. Indeed, what is remarkable about regimes such as Stack's, and those prescribed (mainly for women) in the male-dominated physical culture press, is that even though they are not called “yoga,” they often resemble today's postural forms far more closely than many of the above-examined gymnastic and (p.144) bodybuilding forms identified as yoga. The posture-heavy forms of yoga that began to predominate in the West in the latter half of the twentieth century constitute a continuation, in practical, sociological, and demographic terms, of regimes that were already normalized within (secular as well as esoteric) sections of British and American physical culture.

Genevieve Stebbins and American Delsartism

The French teacher of acting and singing, Francois Delsarte (1811–71), became famous in Europe for his theory of aesthetic principles applied to the pedagogy of dramatic expression. His spirito-physical exercises and rules for the coordination of voice and breath with bodily gestures gained popularity not only within theater and opera but also among a wider public.2 The foremost American exponent of Delsartism was Genevieve Stebbins (1857–c.1915), who began working with Delsarte's student Steele Mackaye in New York in 1876. Mackaye's adapted American regime laid a greater emphasis on gymnastic movement and relaxation than Delsarte's own (Ruyter 1996: 68). Stebbins was also a member of the group Church of Light, “an order of practical occultism” with close links to the influential esoteric group the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor (Godwin et al. 1995: ix). She brought these esoteric influences—along with those of Mackaye, Ling gymnastics,3 and yoga—to bear on her interpretation of Delsartism. Stebbins's presentation of Delsarte to American audiences initiated a veritable Delsarte craze, with a flood of imitation Delsarte publications, Delsarte clothes and home designs, and a “Delsarte Club” in “nearly every town in the country” (Williams 2004). The parallels with the yoga craze of the present day are not hard to spot. Stebbins partially trained the famed Ruth St. Denis, who in later years would market herself as a mystical Indian dancer (Srinivasan 2004). The self-appointed historian of American Delsartism, Ted Shawn, established a dance school with St. Denis “which produced a whole generation of [American] Oriental dancers” (Srinivasan 2004; Shawn n.d.). And Stebbins is undoubtedly the godmother of this generation.

The turn-of-the-century “Oriental dance” genre, pioneered by women like St. Denis and Maud Allen, was part of a more generalized assimilation of Asian-inspired techniques such as Transcendentalism, Theosophy, modern Vedānta, and, of course, yoga. The craze for Indian dancing did much to bolster the reputation and self-esteem of “indigenous” artists like Rukmini Devi and Uday Shankar, who (as Erdman 1987 and Srinivasan 2003 demonstrate) adopted many of the innovations of their Western impersonators in an ongoing operation (p.145) of exchange and translation. Both sides claimed to be teaching and performing the original, authentic dance of India. Much the same can be said for yoga in the modern era, of course. Indeed, the same socioeconomic group of white, mainly Protestant women who lauded Vivekananda and enthusiastically took up the practice of yoga in their own homes (Syman 2003) was also dabbling in mystical dance. It was these women's endorsement of Vivekananda's yoga (which, as De Michelis 2004 has demonstrated, fed back to them a version of their very own esoteric convictions) which was instrumental in establishing Vivekananda as an authoritative spiritual and political voice in his homeland. As Peter van der Veer argues, Vivekananda's cultural nationalist project could not have emerged without his having devised classes on ancient Indian wisdom for Bostonians:

This was one of the first and most important steps in systematizing “Indian spirituality” as a discipline for body and spirit, which has become so important in transnational spiritual movements of Indian origins. Vivekananda's success in the United States did not go unnoticed in India. He returned as a certified saint. (1994: 118)4

As is the case with dance, European and American yoga teachers who emerged at the same time claimed to be presenting the original, authentic yoga of India, in spite of many patent innovations. Yoga and Indian dance were in this sense both players in “a drama of appropriation and legitimation within a pan-South Asian framework of nationalist aspiration and cultural regeneration” (Allen 1997: 69) as well as dominant currencies of spiritual and cultural capital in the romanticized Asian marketplaces of the West.

From early on in yoga's “export” phase, American Delsartism was compared with yoga, particularly the haṭha variety. For example, in Raja Yoga, Vivekananda claims that many of the practices of haṭha yoga, “such as placing the body in different postures,” are to be found in Delsarte (2001 [Vivekananda 1896]: 138). Ramacharaka—who, we should note, routinely plagiarizes Vivekananda—also affirms that in haṭha yoga postures, “there is nothing especially novel or new about their exercise, and they bear a very close resemblance to the calisthenic exercises and Delsarte movements in favor in the West” (1904: 192). Like Vivekananda, he judges such exercise forms negatively (and, as far as Stebbins's synthesis goes, wholly unjustifiably) as purely physical techniques that, unlike yoga, do not “use the mind in connection with the bodily movements” (192). Indeed, Delsarte's Law of Correspondence states that “to each spiritual function responds a function of the body. To each grand function of the body corresponds a spiritual act” (in Ruyter 1988: 63). The Frenchman's system is itself steeped in the embodied spirituality that Stebbins later elaborated to a high degree through (p.146) Western esotericism. This of course renders assertions such as Ramacharaka's (that Delsartism is purely physical, in contrast to yoga) wholly inaccurate but nonetheless characteristic of the type of allegation made by yoga writers of the period against Western “gymnastics.” Note, finally, that Yogendra also cites Stebbins as an authority on relaxation in his Yoga Asanas Simplified of 1928 (156).

Stebbins's Dynamic Breathing and Harmonic Gymnastics. A Complete System of Psychical, Aesthetic and Physical Culture (1892) is a combination of callisthenic movement, deep respiration exercises, relaxation, and creative mental imagery within a harmonial religious framework. It is, in Stebbins's words, “a completely rounded system for the development of body, brain and soul; a system of training which shall bring this grand trinity of the human microcosm into one continuous, interacting unison” (57) and remove the “inharmonious mental states” (19) that lead to discord. Stebbins associates her own system of harmonial gymnastics with “the higher rhythmic gymnastics of the temple and sanctuary where magnetic power, personal grace and intellectual greatness were the chief objects sought” (21), and she presents her techniques as belonging to these primordial traditions of “religious training” (21). She combines Ling (sadly now “a purely physical training”), Delsarte, and influences “occult and mystic in their nature” (such as “oriental dance” and prayer) to produce “a life-giving, stimulating ecstasy upon the soul” (58). The gymnastics she describes in the book include, unsurprisingly, a good deal of Ling (such as lunging and weight distribution exercises), with an emphasis on spiraling motions and dance-like sequences. Although she makes reference to “several other exercises in use by the Brahmans of India and the dervishes of Arabia for energizing,” she is of the opinion that they are too intricate to describe and should be learned directly from a teacher (133). A significant portion of the gymnastics section is given to “stretching exercises” (123–33) but, significantly, they are not explicitly linked by her to yogāsana.

Certain of her deep breathing techniques are, however, directly connected to prāṇāyāma, in particular “concentrated-will breathing” or “Yoga Breathing”—“so called because it is used by the Brahmins and Yogis of India” (Stebbins 1892: 86)—which involves imagining cosmic energy flowing into the hollow limbs of the body with the breath, “in one grand surging influx of dynamic life” (86). Although I am concerned principally here with posture, mystical breathing techniques are often inseparable from callisthenic exercise in the “harmonial gymnastics” model. It is therefore worth noting briefly (perhaps as a bookmark for future work) that Stebbins's popular system of “rhythmic breathing” is an important site of exchange for American harmonial beliefs and haṭha yoga prāṇāyāma. For example, what De Michelis (2004) refers to as (p.147) Vivekananda's “prāṇa model” in Raja Yoga—itself composed, it should be noted, at the geographical and chronological epicenter of the Delsarte craze—bears an arresting similarity to the diction and context of Stebbins's system. Vivekananda's American readers, that is to say, would have had a ready-made frame of reference with which to understand these esoteric “Indian” notions about the breath and its relationship to the cosmos. As B. Patra notes in his curious manual of esoterica and yoga of 1924, The Mysteries of Nature, deep breathing akin to prāṇāyāma had long been a “tried maxim” for “the spiritualists of America” (9): it is therefore hardly surprising that Vivekananda would adopt the diction of such enthusiasts in his explanation of haṭha yoga. I will go no further into this question at present. Suffice it to say that a mapping of “spiritualist” breathing techniques (in particular, “rhythmic breathing”) and their relationship to prāṇāyāma within modern yoga, beginning with Vivekananda's model in Raja Yoga, would make a fascinating study of its own.5

Stebbins's “American Delsartean training regimen” included the following elements: relaxation exercises, posture work and “harmonic poise,” breathing exercises, and “exercises for freedom of joints and spine” (Ruyter 1996: 71) and thus closely coincides with the elements of a standard postural yoga class in the West today. Stebbins's 1898 book The Genevieve Stebbins System of Physical Training is the first in which she focuses fully on movement. It includes dance-like flows and transitions between poses that are perhaps prototypical of the kind of “flow yoga” classes popular especially in the United States today. Prominent contemporary American yoga teacher Shiva Rea's extraordinary fusions of āsana and dance might well be considered late heirs of Stebbins's forms (see Rea 2006).

Stebbins's work spawned a number of similar systems, such as Annie Payson Call's course of mystical breath-work, “relaxationism,” and gentle gymnastics of 1893. Although Stebbins is not acknowledged as the inspiration behind the content, Call's title, Power through Repose, is actually a phrase from Stebbins's book of the previous year (1892: 78), and the material differs little in content and exposition. Call's method, summarizes one commentator, is “mainly based on stretching and balancing movements which induce freedom from deep-seated and habitual tensions” (Caton 1936: xiv). I have written on Call at greater length elsewhere (Singleton 2005), but it is worth again mentioning the thesis I elaborated there: systems such as Call's and Stebbins's, based as they are on the principle of breath-work and muscular extension as a preparation for “spiritual” relaxation, were instrumental in paving the way for the popular conception of yoga as another means to stretch and relax.6

(p.148) Glands for God: Cajzoran Ali

Writing and teaching in the generation after Stebbins, the self-styled American yoginī Cajzoran Ali (pseud.) is very much a product of the same harmonial gymnastic tradition within esoteric Protestantism. Born in 1903 in Memphis, according to Descamps (2004) she spent much of her youth in a wheelchair until she succeeded in curing herself through a system of posture training and prayer of her own devising. Descamps, who learned Ali's system from one of her original students near Toulouse in 1943, claims that she was not only the first person to teach yoga postures in the United States (in 1928) but also the first in France (in 1935). While such claims are overstated (this honor probably goes to Shri Yogendra who was demonstrating āsana in America from 1921), it is clear that Ali did exert a significant influence on the practice and theory of postural yoga in both countries. In her history of yoga in France, Sylvia Ceccomori notes that from 1935 Ali authored numerous articles on haṭha yoga in the various esoteric journals launched by the immensely prolific novelist, ethnographer, and psychoanalyst Maryse Choisy (1903–1979).7 Ali's writings in these journals were generally accompanied (perhaps unsurprisingly) by photographs of dancers performing the postures (2001: 83).

Cajzoran Ali's method, as set out in her Divine Posture Influence upon Endocrine Glands of 1928,8 locates the key to the ultimate spiritual truth of

Yoga as Physical Culture II: Harmonial Gymnastics and Esoteric Dance

Fifth Posture from Cajzoran Ali 1928

(p.149) yoga—and also, disconcertingly, of the biblical Apocalypse—in the individual body. In particular, the “ductless glands” are conceived as “the agents through which changes in our spiritual bodies are brought about” (1928: 7) and are identified simultaneously with the “lotuses” (i.e., cakras) of yoga, the anatomical glands, and the “seals” of the Apocalypse.

Her course of posture training and “Breath Culture” is designed to align these “seals” and thereby to bring one into harmony with the God who is “individualised within you” (15). This “harmonial” haṭha model is an important early precursor of New Age versions of (postural) yoga that emerged in the West from the 1970s onward (De Michelis 2004: 184–86). Ali's focus on women's health, aesthetic appearance, and spiritual advancement also situates it firmly

Yoga as Physical Culture II: Harmonial Gymnastics and Esoteric Dance

Cakras and Seals, Cajzoran Ali 1928

(p.150) within the dominant discourse of women's gymnastics of the time (discussed further below).

Harmonial Gymnastics in Britain

Breath-work and gymnastics in the harmonial mode of Stebbins, Call, and Ali also gained popularity in Britain thanks to the efforts of influential advocates like Frances Archer, who studied directly with Call in the 1890s and subsequently (from about 1910 onward) promoted her brand of stretching, balancing, and relaxing for spiritual benefit. The wife of prominent Bloomsbury translator and indo-phobe William Archer (see Archer 1918), Frances was well placed to disseminate the technique learned from Call in the 1890s. Like Call, she did not consider the exercises mere medical gymnastics but rather “a means of finding peace and freedom of soul and body by which receptivity to spiritual influence was made possible, and a personality came into its full inheritance and became a ‘channel’” (Caton 1936: 5).

Another important innovator in the field of harmonial gymnastics was Mollie Bagot Stack, founder of the most far-reaching and influential of women's gymnastic organizations in pre-WWII Britain, the Women's League of Health and Beauty. Stack developed a keen interest in gymnastic and hygiene regimes for women from about 1907 onward, and she began teaching her methods in London from 1920.9 During a 1912 sojourn in India with her husband, she learned some āsanas and relaxation techniques from one Mr. Gopal in Landsdowne (Stack 1988: 68) and later incorporated elements of this teaching into her programs of gymnastics, health, and hygiene (though never referring to it as “yoga”). Stack's agenda, like Stebbins's, evinces a combined concern for

Yoga as Physical Culture II: Harmonial Gymnastics and Esoteric Dance

“Legs in Air,” from Stack 1931

(p.151) body aesthetics, health, and embodied spiritual growth. Her 1931 book Building the Body Beautiful, The Bagot Stack Stretch-and-Swing System places a marked emphasis on the method's cosmetic value since, as she puts it, “in her heart of hearts, this slim-through-look is instinctively and quite rightly desired by every normal woman” (Stack 1931: 12). Alongside the promise of vibrant health and conventional physical attractiveness, though, Stack stresses the mystical purpose of the exercises, which are deemed to induce equilibrium between body, mind, and universe. By carefully following the regime prescribed, she asserts, a woman “can bring herself into harmony with the great mysterious forces around her, and acquire an inner power which will carry her triumphantly through the rough places of life” (2). The more the body is trained in accord with Nature, she continues, “the more shall we set free the body's dormant powers of expressing
Yoga as Physical Culture II: Harmonial Gymnastics and Esoteric Dance

“Seal,” from Stack 1931

Yoga as Physical Culture II: Harmonial Gymnastics and Esoteric Dance

“Swing Forward,” from Stack 193110

(p.152) in itself the rhythm of the Universe which welds all nature, and that includes human nature, into one beautiful whole” (4). This rhythm, moreover, “is the secret of personal magnetism” (3). The diction as well as the message is that of Stebbins and Call, and more generally of mesmeric-influenced nature religion and the Protestant harmonialism identified by Ahlstrom.

What seems clear is that the breathing, stretching, and relaxation classes attended every week by thousands of twenty-first-century Londoners as yoga recapitulate the spiritualized gymnastics undertaken by their grandmothers and great-grandmothers in the 1930s. There can be no doubt that Stack's incorporation of āsanas into a combined program of dynamic stretches, rhythmic breathing, and relaxation within a “harmonial” context closely mirrors the creative modulations of many of today's “hatha yoga” classes. As already noted, the term “hatha yoga” is routinely used among London's postural yoga teachers and practitioners today to indicate a generic, nondenominational, and eclectic system of gentle postural practice and to distinguish it from “named” brands like Iyengar, Ashtanga, or Sivananda. Postural yoga teachers who profess to teach “hatha yoga” will usually creatively combine postures, sometimes in flowing sequences, and invent poses of their own (a far less common occurrence in the “branded” forms like Iyengar). As contemporary posture teacher Dharma Mitra puts it, “even today dozens of new poses are created each year by true yogis all over the world” (2003: 13). A compelling explanation of the often radical dissimilarity of such systems from “classical” haṭha yoga is that they stem, to a large extent, from “modern traditions” such as Stack's.

League women did not consider themselves to be doing yoga, but the form and purpose of today's practices—still commonly conceived within a health and beauty paradigm—have changed little, a state of affairs that may go some way to explaining why “hatha” yoga in the West tends to attract predominantly female students. The fitness-oriented yoga available in virtually every health club in London today, that is to say, may represent a direct historical succession from those regimes of New Age,11 quasi-mystical body conditioning and callisthenics devised exclusively for women in the first half of the twentieth century. Although these regimes generally lacked the trappings of “spiritual India” that we find today, the form and content remain strikingly similar.

German Gymnastik and the Somatics Movement

Brief reference should also be made here to the extensive field of “somatics” which, according to Jeffrey Kripal, draws its philosophical rationale from European phenomenology but which has deeper historical roots in the turn-of-the-century (p.153) German Gymnastik movement (2007: 229). This largely female movement is germane to what I call the harmonial gymnastics tradition of America and Britain (it is no coincidence, for example, that one of the figures most closely associated with Gymnastik, Hede Kallmeyer, was, like Stebbins, trained by François Delsarte [229]). Gymnastik offered an alternative to the macho, militaristic physical education that predominated in schools and “prized awareness and consciousness above all else” (229). It offered a holistic worldview centered on “the spiritualization of the flesh” and “the union of ‘body’ and ‘soul’ as the most reliable source of wholeness and health” (229). Like most forms of Somatics, it invoked the “models of subtle life-energy that bridge or, perhaps better, violate the usual boundaries between what we today call religion and science or, alternately, spirituality and medicine” (229). These models have their roots in European Mesmerism and have, as De Michelis (2004) demonstrates, substantially influenced the shape of “Modern Yoga” via Vivekananda's “prāṇa model” of yoga practice.

While it takes us beyond the historical parameters of this study, we might also briefly note that Somatics continued to interact with twentieth-century international yoga through the development of psychoanalytic bodywork in the tradition of Wilhelm Reich (1897–1957) by way of disciples such as Alexander Lowen. While Reich himself was dismissive of yoga,12 Lowen explicitly incorporated āsana and prāṇāyāma into his therapeutic work. For example, the practical exercises in Lowen and Lowen (1977) are explicitly derived from āsana and prāṇāyāma, with many of them identical to the prop-assisted postures of Iyengar yoga. Bodywork discourses stemming from Reich and Lowen are today extremely pervasive in international postural yoga, often thanks to the contributions of post-hippie era teachers such as Tony Crisp. A 1971 review of Crisp's popular book Yoga and Relaxation (Crisp 1970), for instance, states that it is “the first book that has related the importance of the findings of Wilhelm Reich's psycho-analytic research to Yoga and his techniques of relaxation” (n.a.).13 Thirty-five years later, conflations of Reichianism with yoga are commonplace, and notions of their shared function in human development are rarely challenged. The clearest example of Reichian procedures in postural yoga today is the “Phoenix Rising” style of psychoanalytic āsana work, in which clients dialogue with the analyst/teacher while holding supported yoga postures (Lee 2005).14

Yoga in Mainstream Western Physical Culture

The motto of the “Health and Strength” League, “sacred thy Body even as thy Soul,” might well be the first lesson in Hatha Yoga.

(Hannah 1933a: 153)


Yogic physical culture is now no longer esoteric. Instead of being exclusively practised by Yogis it has become popular among persons with no particular spiritual aims. Formerly it used to be practised as the first step and fundamental part of spiritual life….;But in modern times Yogic physical culture has escaped from the cloistered boundaries of the hermitage into the larger world.

(Muzumdar 1937a: 861)

The ground was prepared in the West for the reinterpretation of yoga as physical culture by regimens of exercise and breath-work that overlapped to varying extents with āsana and prāṇāyāma. Into the cultural space carved by harmonial bodywork and the various permutations of post-Lingian medical gymnastics came the new model of yoga, developed in earnest from 1920 onward by Yogendra, Kuvalayananda, and the other āsana pioneers examined in this and the previous chapter. Modern āsana practice emerged in a dialectical relationship to physical culture and harmonial gymnastics: it absorbed many of these teachings, claimed them as its own, and sold them back to the Western readership as the purest expression of Indian physical culture. In this final section I wish to consider on the one hand the reception and interpretation of yoga, and on the other the various exercise regimes designated specifically for women in the most popular pre-WWII British physical culture magazine, Health and Strength (hereafter H&S), the mouthpiece of the national Health and Strength League.15

My intention is to demonstrate that what appears in H&S during the 1930s under the name of “yoga” actually resembles the “stretch-and-relax” modalities of postural modern yoga today far less than the standard, secular women's gymnastics of the time (also regularly represented in the magazine). Importantly, these women's gymnastics are never identified as yoga: what would be a nigh self-evident association for today's “hatha” practitioners is simply not made in the 1930s. This supports the hypothesis that postural modern yoga displaced—or was the cultural successor of—the established methods of stretching and relaxing that had already become commonplace in the West, through harmonial gymnastics and female physical culture. Indeed, one might expect that a periodical whose primary concern was bodybuilding and gymnastics would immediately latch onto the acrobatic and gymnastic potential of yoga and highlight this above other aspects. The fact that it doesn't suggests that during the 1920s and 1930s the genre of athletic āsana was not yet “export-ready.” Remember that modern āsana was, at this stage, still very much in its infancy—for instance, the man behind some of the most influential forms of international postural yoga today, T. Krishnamacharya, was just beginning to teach the youngsters, like (p.155) Iyengar and Pattabhi Jois, who would in later decades popularize āsana in the West (see chapter 9).

Let us first consider discussion of yoga in H&S during the 1930s. When the topic does arise, yoga is generally treated with respect and credulity. Senior editor and in-house arbiter of taste T. W. Standwell, for instance, admires the “super-psycho-mental culture” of yoga, which can render men “veritable super beings” (Standwell 1934: 32) and speculates that it should be possible for “any reader to develop powers of which he has scarcely ever yet dreamed, by means of scientifically devised physical culture” (32; see also Physician 1933). Yoga, in other words, can be harnessed to the eugenically inclined project of nationalist man-building. As is predominantly the case in practical yoga manuals, this “physical culture” he refers to is actually prāṇāyāma, with the function of posture merely to provide a stable and still basis for this work. To this end, readers are advised to study the seated Buddha statue in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Also mentioned positively in this article is the businessman and banker Sir David Yule, who “preferred the company and conversation of Hindus, to those of Europeans” and practiced yoga assiduously (Standwell 1934: 20).

A similar picture is presented by H. Broom's transparently entitled article “Age-Old Physical Culture of the East. Even Modern Physical Culturists Can Learn Not a Little from the Yogis” (1934a). While he does associate the “disciple of the Yoga principle” with the quality of “wonderful suppleness” (738), the distinct impression conveyed by the article is that yoga involves sitting motionless for long periods of time, practicing prāṇāyāma and meditation. The most sustained considerations of the topic in the magazine during the 1930s is Cameron Hannah's series of five articles on haṭha yoga entitled “Health Wisdom of the East” (1933a–e). This highly medicalized vision of yoga similarly pays scant attention to āsana. The five articles comprise (1) a general introduction, (2) a consideration of the importance of prāṇa and the breath, (3) food and diet, (5) yogic principles of exercise and their application “in combination with the methods of our own physical culturists” (239), and (6) a sermon on sexual mores. In substance, they are of a piece with the magazine's staple weekly advice on holistic health, hygiene, and personal morality, and (as the epigraph to this section suggests) effect an explicit rapprochement between yoga and the general ideological League goal. The asseverations on sex, for example, are entirely in keeping with magazine's general moral policy on the matter. “The return of decent ‘home life’ would,” asserts Hannah, “do much to destroy the canker of sex” (1933e: 269). Yoga can help to “sweep away the sex fetishism which has of late years engulfed the Western hemisphere” (269). Moral pronouncements such as these (which can go so far as recommending that mothers inculcate in their daughters a sense of shame for their genitals—Partington (p.156) 1933) are ambiguously juxtaposed in the pages of H&S with undeniably erotic photographs of naked men and women, often in the form of advertisements for the naturist sister magazine Health and Efficiency. As Foucault (1979) has demonstrated, Victorian and post-Victorian public condemnations of sex mask society's private fascination with and indulgence in it, and such is clearly the case here.

Much of the teaching of haṭha yoga, adjudges Hannah, “is impractical and, indeed, impossible to the Western” (Hannah 1933a: 153), and his is an explicitly tailored version of it. In the fourth article, on yogic exercise, Hannah points out that “while there are no exercises in Hatha Yoga intended for physical development alone, there are principles which, when applied in combination with the methods of our own physical culturists, yield very definite results” (Hannah 1933d: 239). Like Sundaram and Iyer, Hannah culls what is useful in yoga and recontextualizes it within physical culture. As one might expect, he first describes some free-standing Ling-type gymnastics and callisthenics and then outlines weights-free “muscle growing” techniques of the kind commonly encountered in H&S (e.g., L. E. Eubanks, “Mind and Muscle” of April 1934) and which derive from the tradition of the early mind/body muscle techniques of Maxick and Haddock examined above.

Hannah accounts for the sense of déjà-vu that many readers may experience at this point by what should by now be a familiar story: “there is more Hatha Yoga in some of our western systems than you might imagine” and many Western physical culture exercises actually “originated in the East” (239). This account of the Asian origin of Western physical culture is of course a pervasive narrative in Indian physical culture, as we saw with K. Ramamurthy (chapter 5 above), but it is significant that it also makes its appearance in the mainstream British physical culture media. It is reiterated frequently in the pages of H&S, such as in the promotional articles on Indian yoga, wrestling, and bodybuilding written by Kuvalayananda disciple and physical culture commentator S. Muzumdar (see Muzumdar 1937a, b, c, and “Scandinavian Gymnastics” in chapter 4 above).

While parallels and overlaps with “classical” yoga procedures are certainly present,16 Hannah's is a version of yoga radically adapted for a bodybuilding, fitness-conscious readership on the lookout for new ways of improving their physiques. For example, the stylized pose of the naked, oiled, and muscular Moti R. Patel of Secundarabad, which graces Hannah's introductory article (captioned “The Result of the Scientific Health Culture of the East”), unambiguously foregrounds the use-value of yoga in body conditioning. It also suggests that the message of the new Indian physical culturist yogis was by this stage percolating into Western health regimes as yoga. Indeed, this is hardly surprising when one (p.157)

Yoga as Physical Culture II: Harmonial Gymnastics and Esoteric Dance

Moti R. Patel, pictured in Hannah 1933a

considers that the international poster boys of “yogic” Indian bodybuilding, Iyer and Balsekar, as well as many lesser known Indian musclemen, are regularly pictured in H&S during this period. India was emerging on the international physical culture scene as a force to be reckoned with, and yoga was often assumed to be a component part of this emergence.

Women's Stretching Regimes

Now, while Hannah, like Broom, notes that haṭha yoga “will give you suppleness” as well as a pleasing physique (1933d: 239), the exercises he describes simply bear no likeness to the stretching regimes of modern postural yoga. Indeed, among the articles on yoga in H&S (or in its sister magazine The Superman) during the 1930s, none outlines a course of bodily extensions of the kind one would expect to find in a modern “hatha yoga” class today: if such articles are to be found, they are scarce. On the other hand, the magazine is replete with exercise schema designed exclusively for women and which are based to a very large extent on stretching. But these are not designated as, nor associated with, yoga. Bertram Ash's piece in the regular H&S feature “Mainly for the Ladies,” entitled “Building the Body Beautiful. S-T-R-E-T-C-H Your Way to Figure Perfection” (1934: 170), is exemplary of the kind of regimens that (male) physical culture journalists usually prescribed for women, in contrast to the acrobatic, balancing, and weight-resistance programs for men. Outlined therein are positions that would be very familiar to modern postural yoga practitioners as part of the modern āsana lexicon (e.g., śalabhāsana, paśchimottanāsana, and trikonāsana, in the nomenclature of Iyengar 1966), but which are conspicuously absent from the yoga articles.

(p.158) In a revealing polemic of 1937, entitled “The Truth about Suppleness,” Frank Miles fulminates against the growing stretching fad, noting that “women are the worst offenders, and are often to be found working painfully through a schedule that consists exclusively of ‘suppling exercises’” (572). His article is a good indication of the extent to which stretching dominated the world of women's physical education well prior to the post-WWII āsana boom in the West. Indeed, women are almost always pictured in H&S performing stretches while men are more likely to be seen executing acrobatic balances (resembling Iyengar's adhomukhavṛkṣāsana, pincamayūrāsana, or bakāsana), tumbles, or “classical” muscular poses. The articles dedicated to children's physical education, incidentally, also tend to foreground flexibility, along with vigorous gymnastics similar to those of the Dane Niels Bukh (see Ash 1935 and Gymnast 1934). Ash even uses Bukh's standard commands, such as “prone falling.” It will be important to bear this fact in mind in chapter 9, where I suggest that the modern “power yoga” styles that derive from T. Krishnamacharya's innovations in the 1930s are a synthesis of Bukh-inspired children's gymnastics and yoga.

Clayton's 1930 article for H&S, “Eve's Ideal Path to Grace, Health and Fitness,” represents women of the “Silver League” performing a number of stretches that correspond closely to modern haṭha yoga postures. This regime, he notes, is a mixture of Müller gymnastics and “the ordinary type of Swedish free movements, but each action is combined together to form a sequence of rhythmic movements” (315), a description that would cover most aspects of the “haṭha flow” genre of yoga classes taught today, particularly in American health clubs. But again, in H&S the exercises are not associated with yoga in this context.

The co-holder of the title “Best Figure in the British Isles [1930],” Miss Adonia Wallace, to take another (visually arresting) example, claimed to have acquired her prize-winning physique through extreme stretching exercises, such as are pictured. These “exercises” are instantly recognizable as the advanced postures of postural modern yoga (H&S, July 1935). They are, to use Iyengar's (1966) terms, ekapāda rājakapotāsana I (top left), ūrdhva dhanurāsana (top right), eka pāda viparīta daṇḍāsana (lower middle), and two variants of naṭarājāsana (lower left and right).

It appears, then, that women during the 1930s commonly engaged in much the same forms of bodily activity that they do today under the name of yoga and that stretching itself has a popular history of its own in the West, entirely independent of yoga. As far back as 1869, indeed, Archibald Maclaren (himself, like Miles, hostile to “excessive” stretching regimes) had noted that suppleness exercises were becoming an established part of British and European physical culture. Although, he observes, it is the French system that lays the greatest emphasis on exercises “propres à l'assouplissement,” there is a widespread and (p.159)

Yoga as Physical Culture II: Harmonial Gymnastics and Esoteric Dance

Adonia Wallace, “Best Figure in the British Isles,” Health and Strength, July 1935

growing recognition of “this idea, shared at home as well as abroad, by civilian as well as soldier, of the necessity of suppling a man before strengthening him” (1869: 82). The principle of stretching was an integral part of the modern Western physical culture revival from the mid-nineteenth century onward and became increasingly associated (at least in the early twentieth century) with women's gymnastics. Bickerdike 1934, “The Importance of Correct Posture,” and Stanley 1937, “Try Stretching for Strength,” are exemplary of this trend. The gender division established at the dawn of modern physical culture between regimens aiming at (masculine) strength and vigor on the one hand and those that sought to cultivate (feminine) grace and ease of movement on the other persists throughout the twentieth century and into the twenty-first. The dichotomy is not always (p.160) hard and fast: as we have seen, men also engaged in “suppling exercises,” and women often broke the gender mold to undertake arduous, strength-building regimes substantially different from the orthodox callisthenics format (particularly interesting here is the case of Dio Lewis. See Todd 1998). However, in spite of these departures, women's exercise came increasingly to signify a program of stretching and rhythmic gymnastics, often with a strong component of “spirituality” of the kind preached by Stebbins, Call, and Stack.

Gendered Yogas?

The dichotomy between men's and women's physical activities in H&S carries forward a gender division formalized in the earliest expressions of modern European gymnastics, in which men are primarily concerned with strength and vigor while women are expected to cultivate physical attractiveness and graceful movement (see Todd 1998: 89). In the early modern Olympics, indeed, the main criteria for the adoption of a women's event were whether the sport was “aesthetically pleasing” and displayed the female body advantageously (Mitchell 1977: 213–14). The women's fitness articles in H&S, inevitably authored by men, exhibit a similar concern.

Insofar as this gendered format of modern sports and gymnastics has been transmitted into international haṭha yoga in the twentieth century, we can differentiate between masculinized forms of postural yoga issuing from a “muscular Christian,” nationalistic, and martial context (see chapters 4 and 5), and harmonial “stretch and relax” varieties of postural yoga stemming from the synthesis of women's gymnastics and para-Christian mysticism. The former group, which foregrounds strength, classical ideals of manliness, and (often) the religio-patriotic cultivation of brawn, is exemplified by bodybuilders such as Iyer and Ghosh, freedom-fighting yogis such as Tiruka, the early (pre-Pondichery) Aurobindo, and Manick Rao. It is also the dominant form in certain present-day “militant” yoga regimes, such as those of the Hindu cultural nationalist organization, the RSS (see Alter 1994; McDonald 1999).

On the other hand, gentler stretching, deep breathing, and “spiritual” relaxation colloquially known in the West today as “hatha yoga” are best exemplified by the variants of harmonial gymnastics developed by Stebbins, Payson Call, Cajzoran Ali, Stack, and others—as well as the stretching regimes of secular women's physical culture with which they overlap. In practice, however, this is at best a heuristic division, since postural modern yoga forms rarely fit exclusively into one category or the other. It does, however, furnish a framework for thinking through the influences behind varieties of postural styles at large today.

(p.161) My intention in this chapter has been to demonstrate that there were firmly established exercise traditions in the West that included forms and modes of practice virtually indistinguishable from certain variants of “hatha yoga” now popularly taught in America and Europe. As a result, the sheer number of positions and movements that could be thenceforth classified as āsana swelled considerably and continues to do so. For example, both Bühnemann (2007a) and Sjoman (1996) point out the absence of standing postures in premodern āsana descriptions. The overlap of standing āsanas and modern gymnastics is extensive enough to suggest that virtually all of them are late additions to the yoga canon through postural yoga's dialogical relationship with modern physical culture. The same hypothesis extends beyond the standing poses to the multitude of apparently new āsana forms.

Jan Todd argues that “woven throughout the multitude of exercise prescriptions for twentieth-century women can be found most of the basic principles of early nineteenth-century purposive training [i.e., health and fitness regimes]” (Todd 1998: 295). In much the same way, within the regimes that today pass for “hatha yoga” we can discern the thematic and formal persistence of a long and varied tradition of gymnastics, and in particular those systems intended “mainly for the ladies.”17 The genealogy of this exchange interests me less, however, than the way in which the assumptions and associations that cleave to particular postures and exercises superimpose themselves on their “foreign” counterparts. So, for example, a contorted body knot designed to be a component part of the kuṇḍalinī-raising project of haṭha yoga can, through this superimposition, be reborn as a suppling exercise for health and beauty. In this way corporal postures become “floating signifiers” whose meaning is determined according to context (see Urban [2003: 23–25] on the “floating signifier” of Tantra). When the same posture is re-presented in Western postural yoga, the traces of both contexts remain, although typically the haṭha context is but vaguely understood (if at all).

The example of the inverted viparīta karaṇī mudrā (and the more perpendicular “shoulder stand” pose sarvaṇgāsana) is a case in point. There is no doubt that such inversions constitute a component part of medieval haṭha yoga. This position, said to be “a secret in all the Tantras” (sarvatantreṣu gopitā, Gheraṇḍa Saṃhitā 3.32), reverses the flow of the solar and lunar energies of the body such that the endogenous elixir (amṛta) that drips from the “moon” (located at the palate) is not consumed by the “sun” (located at the navel), thereby warding off mortal decrepitude. A mirror image of this posture, however, figures prominently in Ling gymnastics and is commonly referred to as “the Swedish Candle.” So familiar was this posture to the British reading public of the 1930s that it serves as the line-drawn icon accompanying H&S's “Mainly for the Ladies” (p.162) features. Although also associated with rejuvenation in this context, what the posture connotes in the Gheraṇḍa Saṃhitā and what it means in the pages of H&S are of course radically different. When yoga is presented for Western readers in publications such as these, the poses themselves are wrenched from their haṭha orbit by the greater contextual gravity of physical culture and, as S. Muzumdar phrases it with regard to sarvāṅgāsana and śīrṣāsana (headstand), are “interpreted in the language of modern gymnastics” for the benefit of readers (Muzumdar 1937a: 861). This posture is still referred to in German modern yoga classes as “die Kerze,” and in Italy as “la Candela,” undoubtedly due to the influence of Swedish gymnastics.


(1.) See Singleton 2005 for an extended consideration of yogic relaxation in terms of harmonial religion.

(2.) See Shawn (n.d.) for an early summary of Delsarte's life and work, and his influence on contemporary American dance. See Ruyter 2005 for a more recent, scholarly consideration of Delsarte.

(3.) It was from Ling preceptor George H. Taylor that Stebbins learned “the therapeutic value of different forms of exercise” (Stebbins 1893: vi). See Taylor 1860 and 1885. As Jan Todd notes, Taylor experimented with partner work to increase the range of motion in various postures (1998: 147).

(4.) See also in this regard Bharati's now famous analysis of the “pizza effect” in transnational Hinduism (1970).

(5.) Stebbins's term rhythmic breathing quickly became a synonym for prāṇāyāma. Ramacharaka's Hatha Yoga refers to “Rhythmic Breathing” as “the keynote to much of the Hatha Yoga practices” (1904: 159). Yogendra also claims a “unique” system of “rhythmic breathing” which has common features with Stebbins (1928). See also Pratinidhi (1938) on the place of “rhythmic breathing” in sūryanamaskār practice.

(6.) Another fruitful avenue of research within the “esoteric gymnastic” tradition would be the emphasis on pelvic floor exercises prevalent not only in Stebbins but also in works by medical gymnastic luminaries Austin, Buchanan, Kellogg, and Taylor (see Ruyter 1999: 108). This emphasis, I would speculate, may have facilitated (via Pilates) the prevalent contemporary understanding of the haṭha yoga “locks” known as mūlabhandha and uddiyānabandha as exercises for “pelvic floor stability” and “core strength.”

(7.) Choisy also founded the psychoanalytic movement “Psyché” (in which Jacques Lacan began his career) and was an important figure in the ongoing dialogue between yoga and psychoanalysis (see Choisy 1949 and Ceccomori 2001). See also her Exercises du Yoga of 1963.

(8.) Apparently one in a series of books that included Mind Control Postures and Breath Culture (Ali 1928 : 7). I have not, however, been able to track down these other titles.

(9.) My information regarding Stack's life is taken from her daughter Prunella Stack's 1988 biography, Zest for Life.

(10.) The postures correspond (from left to right and in Iyengar's 1966 nomenclature) to salambhasarvāṅgāsana, eka pāda sarvāṅgāsana, supported setubandhāsana (a common prop-assisted pose in Iyengar yoga), śalabhāsana, daṇḍāsana, halāsana, and paścimottanāsana.

(11.) Consider the following from Stack: “I believe…that a new civilisation is dawning, which will materialise around the year A.D. 2000 as a result of the foundations which are beginning to be laid by the enlightened women and men of today” (1931: 3). We might indeed wonder if Stack's prediction was a glimpse of the yoga boom of the late 1990s!

(12.) “Vegetotherapy has nothing to do with any kind of calisthenics or breathing exercises such as yoga. If anything it is diametrically opposed to these methods” (1952 (p.221) interview in Reich 1967: 77). In his seminal Bioenergetics of 1975, Lowen attempts a “reconciliation” of Reichian therapy and yoga (71).

(13.) The review is found in the “Book Corner” section of Yoga and Health, a short-running independent magazine not to be confused with today's popular glossy of the same name. Thanks to Suzanne Newcombe for this reference.

(14.) Another figure worthy of study in relation to medical and remedial postural yoga is Bess Mensendieck (1861–1957), whose system of bodily alignment and awareness has had a profound influence on physical therapy today. See Mensendieck 1906, 1918, 1937, 1954. Such a study would situate her work within a wider history of postural correction in relation to yoga. Mrozek 1992 writes, “During the first half of the twentieth century, a highly orchestrated movement to improve the posture of America's young people developed, also linking concerns for the individual with care for the society at large” (289).

(15.) The League emerged from a surge of enthusiasm for the building and disciplining of the body in the early twentieth century. This “working-class and lower-middle-class organisation” went from 13,000 members in 1911 to 125,000 members by 1935 (Mosse 1996: 137).

(16.) Hariharananda Aranya, for example, glosses Patañjali's sūtra 3.24 (baleṣu hastibalādīni) thus: “All physical culturists know that by consciously applying the will-power on particular muscles, their strength can be developed. Saṃyama on strength is only the highest form of the same process” (1983: 296).

(17.) Indeed, we might note that “Modern Yoga” in the person of Vivekananda (according to De Michelis's 2004 thesis), and American women's first involvement with purposive exercise both “began in New England” (Todd 1998: 301). See also Park 1978.