Kentucky, U.S.—Alistair Shearer releases book about the history of yoga: “The Story of Yoga: From Ancient India to the Modern West”. [Available on Amazon]
Today I stumbled across a new yoga book from a Kentucky-based author, Alistair Shearer, titled “The Story of Yoga: From Ancient India to the Modern West”.
It’s a fascinating read that charts the history of yoga from its origins in India to becoming a $25 billion-a-year industry with its rise to prominence in the West.
Shearer is a cultural historian who specialises in the art and culture of India. He’s also a psychologist and meditation teacher. Thanks to his deep understanding of the yoga sutras, which he has translated, be is able to offer a truly insightful account of the rise of yoga. And what a story it is.
Reading this book opened my eyes to the history of yoga
Yoga is one of those spiritual-health practices that delves into both science and mythology, and has been interpreted as both a scientific healing practice and a spiritual discipline. Starting from the origins of yoga some five thousand years ago, Shearer traces the development of yoga to today. What I found particularly interesting about this read is the amount of different cultures that have influenced the development of yoga to what it is today, ranging from China to India to the West.
A fascinating aspect of the book for anyone who is interested in the history of yoga is the classical texts that Shearer discusses. Shearer explains that because ancient societies did not want to share much of yoga’s secrets in writing, the sages would pass knowledge of yoga through speech. The actual texts that we have from the beginnings of yoga are indecipherable, which has helped to maintain the mysticism around ancient yoga.
It wasn’t until 2500 to 500 B.C, in the Vedic era, that we find texts that are able to be translated. It was during this period that we saw the beginnings of Hinduism, which covered everything from healing to astrology. What is fascinating, however, is the fact that the yoga texts that come from the Vedic period are utterly different to what we consider yoga to be today. Shearer, through his understanding of Sanskrit and knowledge of the history of yoga, explains the meaning of these texts in everyday language so that we yogis can understand the basis of the practice we all do today. For me, this added a new layer to my understanding of my yoga practice, a historical root that makes me feel more deeply about my practice. Shearer points out, however, that many of the yoga poses that we practice today are not exactly the same as what they originally were. And therefore, many of the different types of yoga we do today are not the same as they once were either.
What I hadn’t realised until reading this book is that it was during World War I, at a time when many Christians were challenging their faith, that we started to see the growth in yoga on these shores, a time when Indian gurus were commissioned to translate the texts into yoga. At this time, many people in the West saw yoga as a mystical thing that could grant magical powers, and it was even associated with the occult, much as meditation was when it was first discovered in the West. It wasn’t until later, when we started to see the health benefits of yoga, that we understood it as a scientific health practice.
As you would expect from a book about the history of yoga, half of Shearer’s read is devoted to the modern understanding of yoga, where we start to see yoga being taught in gyms and discussed on social media. He covers the rise of the fitness industry in the United Kingdom, when Mary Stack opened the Women’s League of Health and Beauty in the 1930s. Stack was drawn to yoga because of the physical difference she saw between women in England and in Indian, the latter of whom appeared to have better posture and flexibility. She thus started teaching a flowing posture workout at her YMCA, some ten years before Krishnamacharya and Pattabhi Jois developed Ashtanga yoga.
I must say I thought I knew a lot about yoga, but there are definitely parts of this book that opened my eyes. Reading it gave me a renewed appreciation for the history of yoga and the fact that what we consider yoga to be today is vastly different to what it was thousands of years ago.
I highly elucidating book about the history of yoga. Recommended for anyone who wants to trace the roots of our practice.