Yoga History

Culture and Media

After a month of travel I am catching up on my reading and just finished Elizabeth Kadetsky’s First There is a Mountain: A Yoga Romance (2004). Having practiced Iyengar Yoga for six years or so, and really glad that yoga is in my life, I was quite delighted to read this book.


Kadetsky is at her best when she explores the history of yoga. One of the premises of this book is that Westerners who seek out Eastern systems often have an ahistorical view, which is highly problematic. It ultimately treats those systems as exotic, doing a disservice to the system as well as to themselves. It was hugely refreshing for me to know how the various systems of modern yoga developed, what other mystical and secular practices it might be related to, in addition to the rich mythology it is related with. One of the interesting aspects explored in the book was about the systems of patronage. Before independence, yoga was supported by the kings of various princely states. After 1947, yogis like Mr. Iyengar were forced to look elsewhere. The biggest patrons turned out to be the West and hardline Hindu nationalists (a very disturbing connection). Most Westerners that I know who are into Eastern mysticism are unlikely to bother their pretty little heads about anything so earthy as the social history of yoga. But people like me are much happier knowing than not knowing it. Yoga can be an esoteric and deeply internal discipline, or just a system to stretch your limbs (as I have seen on countless awful videos), but it certainly allows people like me, who are not ritualistically Hindu as much as intellectually so, to find a practice that suits our temperament. I would prefer to be made uncomfortable with the contradiction of a system that is growing and changing with the times than be lulled into following the narrative of an ahistorical exotic system (Western ashram groupies) or an ahistorical chauvinism (the Hindu nationalists), with these two narratives often supporting each other.

This book seems to have generated different reactions on the Amazon page. From the casually racist:

…..she wades through 14 generations of yogic history: it’s challenging to keep Kuvalayananda straight from Krishnamacharya, especially since Indians themselves argue over which stories are legends and which are facts. Iyengar himself is portrayed as a tyrant who berates other teachers for defiling yoga’s purity, even though he has done more to break its traditions and promote its Westernization than his rival instructors. (The Publishers Weekly)

To fulsome praise:

With incisions that unzip the viscera” she exposes not only her personal journey towards healing - as a child of divorced parents, the daughter in a mixed-marriage and the rigors of anorexia - to make sense of her own life; but also the exploration towards understanding the heartbeat and inner workings of the brilliant yet challenging experience it is to be at the source of Iyengar yoga in Pune, India. (From an Amazon Review)

The personal journey is the weakest part of the book. It almost feels like the publisher demanded that a personal spiritual” narrative accompany the book. Coming from my experience as a filmmaker, I can think of at least two aspects of the publishers rationale: 1) We need a white person to guide us through this confusing realm of the Third World,” since readers couldn’t possibly understand that world in its own terms. 2) Women should write deeply felt personal narratives, since they don’t really have credibility with anything larger than their own backyard. Obliquely reflected in the recent brouhaha on the harvard president’s pronouncements, via Sepia Mutiny.