Sinister Yogis

By DAVID GORDON WHITE

Most of us, in America at least, tend to think of yogis as benevolent beings, and yoga as that series of semi-spiritual stretches that can really stretch those tight places in our hips on a Sunday afternoon.  We can channel our breath, open our hearts, and do a few Sanskrit poses whose names derive from animals or the natural world: dog, pigeon, lotus, tree. But in this fascinating counter-history of yoga, White shows us that the slim slice of yoga we Americans practice, and even the yoga most academics study, is leaving quite a lot of yoga’s deep roots out.  He argues that yoga, an ancient practice whose word derives from the Sanskrit “yuk” — to yoke — has a much wider purview.  In this deep genealogy of yoga, White isolates how yoga’s yoking, while ultimately in the service of actually losing oneself to practices, is sometimes about practicing unyoking the self entirely — and not necessarily just to reach a peaceful inner heart space. Instead, White studies a tradition of yogis who practice tricks, move between bodies, and use their powers in morally dubious, if always fascinating ways.  This tradition of  yogis is, in White’s words “far more interested in supernatural powers and self-externalization”  (crossing into and out of bodies) “than in the quietistic, meditative realization of the divine within.” While yoga could hardly spring from Indian roots if it weren’t  multiple, immensely complex, duplicative, and even contradictory, White offers a surprising, counterintuitive take on the roots of an extraordinary, sometimes mystical discipline.  The book is a tad academic, but anyone with a few guideposts in South Asian history should be able to navigate its path.