Sinister Yogis

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Overview

Since the 1960s, yoga has become a billion-dollar industry in the West, attracting housewives and hipsters, New Agers and the old-aged. But our modern conception of yoga derives much from nineteenth-century European spirituality, and the true story of yoga’s origins in South Asia is far richer, stranger, and more entertaining than most of us realize.

To uncover this history, David Gordon White focuses on yoga’s practitioners. Combing through millennia of South Asia’s vast and diverse literature, he discovers that yogis are usually portrayed as wonder-workers or sorcerers who use their dangerous supernatural abilities—which can include raising the dead, possession, and levitation—to acquire power, wealth, and sexual gratification. As White shows, even those yogis who aren’t downright villainous bear little resemblance to Western assumptions about them. At turns rollicking and sophisticated, Sinister Yogis tears down the image of yogis as detached, contemplative teachers, finally placing them in their proper context.

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Editorial Reviews

Barnes &�Noble Review

“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. . . . White offers a surprising, counterintuitive take on the roots of an extraordinary, sometimes mystical discipline.”

New York Review of Books

“Full of entertaining stories of yogis behaving badly.” 
 
 
Barnes & Noble Review

“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. . . . White offers a surprising, counterintuitive take on the roots of an extraordinary, sometimes mystical discipline.”
Journal of the American Oriental Society - Andrew J. Nicholson

"David Gordon White's Sinister Yogis is brilliant, digressive, non-linear, and likely to be criticized by readers who find fault with specific interpretive and translational choices that he makes. Writing a book such as this one takes courage. It is safest in the modern academy to burrow into the minutiae of a single era or philsophical school and to write only for a small group of initiates. Sinister Yogis is the most comprehensive work to date in a movement that is fundamentally re-shaping our understanding of what yoga is."
Choice

"This wondrously captivating, richly detailed book is a must for anyone interested in conceptions of the Indian yogī and of yogic practice."
William R. Pinch

“White swept us up with The Alchemical Body and blew us away with Kiss of the Yogini. Now along comes Sinister Yogis. Prepare to be taken over completely by this final installment in White’s ‘siddha’ trilogy. These are no ordinary yogis, at least not in the way yogis have been conceived for many a generation, and not simply by Western scholars and spiritual entrepreneurs. And they are not figures of a literary imagination. They are flesh and bone—when they want to be—and they have walked among us, making and remaking the world. White unravels a vast and interlacing literature on the theory and practice—and especially practitioners—of yoga, ranging from Harappa to the British Raj, and all points in between, and he demonstrates time and again that self projection and body possession, what he calls ‘omni-presencing’, are the keys to South Asian religion.”
Times Literary Supplement

"Sinister Yogis . . . successfully provides a fuller, more contextualized history of yoga, opening up some of the elisions that come when a tradition goes cross-cultural."
Fortean Times

"Huge fun, fascinating, and beautifully written."
Frederick M. Smith

“This is a riveting account of the early history of yoga and yogis in India that weighs the perspectives of both the yogis and the public culture of yoga. The history of yoga practice, and of yogis, is finally receiving the critical attention from scholars that will alter the views made popular by modern yoga teachers who believe their doctrines of mental and physical culture constitutes ‘classical yoga.’ David White’s entertaining and intelligent account of yogis drawn largely from Hindi and Sanskrit sources will contribute enormously to this corrective project. White has a real gift for making difficult, opaque material comprehensible, and he does so in writing that is bright and lucid.”
Choice

"This wondrously captivating, richly detailed book is a must for anyone interested in conceptions of the Indian yogī and of yogic practice."
The Barnes & Noble Review
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. --Tess Taylor
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226895130
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 11/1/2009
  • Edition description: 1
  • Pages: 376
  • Sales rank: 934,536
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

David Gordon White is professor of religious studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and the author of several books, including The Alchemical Body: Siddha Traditions in Medieval India and Kiss of the Yogini: “Tantric Sex” in its South Asian Contexts.

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations        

Preface

Note on Transliteration

Abbreviations              

1 Tales of Sinister Yogis          

2 Ceci n’est pas un Yogi          

3 Embodied Ascent, Meditation, and Yogic Suicide     

4 The Science of Entering Another Body          

5 Yogi Gods         

6 Mughal, Modern, and Postmodern Yogis   

Notes    

Bibliography        

Index   

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