The more you look into the ancient history and philosophies of yoga, the more you see there is no one true yoga

The journey continues: From ancient ascetics seeking liberation to modern yogis in today’s multi-billion-pound industry
BOOK REVIEW The Truth of Yoga: A Comprehensive Guide to Yoga’s History, Texts, Philosophy, and Practices by Daniel Simpson

In the non-digital world yogis tend to get on with doing yoga. But in the great virtual ashram of the internet – the shop front of a multi-billion-pound industry – yoga teachers queue up to tell you stridently what yoga is or isn’t. Predictably, the version of yoga that they’re hawking is the real thing, usually on the basis of co-opting some ancient philosophical or spiritual authority, while anything else is guilty of lacking “authenticity”. It’s marketing.

I’m slightly ashamed to admit I’ve risked being guilty of this in the past. Pure ignorance. I have since made a point of studying as much about the history and philosophy of yoga as I can over the past couple of years, and the biggest thing I have learnt is that it’s a much wider set of practices, based on a much wider range of philosophies, than I ever imagined.

My conclusion is that it’s absurd to think, as I kind of did, that underlying all the kinds of yoga we see in the world there might be one true, original yogic principle that should inform what we do.

In reality, those of us who practise any form of yoga are doing so as an act of interpreting practices that have evolved for centuries through other acts of interpretation. This is, in fact, one of yoga’s great strengths: that it is constantly evolving, taking on practices and principles here, ditching others there, mixing yet others together somewhere else.

The result is that yoga is an exceedingly wide and amorphous field with a huge variety of practices to suit just about anybody who might be interested. Want to chant and pray? There’s yoga for you. Want to sit and meditate? There’s yoga for you. Want to get really strong and flexible? Want to serve others by doing good deeds? Want to become enlightened? Want magic powers? There’s yoga for you. Want all of the above? Yup, there is, but good luck with that.

If there’s a common thread it’s that yoga is a practice that can improve the quality of your life by helping you to understand yourself better, most often via your body and breath. And as I’ve argued here, there are many yogic paths to that destination.

This abundance of paths is clearly revealed in Daniel Simpson’s superb book The Truth of Yoga. I wish it had been available when I began my research in earnest; it could have saved me a lot of time trying to get my head around tons of complex information most often conveyed in arcane academic language. While it’s wonderful that so much serious research is being conducted into the history and philosophies of yoga, with increasing numbers of ancient Sanskrit texts being translated and expounded upon, a lot of it is a bit of a slog for an ordinary, non-scholar yogi such as me to process.

Simpson offers a good shortcut through all areas of the field with an overview delivered in plain language. He’s both a scholar and yogi, fully at ease with the material he’s conveying, but importantly, he’s also a journalist, so knows how to communicate well with mere mortals. His book is a clearly written summary of the main strands of yoga research, covering its history from its earliest centuries-old incarnations to the global industry it is today, as well touching on the major ancient texts that convey philosophy and practices. Much of the time, he simply presents information directly, as a reporter, but where it’s baffling, he provides a bit of explanation.

It’s an excellent read. If you want a broad, layperson’s view of the ancient roots of yoga and what it has become today, you’d be hard pressed to find a more incisive field guide. It has just the right level of depth not to overwhelm the non-scholar, but has sufficient heft to provide a solid understanding of the material, perhaps revealing particular areas you might want to explore further. I recommend it highly.

  • Martin Yelverton is a yoga and Pilates teacher based in East London, currently offering classes online. Details at yogayelvy.com

Check out the video below for an interesting discussion with Daniel Simpson on some of the material covered in his book. If you want to find out more about him, his website is at http://www.danielsimpson.info

Published by Martin Yelverton

I'm a plant-powered yoga teacher, Pilates instructor and freelance journalist.

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