Roots of Yoga, translated and edited by James Mallinson and Mark Singleton, UK: Penguin Random House, 2017. 540 pp. $12.23 (paperback).
Walk into most places dedicated to the teaching of yoga today, and you will likely see quotes from one or more texts associated with yoga. Common examples include Patañjali’s Yogasūtra, specific early Upaniṣads, the Bhagavadgītā, or the later Haṭhayogapradīpikā. The typical student, and often even the instructors themselves, will not know what, if any, relationship there might be between such texts, or the relation of these texts to their practice of yoga.
One way of addressing these issues is to immerse oneself in one or more of the varied, long-standing yoga traditions existing today, and explore how the members of these communities see their history and understand their aims. James Mallinson, one of the co-editors of this volume, has done considerable work in this area. Another method is to trace the sociological development of yoga, including both traditional and extra-traditional influences. The previous work of Mark Singleton, the other co-editor, has often taken this kind of approach. Now, in Roots of Yoga, these two scholars focus on specific source material, more than a hundred texts ranging over almost three millennia, in more than a dozen languages.
Before delving into what the book is and does, it might be useful to say a bit about what it is not. It is not, the authors tell us, a book of philosophy. Its focus throughout is practical, with metaphysics rarely discussed, and then only when the authors see it as relevant to the understanding of a given practice. The authors’ choices here can leave room for disagreement. When can one separate theory—metaphysical or other—from practice, especially when it comes to understanding the experiences gained through practice? Are the authors assuming that experiences can be understood without consideration of the sociological/metaphysical frame within which they are gained? The authors do not tell us. But in any case their implicit choices place Roots of Yoga within a larger, ongoing academic discussion. Such considerations, however, will not distract most readers from the broadly informative nature of the text.
Though their aim is practical in the sense of bringing together writing about yogic practice, the authors also point out Roots of Yoga is “not a manual of yoga practice” (p. xii). The texts covered do not always agree even on the goal of yoga, much less how yoga should be practiced, and some of the practices they mention are straightforwardly dangerous. Take one of the authors’ examples of internal cleansing (dhauti), with the yogin purposefully “prolapsing the lower intestinal tract, rinsing it in water and reinserts it into the body” (p. 130). Even with proper guidance, this kind of practice can clearly lead to injury.
Mallinson and Singleton are also careful to point out that their book stops at or around the time that modern yoga began to develop, about a century and a half ago. The relationship between particular schools of modern yoga and the texts covered in the book is not their main interest.
The book is a scholarly look at historical texts related to yogic practice—the introduction alone has 58 footnotes. The “historical overview” sections alone will be eye opening to anyone who is not a scholar in the field, and be useful for clarifying misunderstandings about the origins and development of yoga in ancient and medieval times. Many readers might be surprised by the influences on yoga theory and practice from outside of Indian orthodoxy, such as from Jainism and Buddhism in several forms. For instance, they briefly touch on the influence of Yogācāra on Patañjali, specifically mentioning the Yogācārabhūmi Śrāvakabhūmi (p. 17), and on the Buddhist Tantric tradition, with texts such as the Tibetan The Practice of the Six Yogas of Naropa (Chos drug gi man ngag zhes ba) (p. 29-31).
One useful tool for seeing the overarching chronology of the book is a “Timeline of Important Texts,” which follows the introduction. After that, the book is arranged by topics, including an historical introduction of each. Generally each topic is then covered with translations offered in chronological order. Sometimes this is the structure of an entire chapter, while at other times the topic is so large that it is broken down into sub-categories that are then covered chronologically. Topics range from competing characterizations of yoga and what it is to be a yogin in different texts and traditions, to the differing conceptions of practices involved, and to the final goal of liberation, conceived of in different ways as well. The discussion in chapter 4 will be of particular interest to both students and teachers of yoga today. For this chapter makes it clear that medieval yogins generally did not emphasize either highly refined, one pointed cognition (samādhi) as much as Patañjali, or postures (āsanas) as much as modern practitioners, but instead focused much more on breathing exercises (prāṇāyāma).
Mallinson and Singleton do an admirable job of letting the texts speak for themselves. No hint of partisanship, or even a preferred view, is given. At some places more information would be useful, for example, to help the reader understand the historical connections between schools of thought. But this lack seems to reflect current scholarship on many of the relevant texts, which is often only a few decades old, rather than an omission on their part. Seen in this way, Roots of Yoga offers clay on the table, so to speak, providing a basis for further work. Some of this work is anticipated in Roots of Yoga, with Mallinson and Singleton offering passages from texts they are currently translating, such as the Amṛtasiddhi, the Yogatārāvalī, and several others.
All told, the book succeeds on at least two levels. It addresses a lack of historical understanding among contemporary yoga students and teachers, and at the same time offers a significant contribution to scholarship on yoga in particular, and to an extent, scholarship on South Asian history in general.
Reviewed by Neil Sims, University of New Mexico