Yoga Goes to College

January 6, 2015    BY Neal Pollack

Yoga scholarship in the West used to go like this: In 1979, David Gordon White was living in Paris when someone asked him to translate a classical Indian alchemical text into French. A year later, White was studying at the University of Chicago, reading the mystic poetry (as one does there) of Gorakhnath, a 12th-century Indian saint and the leader of an order of ascetics who developed hatha yoga. The language was very similar to the previous writing that White had studied. This led to a book, The Alchemical Body, and to a career as a yoga scholar. At the time, White’s work was as rare as dharma megha samadhi, the state of perpetual enlightenment described in the fourth pada of the Yoga Sutra—but not anymore.

As recently as 20 years ago, “yoga studies” in the West meant a lone figure translating and interpreting classical Sanskrit texts, far away from mainstream interest and caring. But the hatha yoga boom has led to an academic explosion, as scholars scramble to understand this previously obscure Eastern religious tradition and how it has overtaken American culture. The past decade has seen the publication of dozens of works that trace the current yoga craze back to its actual roots, dispelling myths and providing surprising revelations. A Yoga in Theory and Practice consultation at the annual American Academy of Religion conference draws 70 to 100 people bursting with new ideas and research. “Yoga,” says Laura Cornell, PhD, who teaches at the California Institute of Integral Studies, “decided to take a second look at itself.”

Yoga scholarship provides “a counter argument to much of the received knowledge that yoga culture assumes,” says White, now a professor of religious studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. In a world ubiquitous with physical instruction, it’s easy for yoga devotees to get caught up in their hatha practice without understanding exactly what they’re doing. The recent wave of yoga scholarship serves to “undermine the notion of asana as some kind of primordial pre-Vedic experience,” says Edwin Bryant, PhD, professor of Hinduism at Rutgers University, who provides yoga philosophy instruction at a number of teacher trainings. “It’s helping people get a clearer idea of who they are and where they fit into the practice.”

The hatha yoga boom has led to an academic explosion, as scholars scramble to understand this previously obscure Eastern religious tradition and how it has overtaken American culture.

Considering the cutthroat environment that academia can breed, yoga scholars are surprisingly supportive and non-competitive. “It’s wonderful to see so many people interested,” says Christopher Key Chapple, PhD, professor of Indic and Comparative Theology at Loyola Marymount University. Mark Singleton, PhD, author of Yoga Body, who teaches at St. John’s College in New Mexico, says, “I’ve been greatly heartened by the reception of my own academic research by the yoga community. I’ve overwhelmingly found a real broad-mindedness and earnestness of inquiry, and very few of the sectarian attacks that I was told I should expect.”

Considering the cutthroat environment that academia can breed, yoga scholars are surprisingly supportive and non-competitive.

A new generation of yoga scholars has benefited from this atmosphere of curiosity and goodwill. Rebecca Polack, a PhD candidate in philosophy and religion at the California Institute of Integral Studies, is writing a historical biography of Swami Kuvalayananda, who was instrumental in creating contemporary asana practice. When Polack started practicing yoga 25 years ago, there was no information to be found, and now, she says, sources are popping up everywhere. “I feel like I’m part of a rarified but burgeoning field of modern yoga scholarship,” she says. “It’s exciting.”  

Neal Pollack
Neal Pollack is the author of eight books of fiction and nonfiction, including the bestselling yoga memoir Stretch and two Matt Bolster yoga detective mysteries. His ninth book, a time-traveling romantic comedy called Repeat, will be published in March by Amazon's Lake Union Press.

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