Roots of Yoga

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Translator(s): 
Sir James Mallinson
Mark Singleton
Penguin Classics
  • New York, NY: 
    Penguin Random House
    , April
     2017.
     592 pages.
     $18.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780241253045.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Roots of Yoga, by James Mallinson and Mark Singleton, is a timely and critical sourcebook of primary yoga texts in translation, many made available for the first time in English. The majority of textual materials in this new collection derive from Sanskrit, and date from about 1000 BCE to the mid-nineteenth century CE. There are also translated materials from Tibetan, Arabic, Persian, Bengali, Tamil, Chinese, Pali, Kashmiri, Old Marathi, Avadhi, and Braj Bhasha (x). Mallinson and Singleton succeed not only in bringing together an unprecedented range of materials from various linguistic sources, including vernacular languages and non-Indian texts, they also contribute to an emerging body of scholarship on the interaction among India’s “trans-sectarian” and “pan-Indic” traditions (e.g., Brahmanical, Buddhist, Jain, Muslim, Vaiṣṇava, Śākta, and Śaiva). This broadly framed approach to yoga’s root texts vastly expands upon the relatively small canon of materials currently available (e.g., Upaniṣads, Bhagavadgitā, Yogasūtras, and Haṭhayogapradīikā), and their robust analysis reveals a rich genealogy, shared standards, patterns and dis/continuities, and exchange and conversation — all of which, as Mallinson and Singleton argue, contributes to a “better understanding of yoga’s development within and across practice traditions (for example, between earlier Sanskrit sources and later vernacular or non-Indian texts which draw on them)” (x).

The sourcebook is parceled into eleven chapters. Each chapter is preceded by an overview of the translated material, along with a concise list of translated passages, followed by the translations themselves (xxviii). The translations are arranged chronologically, and according to conceptually connected themes pertaining to the core elements of yoga. Key chapter topics include: definitions of yoga; preliminaries (e.g., preparations for the practice of yoga, the role of the guru, etc.); postures (āsana), with attention primarily on seated and standing postures; breath-control (prāṇāyāma); the subtle yogic body; yogic seals (mudrā); mantra; withdrawl (pratyāhāra), fixation (dhāraṇa) and meditation (dhyāna); samādhi; yogic powers; and liberation (mokṣa, nirvāṇa, etc.). At the outset of the book, Mallinson and Singleton explain their interpretive approach and editorial decisions in a useful introduction. A glossary of technical terms is provided, and a timeline of important texts, with the caveat that Indian texts are notoriously difficult to date. These tools will help the reader navigate the book’s complex material.

Each chapter discusses a central concept or practice of yoga. Mallinson and Singleton’s fifth chapter on “The Yogic Body” is the longest and certainly the most bewildering chapter in the collection given its esoteric (and at times even obscure) subject matter. The authors’ cite passages from twenty-eight sources, although they discuss many more in the chapter’s short introduction, and their commentary reveals “widespread consensus” on some of the “basic features” of the subtle yoga body (172). The basic features of the yogic body come alive in the chapter’s breadth of coverage. We see a preliminary reference to prāṇa, the central wind that circulates throughout the subtle body, as early as the Ṛg Veda (1.65.10.2), though Mallinson and Singleton trace a number of conceptual variations. There are references to the naḍīs (channels) as early as the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad (c. 700-500 BCE), followed by an often quoted passage from the late Kaṭha Upaniṣad (c. 300-200 BCE), as well as a broad range of previously untranslated excerpts from various Hindu and Buddhist tantras and haṭhayoga manuscripts. In terms of cakras (energy centers), a six-cakra system is mentioned in the Netratantra (800-850 CE) and the Kubjikāmatatantra (10th century); whereas, the Kaulajñānanirṇaya (c. 10th century) enumerates eleven cakras, the Hevajratantra (10th century) discusses four cakras, and the Śivasaṃhitā (14th century) lists seven cakras, including the all-important sahasrāra (thousand-petaled) (176-77). By making a proliferation of passages on complex and often obscure subjects such as prāṇa, nāḍīs, cakras, and kuṇḍalinī accessible, Mallinson and Singleton perform an invaluable service. They identify a diverse corpus, as well as recurrent patterns and commonalities in the evolution of subtle body terminology across yoga systems.

Furthermore, by focusing on manuscripts that identify the heuristic techniques prescribed by diverse schools of yoga, Mallinson and Singleton draw attention to the central issue of sādhana (practice) as a recognized means to unlock the goals of the pan-Indic scriptural traditions. Mallinson and Singleton’s research historicizes the practical aspects of yoga, which are a distinct type of jñāna or vidyā (knowledge) resulting from the practice of skillful means (upāya). This does not dismiss or deny the fundamental role that philosophy plays in Indian traditions (or in yoga scholarship, for that matter); it merely underscores an omission on the part of Western scholars to rigorously attend to the practices of yoga, which are highly praised in Indian tradition, because without them, liberation (see chapters 9 and 11) is all but unattainable. Mallinson and Singleton’s focus on the elements of sādhana (see chapters 2 through 8) also shows a concern for new research questions emerging, in part, due to the global popularity of modern yoga. Roots of Yoga answers a number of these questions by putting an emphasis on praxis, and respectfully shifting the dialogue away from philosophy and metaphysics. What at one time was considered outside the boundaries of scholarly discourse, and therefore marginal to the study of yoga, is valorized and made normative in Mallinson and Singleton’s impressive textual study of yoga practice.

Roots of Yoga is essential reading. It is a reliable collection of primary materials and a comprehensive sourcebook that further advances an emerging modern research interest into “the rise to prominence of the of techniques of yoga” (10). Roots of Yoga is designed to appeal to a wide audience, including students and specialists, as well as yoga practitioners. It offers a wealth of new material from primary sources, and is indispensible to any library on yoga or Indology. Roots of Yoga serves as a model for other works on yoga in the future.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Ellen Goldberg is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Queen's University in Kingston, Canada.

Date of Review: 
February 28, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Mark Singleton is Senior Research Fellow in the Department of Languages and Cultures of South Asia at SOAS, University of London. His publications include Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice.

Sir James Mallinson is a lecturer in Sanskrit and Classical and Indian Studies at SOAS, University of London. He has published eight books, all of which are editions and translations of Sanskrit yoga texts, epic tales, and poetry. His recent work has used philological study of Sanskrit texts, ethnography, and art history to explore the history of yoga and yogis.

Keywords: 

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