One of the draws of Ashtanga Vinyasa is its storied beginnings. Legend has it T. Krishnamacharya traveled thousands of miles to become the sole apprentice to a retired grandmaster living in solitude along the shores Lake Mansarovar in Tibet. To make a potentially long account shorter, after spending seven years with his guru he was instructed to marry, become a householder, and teach his guru’s yoga system to a new generation of students. Although we can be reasonably sure about this much, Mark Singleton, provides ample evidence that claims of eternal purity sometimes made by Krishnamacharya’s students (and his students’ students) fail to capture the true picture of their lineage.
Yoga Body is the culmination of Singleton’s extensive research comprising expeditions, interviews, and a sweeping literature survey. His scholarship highlights an often unseen truth. To really understand why the undisputed father of modern yoga taught the way he did requires an appreciation for the restlessness of a nation on the verge of revolution. Singleton focuses on society’s impact on popular yoga within a span of history dating from 1896, when Swami Vivekananda published his opus Raja Yoga, through the 1930’s. The latter bookend encompasses the timeframe when Krishnamacharya began teaching asana to school age boys at the request of the Maharaja of Mysore. Ultimately, Yoga Body rebuts the common assertion that modern vinyasa is directly descended from the yoga practices of antiquity.
In its place, Singleton offers a revised narrative. The major players include contortionist sadhus, physically cultured muscle-men, a 130+ old mountain rishi, Scandinavian gymnasts, Swadeshi revivalists, YMCA pioneers, and of course Krishnamacharya at the center of the of yoga’s dynamically transformative journey. The living traces of a bygone era have been thoroughly interwoven into the fabric of the Ashtanga Vinyasa canon. And the international success of vinyasa simply cannot be explained without these revolutionary roots. I recommend reading Yoga Body for yourself to see what theories your heart and mind gravitates towards most. For me, Singleton’s explanations all too often reaffirm my subtle suspicion that truth is even stranger than legendary fiction.
Krishnamacharya practicing a familiar posture for inclusion in his Yoga Makaranda