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The International Journal of the History of Sport

ISSN: 0952-3367 (Print) 1743-9035 (Online) Journal homepage: http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/fhsp20

Yoga at the Fin de Sicle: Muscular Christianity


with a Hindu Twist
Joseph S. Alter
To cite this article: Joseph S. Alter (2006) Yoga at the Fin de Sicle: Muscular Christianity
with a Hindu Twist, The International Journal of the History of Sport, 23:5, 759-776, DOI:
10.1080/09523360600673146
To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/09523360600673146

Published online: 17 Aug 2006.

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The International Journal of the History of Sport


Vol. 23, No. 5, August 2006, 759 776

Yoga at the Fin de Sie`cle: Muscular


Christianity with a Hindu Twist

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Joseph S. Alter

This paper examines what came to be known as muscular Hinduism and its expression
through yoga practices in India. It argues that identifying Anglo-American muscular
Christianity as the locus point for the configuration of ideas that link the body to
morality is a colonial distortion. Christianity is the primary referent for muscularity at
the fin de sie`cle, but to properly understand muscular Christianity one must think much
more broadly about emerging concerns about the relationship between the body, morality
and society in different parts of the world during this period. Apart from the distorting
prismatic of colonialism and nationalism, Christianity itself does not provide a
comprehensive perspective on religion and moral values. The development of yoga as a
system of metaphysical fitness at the fin de sie`cle can only be understood if the frame
of reference is global, rather than colonial and nationalistic, and if one looks at
Christianity, Hinduism and other ideological articulations of belief in terms of a world
history of religious ideas at this period of time.

It is well known that Swami Vivekananda born Narendranath Datta championed


the cause of what has come to be called muscular Hinduism. [1] An iconic image of
him posing at the Chicago World Parliament of Religions in September 1893 reflects
the kind of masculinity he famously advocated:
Physical weakness is the cause of at least one third of our miseries . . . . You will
understand the Gita better with your biceps, your muscles, a little stronger. You
will understand the mighty genius and the mighty strength of Krishna better with a
little strong blood in you. You will understand the Upanishads better and the glory
of Atman when your body stands firm upon your feet, and you feel yourselves as
men. [2]

It is not in the least surprising that militant Hindu nationalist organizations in


contemporary India have taken Vivekananda at his word, and in doing so have
Joseph S. Alter, University of Pittsburgh. Correspondence to: jsalter@pitt.edu
ISSN 0952-3367 (print)/ISSN 1743-9035 (online) 2006 Taylor & Francis
DOI: 10.1080/09523360600673146

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J. S. Alter

transformed a metaphor into a weapon. But the image of muscular militants inciting
riots and brandishing staves is simply one to keep in mind. Another, to which I will
return more directly, is an image that has become so familiar that it is virtually
unmarked. It is an image of a person doing yoga, and it is ubiquitous, often found in
YMCA brochures and Department of Physical Education bulletin boards, among
countless other places.
Although this essay is not directly concerned with either Vivekananda or violence,
the publication of Vivekanandas Raja Yoga in 1896 and the formation of the RSS, a
militant Hindu organization, in the 1920s, bracket a period of time when the
relationship between the body, morals and religion was being consciously worked out
in India. Most significantly, this was a period when this relationship was being
worked out with reference to the exchange of ideas between India and the
United States.
In part what I will be arguing, therefore, is that to identify Anglo-American
muscular Christianity as the locus point for the configuration of ideas that link the
body to morality is a parochial distortion that reflects an incipient colonial bias.
Christianity may well be the primary referent for muscularity at the fin de sie`cle, but
to properly understand muscular Christianity one must think much more broadly
about emerging concerns about the relationship between the body, morality and
society in different parts of the world during this period. And, quite apart from the
distorting prismatic of colonialism and nationalism, Christianity itself does not
provide a comprehensive perspective on religion and moral values any more than
muscles provide a definitive means for understanding physiology, anatomy and
health. Certainly the development of yoga as a system of metaphysical fitness at the
fin de sie`cle can only be understood if the frame of reference is global, rather than
colonial and nationalistic, and if one looks at Christianity, Hinduism and other
ideological articulations of belief in terms of a world history of religious ideas as
quite different from a history of world religions at this period. It can also only be
understood if the link between muscles and morals is recognized as a rather
provincial concern of those who won their independence and those who lost a
colony in 1776. In other words, it is possible to rethink muscular Christianity
through a consideration of yoga, as a history of yoga provides a more expansive
perspective on ideas that are relevant to a consideration of the relationship between
body, soul and power, as well as body, mind and spirit.
As a number of scholars have pointed out, Narendranath Datta was born and
raised in an intellectual environment where the mix of ideas confounds any attempt
to block out and trace the influence of one tradition as against another. Certainly in
his later career as Swami Vivekananda he drew inspiration from European
mesmerism, Brahmo theology, the English romantic poets and American occultists
as well as the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali to formulate what has come to be called
Neo-Vedanta. And it is safe to assume that when he was studying at the Scottish
Church College, Calcutta, in the late 1870s the Scottish missionary Alexander Duff
probably emphasized the relationship between biceps and the Bible. Perhaps it was

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Duffs articulation of muscular Christianity that favourably predisposed Vivekananda


to think seriously about and take inspiration from the numerous advocates of
health reform whom he met in the United States between 1893 and 1895. Most
certainly his best known book Raja Yoga reflects a concern with the physiology of
spiritual fitness. It draws on the elemental physiology of yoga and Samkhya
philosophy as well as the vitalistic and inherently somatic dimensions of latenineteenth-century Harmonialism. Vivekanandas discussion of the vital energy of
prana which is elemental to yoga provides a clear perspective on unselfconscious
syncretism. As Elizabeth De Michelis notes, Vivekananda refers to prana as vital
fluid. Although it sounds somewhat generic now, the concept of vital fluid was
elemental to the physiological discourse of late-nineteenth-century mesmerism. The
same is true with regard to nerve currents and physiological vibration as these
mesmeric terms were used to translate and make sense of the sensations caused by
doing asana postures and pranayama breathing exercises. [3]
Despite the circularity of influences in which fringe elements of Christianity and
Hinduism interpenetrate much too much can be made of the fact that in 1849
Henry David Thoreau famously claimed to be a yogi. Those involved in the
conception of Transcendentalism in New England drew on the Bhagavad Gita and
the Yoga Sutra for inspiration. [4] But it is unlikely that postural forms of yoga were
practised in the United States prior to the Civil War. Transcendentalism is, however,
linked to ideas about nature and the body that found expression in the rhetoric of
late-nineteenth-century health reformers as well as to ideas about mysticism and the
occult in theosophy. Significantly, Transcendentalism was also a primary source of
inspiration for Keshubchandra Sen who was in turn a source of inspiration for the
young Swami Vivekananda as he articulated Neo-Vedanta philosophy in Bengal in
the 1870s and early 1880s. Thus the tremendous impact Vivekananda had at Chicago
is not so much because what he said was radically new and different, but exactly the
opposite: what he did was to clearly articulate, and dramatically embody, somewhat
dislocated recursive ideas that had been in wide circulation for many years.
Vivekananda is often credited with having set in motion the Yoga Renaissance, by
which is meant the demystification and popularization of forms of embodied practice
that had been regarded as arcane, dangerous and immoral if not also obscene on
account of being associated with medieval tantric literature on the one hand and the
malevolent magic of self-abnegating yogis and fakirs on the other. By linking together
a vitalistic theory of spiritual energy and the metaphysical principle of transcendence
manifest in the Yoga Sutra, Vivekananda both sanitized yoga and helped to define
it as a form of hygiene, recalling that this term had a much broader and more
inherently physiological meaning at the turn of the century than it does today.
The other primary architect of the Yoga Renaissance was Sri Aurobindo born
Aurobindo Ghose whose theory of evolving spiritual consciousness through the
practice of yoga resonates as much with what G. Stanley Hall and Francis Galton had
to say about the hygienics of evolution and fitness as it does with the aphorisms of
Patanjali. In any case, the Yoga Renaissance of the early twentieth century was very

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self-consciously concerned with modernity, and the programmatic modernization of


tradition. It was also directly concerned with the problem of the body.
Swami Vivekanandas articulation of muscular Hinduism is, of course, significant
unto itself given that it resonates so clearly with the rhetoric of Josiah Strong,
Dioclesian Lewis and other Christian health reformers. However he was not in the
least interested in institutionalizing the relationship between sport, physical fitness,
yoga and neo-Vedanta. In contrast Sri Aurobindos project is noteworthy precisely
because of the way in which it engages with the body, sport and physical fitness. In
considering this issue in the context of the ashram Aurobindo established in
Pondicherry, it is important to recognize the role played by The Mother in the
articulation of embodied spirituality. As a young French woman of Egyptian and
Turkish descent, The Mother born Mirra Alfassa was interested in the occult and
mysticism. This led her to India where she became Aurobindos disciple. When he
went into seclusion, she became the primary exponent and interpreter of his teaching.
As a result of this, much of what is published by the ashram reflects a fascinating mix
of ideas generated from experiences in Calcutta, Cambridge, Paris and Baroda among
other places.
In most general terms this can be seen in Aurobindos philosophy of Integral Yoga
as it is articulated in his two best-known books, The Life Divine and The Synthesis of
Yoga. [5] In essence Aurobindo uses an evolutionary model of human development to
explain how divine consciousness can be embodied, and how embodiment leads to a
transformation of the world. He was explicitly critical of the way in which Hindu
philosophy after Buddhism had dichotomized spirit and matter, and was intent on
showing how asceticism reinforced this dichotomy whereas yoga articulated the pure
integration of mind and body. Progress toward the realization of this truth was
possible as a consequence of what Aurobindo referred to as the Supermind, a kind of
creative, transcendental force. As Georg Feuerstein puts it, Aurobindo regarded the
person transformed by the Supermind as the pinnacle of evolution. Nature, which is a
form of the Divine, struggles to produce the truly spiritual being, who exceeds the
vital man and the mental man. [6] Given that evolutionary theory at the fin de
sie`cle was being articulated in the form of social Darwinism, one wonders if Sir Francis
Galtons Hereditary Genius was on Aurobindo Ghoses reading list at Cambridge.
Given that Integral Yoga has a distinctly Lamarckian tone and is explicitly
conceptualized in terms of linear progress by means of the survival of the fittest one
must assume that Herbert Spencers Social Statics most probably was. [7]
Although he is recognized as an icon particularly in the context of anti-colonial
nationalism Aurobindos philosophy is not widely read or very well understood,
either in India or elsewhere. Therefore it is not surprising that a specific configuration
of ideas that relate to Integral Yoga has been almost completely ignored: the
relationship between the body, sports and health. Although it is difficult to penetrate
the hagiography manifest in all in-house publications, the early foundation of the
Jeunesee Sportive de lAshram de Sri Aurobindo and the regular publication of
the Bulletin dEducation Physique are testament to the relative importance placed on

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the body in relation to the broader, evolutionary goal of developing the Supermind.
In one issue of the Bulletin, Aurobindo deals with sports explicitly, and clearly
articulates ideals that are in line with muscular Christianity:

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Of a higher import than the foundation, however necessary, of health, strength


and fitness of the body is the development of discipline and morale and sound and
strong character towards which these activities can help. There are many
sports which are of the utmost value towards this end, because they help to form
and even necessitate the qualities of courage, hardihood, energetic action and
initiative. [8]

Curiously since many of the core ideas in Aurobindos teaching are yogic an
early history of the ashrams concern with physical education and sport reflects a
degree of ambivalence about yoga as an embodied set of practices. Far more attention
is given to tennis of which The Mother was quite fond Western-style drill
routines, gymnastics, track and field as well as other sports. Writing in the inaugural
volume of the Bulletin dEducation Physique, Aurobindo points out that some of his
disciples had asked with a sense of scepticism what place athletics had in the
ashram. He answers them by saying, in effect, that sports and physical culture in
general are integral to the aspiration for a total perfection, including the perfection
of the body. [9] Articulating what he means by the perfection of the body he writes:
The perfection of the body, as great a perfection as we can bring about by the
means at our disposal, must be the ultimate aim of physical culture. Perfection is
the true aim of all culture, the spiritual and psychic, the mental, the vital and it
must be the aim of our physical culture also. [10]

By our physical culture Aurobindo did not mean Indian physical culture; he meant
the scheme of physical education and sport that was institutionalized in the ashrams
school.
What seems to have happened in Pondicherry is that physical education and sport
were given meaning in terms of mystical/occult/yogic ideas about the relationship
between body, mind and spirit. That is, sports factor into the logic of Integral Yoga at
exactly that point at which one would expect to find advocacy for yogic asana
(postures) and pranayama (breathing exercises). Unlike sport and European-style
physical fitness training, the embodied practice of yoga manifests such a complete
and self-conscious synthesis of body and mind that it subverts a rhetoric of somatic
spiritualism that is at least in part dependent on a purely metaphorical relationship
between muscles, morals and self discipline. Aurobindo found a distinctly Western
metaphor about the relationship between mind and body to be more programmatically useful and perhaps conceptually persuasive than the home-grown
literalism of yoga itself. All of which is somewhat curious since Sri Aurobindo
articulated his ideas about physical perfection in the 1930s and 1940s, well after
the problem of yogas relationship to physical fitness had been worked out in other
parts of the world.

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One reason to reflect on the way in which Vivekananda and Aurobindo were
influenced by ideas from all over the world, and therefore to back into an analysis of
muscular yoga rather than approach it directly is to acknowledge that a straightforward approach comes off looking like a recursive parody: nationalistic muscular
Hinduism going head to head with colonial muscular Christianity. And one can
almost imagine this as a sport unto itself although clearly one that would have to be
staged in the contrived arena of the WWF!
With a clearer, and more subtle sense of how ideas about physical fitness were
linked to ideas about yoga in fairly complex, transnational configurations, it is now
possible to look at the development of physiological yoga in India with a somewhat
more critical eye than might otherwise have been the case.
According to many accounts, the YMCA is directly responsible for the
institutionalized development of sport and physical education in India. [11] And
there can be no doubt that it played a major role, particularly in the Madras and
Bombay presidencies. In the early 1920s the YMCA promoted American sports, even
when it adopted a policy of indigenization. This changed slightly when H.C. Buck
was hired as the director of physical education and sport. Bucks primary concern was
with formalizing rules and regulations for play, and his 1928 Book of Rules sets clear
standards and guidelines for both Western sports and Indian games. [12]
Sport, and the developmental relationship between games and sports, is
problematic at least in part on account of the formalized, modern, rule-bound
structure of sport and the indirect rather than direct relationship between playing
sports and the embodied development of morals, ethics and character traits that are
thought to be derived from playing those sports. One can quite easily establish
gymnasiums, clubs and federations for playing indigenous sports such as kabaddi and
kho kho, as numerous nationalist organizations did in the 1920s and 1930s. [13] And
one can do this to both build character and confront the perceived hegemony of
cricket, football and hockey. But the problem is that sport itself is a modern construct
inextricably linked to colonialism. Once sports such as kabaddi have been
modernized, institutionalized and bureaucratised, one is confronted with a form of
the nagging paradox which shadows many anti-colonial discourses: can you derive a
nationalistic spirit of traditional health and vitality from a form of practice that is
incipiently associated with colonial modernity? In any case what counts or what can
be made to count as a sport is fairly self-evident, if only tautologically so, in the
sense that any kind of physical activity can be turned into an organized form of
structured, rule-bound competition.
Physical education is somewhat different. And it is to the nature and significance of
this difference that I would like to direct attention, since it has a bearing on embodied
morals and ethics in general and on muscular Christianity in particular.
There is no doubt that physical education can be and has been institutionalized in
the same way and to the same degree as sport. J.H. Gray of the YMCA was involved
in this in Calcutta even before Buck got to work on sports in Madras. But the
question of what counts or what can count as physical education is a much more

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complicated question than the question of what might count as a game-that-can-beturned-into-a-sport. The question itself is anticipated by two rather ambiguously
multi-vocal, polysemic signifiers that were very much in vogue at the fin de sie`cle:
hygiene and physical culture. The fact that these terms once integral to the
discourse of moral and physical fitness are now anachronisms speaks directly to the
point that one must not let a history of organized sport and athletics define the ways
and means by which muscular Christianity is understood.
Which brings us finally to the kind of yoga that Henry David Thoreau probably
did not practise in 1849: postural yoga, known as asana, and breathing exercises,
known as pranayama the two primary aspects of what is called hatha yoga.
One reason why Thoreau did not practise hatha yoga is that although it developed
as a form of practice in what is now North India in the tenth century, it was, by
definition, arcane, mystical and linked to magic up until the end of the nineteenth
century. If it was part of public discourse at all, it was part of that discourse as a
secret, and a somewhat tainted secret at that. This began to change in the early years
of the twentieth century, probably on account of Vivekanandas tour of the United
States in the late 1890s, even though Vivekananda himself did not advocate the
practice of hatha yoga. In the early years of the twentieth century there is a spate of
publications dealing with yoga postures and breathing exercises, a number written by
Swami Ramacharaka William Walker Atkinson under the auspices of the Yogi
Publication Society of Chicago. [14] Almost all these publications represent postural
yoga as mystical and arcane but also claim to reveal a secret truth that can be
experienced directly through practice. It is at this time that hatha yoga comes to be
discursively linked to ideas about hygiene and fitness, albeit fitness of a particular
kind.
Although it is not necessary to pinpoint the very first practitioner of modern hatha
yoga, either in India or the United States, it is important to understand the
environment within which people first began to experiment with the application of
asana and pranayama as physical culture. In the United States Swami Ramacharakas
books follow on Swami Abhedanandas 1902 publication How to be a Yogi. [15] Like
Vivekananda, Abhedananda was a disciple of Ramakrishna, but seems to have been
much more inclined towards hatha yoga, among other things. How to be a Yogi
emerges out of Abhedanadas relationship with a group of women who were, to
various degrees, involved in the Church of the Higher Life and the New Thought
movement. Although his role was that of a spiritual teacher and guide, he seems to
have been one of the first if not the first to advocate the practice of hatha yoga
procedures for health and healing, broadly defined. [16] This would be significant
enough unto itself, but it represents a point of intersection between yoga and physical
culture that is of profound importance.
New Thought, like Theosophy and Christian Science, can be understood as a
feminist reaction against the masculanization of mainline Protestantism, [17] and
one way to understand the emergence of modern hatha yoga in fin de sie`cle Boston is
to see asana and pranayama as not so much effete as some Orientalists came to

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regard them but as anti-muscular and anti-masculine forms of physical fitness.


The extent to which hatha yoga became popular in New England during the first
decades of the twentieth century is difficult to know, but it was probably somewhat
marginal; certainly much less popular than the swinging of Indian Clubs. [18] But in
many ways a consideration of hatha yoga as an alternative form of physical culture at
this time helps to make sense of some of the profound ambivalence and outright
contradiction reflected in the YWCAs project. As Putney has written recently, If
YWCA women were muscular Christians concerning health, were they also muscular
Christians concerning manliness? [19] Mary Dunn, Abbie Mayhew and the writer
Mary Austin thought so, but Mary Baker Eddy certainly did not. The significance of
New Thought, Christian Science and other anti-masculine articulations of spirituality
is that they led to the incorporation of discourses on so-called mind cure and inner
healing into the practice of muscular Christianity. Not pervasively or in a dramatic
fashion, to be sure. At least until the late 1920s and probably up until 1940 yoga
in the United States continued to be regarded as inherently mystical and esoteric. But
Abhedananda clearly laid the foundation for widespread practice, and this
foundation was set in an environment where there was some ambivalence or
ambivalence on the part of some about muscularity, masculinity, and Christianity.
With this in mind and with due apologies for such radical spatio-temporal
contortions it is necessary to return to mid-nineteenth century Calcutta via earlytwentieth-century Bombay in order to fully appreciate the development of hatha yoga
as a form of muscular Christianity.
As I have pointed out elsewhere, two men more or less independently invented
modern postural yoga in Bombay in 1918. [20] They are Jaganath Ganesh Gune, who
became Swami Kuvalyananda, and Manibhai Haribhai Desai, who became
Shri Yogendra. Madhavadasji, a spiritual teacher and yogi in the classical or
traditional sense, profoundly influenced both these men. Based on independent
accounts, Madhavadasji was a very popular spiritual teacher known for being able to
perform miracles. As in the case of numerous others in late colonial India, he came to
embody, during a time of ambivalent modernization, what many regarded as the
essence of tradition, and traditional truth.
Before renouncing the world, however, Madhavadasji whose given name is not
known had been a civil servant in Bengal. Born in a village in Nadia district, he was
educated in a missionary school in Calcutta. His parents had high hopes of a
prestigious civil service career. Orphaned just before marriage, he nevertheless abided
by his parents wish and joined government service. Recognized as a man with high
ethical standards and both leadership and administrative ability, he was quickly
promoted in the judicial department. [21] Following a case of court intrigue, with
which he was disgusted but not involved, he decided, at the age of 23, to not only
leave his post but also renounce the world. First drawn toward the bhakti
devotionalism of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, he subsequently went in search of greater
truth. This took him to Assam, the Himalayas and Tibet where he got an
opportunity to get first-hand knowledge of technical Yoga. [22]

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Unfortunately, very little is known about the kind of yoga that Madhavadasji
practised, although as an adept yogi he was said to have developed supernatural
powers of the kind that are described and catalogued in detail in the Yoga Sutra and
the medieval literature. It is very clear, however, that between 1916 and 1918 he
inspired two young men to very rapidly transform asana and pranayama into a form
of Indian physical culture, and to conceptualize this transformation with reference to
muscular Christianity. Quite apart from what he learned about yoga while searching
for truth in the Himalayas and quite apart from what he might have learned about
muscles and morals from missionaries in Calcutta around 1850 Madhavadasji was
schooled in modernity, and in all likelihood had conceptualized hatha yoga as
physical education before his two disciples got to work in earnest. It is important to
keep the dynamics of inspiration in mind when thinking about the way in which
hatha yoga became Indian physical culture. The dynamic is not so much derivative of
the ideology of muscular Christianity as indicative of the logic of modernity and the
desire to conceptualize and practise an alternative modernity and perhaps an
alternative to modernity. What I mean is that hatha yoga can be two things at once: a
form of physical culture and a form of practice that can redefine the parameters of
physical culture and what physical culture is meant to produce. Once this subversive
mimetic is conceptually reconciled with the history of modern yoga as defined by
the relationship between Neo-Vedanta, Health Reform and New Thought to use
conveniently cryptic, dislocated signifiers one can begin to appreciate the way in
which hatha yoga puts a spin on muscular Christianity.
Having founded an institute for teaching hatha yoga in Bombay in late 1918,
Manibhai Haribhai Desai who was known at this time as Swami Yogananda left
for the United States where, with the assistance of the Hygiene Reference Board and
E.B. Schley, Harris Hammond and Max Behr in particular, he founded the Yoga
Institute in Harriman, New York. He spent the better part of two years in New York
and New England prescribing yoga therapy, giving demonstrations of asana and
pranayama and lecturing on the philosophy of yoga as he understood it. During this
time he developed a close relationship with Mr and Mrs Charles O. Gregg and
Mr and Mrs Perkins. He also corresponded with A.V. Jackson; Benedict Lust, a well
known naturopath; Margaret Sanger, the famous advocate of womens health, sex
education and eugenics; Hereward Carrington, who conducted research on psychic
phenomena: and also a man who deserves far more attention than is given to him in
the annals of American history: Bernarr Macfadden, the so-called father of physical
culture. [23] Based on this experience, as well as extensive reading of the extant
literature on physical education, Desai began writing books on yoga physical culture,
yoga hygiene and yoga physical education.
Before looking at Desais work in some detail, it is necessary to step back and
provide some further contextual orientation for what he was doing. Proper
contextualization entails taking a critical perspective on some important distinctions
that tend to get blurred together in the history of muscular Christianity, particularly
at the fin de sie`cle. First, there was a distinction between organized athletic sports,

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the strenuous life and what can generally be called structured drill and gymnastics.
Along with this there was, and perhaps still is, a degree of tension between physical
education where the emphasis was on training the body and structured sports
where the primary concern was with organizing clubs and teams for competition.
Training the body with reference to morality and fitness is not necessarily the same as
training a team to compete and win. Second there was a distinction between morally
suspect body culture as exemplified by Bernarr MacFadden and a somewhat but
only somewhat more straight-and-narrow concern for physical strength as
embodied by Eugene Sandow. That is to say, there was a degree of ambivalence about
body culture and the problem of sexuality and eroticism, both homo- and hetero.
Third there was the problem of engendered fitness and the way in which advocates
of different kinds of physical culture regarded one another as either effete or
masculine, but how muscular Christians in general considered themselves to embody
masculinity. Finally there was the problem of gender itself and the way in which
women were fitted into the discourse on muscular Christianity in very different ways
by different reformers.
On the face of it and quite apart from its close association with Hinduism it is
very difficult to reconcile hatha yoga with virile, competitive, muscular, masculine
athleticism. However, it is precisely because of striking incongruities on a number of
different levels that yoga seems to have insinuated itself precisely into the fault line
of many of the problematic distinctions noted above. And then, of course,
advocates of hatha yoga could claim that they had embodied the true configuration of
body, mind and spirit long before the red triangle of the YMCA came to define
the structured geometry of that configuration as a modern symbol of Christian
fitness!
Although hatha yoga at the fin de sie`cle was clearly regarded by most people as
linked to mysticism and magic, it is important to note that Manibhai Haribhai
Desai known then by the nicknames Mani and Mogha began to practise yoga as a
disciple of Madhavadasji after he graduated from Amalsad English School in 1915.
English education, first at Amalsad and then at St Xaviers College in Bombay, clearly
shaped Desais view of the world. But a set of specific activities and concerns in high
school triggered in reaction to a bout of typhoid and chronic ill health deserve
special attention:
A lean and emaciated body was not the ideal for a strong headed, result-oriented
lad. The bounty of energy and enthusiasm seemed to wane due to the weakness
of the body. The spirit and mind appeared strong and willing, the flesh had yet to
muscle its way into activity. A way out came in the form of a friend and guide in
the guise of Gulababhai Desai, the Principal and teacher at his Amalsad English
School. Gulababhai guided and helped Mani to build a strong body and an
athletic physique, and regain good health. The elements of this superstructure
were very elementary, physical exercise, deep breathing and gymnastics perhaps
a forerunner of his involvement in Yoga and the mission to improve the health of
his fellow people. In just two years Mani emerged as a strong and healthy
sportsman bursting at the seams with muscles and energy. [24]

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Desai and his classmates went on to establish their own gymnasium fitted out with
chest expanders, dumb-bells and other equipment of the sort being marketed by
Sandow, MacFadden and Spalding. Before long he was recognized as an athlete with
tremendous physical strength able to support a fully loaded bullock cart on his
shoulders, for example and as a powerful wrestler in particular. After he had
defeated several local challengers his reputation preceded him to Ahmedabad, where
he went to take his final exams in anticipation of a career in the Indian Civil Service.
Mr Robertson, the principal of the English school where the exam was being
administered, magnanimously challenged Desai to a bout. Mani was game and a
bout ensued. Serious as he was about everything, Mani wrestled his best and soon the
hefty Principal was off his feet and on the ground. [25]
There can be little doubt, I think, that after Desai became a disciple of Madhavadas
and learned the kind of hatha yoga that the sage had developed while living a
strenuous life in the Himalayas, on might say he came to conceptualize and practise
hatha yoga as muscular Christianity with a twist. One could call it muscular
Hinduism, although the structure of this signifier is inherently flawed given the fact
that, strictly speaking, yoga is neither muscular nor religious. But then sports are not
religious in any sense other than the sense in which they are linked to ideas about the
mind and the body through ideology. The twist enabled as a consequence of not
having to deal with the contortions of Cartesian thinking is that yoga links body,
mind and spirit metonymically rather than metaphorically.
After returning to India in 1922, Desai who at this point formally changed his
name to Shri Yogendra began to write a book designed to modernize yoga along
scientific lines. What is significant about this book, first published in 1928 as Yoga
Personal Hygiene and most recently reissued as Yoga Asanas Simplified, is that it seeks
to modernize yoga as a form of fitness training. It is among the first books to
demystify and popularize asana and pranayama, and this despite the fact that
the author had, through various name changes, sought to construct a persona that
evoked mysticism and arcane wisdom. Although in appearance and name
Shri Yogendra clearly exploited Orientalist stereotypes, he advocated a form of
practice that was explicitly anti-mystical. His writing on the subject is relentlessly
rational.
In writing Yoga Personal Hygiene as well as a string of subsequent publications
Yogendra clearly drew on what he learned from Madhavadasji. But what he sought to
do was show how yoga fitted with, improved upon and to some extent redefined the
rational science of physical education. As such, his point of reference was a body of
North American literature that emerged directly out of the experience of men
involved in the YMCA and the Public Schools Athletic League. Remember, we are
speaking here not just of yogas emergence in the United States, but of its modern
development in India. Yoga Personal Hygiene was published in India with an Englishspeaking middle-class audience in mind. Beyond the boundaries of this group there is
no evidence that yoga was conceptualized in India at large in terms of physical
fitness: if you practised yoga on terms other than those articulated by Yogendra and

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in a slightly different way by Krishnamacharya in Mysore around the same time [26]
you were, ipso facto, more ascetic than athletic.
On a very superficial level, the influence of what might generically be called
Western callisthenics is clearly apparent in Yogendras method of yogic exercise. For
example he defines an asana such as utkatasana as a static pose that entails
squatting while balancing on the balls of ones feet. In the Gherandasamhita, a hatha
yoga manual composed in the seventeenth century, the asana is described this way:
Standing on ones toes with the heels off the ground, one should place ones buttocks
on the heels. [27] As Georg Feuerstein, a modern authority on the subject of practice
points out, [t]he position is to be assumed particularly when doing the water enema
[when water is sucked into the large intestine by means of a hollow tube inserted into
the rectum]. [28] Yogendra turns this into a dynamic variation which is less
strenuous and more effective in its basic objective of exercising the muscles of the legs
and pelvis. The dynamic variation is done in sets of slow repetitions ten in two
minutes along the lines of a classic squat or deep-knee bend, with particular
attention given to breathing in and out rhythmically. In the same fashion, the static
konasana becomes a dynamic toe-touching routine that exercises the muscles of the
waist; cakrasana which in its static form is a complete backward bend or bridge
becomes a vigorous backward and forward bending exercise; pascimottanasana
becomes a seated rowing exercise, and so forth.
Not all the exercises are dynamic variations of static postures. Many are simply
classic or, technically, medieval asana. For example, Yogendra provides
instructions on how to perform a matsyendrasana, which is described in the
fourteenth-century Hathayogapradipika as a seated trunk-twisting posture that cures
all diseases and awakens the kundalini [serpent power of enlightenment]. [29] He
indicates that this becomes a dynamic form of exercise as you move in and out of the
posture, first twisting in one direction and then in the other while breathing
rhythmically. [30]
What is much more interesting to examine than hybrid exercise unto itself is
Yogendras discursive engagement with the theory and philosophy of physical
education. It is on this level that one can gain an appreciation for the way in which he
was using yoga to manipulate the principles of muscular Christianity.
In most general terms Yogendras argument focuses on the relationship between
mind, body and spirit. In his view, athletics and physical education are forced to
contrive a connection between mind and body, whereas the connection is integral and
elemental to yoga. Thus his criticism encompasses the argument between proponents
of mass-drill gymnastics such as Per Henrik Ling, Friedrich Ludwig Jahn and later-day
Turners on the one hand and advocates of sports and athletics such as Luther Gulick
on the other. From Yogendras perspective, sports are brutal and destructively
competitive, whereas gymnastic drill is mechanical, monotonous and uninspiring.
Yoga is not just a better kind of physical culture, in Yogendras view it redefines
physical culture, making it more directly relevant to the principles of muscular
Christianity as these principles are encoded in fin de sie`cle theory and practice.

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After criticizing those who have characterized yoga as dangerous, mysterious and
arcane especially John Mckenzie who wrote a dismissively critical Orientalist
diatribe in Hindu Ethics [31] Yogendra writes:

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Yoga, interpreted in rational synthesis, represents the way of life which endows
perfect health physical, mental, moral and spiritual so that what is ignoble in
man is sublimated to what is most noble in him. To achieve this great art and
science of life, a comprehensive practical system of self-culture has been formulated
which through interchangeable harmonious development of ones body, mind and
psychic potencies ultimately leads to physical well being, mental harmony, moral
elevation and habituation to spiritual consciousness. [32]

Drawing on the work of E.A. Rice and J.L. Hutchinson who argue that yoga predates and is the inspiration for the ancient Chinese martial arts Yogendra makes
the argument that yoga was the first form of physical education to be correlated with
social, mental, moral, and psychic education. It is the first articulation of civilized
physical education that went beyond the instinctual drive to gain strength, vigour,
agility, skill and endurance for the purpose of self-preservation. Sounding very much
as though he is arguing against Vivekananda, he writes:
What needs emphasis in regard to yoga physical education is the fact that the
objective of good health in yoga sense is not the bestial urge for physical strength,
bulging muscles and robust physique since brute force leads to violence, nor is it
aggressive physical fitness as in the case of military and athletic spheres where such
urge continually seeks fulfilment in adventure and victory. What yoga physical
education really aims at is physiologic soundness pure radiant health conducive
to immunity against disease and the promotion of longevity. [33]

In keeping with a broad, evolutionary and self-consciously dislocated framework


of contextualization, Yogendra discursively makes a correlation between yoga and
ancient philosophy, quoting Aristotles Dialogues The results of a good physical
education are not limited to the body alone, but extend even to the soul itself to
make a key point. He then proceeds to quote the sixteenth-century French
philosopher Michel de Montaigne on what has come to be an iconic and now
completely overwrought principle of samkhya and yoga philosophy: the
indivisible unity of body and mind. He follows a similar line of reasoning when
discussing the physiology of mental hygiene. First he quotes the Roman satirist
Juvenal mens sana in corpore sano and then underscores the importance of mental
hygiene by quoting D.W. La Rue: All health that is not ultimately mental health is
not health at all. [34]
His point of reference at these and other similar junctures in his discussion is not
yoga as such but rather modern American physical education. Quoting Thomas and
Goldthwait, he writes: It should always be remembered that the human body is made
with a physical body, a mind and a spirit; and the three parts are so dependent
each upon the other, that any influence on one must affect the other. [35] In other
words he uses the logic of muscular Christianity and, indeed, elements of classical

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European philosophy to articulate the true nature of the problem, and then
presents yoga as the perfect solution to that problem!
This argument is put forward explicitly in the third chapter of Yogendras book
entitled Rationale of Yoga Exercises, which begins by defining the general need for
physical education in relation to physiological and moral health and then proceeds to
systematically critique (1) vigorous gymnastics; (2) athletics, games and acrobatism;
(3) indoor and outdoor sports; (4) mass drill; (5) callisthenics; and (6) individual
systems of home exercise. The logic applied by Yogendra in this section is no different
from that indicated above. What is noteworthy however is the range of literature he
engages with: Emmet Rices A History of Physical Education; William Lee Howards
Breathe and Be Well; R. Tait McKenzies Exercise in Education and Medicine; Jesse
Feiring Williamss The Principles of Physical Education; Walter L. Pyles A Manual of
Proper Hygiene: Proper Living Upon a Physiological Basis; and F.J. Masseys Physical
Education and Healthful Living, among others. [36] It is difficult to know which
editions of these and other books Yogendra was consulting, but many were originally
published at or near the turn of the century. It is clear that they were incorporated
into his library while he was working in Harimann, New York.
Perhaps because he was writing between 1918 and 1928, yoga is presented as not
just a solution to the most general problematic of muscular Christianity the
relationship between body, mind and spirit but to the specific problem of the
relationship between physical culture and nationalism. For example, in his general
critique of vigorous gymnastics including Indian forms as well as those of the
Danes, the Swedes, the Germans, the French and the Japanese he points out that
they expose the individual to the susceptibilities of mass psychology and are
orgiastic and boisterous. He accuses governments of having a cunning and secret
objective in promoting militarism in the guise of healthy, vigorous gymnastics. [37]
Thus the most important feature of yoga is that it is intrinsically non-violent; whereas
all other forms of exercise involve violence either directly or indirectly. Not
surprisingly, Yogendra reserves his harshest criticism for those who subscribing to
the rhetoric of Vivekananda [38] advocate muscular Hinduism through a synthesis
of yoga and vigorous gymnastics. He writes, perhaps with a degree of nervous selfdoubt about the nature of his own endeavour:
Another potent source of confusion is the novel and diabolical advocacy by
some psuedo-yogins for an unhealthy and unwarranted wedlock of the yoga
posture exercises with other systems of physical training and, strangely enough, for
no special reason but that of strength and violence to protect, what is assumed to
be the motherland, as if to the genuine yogin the whole universe is not his
motherland! This ill-conceived and subtle introduction of patriotism in the
universal and immaculate concept of Yoga and of violence in the traditionally
non-violent physical education is at once and prima facie reprehensible in the
extreme. [39]

Yogendras modernization of yoga is, of course, interesting in itself as an example


of general trends in physical culture, gymnastics and sport at the turn of the century.

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It is also interesting as an example of how a tradition of physical culture or


anything else for that matter is never the product of isolated, indigenous, regional
development. However, what is most significant about Yogendra is that he played a
leading role in the earliest popularization of yoga exercise, and thereby set in motion
a series of subsequent developments that have contributed significantly to the
globalization of a relatively distinct kind of physical fitness. With full appreciation for
Macfaddens rather problematic, scandalous and eccentric appropriation of the term
itself which ruffled the feathers of more than a few church fathers modern yoga is
to turn-of-the-century physical culture what modern sports are to late-nineteenthcentury competitive games and contests.
Clearly there is a direct and fairly unambiguous relationship between colonialism,
sport and muscular Christianity. But if one takes into consideration a broader set of
concerns that involve the body, mind and spirit, one can gain a critical perspective on
the relationship between colonialism, the body and Christianity such that what
appears to be straightforward and unambiguous is not so at all. Arguably and from
the vantage point of one who takes a rather cynical perspective on both modern sport
and modern yoga yoga, despite commercial bastardization, is muscular
Christianitys legitimate heir. It is at least as legitimate an heir if not as direct a
descendant as the NCAA. In any event, asana and pranayama, invented by
Yogendra in 1918 and refined by the likes of Kuvalayananda in the 1920s, Swami
Sivananda in the 1930s, Theos Bernard in the 1940s, B.K.S. Iyengar in the 1950s and
1960s and a whole network of American practitioners in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s,
is most certainly very popular at your local YMCA. [40]
Notes
[1]
[2]
[3]
[4]
[5]
[6]
[7]
[8]
[9]

Jyotirmayananda, Vivekananda.
Vivekananda, Complete Works, Vol. 3, 242.
De Michelis, A History of Modern Yoga, 164.
Van Buitenen, Bhagavad Gita; Miller, Yoga Sutra.
Aurobindo The Life Devine and The Synthesis of Yoga.
Feuerstein, The Yoga Tradition, 58.
Galton, Hereditary Genius; Spencer, Social Statics.
Bhattacharya, A Scheme of Education, 111.
Ibid., 222; The Mothers writings on the subject of sport, physical culture and physical
education are collected in Health, Food and Healing in Yoga . . . and Education, Part 3: Physical
Education . . . . The title of the first of these is something of a misnomer and relates more to
ideas about alternative health and healing that were prevalent in the 1970s than to earlier
formulations. The following statement, first published in 1959, gives some indication of
Aurobindo and The Mothers ambivalence about hatha yoga: From our experience we have
found that a particular system of exercises cannot be stamped as the only Yogic type of
exercises and we cannot definitely say that participation in those exercises only will help to
gain health because they are Yogic exercises. (The Mother, Health Food and Healing
in Yoga, 227.)
[10] Bhattacharya, A Scheme of Education, 117.
[11] Harasha, Development of Physical Education in Madras.

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[12] Buck, Rules of Games and Sports. The process whereby games were being formalized as sports
is a clear example of how colonialism and nationalism are part and parcel of a mimetic
dynamic that produces paradox and irony once a traditional game is defined and played as a
modern sport it becomes an artefact of colonialism even if the motivation to formalize it as a
sport was inspired by nationalism and anti-colonial sentiments. Of course colonial sports can
be appropriated and turned into sports with national significance. One in particular has been
turned by children with homemade bats, plastic-bag balls wrapped with inner-tube rubber
and piles of bricks shouting howzat into a game. However, once the mimetic dynamic is in
play one is locked into a situation in which the structure of modern sport is hegemonic,
regardless of the extent to which howzat fits into vernacular discourse.
[13] Alter, Kabbadi, A National Sport of India.
[14] Ramacharaka, Hatha Yoga and Fourteen Lessons in Yogi Philosophy.
[15] Abhedananda, How To Be a Yogi.
[16] Stephanie Syman, personal communication.
[17] Putney, Muscular Christianity, 15.
[18] Alter, Indian Clubs and Colonialism.
[19] Putney, Muscular Christianity, 149.
[20] Alter, Yoga in Modern India.
[21] Rodrigues, The Householder Yogi, 28.
[22] Ibid., 29.
[23] Macfadden, The Virile Powers of Superb Manhood and Vitality Supreme.
[24] Rodrigues, The Householder Yogi, 19.
[25] Ibid., 22.
[26] Sjoman, The Yoga Tradition.
[27] Vasu, Gherandasamhita, 11, 41.
[28] Feuerstein, Encyclopedic Dictionary of Yoga, 377.
[29] Sinh, Hathayogapradipika, I, 289.
[30] Yogendra, Yoga Asanas Simplified, 150.
[31] McKenzie, Hindu Ethics.
[32] Yogendra, Yoga Asanas Simplified, 20.
[33] Ibid., 44.
[34] Ibid., 45.
[35] Ibid., 378; Thomas and Goldthwait, Body Mechanics and Health.
[36] Rice, A Brief History of Physical Education; Howard, Breathe and Be Well; McKenzie, Exercise
in Education and Medicine; Williams, The Principles of Physical Education; Pyle A Manual of
Personal Hygiene; Massey Physical Education and Healthful Living.
[37] Yogendra, Yoga Asanas Simplified, 77.
[38] Vivekananada, Raja Yoga.
[39] Yogenda, Yoga Asanas Simplified, 100.
[40] Kuvalyananda, Asana; Sivananda, Yoga Asanas; Bernard, Hatha Yoga; Iyengar, Light on Yoga;
Schneider, American Yoga.

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