Shearer, who has written extensively on Hindu and Buddhist philosophy, provides a fascinating chronology of the changing attitudes towards yoga in the West. To the Victorians, Indian holy men were held to be objects either of reproval – the emaciated yogi lying on a bed of nails provided the perfect illustration of the perceived laziness and moral turpitude of the native Indian, in stark contrast to the doctrine of “Muscular Christianity” served up by the social reformer and evangelist Charles Kingsley, whose recipe for moral improvement was a cold morning bath – or of a kind of appalled amusement.
For me, what this book lacks is humanity. It is not an easy read, either, for those who are not yoga aficionados, due to the liberal sprinkling of jargon. It will be best suited to those who already have the mat and want to understand the cultural context of their exercise class. That is a growing group, though. Nine years ago, The Wall Street Journal claimed that we had reached “peak yoga”, blaming “US materialism, craven gurus and cynical marketers”. The writer was wrong, of course. Yoga’s popularity just kept growing, albeit in a form unrecognisable to its original proponents.