Once confined to the caves and forests of India it is now a $25 billion-a year worldwide wellness industry. Yoga is now so popular that there is “Yoga Behind Bars” where a UK charity runs yoga classes in 80 prisons. In Sweden it is part of the prison system with a national yoga co-ordinator training prison guards to be teachers. At the other end of the scale in the US, in keeping with its reputation as the ultimate land of mammon, there is Yogic investing which promises “to move your yoga practise off the mat and into your savings account”. Indeed, Ray Dalio, the financial guru behind Bridgewater Associates which has some $160 million in assets proudly says that his success is due to practising Transcendental Meditation for 44 years, twice a day for 20 minutes. Dalio sees it is as the best investment he has ever made.
Just like those two other fine works that preceded it, Shearer’s remarkable book is a wide-ranging and rather sobering discussion on the nature of authenticity. Yoga is its vehicle. And yet at the heart of current yoga praxis, he contends, there exists a delicious and thought-provoking paradox: ‘body’ yoga (by its very nature, something slightly inauthentic and risky) actually contains within it the very seeds of its own (and our) salvation casually tucked into the cursory ‘relaxation’ segment at the end. Can we, Shearer wonders, as a culture, develop the necessary tools, insight, even the modesty, fully to apprehend this?
In his introduction, Shearer calls his book a “how come” rather than a “how to”. Yet in his conclusion, he stresses the limits of what yoga can do, advice as important as any guru’s techniques. The boundaries of the art can be physical. The injuries sustained in poorly regulated studios are testament to a relentless drive in some modern interpretations. Yet the threshold of yoga’s abilities is also mental. For many practitioners, a side effect is self-knowledge and calm. But Shearer is clear that sacred knowledge is not designed to solve the travails of the modern world or clear up anxiety. Believing it can single-handedly change lives smacks of a return to the magic of ancient days.
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.