The history of modern yoga is rooted in the history of alchemy and the practice of magic in medieval India. In physiological terms it is also intimately linked to tantric ideas concerning the immobilisation of semen. However, modern yoga as a form of practice which emphasises physical fitness, wellness and holistic health, emerged more directly out of the early twentieth-century yoga renaissance. Leading figures such as Shri Y ogendra and Swami Kuvalyananda sought to purge yoga practices such as asana, kriya and pranayama of all things esoteric, mystical and magical and establish practice on the basis of pragmatic, rational, scientific principles. They did this within a framework of what can be called secularised spiritualism. Since the early part of the last century yoga has been popularised, systematised and routinised on these terms, as reflected in countless schools founded by teachers with various degrees of training and experience, as well as in thousands of popular, scientific and academic publications. In all of these schools and publications—both more and less spiritual and philosophical—there is, it will be argued, a degree of profound ambivalence if not explicit contradiction between a secularised, 'sanitised' scientific ideal of medicalised practice, and the 'other history' of sex, magic, and alchemy. This 'other history' both undermines and authorises the idea of yoga as medicine, and, it will be argued, the tension between pragmatic rationalism and esoteric magic makes yoga powerful.
In the 1920s, Jagannath G. Gune adopted the tide Swami Kuvalayananda
and established a research centre for the scientific analysis of yoga in
Lonavala, a hill station near Pune. Gune's training under Rajrama Manikrao had
been in 'traditional' athletics and gymnastics, as these were understood to be
the means by which to promote a form of strong, masculine, assertive
anti-colonial nationalism. However, once Gune became the disciple of the sage
Madhavadasji, and received training in āsana and
prdāṇāyāma, he began to reconceptualise the logic of
physical education and physical fitness. For Kuvalayananda, yoga was inherently
scientific, but also in need of scientific analysis to prove its relevance in
the context of modernity. Based on laboratory research on the physiological
effects of āsana and prdāṇāyāma, and by virtue
of his appointment as the director of physical education and sports in the
Bombay Presidency, Kuvalayananda developed a 'scientific' regimen of both
individual and mass drill āsana. In this article, I examine the
logic of Kuvalayananda's reconceptualisation of physical education by means of
yoga with special reference to questions of gender and nationalism in the
discourse of science and in the embodiment of that discourse in practice.
As an institutionalized “indigenous” system of medicine in India, nature cure derives directly from ideas and practices developed within the rubric of Lebensreform, a radical, back-to-nature health reform movement that took shape in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century central Europe. Nature cure developed in twentieth-century India as a deeply embodied manifestation of Swadeshi, a social, cultural, and anticolonial political movement intimately concerned with independence and liberation. Significant parallels between Lebensreform and Swadeshi point toward an understanding of medicine based on the habitus of class and global countercultural practices. Using examples from the work of Adolf Just and other Germans writing at the turn of the nineteenth century and the case of Arogya Mandir, a nature cure hospital established by Vithal Das Modi in Gorakhpur in 1940, this essay examines how the radical, utopian ideals of Lebensreform were translated into institutionalized medical practice that facilitated the embodiment of Swadeshi as a political philosophy of health reform in colonial India.
Asian Medicine is inaugurating a new type of article in this issue, the editorial forum. For our launch of this new format, an international range of scholars working on Asian medicine across different geographical, temporal, and disciplinary contexts were invited to respond to the question “Why study Asian medicine?” The perspectives they have expressed here reflect their diverse interests, motivations, and career trajectories across the spectrum of seniority.