Integration vs. Dissolution of the self: translating yogic philosophy for the West

Texts discussed:

Daniel Raveh. “Lost in Translation: shifts of self and identity in the English versions of Patañjali’s Yogasūtras. Translating Selves. Ed. Nicolaou and Kyritsi. Continuum, 2008. Print.

Mark Singleton. Yoga Body: the origins of modern posture practice. Oxford UP, 2010. Print.

Much has been made of translating Western philosophical texts, especially by such giants as Wittgenstein and Heidegger, and much of it is still relatively inaccessible to the popular readership. The translation of Eastern philosophy, on the other hand, is a booming industry in the West that spawned not only countless translations original works like Bhagavad Ghita and Tao Te Ching, but also plenty of accessible commentaries qua bestsellers (for example, the wildly successful Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and The Tao of Pooh. Not surprisingly, the current yoga rend in the West (Huffington Post reports that it is now a 27-billion dollar industry) spawned several translations of Patañjali’s Yogasūtras, the 4th century A.D. text that is now widely recognized as the philosophical companion in modern physical practice. Daniel Raveh reviews several translations and argues that English translations, for the most part, distort the original aim of yoga practice — “toning it down” for the Western practitioners and providing confusing interpretations of key concepts.

Raveh stresses that the practice of yoga is to ascertain “one’s ‘I’ […] aiming to answer questions of what really ‘belongs to one’ and to establish which aspects of the ‘I’ are actually only peripheral and insignificant, a part of one’s asmitā (phenomenal, worldly self) rather than puruşa (one’s inner, trans-worldy self)” (170). This process is a constant movement away from what one isn’t, a shedding of old ways and attachments, a type of ‘death’ to the old (what we conceived of it) self. What strikes me about this statement is both its existential wisdom and almost scientific perspicacity — a sort of peeling away, layer by layer, of all false premises in order to arrive at the pure, disembodied remainder. Recently, I’ve read a memoir written by a brain scientist who had suffered a severe stroke that affected the left hemisphere of her brain. Consequently, Jill Taylor experienced a dissolution of her own personality and a feeling of complete oneness with her surroundings, a feeling that she needed to let go of in order to focus on her recovery. If the Western scientific and humanitarian projects are indeed fueled by the notion of improvement (of the self, of each other, of society), then we have to start off with a better sense of what exactly it is that we want to improve on and why. 

However, the yogic concept of dissolution (Raveh brings in the Sanskrit term kaivalya to describe an existential state of disassociation between mind and physical body) does not feature prominently in most English translations. Instead, the stress is not so much on the dissolution but on the integration of body and spirit as the ultimate goal of yoga. Perhaps the concept of the death of the self as we know it is too alien for Western practitioners (Raveh suggests that our reluctance to embrace the state of non-thinking being goes back to Cartesian dualism), but I can’t help to think that there is a profit motive as well. It is, after all, a $27-billion industry.

Mark Singleton’s book is written in a similarly revisionist spirit, but his project is much more ambitious in scope: he is examining the very roots of yoga in India and the West as primarily a physical practice (according to his research, the practice of postures or asanas were meant to be a complement to the more philosophical pursuits in the sūtras). Singleton argues against such catchwords as “traditional” and “authentic” and traces the roots of modern yoga practice transnationally, from the traveling contortionists, magicians, and “untouchables” in India to the early 20th century European bodybuilding movements, back to the yoga gymnasiums in India and back to the West again. Contrary to what many students of yoga may believe, there is no such thing as “authentic” yoga and the Indian tradition “has itself been subject to fragmentation, accretion, and innovation in much the same way as ‘modern yoga'” (location 353). As such, Singleton sees modern yoga as a “homonym” rather than a “synonym” for the Patañjali yoga.

In addition to trying to unveil the roots of “modern yoga,” Singleton adds another valuable contribution to the yoga scholarship by including a long chapter on visual representation of yoga poses (in the form of fitness manuals and photography), which helped to firmly establish certain sequences and poses in the West. He  also explains how the European women’s harmonial gymnastics movements augmented the existing rigorous posture practice with complementary stretching exercises.

If Raveh discusses literary translation/interpretation of the sūtras into English, it can be argued that Singleton discusses the translation of a whole industry from the East to the West and back again. As a concept, a trademark, a philosophical orientation, and physical practice, the transnational and critical study of yoga has much to offer to the study of translation, cultural, and visual rhetoric studies.





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