Review of Suzanne Newcombe, Yoga in Britain: Stretching Spirituality and Educating Yogis

Book Review

Suzanne Newcombe, Yoga in Britain: Stretching Spirituality and Educating Yogis. Sheffield, UK and Bristol, CT: Equinox Publishing Ltd, 2019, pp. xiv + 270, ISBN: 978-1-78179-660-3 (Pbk).

Yoga is a multi-billion dollar global industry, with an estimated 200 million participants. Yet despite its popularity, there is much debate regarding what ‘yoga’ actually is; for some it is primarily a form of physical exercise based around postures (asana), while for others it is a philosophical and spiritual system that informs their daily life. Further, the origins of yoga are vague and mysterious. Contemporary forms of yoga are frequently marketed as being derived from an ‘ancient’ (i.e. legitimate) spiritual tradition that dates back to 2500 BC, however, some scholars of yoga[1] argue that modern postural forms of yoga evolved relatively recently out of the relationship between modern Indian nationalism and early twentieth century physical fitness movements in Europe and America. What is becoming increasingly clear is that yoga can only be understood when it is studied within the context of particular time periods, traditions and locations. In Yoga in Britain, Suzanne Newcombe aims to elucidate one such context: popular yoga in twentieth century Britain, in particular the period between 1945 and 1980.

Yoga in Britain consists of a prologue, eight chapters and a postscript. Newcombe states that the chapters “might best be understood as vignettes, or windows into an understanding of how yoga became a popular and acceptable leisure activity in Britain during this period” (5). Chapter One The Literary Elite: Booksellers and Publishers begins in the early twentieth century and discusses how yoga was popularised via printed books. It considers how the British yoga literature market was created by a handful of key players; authors, editors, publishers, and bookshops who had both a commercial and personal interest in yoga, and the power to influence the teachers and texts that were to become integrated into British culture. Chapter Two The Self-taught Yogis, Adult Education and the Wheel of Yoga examines how yoga was popularised from the 1930s to the late 1960s, first through networks of physical culture magazines and mail order correspondence courses, and later within government-funded adult education classes. The inclusion of yoga in non-vocational adult education was a particularly important development as it provided a structure in which yoga could be advertised, organised and taught (by qualified teachers) in a secular and affordable way; providing the initial model for the yoga classes we see today.

Chapter Three Charismatic Gurus in Adult Education compares and contrasts the individual approaches of two popular yoga teachers, Sunita Cabral (1932-1970) and B.K.S. Iyengar (1918-2015). While both teachers had “considerable personal charisma” Cabal’s teachings were passed down via a traditional guru-śiṣya (teacher-disciple) transmission of authority, and hence did not achieve widespread or lasting popularity (107). Iyengar, on the other hand, institutionalised his teachings, which allowed them to spread independent of his own personal charisma and develop into one of the world’s most widely recognised ‘styles’ of yoga.

During the 1960s and 1970s, seventy to ninety percent of the students in yoga classes were female (109) and Chapter Four Middle-Class Women Join Evening Classes focuses specifically on this key demographic and their motivations for practice. Yoga was also popular amongst members of the 1960s counterculture and this population is discussed in detail in Chapter Five Yoga in Popular Music and the ‘Counter-culture’ (the 1960s and ‘70s). While yoga in mainstream adult education emphasised health and relaxation, yoga was also approached by members of the counterculture as a tool for consciousness transformation and a way to access the divine. This chapter covers a large amount of ground, including the arrival of new spiritual groups and centres, spiritual tourism, and celebrities (in particular, The Beatles). This period also saw the creation of yoga television programs (Chapter Six Yoga on the Telly) making yoga available to an audience of millions. Newcombe argues that televised yoga is best be understood as a continuation of the adult-education form of yoga, with programs emphasising health, relaxation and physical safety. Chapter Seven Yoga as Therapy explores further the connection between yoga and health; in particular the use of yoga to alleviate physical and mental suffering.

Chapter Eight Diversity of Practice and Practitioners explores the beliefs of the general population of yoga practitioners, which Newcombe describes as an attitude of ‘seekership’ combined with private explorations of spirituality “outside the yoga class” (229). Many practitioners used yoga as a tool to help them perform their socially expected roles, so in this way yoga “supported rather than challenged government policy and public opinion on religion, morality, education and public health” and was relatively uncontroversial (257). A postscript Yoga in Britain after the 1980s gives a brief overview of some of the changes that happened from the 1990s onwards including the emergence of yoga ‘brands’ and the movement of classes from government funded adult education into the private marketplace. The past several decades have been a period of extreme and rapid change in the yoga industry, and while much more could have been said about this period, a comprehensive treatment of post-1990s yoga would have probably doubled the length of the book.

In sum, Yoga in Britain highlights the rich and nuanced history of yoga in Britain during the twentieth century. Newcombe demonstrates that what we call ‘yoga’ is not the result of a linear narrative from the ‘ancient’ to the ‘modern.’ Rather, yoga might better be understood as a phenomenon that has emerged from a “kaleidoscope” of voices; some more powerful and influential than others (2). Newcombe also highlights the artificiality of the perceived East versus West divide by revealing how modern yoga is the result of a constant cross-cultural exchange across borders. Finally, Yoga in Britain challenges the common assumption that beneath all the diversity, there exists some core or authentic yoga; this idea is simply not supported by historical evidence. As such, this book should make a valuable contribution to the debate surrounding the ‘authenticity’ of yoga, or who might ‘own’ yoga.

A version of this review has been published in ALTERNATIVE SPIRITUALITY AND RELIGION REVIEW 10:2 (2019).

[1] E.g. Mark Singleton, Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Postural Practice (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2010).

Photo by Artem Bali on Unsplash.