book review: Yoga PhD by Carol Horton

BookCover6x9_BW_220_R2Other than some yoga history and philosophy years back, I don’t usually read much about yoga. I try to keep it as experiential as possible. But the more I write, the more I have begun to look to what others are saying.

In trying to explain hatha yoga a few weeks ago, I found myself needing to explain yoga history. It’s been over five years since I’ve thought much about it, so I went back to the library stacks. I was surprised to find a number of new books, as the subject previously limited to somewhat arcane academic studies (e.g. Alter and White). First on my pile, dictated by its early due date, was Yoga Ph.D. by Jnana Yogi Carol Horton. Though not straight-up history, it was a perfect start to my research. Horton is an academic, yoga practitioner, teacher, and thinker, and I related deeply to her coming to terms with the non-verbal ways of knowing that yoga can inspire, as well as the wooey-ness of the yoga community at large. I also appreciated her totally different approach to our somewhat similar experiences.

Critical thinkers often feel at odds with American yogis because, as Horton explains, critical thinking is often frowned upon in yoga communities, as well as our culture. But we can also feel at odds with other critical thinkers who look down on yoga as some new age escapism—even more so if we teach. It seemed to me that she wrote the book as much for her academically-minded peers as the yoga community. Though ultimately, she wrote it to process something in and for herself.

Yoga was opening new realities to me, taking me places that the purely rational part of my brain, which I had cultivated so assiduously for so many years, couldn’t go on its own. Reading emotions in the body, visualizing archetypes of the subconscious, tracing threads of connection to primordial mysteries both dark and bright – I was discovering new, extra-rational terrain that felt nourishing, exciting, different. But I was too rooted in and fond of the logical to embrace the mushy New Age notions that dominate American discourse on the more esoteric dimensions of yoga today. At the same time, I was too hyper-conscious of (and intrigued by) the peculiarities of post-modern yoga to embrace the quasi-traditional Indian spirituality that many serious practitioners pursue. I wanted to understand yoga in a way that was true to my own experience….that meant integrating two seemingly disparate parts of myself [the Professor and the Yogini.]”

(Yoga Ph.D., p. 2)

carol horton

Carol Horton, PhD

This is a scary space, at first, for a critical thinker. It took me quite some time to respect the quiet knowing that often contradicts what my dominant, rational, control-freak ego brain dictates. I think this is true for many over-thinkers, though it’s oft-noted that great minds from Einstein to Plath are all driven as much by intuition as by reason.

From early on in my yoga practice, I was concerned with bringing together the tension of the opposites. This is a popular theme in both American yoga as well as Jungian psychology, and I became interested in both at the same time. Uniting Shiva and Shakti, ida and pingala, sun and moon, masculine and feminine, conscious and unconscious, doing and being, yang and yin are similar themes. Sometimes it seems like an impossible balance in the pomo era, when rationality, masculinity, and control are idealized, and intuition, femininity, and submission are relegated to the ditzy, tacky, and weak. Is the cliche of a pink princess or a group of upper middle class white women chanting homage to Lakshmi really the best we can do? It’s not.

Horton writes the book in an attempt to integrate these opposites. “I was worried that if I started analyzing my yoga experiences, they’d lose their power (p.3).” I get that, though I was worried that if I analyzed my yoga experiences, I’d bully them out of existence. And I see that in my academic students as well. A plea to not make me think about this. “Please just let me have one space where I am free from the critical thinker!”

So It’s impressive that Horton is able to integrate these dualities for the book. Her goal is to “make sense of the strange multi-dimensionality of contemporary yoga” by examining the dualities: commercial vs spiritual, ancient vs modern, traditional vs revolutionary. She does so in celebration of modern yoga, instead of decrying the changes of post-modernity. It’s refreshing.

The book includes short but substantial explanations of yoga history, psychology, spirituality, sociology woven together with a thesis on a post-modern “democratizing” force in yoga and a (stronger) personal narrative. There were so many interesting threads throughout the book that I hope to take some of them up in future posts. In the meantime, highly recommended!


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