Seghir Lazri works on the theme of social vulnerability of athletes. In this column, he takes a few pictures of sport through the social sciences. How the social explains sport, and vice versa.
Confinement requires, physical exercises at home have become the only solutions to keep in shape. Among these practices, yoga, given the limited resources it requires and its significant presence on broadcasting networks, has been extremely successful. Combined with the image of healthy and fulfilling exercise, this millennial activity of Indian origin has constantly evolved and changed over time and in societies. Which leads us to question: in this age of ultra performance and social networks, what type of yoga do we practice?
Goodbye the body
To reduce yoga to just physical activity would not be very fair. Behind this term, first, there is a spiritual discipline specific to Hindu philosophy. Although difficult to date, the most primitive forms of yoga would have appeared between the IIIe and the Ier millennium BC. But it was at the end of this period, under the rise of Brahmanism, that this philosophy developed by adopting a discourse. Indeed, yoga was first of all a form of renunciation of the world, “A voice of inner silence”, according to the work of the Indianist Michel Angot. The Brahmanization of yoga, in other words the association of speech with this initially silent experience, will give rise to a collection which is called Yoga-sutra. For Michel Angot, the main object of Hindu philosophy, especially through yoga, is the deliverance of the soul through the absence of suffering. It’s actually a “Suicide of the body”, in the sense that it is a question of putting bodily sensations at a distance, or even of extinguishing them in order to eliminate suffering and pain, and to “Put the mind to rest”.
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The real upheaval takes place only around the XIe century, with the appearance of a new form of yoga, called tantric, which proposes to unite with the divine. This results in the search for perfection by the full exploitation of human capacities, both physical and mental. From then on, the yoguist becomes quite something other than this ascetic figure, he is a performing body and resistant to pain. So in the XVIIIe century, yogists were even employed as soldiers against the British army, and sometimes recruited by the latter. They passed “Men of peace to men of war”, according to Michel Angot. Far from the more original Yoga Sutra exercises, which put forward the work of sound and speech much more than that of the body. In other words, the achievement of asanas, body postures, was only secondary.
Breaking with the yoga of the origins, that spread all over the world and more particularly in Western societies rests on other cultural and social heritages than those of South Asia. French journalist Marie Kock, author of the book Yoga, a world story, returns at length to this diffusion through Western societies, which really began from the end of the XIXe at the instigation of master Swami Vivekananda. This last “First major exporter of Indian spirituality”, according to Michel Angot, participates amply in making yoga a tool of soft power for an Indian nation still under British supervision, but whose independence movement continues to grow. Regarding the practice itself, this yoga had to renounce part of its heritage to integrate other practices, such as different forms of gymnastics (Swedish in particular), and thus better correspond to the Western public.
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This is why yoga, by adapting and responding to the normative injunctions of its time, sees its practice mainly concentrated around bodily exercises, where the idea of body conservation and the quest for eternal youth have definitively replaced this original posture of renouncing the world. The imperative of health and long life which undoubtedly places “The body at the center of interests” according to the philosopher Isabelle Queval, is fully found in the new forms of yoga, which social networks promote. This is how the increasingly large dissemination of spectacular physical prowess (especially on Instagram) tends on the one hand to reduce yoga to a performative approach (to surpass oneself all the time), but also to propagate a discriminating normativity ( neither too thin nor too big). In addition, as Marie Kock points out, this predominance of a juvenile vision of the body generates new forms of precariousness in the world of yoga teaching, with many practitioners constantly seeking an ever younger and influential teacher.
In these times of confinement, the promotion of yoga exercises is in full swing. It seems important to understand that current practices are far removed from yoga of the origins and that they respond to contemporary structural and ideological determinisms. To understand this is not to denigrate the yogas of today, but above all to get rid of this exotic representation (often used for promotion) and understand that this practice, as it is inscribed in our social universe, can be a means of understanding.