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Uncovering Traditions of Yoga: Q & A with James Mallinson

James Mallinson is not just a lecturer in Sanskrit & Classical Indian Studies at the School of Oriental & African Studies, but also, a yoga expert and a Mahant. Read about his experience researching ancient traditions of yoga in India.
BY Braingain Staff Writer |   04-05-2017

James Mallinson, 46, has taught at SOAS for almost four years. He is also an alumnus having studied for an MA in Anthropology (Ethnography at the time) back in 1992-93, after having read for a BA in Sanskrit at Oxford, a place he returned to for his PhD.

He is now leading a team of academics working to shed light on both the history and physical aspects of yoga; something he describes as his “dream project”. James Mallinson recently returned from a second month-long research trip in western India. SOAS Blogs sat down with him to hear some of the fascinating stories he uncovered on his research excursion.

Tell us about the highlights of your recent India trip

“We have five people on the team. Dr. Daniela Bevilacqua is one of them and she’s in India around half of the year meeting traditional yogis; I hooked up with her for a month-long trip in western Gujarat, looking at historical sites and also some living monasteries – very old ones with living yogi traditions.

We also went to this big crazy festival at Mount Girnar, again in Gujarat – it’s like a big party for all the yogis and holy men of one particular sect. They all end up dancing naked through the streets all night long and it’s completely nuts. The whole town gets taken over by the yogis and around half a million people who come to watch them. There’s one main night but they’re camping there for a week beforehand. We got there for the last couple of nights. Not sure I could have survived the whole week, to be honest. It’s pretty mad.”

I raise the point that many in the West would assume a yoga festival would be a wholesome affair…

“Not these guys. That’s one of the things we are trying to understand: the practices of yoga developed among these people who are world-renouncers, ascetics, who mortify their bodies. These Indian fakirs have been famous for thousands of years. Alexander the Great met “gymnosophists” who would assume incredibly difficult postures for hours on end in the burning sun; and the early – and still living – traditions of physical yoga practice are not seen as methods of cultivating of the body, they’re not to make you look better or healthier – almost the exact opposite. There’s a strong tradition amongst Indian holy men and women of self-mortification. Holding your arms in the air until they atrophy, for example. These austerities are seen as ways of acquiring physical power.

“One of the most interesting things we discovered on this recent trip was in the farthest west part of India, near the border with Pakistan. There’s a temple on top of an extinct volcano with a monastery at the foot of it. And the reason that the monastery is there is that at some point probably around 800 years ago a famous yogi called Dharamnath is meant to have stood on his head there with his eyes closed for 12 years. I need to do more research into the historical aspect of this but unfortunately reliable sources are few. That’s the legend though and he is said to have built up a huge store of ascetic power. This sort of thing occurs in various different legends of holy men. The gods are said to get worried about what the holy men will do with all this spiritual power and it is often the case in myths and legends that the gods will send some divine maiden to seduce the yogi and strip him of his powers.

In myth and legend, a famed guru stood on his head in this spot for 12 years. And…go!

“This wasn’t the fear in the case of Dharamnath. They were very aware that when he opened his eyes this huge blast of destructive energy would be unleashed, so they convinced him to swivel round 180 degrees during his headstand so he was facing to the north where the sea was. And when he opened his eyes he dried up the sea with this blast of energy and created what’s now the Rann of Kutch– this enormous salt flat – so this is a sort of creation myth about that whole large area of Gujarat.

“There are still yogis of his lineage there. One yogi we met will stand on his head for an hour and a quarter every day of the hot season, so for 4 months, emulating his Great Great Great etc. Grand Guru. And his guru-brother, i.e. someone with the same guru as him, a man renowned as a great yogi – what he does couldn’t be further removed from what you see in yoga studios in London – once a year he sits down for nine days and doesn’t move. Doesn’t eat, drink, go to the loo or anything and people come and worship him. These are the extreme yogis par excellence.”

So what does James Mallinson think of the popularity of yoga in the Western world today?

“On one level it’s great. When I got into this twenty-five years ago yoga was relatively obscure. So on a selfish level it’s extremely useful as there are plenty of non-academics interested in my research which is not only gratifying but makes it easier to find funding for my work. Even if you don’t practise yoga you probably know of someone who does and part of our work consists of trying to delineate the continuities and discontinuities between historical and modern practice; there’re plenty of both.

Statue of a yoga posture at a monastery in Gujarat, western India

“For example, there was a text I was looking at the other day which says categorically you mustn’t teach yoga in classes. It’s always been a one-on-one thing in India until recently. A great yoga guru may have just one or two disciples in their lifetime, which is very far removed from these big classes we see nowadays.”

I’d hate to imagine the fees for the central London studio that opts for that model…

“Ha. Yeah, exactly. And of course it’s not done for fees in India. Certainly the disciples aren’t paying. It’s sustained by lay people who worship these yogis and give them money to sustain them. So there’s another difference.

“As a historian though, it’s clear to me that there’s not one monolithic yoga tradition. You can find precedents for almost anything you’re seeing out there in the world of yoga today. People might say that it’s been awfully commercialised but some texts do say if you do this practice you will become extremely good looking and desired by the opposite sex and so on. So even that kind of thing has precedents.

You can find precedents for almost anything you’re seeing out there in the world of yoga today.

Is it true you have also been made a Mahant of the Sadhus? The first Westerner to receive the honour…

“I’m not sure I can go that far. Probably within my tradition but in other lineages it’s happened before. Certainly though it is unusual. I was quite ambivalent about it, to be honest. I didn’t feel worthy. I felt like an imposter to some extent. But again as before, there are precedents here with people in India being made Mahants who are not themselves full time ascetics. So I saw it more as an honorary degree and I’m careful not to abuse my privileges.

“That was the one objection, funnily enough, from within the order I am associated with. One Sadhu said ‘but what if he turns up at the next Kumbh Mela with 200 foreigners and wants to pitch camp?’.

“Maybe we should have a SOAS camp at the next one. Technically I have the right but I think it would be my last.”

The conversation originally appeared on the SOAS blog here and has been adapted and reproduced with permission.



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