Modern history can be understood as the study of the recent past and historical events that have led to the development of the world we inhabit now. In western scholarship this is generally considered to be the period of history since the age of enlightenment (17th and 18th centuries) and the impacts of the industrial revolution (19th century) that lead into the 20th century. Without denying the relevance of these events on the world stage and their role in modernity, the experience of the west also needs to be placed in its global historical context. The experience of modernity for the majority of the world was one of colonial rule and oppression.

To study the modern history of yoga is to unpick its popularised meanings and look critically at why, how and where it has evolved in the modern world. Traditions such as yoga and meditation were introduced to the West during a period of colonialism. In many ways our understandings of these practices today have 'been filtered and distorted through epistemic frameworks' that became dominant and globalised during this period (Quijano 2000, in Newcombe and O'Brien-Kop 2021)

Within the field of Yoga Studies there has been some seminal research over the last 20 years that attempts to fully historicise the recent developments of what we have come to know as yoga. This includes: Elizabeth De Michaelis' A History of Modern Yoga tracing yoga's ideological roots back to 18th century esotericism and the rise of neo-vedānta, and Joseph Alter (2004) and Mark Singleton's (2010) studies into the impact of biomedical science and physical culture movements on the development of modern postural practice.

Methodologically these studies tend to focus attention on a specific historical timeframe and draw on a range of primary source evidence including books, journals, newspapers, magazines and print media, photography, letters and personal correspondence and more recently audio-visual archives. This approach enables a detailed critical and contextual investigation of yoga's development at a particular moment in time, and as a product of the modern world. This is a development that is far from linear and, on closer inspection, the result of multiple influences and discourses.

[Image credit: Class with Yogi Sunita c.1965 reproduced with courtesy the Lotus and the Rose Publishers]

Audio interview – Dr Suzanne Newcombe

An interview with Suzanne Newcombe, Senior Lecturer in Religious Studies at the OU. We cover the importance of contemporary history, yoga as a powerful prism for understanding the contemporary world and the joy of archives

Recommended reading

  • Alter, Joseph (2004), Yoga in Modern India: The Body Between Science and Philosophy. Princeton University Press, Princeton and Oxford
  • De Michelis, E. (2004), A History of Modern Yoga: Patañjali and Western Esotericism. Continuum: London and New York
  • Deslippe, Phillip (2018) 'The Swami Circuit: Mapping the Terrain of Early American Yoga'. Journal of Yoga Studies (2018: Volume 1, pages 5-44)
  • Goldberg, Michelle (2016) The Goddess Pose: the audacious life of Indra Devi, the woman who helped bring yoga to the West. Corsair: London
  • Nanda, Meera (2016) ‘Yoga Scientized: How Swami Vivekananda Rewrote Patanjali’s Yoga Sūtra’ in 'Science in Saffron: Sceptical Essays on History of Science'. Three Essays Collective: Gurgaon
  • Newcombe, Suzanne (2018) 'Connecting the Threads: The Convergence of Yoga and Ayurveda from 1900-Present', Blogpost accessed 21/09/2018.
  • Newcombe, Suzanne (2019) Yoga in Britain: Stretching Spirituality and Educating Yogis. Equinox
  • Singleton, Mark (2010) The Origins of Modern Posture Practice. Oxford University Press: Oxford and New York