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Reviewed by:
  • Gurus of Modern Yoga ed. by Mark Singleton and Ellen Goldberg
  • Miriam Y. Perkins (bio)
Gurus of Modern Yoga. Edited by Mark Singleton and Ellen Goldberg. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2014. 416 pp. $29.95.

Books on yoga span a dizzying array of genres: history, self-help, spirituality, philosophy, religion, teacher pedagogy, and devotional. It is fair to say, admitting the sound resourcefulness of many books, that almost anything goes. Gurus of Modern Yoga, however, is firmly located within the primarily Western modern academic field of religious studies. The volume’s authors are well credentialed scholars drawn to the complexities of yoga’s history, and in some cases also practitioners and/or teachers. The research methods lean toward ethnography and critical biography. In places, though not frequently enough, there are welcome hints of the authors’ personal as well as academic connections and investments in the various branches of yoga and their beliefs, practices, and gurus.

The array of available books on yoga mirrors the billowing interest in yoga within the United States since the 1960s. As part of marketplace dynamics, yoga students, teachers and studios navigate a plethora of yoga styles and branding: Hatha, Vinyasa, Bikram, Ashtanga, Kundalini, Phoenix Rising, Kripalu, Tantra, Bhakti, to name only a few. As a yoga practitioner and credentialed instructor, I find the diversity of yoga styles and lineages confusing even to the reasonably well-informed. One of the more practical uses of Gurus of Modern Yoga is as a compendium of multiple and influential yoga philosophies and their spiritual founders. The book provides sound and balanced entry into this complexity and [End Page 143] provides helpful orientation to the dynamics of popular spiritual seeking through yoga related practices. Regardless of one’s personal interest in yoga, its legacies are proliferating and intersecting with practices of wellness, prayer, spiritual community, and spiritual direction. It’s helpful to wade into these connections with Gurus of Modern Yoga as a resource.

Gurus of Modern Yoga surveys approximately eighteen transnational leaders working across cultures and spanning primarily the twentieth and twenty-first centuries in concise essays that navigate complex sources judiciously. It includes figures relatively well-known within the West, such as Swami (teacher) Vivekananda, T. Krishnamacharya and his extremely influential students B. K. S. Iyengar and Sri (revered) K. Pattabhi Jois. Other chapters introduce international figures equally influential but not as well known outside India such as Sri Aurobindo, Shri Yogendra, Swami (master) K.rpālvānanda, Muktananda, Pramukh Swami Maharaj, Sathya Sai Baba, Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev, Amma (mother) Mata Amritananandamayi, Eknath Ranade, and Swami Ramdev.

One of the important contributions of the book is its inclusion of lesser known women gurus active during the early twentieth century when yoga was practiced and taught primarily by upper caste Indian men. These intriguing women include Mirra Alfassa (known as Divine Mother, 1878–1973), who was a Parisian with Turkish, Egyptian, and Sephardic Jewish ancestry who moved to India in the 1920s to partner with Sri Aurobindo in the development of Integral Yoga and direct the Sri Aurobindo Ashram in Pondicherry. Contributor Suzanne Newcombe introduces readers to Yogini Sunita (1932–1970), the daughter of Brahmin caste Indian Catholics whose birth name was Bernadette Bocarro. Yogini Sunita left the life of a Franciscan nun, emigrated to the United Kingdom in the 1950s, and became an eccentric, well-respected, and, at the time, widely known yoga teacher, advocate, and spiritual healer. She was killed in a traffic accident in her late thirties. And finally, perhaps better known but no less intriguing, is Amma (Mata Amritananandamayi, 1953 –). Amma has dedicated her life to mass gatherings of healing in which she encircles devotees in what many describe as a life-changing embrace. Her ministry of embrace is paired with a robust promotion of “bhakti,” or devotional service, expressed as care for the poor and populations effected by natural disasters.

Gurus of Modern Yoga follows a loose chronological order beginning with the early influence of Swami Vivekananda (1863–1902) and ending with twenty-first century contemporary figures. The book draws upon and extends respected historical treatments of modern yoga from authors Joseph Alter, Elizabeth De Michelis, Ellen Goldberg and Mark...