In A Student's Guide to the History and Philosophy of Yoga, author Peter Connolly offers what are essentially two different books, one for the serious historian and one for the psychological philosopher. He acknowledges in the introduction that this 2007 publication was written to support a syllabus course on yoga philosophy for an organization called the British Wheel of Yoga; to read the first six chapters, one would be well advised to have a more passing acquaintance with Sanskrit than what is offered in the opening reference pages.
Connolly, both teacher and student of Indian religion and philosophy for over twenty years, provides a heavily referenced narrative of the evolution of the many and varied flavors of Hinduism and Buddhism. Only the most dedicated will be able to follow the complex history offered in the early chapters. Having a stack of source materials (listed in the extensive bibliography) at hand for continuous back-and-forth reference may be helpful, but be prepared for an extended period of intensive study.
There are fascinating nuggets of information interspersed with the often rambling narrative. Connolly questions whether the Western concept of yoga can truly incorporate the underlying Eastern philosophy, starting with notions as basic as a cyclical versus linear view of time. On more than one occasion, his description of the Vedic levels of existence presages the Platonic Forms. In a section discussing the evolution of ritual, he brings in the work of such eminent, and somewhat disparate, scholars of civilization as Jared Diamond and Julian Jayne.
Connolly's text is harder to decipher when he explores the hagiographies of the Indian religions, and he notes the difficulties inherent in tracing the progression of theologies through the Vedas, Upanişads (Vedānta, or Veda's End), and the Buddhist Pāli Canon because of uncertainty in dating the various writings and compilations. As with the more familiar (to Western readers) Judeo-Christian religious scriptures, Indian texts have gone through numerous revisions as societal and political shifts brought different teachings into prominence. Connolly identifies the most extensive description of yogic practice in the Upanişads as found in the Black Yajurveda, dated somewhere around 1,000-700 BCE; however, controversy remains as to whether yoga originated with the Vedics or was adopted from earlier systems.
The detailed analysis of the historical origins of the Indian religions and of yoga will be of limited interest to most Western readers because what we consider yoga is far different from that practiced by the early Vedics. By chapter seven, when Connolly shifts to what he terms "Modern Yoga" in the mid 1800s as opposed to the traditional Indian variety, the entire voice of the book changes, and one would almost think the final two chapters were written by a different person. These thirty-two pages, however, make any effort to comprehend the previous two-hundred pages worthwhile.
Connolly credits Swami Vivekananda with formally bringing yoga from India to the United States in an 1893 address to the Chicago Parliament of Religions. The Indian teacher's four published texts, Karma Yoga and Rāja Yoga (published in 1896), and Jñāna Yoga and Bhakti Yoga (published after his death in 1902), laid the foundation for modern yoga. Connolly describes a shift in yogic practice from spiritual and metaphysical to an emphasis on health improvement and therapy that was more in line with pragmatic Western concerns. Later teachers followed this trend including Swami Śivānanda, whose school of thought is the origin for the Divine Life Society where Connolly previously lectured. This evolution brought yoga to the point where it "is for being in the world as well as taking one out of it."
In the final chapter, Connolly turns to more scientific viewpoints and provides an intriguing theory linking mystical experience, yogic meditation and trances. He addresses the underlying conflict which arises from any belief system that lays claim to "truth," noting such a stance inevitably labels everyone else as wrong. Connolly summarizes the aforementioned incompatibilities in the Veda and moves into a wide-ranging discussion of illusion and reality, of the definition of mental health, and of the experiential components of the trance, ending with, "It is also equally possible that all of these accounts are accurate descriptions of experiences that were mistakenly accorded objective status."
In a return to the pragmatic, Connolly champions the everyday value of yoga, making "real benefits" the winner, "even if their metaphysics are inaccurate." While in no sense a primer on the practice of yoga, Connolly's book offers something for students at many levels of inquiry on this ancient, and now modern, discipline.
© 2010 Cynthia L. Pauwels
Reviewer Cynthia L. Pauwels holds an MA in Creative Writing and a BA in Humanities with a World Classics certification from Antioch University McGregor in Yellow Springs, Ohio. She works as a freelance writer with numerous short fiction, non-fiction and technical writing credits.