A classic text, the Mahabharata, reports, “Yogis who are without restraints [and] endowed with the power of yoga are [so many] masters, who enter into [the bodies of] the Prajapatis, the sages, the gods, and the great beings.” Finding this passage was one of the inspirational moments that motivated David Gordon White, J. F. Rowny Professor of Comparative Religion at the University of California, Santa Barbara, to pursue an investigation into the development of yogic practices. Wondering, “If these be yogis, then what is yoga?,” White tackled the history of yoga by focusing on those individuals who were called yogis in his latest book, Sinister Yogis (University of Chicago Press, 2009).
This approach challenges many of the preconceived Western notions of yoga. There is little meditation, breathing, exercise, impossible contortionism, etc. that is often associated with the practice. Further, it offers an alterative reading of histories of the philosophical development of yogic teachings, which are based primarily on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. What we are presented with is possession, shape-shifting, and creation of multiple selves, among other things. Overall, yogis, were defined as such, when they entered into or took over the bodies of others. White examines this history in a variety of contexts and across a vast expanse of history. Sinister Yogis continues White’s earlier work, Kiss of the Yogini: ‘Tantric Sex’ in its South Asian Contexts and The Alchemical Body: Siddha Traditions in Medieval India, and foreshadows his upcoming projects, Yoga in Practice and The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali: A Biography. Altogether, White’s research is rich and detailed but thoroughly readable, as he is a skilled storyteller. One will discover this with delight already on the first pages, which recount White’s encounters with yogis (or maybe the same yogi) from the mountains of Kathmandu to the parking lot of Los Angeles’ Trader Joe’s.