This interview with yoga scholar David Gordon White provides a compelling window into the development of yoga studies as an academic discipline over the past 50 years and reflections on White’s prolific career researching South Asian religions. A leading historian of tantra and medieval Indian asceticism, White shares how his early fascination with Indian spirituality led him to rigorous textual study and fieldwork exploring yoga, alchemy, and esoteric traditions. White emphasizes the need to contextualize yoga beyond limited associations with the Yoga Sūtra, arguing that tantric and vernacular texts reveal more expansive understandings. He advocates broadening the scope to non-Hindu and cross-cultural contexts, noting fascinating connections between Indic and European conceptions of heroes and spiritual athletes. Throughout, White stresses rigorous philological analysis combined with a detective-like sifting of clues from multiple sources to reconstruct ancient worldviews. Regarding his fieldwork, White reflects that direct experience practicing haṭha yoga and interacting with Nāth yogis gave invaluable perspective, even as his views grew more critical over time. He expresses disappointment with rising Hindu nationalism and credulity towards modern yoga innovations. Most of all, White’s depth of knowledge and excitement solving historical mysteries shine through. He stresses that academic study should increase, not lessen, appreciation for the diversity of Indic wisdom traditions. Though unable to fully capture living lineages, he believes meticulous scholarship can still yield meaningful insights into yoga’s rich history.
About David Gordon White
David Gordon White is an eminent scholar of Hinduism and Indian religions, Distinguished Emeritus Professor of Religious Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He has made groundbreaking contributions to the academic understanding of South Asian esoteric traditions, especially Yoga, Tantra, and alchemy. Born in 1953 in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, Dr. White became fascinated with Sanskrit and Indian philosophies as a young student. He received his BA in South Asian Studies from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1975, completing an MA (1981) and PhD (1988) in History of Religions from the University of Chicago. After obtaining his PhD, White taught at the University of Virginia from 1986 to 1996. In 1994, he founded that university’s study abroad program in Jodhpur, India. From 1996 to 2021, he was a faculty member at UC Santa Barbara. White has been profoundly influential in the field of Indic studies. He is the author of six books, including Myths of the Dog-Man (1991), The Alchemical Body (1996), Sinister Yogis (2009), and Dæmons Are Forever: Contacts and Exchanges in the Eurasian Pandemonium (2020). His writings have shed critical light on topics such as Yoga, Tantra, alchemy, demonology, and the evolution of esoteric beliefs across cultures.
White’s extensive research has been recognized through prestigious fellowships, including from the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation and Fulbright-Hays. He has lectured at academic institutions worldwide, from the Sorbonne to the University of Chicago. Through his scholarly achievements and tireless efforts to illuminate the history of South Asian mystical practices, White has indelibly shaped the field of Hindu and Tantric studies. He continues to be an influential voice guiding the understanding of yoga’s origins and diverse manifestations across millennia.
– David Gordon White
- White first traveled to India as an undergraduate in the 1970s, when India and Indian spirituality were seen as “groovy” and attracted many Westerners. He studied Hindi before going and was fascinated by India. He practiced haṭha yoga while living in Varanasi in the 1980s, working with a yoga teacher to gain bodily understanding of the postures described in texts. This was part of his PhD research exploring links between yoga and alchemy. White spent four years total traveling in India and Nepal. He interacted with Nāth yogis during this time.
- White believes the Yoga Sūtras are overemphasized as the core historical yoga text. They were not widely commented on or influential in much of India’s history of ideas. The popularity today derives mainly from Vivekananda’s focus.
- White states there is no single core historical yoga text. The diversity of yogas requires examining “texts” of all types – philosophical, narrative, iconographic, etc. He believes critical study of Sanskrit texts remains important, but vernacular sources may provide new insights and should also be examined. His view is that yoga must be understood from texts, since oral lineages have been broken. But this requires casting a wide net across multiple languages and traditions.
- White sees the most exciting advances happening when the boundaries of yoga history are expanded – looking at non-Hindu, vernacular, cross-cultural contexts that change the perspective. He believes contemporary synthesized yoga practices hold little insight for historical understanding and that the most fruitful work examines medieval materials in broader frameworks.
This interview took place on 22 September 2023.
Wittich: Could you share a personal story you feel comfortable with about your interest in studying yoga academically?
White: When I was an undergraduate, I studied Hindi for two years before going to India on the University of Wisconsin study abroad program in Benares in my senior year. So my undergraduate study was from ’72 to ’74, and I went to India in ’74 to ’75. Sanskrit I started a year later, so from ’73 to ’74, and then I continued my study in Benares from ’74 to ’75.
My interest in studying yoga academically comes out of personal economic issues. I was a starving student in Paris in 1980, and I put up little signs in Oriental bookstores saying I was capable of teaching or translating English, Hindi, or Sanskrit. And some guy contacted me, you know, this is before the Internet. I think he had to write me a letter. I didn’t have a phone and he said he had these alchemical texts that his guru had given him in India, and could I translate them into French? At that very same time, I had just been accepted to the University of Chicago Divinity School, and I didn’t have the money to fly back to Chicago. I was living in Paris, and so I said I could, which was a lie. I don’t remember how it worked, but he paid me, so I could buy my plane ticket back to the US after four years in Paris. And over the next several months, starting before I left Paris and after I returned to the States, I translated the Rasārṇava in full from Sanskrit into French. And it was a terrible translation. But it got me to Chicago. And a year later, in my Hindi reading class with Professor Kali Charan Bahl, we were reading the Gorakhbāṇī, which are these, you know, mystical poems attributed to Gorakhnāth, but probably much later, written in some kind of Khari Boli, some sort of vernacular forerunner of a regional form of Hindi. And I noticed that, concerning the language of the Gorakhbāṇī, the terminology was similar to what I had found in my mediocre translation of the Rasārṇava, and so that, you know, lit a fire in my mind. And, you know, I guess a year later, I wrote a paper that set out my ideas about how perhaps the alchemy of the Rasārṇava, which was an 11th-century alchemical text perhaps had some influence on the way that whoever wrote the Gorakhbāṇī, whenever it was written, understood the workings of the human body. So that was what got me interested in studying yoga academically… and then this sort of segues into your second question.
When I was in junior high school, The Beatles went to India, and they came back with the beads and the Nehru collars, and India was so cool. My generation, pretty much everyone who was in the Divinity School at Chicago with me, were old hippies or young hippies. I mean, we were all into India because of that. India was really groovy at the time. And so, yeah, what? So because I had this sort of, you know, starry-eyed notion about Indian spirituality, I took a class in the University of Wisconsin my first year I was there, and my professor David Knipe, who was a graduate of the Divinity School at Chicago, told me I was pretty good at that stuff, and I should start studying the languages. So, one thing led to another. I kind of backed into it, and I have no regrets.
The other reason why India fascinated me in those years was when I was a high school student in my senior year, our teacher, instead of teaching us world geography or something, she mostly taught us about India because she had gone there for a number of months… she had some personal and professional reasons to go there. And she showed us slides, and she, she had us read a, you know, an abridged version of Mahābhārata, which she called the MahAbharAta. And so there was that too. So yeah, India was very much in the air in those years, kind of like Tibet became a couple of decades later. It was really the cool place to be, to study.
And yeah, lots of people went to India. I mean, I went back after my first study abroad year. I traveled overland from Europe, as so many hippies did. And I didn’t die. But, you know, I thought I was going to go back and live there, but that didn’t turn out. So then I came back to Paris and a couple of years later had this offer to translate the Rasārṇava into French.
Over time, my fascination turned into a more objective regard of India and its traditions. I became less enamored of the Indian spirituality in part because while living in Paris, I had also spent a lot of time reading about European religious history, particularly medieval… I’ve always been interested in the medieval, and I found that European spirituality was as interesting as that of India. And so I was, you know, I started thinking more critically, not in the sense of negatively but just more, you know, comparatively, and saw there was good in both places. So, somewhere in those years, partly from my teachers I had in Paris and then also in Chicago, I, you know, I gained some critical distance and was no longer studying spirituality to understand reality or ultimate reality, which was my original goal, you know, to understand how things really are, but rather to understand how they were for people in their historical context. And that’s why I’ve been a rigorous empirical historian ever since.
Wittich: Have you spent time living, studying, or traveling in India? If so, how did that shape your understanding of yoga?
White: The first time I went there it was on the study abroad program, that was all, you know, we were all kind of taken care of. The second time, I traveled overland and back with a girlfriend. And yeah, it didn’t work out in the sense that we couldn’t stay because we ran out of money. She flew back from Mumbai to Paris, but I came back overland. I had to sell my shoes on the way back, at first in Afghanistan. Well, actually, that’s a long story. The sale fell through in Kabul in a violent way. I eventually sold them in Mashad, in Iran, and that helped me to get as far as Turkey. And then an Australian guy who I was traveling with loaned me money to get from Turkey back to Paris, which is where I stayed for a few years. And yeah, I still had vague notions of going back to India and staying there… I thought Puri in Orissa was a really great place. I mean, it is a great, it was a great place. I don’t know if it still is, but lovely beach with that wonderful temple, and just it was a good, so it had a really good vibe. But yeah, I grew up.
I spent time with Nāth yogis, I spent quite a bit of time with Nāth yogis. So, there was certainly field research, but with very few, really just two exceptions, I would say none of the yogis were very knowledgeable about their own tradition. The great exception being Naraharināth Yogi, who was really a great scholar and practitioner who is in some way had the ear of King Birendra, the one who was killed by his uncle, and whose entire family was wiped out by his uncle. So yeah, Naraharināth was, you know, he was both, he had a political life, the life of a Yogi and an intellectual life. He was really quite an exceptional man. So yeah, there was that, there was the textual material and then, of course, a lot of non-yogic sources, Ayurvedic and alchemical and Tantric because those were necessary to kind of contextualize the yogic material. Not so much iconographic stuff though, because I guess there wasn’t all that much. I mean, for example, representations of a figure on a fish in different places that might or might not have been Matsyendranāth, but that was fairly peripheral. It was mostly textual.
When I was doing the graduate research in ’84 to ’85, I spent some time in the chem lab of the Ayurvedic College at Benares University and they were doing this stuff with mercury and all. And more than once, we had to run out of the lab because some of the mercury was vaporizing. And if you breathe that in, your lungs get perforated. But I never tried that stuff on my own… I didn’t have the raw materials. And besides, those recipes are really hard to follow. I mean, they’re pretty obscure… There’s a lot of names of plants that are different from one region to another. And so you’re not sure you got the right one there. Some of the measures are also vague, you know, how much does a mustard seed weigh? Things like that. So no, I didn’t try to do any of that stuff.
Yeah. So, yeah, about four years altogether between India and Nepal. And that was there that I started practicing yoga. I hadn’t before then, and it wasn’t until I was there during my graduate research that became The Alchemical Body. And since by then, I knew, or had my theory that haṭha yoga was in some way inspired by the language of alchemy, I wanted to have a bodily experience of haṭha yoga. So, I was in Banaras and there was this professor in the Yoga Department at Banaras Hindu University. I asked him, you know, if he knew someone I could do haṭha yoga with. And he said, yeah, there’s this young Bengali named Sujit Paul who won the Indian Yoga Olympics a year or two earlier because they already had those back then. This was 1984, and so he gave me his address, and he said, by the way, Sujit is living in the compound of Satya Charan Lahiri. I didn’t know who that was at the time. So I went to the Bengali neighborhood, found the place, and the little, you know, the little marble plaque of the house at the gate, said Chandralok, and I thought, “Oh, this is cool, Moon Land, definitely these guys are into the lunar landscapes of haṭha.” And so I walked into the courtyard and into the history of modern yoga, because there were these two life-size, literally life-size statues sitting in yoga posture at the center of the courtyard. And if you recall from the Autobiography of a Yogi, Yogananda’s teacher was Lahiri Mahasaya, and the statues in the courtyard were of Lahiri Mahasaya and his pupil, whose name I forget. Satya Charan Lahari was the disciple of the guy whose name I can’t remember. His guru’s guru was Lahiri Mahasaya. So I was in really great company there. So I used to sit in that cool courtyard with those famous, you know, statues of famous yogis until my teacher came out, I mean Sujit. Who was this, you know, young God. I mean, he was so flexible and just beautiful. I mean, he could do stuff. And he put me through the paces for several months. I guess I was there for, I was there for 13 months. So, I probably worked with him for most of that time when I was not traveling. So then I had the, you know, the physical experience of haṭha, which was great. And I still have the notebooks that he drew in, the pictures of the postures and stuff, and all that.
I went on practicing yoga until about, I mean, not always, but certainly most of the years up until about ’96, which is when I left my job at the University of Virginia and went to Santa Barbara. Actually, no, I continued in Santa Barbara for a couple of years. And then I just I found that swimming was much more stimulating, much less boring than yoga. So, I stopped doing yoga. I’ve been swimming ever since.
Wittich: When you say practicing yoga, do you refer to āsana practice?
White: Yeah, āsana practice without prāṇāyāma, just the postures. I never did prāṇāyāma, and I can’t say I ever really meditated. I don’t know. I don’t really know what that means. I just did the ones that are in the Haṭhayogapradīpikā. And yeah, so I lived in India and Nepal for several years, and for a good part of that time I was working on yoga and alchemy. And then, as time went on, I shifted more to the study of the god Bhairava, to Tantra in general, and on to contacts and exchanges between South Asia and the West, mainly in the medieval period.
Oh, I well, I’m trying to remember the chronology. I think I’d finished really thinking about and writing Sinister Yogis when I returned to India and Nepal in 1999, and I didn’t think I had anything more to do or say about Haṭha and alchemy and Tantra. But I have to back up. When I was writing The Alchemical Body, I was struck by how much sexual fluids or the mineral homologues to sexual fluids or the yogic internal homologues to sexual fluids were prominent. And so that got me interested in sexual fluids, and that’s what pushed me into writing the book called Kiss of the Yogini, which was about sexual fluids. And if you read the forward to that book, I thank my wife for listening to me talk about sexual fluids at breakfast and every meal of the day for seven years, which I did. And then, in the course of reading that or writing that book, I was struck by language, mainly in the Kaulajñānaniṇaya and but afterward and lots of places, that Yogi was a term that did not mean someone who sat cross-legged and meditated. It was a term for someone who was accomplished in their tantric practice, who was, you know, fit for initiation or was already initiated. And so that got me interested in Yogis, and that became the seed for Sinister Yogis, that and a verse I had come across in the Mahābhārata‘s 12th book that says basically that yogis are capable of penetrating everything in the world and putting everything in the world under their power. Those sorts of contrary characterizations of what a Yogi was as opposed to someone who meditates and follows the precepts of the Yoga Sutras are what pushed me into writing the Sinister Yogi‘s book. And I guess that was about done by the last time I went to India and Nepal for research. Anyway, the chronology is not exactly right, but yeah, so.
Well, I think I’ve changed, but also India has changed a lot. I mean it. There was no Hindutva when I first went to India. India’s not Gandhian anymore. There’s no discourse of “we are Indians” as opposed to “we are Hindus and India is Hindu.” There’s no discourse of Satyagraha, and it’s this muscular language that’s common to fascist movements that’s taken over, along with suppression of the free press and so on. So there’s that. That’s a very important reason why I just have no desire to return to India. But my distaste or my disillusionment with India goes back earlier. I mean, I really haven’t spent any time there since 1999. It’s not so much that I soured on India before the Hindutva wave, although Hindutva had pretty much taken over by 1999. It’s that I just was becoming more and more enthusiastic about European culture, and even though it didn’t show up in my writing much for several years, it was on my mind, and it was where my thoughts were focused more than on yoga.
Wittich: What do you think the academic study of yoga in the social sciences and humanities 1) contributes to academic knowledge and 2) contributes to practitioner understanding?
White: When I was a grad student, we had to read the best books on yoga, which at the time were Mircea Eliade’s book Yoga and Immortality and Jean Varenne’s book Yoga and the Hindu Tradition. And they’re, you know, they’re both so outdated now, it’s almost embarrassing, and there’s just been such wonderful progress made, particularly by contextualizing and even going beyond the bounds of Hinduism into Buddhism and Islam and other fields such as Ayurveda and mineralogy and so forth so. There’s going to be a conference in Marseille in November on “Yoga and Muslim Societies,” about the interface between Islam and yoga, and the titles of the talks, they’re all really quite, you know, attractive. I keep telling people I’m trying to get away from yoga, but I still am interested. After all, there’s too much going on. I should add that some of the really interesting writing and research, I think, is what Andrea Acri and some others are doing about yoga in Monsoon Asia or the spread of Tantra across Southeast Asia. And how important that is to understanding the greater whole of the medieval history of religion and culture in Asia in its entirety.
I look on the Internet fairly often and it doesn’t seem like people, practitioners and self-styled yoga teachers, are reading the right books. They’re still in this kind of loop where they’re talking about what each other is talking about, and it sounds a lot more like Vivekananda than stuff that’s been written and researched over the 120 years since his time.
Wittich: What are the most common myths or misconceptions about yoga history today?
White: I don’t think the Yoga Sūtras are a very important source for understanding the history of yoga. There were never many commentaries written on it compared to the other five schools, and after the 12th century, none of those commentaries, none of those were positive. Vijñāna Bhikṣu’s 16th-century commentary really is an anti-commentary, and that’s kind of where it ends. And after that, you have this sort of long lull where nobody’s writing or talking about the Yoga Sūtras. And then it gets rehabilitated or reanimated by Vivekananda and the Theosophists. But like Vivekananda, most gurus who have followed him present yoga as found in the Purāṇas as “the yoga of the Yoga Sūtras,” which is to say mainly they say yoga is about union with God, rather than about the isolation of Puruṣa from Prakṛti. They’re not following Yoga-Sāṃkhya philosophy, but rather they’re following the Vedānta cum Bhakti tradition of making the goal of all practice the realization of one’s intrinsic identity with the Supreme, their God.
So, I really do not understand why so much current scholarship continues to revolve around the Yoga Sūtras. There’s a huge book that came out in France a couple of years ago, and the stated axiom from which all the contributions flowed, was just that: all understandings of yoga go back to the Yoga Sūtras. And that’s yeah, I mean, people I respect as scholars seem to toe that line, and I don’t think it’s to their credit. I also think that in some cases perhaps it’s because their personal practice and their devotion to their guru makes it impossible for them to step back and take a critical view of the Yoga Sūtras. Because while it may be some sort of common sense that the Yoga Sūtras should lie at the heart of all yogas, it isn’t critical historical sense. To assume that all yogas should be based on the text that calls itself the Yoga Sūtras, there’s some kind of a circular reasoning going on there.
The work’s title may be the reason that Vivekananda, who was really a dilettante, seized upon that text to make it the foundation of his Rāja Yoga. And then so much of what has followed has flowed from his so-called commentary. So yeah, I think that’s really vitiated 20th- and 21st-century understandings, even in the academy. It’s just vampirized our understanding of yoga history. I think it’s an interesting corner of yoga history, but it’s not the core of it. And I’m not speaking of so-called “classical yoga” as opposed to haṭha and Buddhist forms like Yogācāra and so forth, but also speaking of its place within the broader context of South Asian religious history, which was Tantric for a good thousand years. Tantric sources, when they mention the Yogasūtras, usually do so in an adverse way, or simply pay lip service to the “eight-part practice” and then do funny things with it.
I just published a translation of the 20th chapter of the Netra Tantra, which is a really interesting text, and the title of that chapter is “The Three Yogas.” Here, Supreme Yoga is being eaten by yoginīs, and Subtle Yoga is taking over other people’s bodies, and Gross Yoga is basically sorcery and counter sorcery, and there’s no mention at all of Patañjali in that chapter. The eight-part practice (aṣṭāṅga) does get mentioned in one of the Netra’s chapters on meditation, which, after all, is what the Yoga Sutras are about, they’re about meditation more than about yoga, whatever that is. In any case, in the chapter that references aṣṭaṅga practice, one of the chapters on meditation, I can’t remember it’s the 6th or 7th or 8th chapter of the Netra Tantra, when it describes the eight practices, they have no resemblance whatsoever to the, you know, yama, niyama, āsana, prāṇāyāma, etc of Patañjali. I mean, it uses the names, and then it totally talks about other stuff from the sorts of accepted meanings those terms have had in commentary, both Indic and Western. So yeah, I think, and I wish, I hope, that scholarship will start to change its perspective, to change his depth of field. Instead of putting Yoga Sūtra in the center, put it somewhere in this broader context, but not in the centre.
Wittich: Why is the study of historical texts important in the academic study of yoga? What are the core texts, or why is it important to study the texts?
White: Well, there’s no core text. There have been so many yogas. And the texts that we can learn about yoga from are not all doctrinal or philosophical. There are narrative texts, and there is iconography, and epigraphy. And I don’t know how much ethnography can help us to understand yoga anymore because of the conflict of interpretations… My wonderful colleague from Paris, Véronique Bouillier, is probably the person who’s done the most work on the Nāth yogis in the past 30 years. She continues to interact with them and spend time with them, and she continues to write about the history of their order and their illustrious yogis, but there’s not much about yoga in what her Nāth informants tell her because they’re not doing yoga anymore. What they’re doing is becoming so Hindutva-ized that it doesn’t, you know, resemble in any way, shape, or form what we think we know from Goraknāth’s own teachings about yoga. However, their political activism, spearheaded by Ādityanāth Yogi, who was the protegé of Avedyanāth, the abbot of the Gorakhpur Monastery who hosted me there in the winter of 1984. He’s now the current Chief Minister of the state of Uttar Pradesh, and Narendra Modi’s understudy and chief enforcer of the Hindutva agenda. In that respect, his agenda is faithful to that of the historical role of the yogi orders, who generally provided muscle for kings, warlords, and the like.
Wittich: Why the philological study of Sanskrit text is important for academic yoga studies?
White: By the way, I realize that many of the positions I take are those of an Orientalist, and that’s a cross I’m willing to bear. Yeah, well, of course, Sanskrit texts are important. But so, too, are vernacular works. I mean, and there’s so much of that, and that’s probably the next thing, you know, I mean, there’s people doing work with a lot of vernacular stuff, but there’s so much that hasn’t been looked at yet. One of my students, Keith Cantú, has brought to light and fully catalogued the voluminous teachings and writings of Sabhapati Swami, the early 20th-century creator of a remarkable specifically South Indian yoga synthesis. The bulk of the Sabhapati material is in the Tamil medium.
But again, not all of the non-Sanskritic stuff comes from within India, and much of it falls outside the ambit of Hinduism, whatever that is. And it’s certainly not limited to philosophy. I mean, like Gopināth Kaviraj, who was a really fabulous Benares-based scholar-practitioner of Yoga and Tantra in the 1950s and 1960s. He wrote in modern Hindi and Bengali, but with a highly Sanskritized vocabulary. But when I think of vernacular languages, I think more of things like the Gorakhbāṇī, which were, you know, composed in these languages that are not in dictionaries, languages from medieval or early modern periods. But that’s really interesting, and the sort of things that Andrea Acri has done, for example, with the Javanese material, the Dharma Pātañjala, the title of this work that actually incorporates three of the four books of the Yoga Sūtras but in the context of a Pāśupata teaching. And he’s done so much interesting stuff with that and continues to. So yeah, it’s certainly important because, again, really can’t rely on oral traditions, and there isn’t a whole lot of iconographic material, although there’s some interesting work that’s being done: Jeffrey Sundberg writes to me once every few years about representations of Patañjali in Southeast Asian iconography and sculpture.
And there is also a fair amount of material on the mythology of military heroes, of vīras, that was transposed into the mythology of the tantric vīras, those virile heroes of tantric practice, and yogis like the Nāth yogis. And that is something I left out of our conversation earlier, which is that so much of early understandings of yoga and yogis was military, that the word yoga originally denoted a chariot, and a yogi was someone who was a mercenary fighter. And there, I believe you can trace this gradual shift of the meaning of the word vīra from a military hero to the sense of vīra as not only a military hero but also someone whose practice via tantric or alchemical or yogic was heroic, in the sense that they were putting their lives on the line, jumping into vats of boiling mercury and oil, or doing these heroic tantric cremation ground practices in the middle of the night, or yogic practices that could involve the practitioner’s death. These are that other kind of vīra, whose heroic practice could issue in the apotheosis that was common to military heroes who when they died in the battlefield were immediately wafted up to the heavens of the gods on a chariot sometimes called a yoga, to be united with the gods.
Wittich: What are some of the most exciting discoveries happening right now in the field of yoga history and research?
White: There’s a volume that actually–you know this because you’re involved with the website that we’re both speaking for, the Yoga Research site–a book that Mark Singleton and Daniela Bevilacqua recently edited, speaks about other yogas. And for example, there’s a chapter there by my UC Santa Barbara colleague, Dominic Steavu-Balint, on Taoist practices that look like yoga, and they certainly do. So that kind of stuff, again, sort of broadening the context, is so important because it’s going to change the text. You know, it depends on, again, your depth of field if you understand that metaphor. Back when cameras were more manual, depending on your focus, you know, if you had a really wide focus, you’d see a lot of things, but not very clearly. And then, if you narrow the focus, change the depth of field, you see one thing very clearly, but you wouldn’t see the other stuff around it. They’d be blurred or left out. So, broader context changes the depth of field. It changes the big picture as well as the smaller details within the big picture. And yeah, so that’s where I see the most exciting things happening in the field, pushing the edges outward. That conference in Marseille that I mentioned that’s going to take place in November and work that people on the Tibetan side have been doing. There’s a lot of really great research and writing over there by people like Ron Davidson. From the Islamic side, there’s Carl Ernst and Patrick D’Silva’s edition and translation of the Persian-language Fifty Kamarupa Verses and The Science of Breath, and Mario Kozah’s new translation of al-Bīrūnī’s 11th-century Kitāb Bātañjali.
I’m not at all interested personally in neo-developments in yoga, you know, the sorts of new synthesis that people are developing in New Zealand and other exotic places. I just think, oh, go ahead, put me to sleep, but it just doesn’t interest me at all, actually, nothing after the 15th or 16th century interests me much, unless it’s what I’m doing now, but I don’t care much about late modern or contemporary stuff.
Wittich: You mentioned vernacular, vernacular languages as the next step and looking outside of Hinduism as the next step,
White: As next steps. Yeah, yeah. Breaking out of the Sanskrit-Hindu framework, which has been very well studied, although no doubt one can find new insights into old material. But I think there’s a better payoff in getting more new material into the mix, and it’s out there to be had. It just that people will have to get their heads around these languages that don’t have dictionaries for them and that kind of thing. And that’ll bring us a new understanding of the various yogas of Asia. Yeah, like I said, I keep trying to get away from yoga, but it keeps pulling me back. Which is why I did that translation of the 20th chapter of the Netra Tantra.
Wittich: Do you have some definition of what yoga is and what yoga is not?
White: Well, I guess yeah, what came to mind as you were formulating your question was that there are Yoga texts and Yogi texts, and the two diverge significantly when it’s about yogis. It’s usually these wild and crazy guys who are taking over other people’s bodies and generally raising mayhem wherever they go. Yet, what they do is yoga. So we have to take seriously those Yoga texts too, the ones that talk about the Yoga of yogis, of sinister yogis.
And then, of course, there are the philosophical texts. So what… What is my… Do I have a… What am I trying to say? Yeah, I’ve always been somewhat of a purist in the sense that I’m very skeptical about 20th- and 21st-century redefinitions of anything. So, the Neo-Tantra for me is not Tantra because all the lineages via which the Hindu tantric teachings were transmitted were broken, usually during the Mughal or the colonial periods. So anyone who claims to know Tantra from what his guru and his guru’s guru and his gurus, gurus, gurus, gurus taught him, is delusional. And I would say the same thing is true for yoga. There has been a break in the tradition more recently, that is to say for haṭha yoga or the Nāth Yogis. I think Naraharināth was kind of the last living exponent of those traditions. In much the same way as the Kashmir Shiva guru Lakshman Joo, who was Alexis Sanderson’s teacher and Andre Padoux’s teacher, and Lillian Silburn’s teacher. Anyway, those sorts of living links to the ancient traditions are no longer with us.
So I do have a notion that for yoga to be properly understood, we have to mainly rely on texts because we’ve lost an oral tradition whose line of transmission was broken. But those texts are many and wide in their range, from stories about Yogis to philosophical works on the relationship between essence and manifestation. And so the idea I have in my head of what yoga is, is more what yoga was. But I wouldn’t want to say yoga in the singular because tantric yoga is so very different from Haṭha Yoga, which is so very different from Rāja Yoga if such a thing ever existed. And all those other yogas, you know, those many iterations of yoga.
So, and I’m sure you know that in the Sanskrit dictionary, yoga is one of the terms with the most definitions, so how who am I to pin it down if it at the same time means military strategy and magical formula and use and, yeah, meditative practice. I mean it’s all over the place, and it’s probably best to think about how yoga was all over the place up until its focus was narrowed a century or two ago… it’s limited, but we do what we can. Of course, you can say that about so many things that people study from long ago and far away. For me, that’s what academic research is. It’s like being a detective and sifting through clues because we don’t know, we weren’t there at the scene of the crime. So, you know, we have to look at fingerprints, footprints, and traces of blood, and that’s what makes it interesting. Solving ancient mysteries.
I never had a strong opinion about yoga. It made me, I mean practicing haṭha, it made me feel really good for sure. It got those endorphins rushing through me. It always was a wonderful rush, but I get the same rush swimming, and you don’t have to sit still when you’re swimming. You can look around. So it’s not like I got disillusioned with yoga. It’s just that I was never enamored with yoga in the sense of having a personal stake in the practice. I was fascinated with what I read in the Gorakhbāṇī and so forth, but not by yoga in some transcendent, life-defining way.
Yeah, certainly. India certainly has become less attractive to me over time. Also, I’m older. It’s really hard to travel and live in India and compared to France or Italy. So, yeah, maybe I’m a little bit lazy. I’ll accept that, if that means I don’t put my body on the line quite the way I once did, I don’t sit on buses for days at a time or smoke chillums with Nāth yogis so that they’ll talk to me. I could see doing that again. There’s still Nāth yogis who do that.
Wittich: Thank you.