“Embodying Transnational Yoga: Eating, Singing, and Breathing in Transformation” by Christopher Jain Miller (Routledge 2024)

Embodying Transnational Yoga: Eating, Singing, and Breathing in Transformation by Christopher Jain Miller offers a rich ethnographic exploration into the global dissemination of yoga, arguing that we must look beyond the prevalent focus on yoga postures to comprehend yoga’s contemporary transnational resonance fully. Through insightful case studies centered around food cultures, musical forms, and respiratory practices, Miller’s interdisciplinary work reveals crucial processes of embodied transformation that empower yoga teachers to insert their ideological frameworks across diverse geographic and cultural contexts. This groundbreaking book issues an urgent call to widen the scope of modern yoga scholarship by amplifying marginalized facets of practice and adopting more inclusive theoretical frameworks.

Yoga has become a prevalent global phenomenon, with millions practicing yoga postures – or āsanas – that most people associate with yoga today. However, modern yoga research has become overly preoccupied with āsana, neglecting many rich facets of yogic practice, argues author Christopher Jain Miller in his new book. Could expanding focus to broader embodied practices demonstrate nuanced networks of transnational yogic influence? How do alternative yoga practices like diet, music, and breathing shape contemporary transnational yoga culture beyond physical postures? In what ways are yoga teachers using these practices to introduce yogic ideology across transnational contexts?

[W]e must turn to the language of the body itself as an accompanying source of ethnographic and historical data.

– Christopher Jain Miller (2024, 3)

Miller contends that we must look beyond āsana to understand transnational yoga today more comprehensively by considering three crucial engines of dissemination that have fueled the expansion of transnational yoga: food, music, and breathing. He supports this assertion through a multi-sited ethnography conducted in New York, Hawaii, and India. Through interdisciplinary lenses, Miller analyzes global flows and frictions related to yoga diets, sounds, and breathing techniques, revealing crucial “engaged alchemies” – adaptive, transformative processes – that yoga teachers deploy to shape students’ experiences. He employs conceptual frameworks derived from food studies, ethnomusicology, Indian Ocean studies, and pollution studies. He explores the global dissemination of yoga and how dietary practices, musical composition, and respiratory techniques impact it.

In his New York fieldwork site, Miller examines the food cultures surrounding Yoga Anand Ashram, founded by Gurani Anjali in 1970s New York. Through ethnographic research and scholarly insight, Miller demonstrates how Anjali capitalized on the wider countercultural movement in America concerned with food justice and the environment by establishing an ashram eatery that served vegetarian “countercuisine.” But how did food movements and environmentalism help to adapt certain styles of yoga?

Miller demonstrates that Anjali utilized this popular ashram eatery which reflected countercultural values toinsert her own yogic conceptual universe in Amityville, NY. The vegetarian restaurant attracted newcomers with its palatable, morally sound cuisine following intersecting yogic and countercultural concerns. According to Miller, Anjali intentionally converted her somatic yogic system into an “embodied logic” centered around food, which was more comprehensible to her primarily Caucasian American followers. Incorporating an inventive gastronomic case study, Embodying Transnational Yoga challenges readers to perceive foodways harnessed by yoga disseminators as dynamic processes that enable embodied transformation following yogic cultural logics.

Next, Miller considers a case study in Hawaii and asks how including ukuleles in kīrtan chanting sessions might help us expand our current definitions of “yoga”. He specifically explores yoga music by examining kīrtan chanting as it pertains to the Kriyā-Yoga tradition of Paramahansa Yogananda at Hawaii’s Polestar Gardens. Miller traces kīrtan’s integration of innovative instruments such as harmoniums and ukuleles in conjunction with a medieval musicological theory underpinning both. He shows how the amalgamations of lyrics, instruments, and sounds practitioners employ to attain meditative states profoundly influence yogic bodies and their perceived advancement on the yoga path. By adeptly incorporating an international ensemble with sacred lyrics, Yogananda broadened conceptions of “authentic” yoga and established a comprehensible “guru language” that ingeniously harmonized his Indian system with American sensibilities.

Photo by Andrey Grodz on Unsplash

In his third case study, Miller explores Kaivalyadhama Yoga Institute in pollution-stricken Maharashtra, India, to illustrate why postmodern yoga scholarship must, in some cases, abandon the notions of neoliberal self-cultivation and biopolitics as a framework for analyzing contemporary practice. Miller identifies two parallel models at work when he observes asthma sufferers employing prāṇāyāma breathing techniques to purify themselves of toxic air: the self-sacrificing, ascetic haṭha yogī and the precariously “entangled” late capitalist subject, who is both dependent on and endangered by the environment. But what can the study of prāṇāyāma practices reveal about the yogic body concerning environmental entanglement and self-purification?

Drawing on insights from pollution studies, Miller argues that both paradigms fall short of adequately elucidating the present-day sociopolitical standing of Indian yogis. Rather than attributing the socioeconomic precarity experienced by numerous contemporary Indian yoga practitioners to self-interested neoliberalism, a more comprehensive understanding could be gained by employing Achille Mbembe’s conceptual framework of “necropolitics” – structural oppressions that subject marginalized populations to an increased susceptibility to untimely demise in polluted geographic regions. Does this concept better capture the sociopolitical dynamics experienced by many yoga practitioners in South Asia today when compared to notions of neoliberal self-cultivation? Miller illustrates the shortcomings of existing theoretical frameworks for understanding and analyzing breath practices in polluted geographic areas. In this way, Embodying Transnational Yoga demands that many assumptions prevalent in contemporary yoga scholarship be reevaluated.

To conclude, Christopher Jain Miller’s Embodying Transnational Yoga issues a much-needed call to move beyond narrow āsana-centric perspectives in modern yoga research by widening attention to understudied practices that shape contemporary yogic embodiments. Through illustrative case studies deftly fusing sharp cultural analysis with ethnographic storytelling, Miller’s book demonstrates why yoga scholarship must amplify marginalized practices, voices, and contexts to foster more accurate, inclusive understandings of transnational yoga. Overall, Miller’s new understandings could expand methodological approaches in modern yoga studies to move beyond just āsana and consider more holistic bodily practices. Also, it provides a conceptual model of “engaged alchemy” that blends transnational flows and frictions with somatic transformation that could be utilized in interdisciplinary explorations of contemporary transnational yoga.

Read more

Read the abstract at Taylor & Francis
Buy the book from Routledge


Watch the book launch with Laura von Ostrowski at the SOAS Centre of Yoga Studies

Listen to a Podcast

“Embodying Transnational Yoga” interview with Raj Balkaran
“Embodying Transnational Yoga” interview with Seth Powell
“Doing Less Harm: Discussing ethical dilemmas” interview with Daniel Simpson

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