The institutionalization of the yoga tradition: ''gurus'' B. K. S. Iyengar and Yogini Sunita in Britain

Newcombe, Suzanne (2014). The institutionalization of the yoga tradition: ''gurus'' B. K. S. Iyengar and Yogini Sunita in Britain. In: Singleton, Mark and Goldberg, Ellen eds. Gurus of Modern Yoga. New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 147–167.



The guru-śiṣya (guru-disciple) relationship is often considered an essential aspect of the transmission of yoga. Yet at the beginning of the twenty-first century, intense one-on-one yoga tuition from master to pupil is exceptional. There are now millions who describe themselves as practising yoga, the majority of them in group classes (Carter, 2004). Is it possible to have transmission of an authentic yoga tradition without an immediate guru-śiṣya relationship? In this chapter I will argue that an important characteristic contributing to the successful popularization of the Modern Postural Yoga (De Michelis, 2005: 188) as a global phenomenon has been the institutionalisation of charisma away from a direct guru-śiṣya interaction. My argument is based on a comparison between two key figures in the spread of yoga in 1960s Britain: B. K. S. Iyengar and Yogini Sunita. Both cases are examples of how personal charisma in teaching yoga were incorporated into a highly bureaucratic, state-funded adult education system. I will argue that the way Iyengar institutionalized his charisma was a direct contributing factor to his system's worldwide popularization. In contrast, Sunita's exceptional charisma was not successfully institutionalized into a globally known system and has now been virtually forgotten. In the 1960s the British adult education system was faced with a demand for yoga teaching, but without any established means of assessing the quality or qualifications of a yoga teacher. As early as 1965, Birmingham City Council was concerned about the proper qualifications for yoga practitioners. In an article reported in the London Times, the Council was said to be concerned abut the "hundreds" who had enrolled for yoga in adult education venues. Apparently, there had been an attempt at "methodological investigation" of yoga, but this was found to prove "an irritating business" ("Birmingham Tries to Size Up All This Yoga", 1965). The article described how one popular Birmingham yoga teacher had Keep-Fit qualifications but had learned yoga from books, while another teacher was a woman of Indian origin who "appeared to know quite a lot" but had not "graduated from a yoga academy" (likely Yogini Sunita). The article questioned, however, "If there were yoga graduates, would they, on the whole, be quite the sort of people one really wants?" (ibid.). Both Sunita and Iyengar were able to convince the local educational authorities in Birmingham and London, respectively, that they had the necessary skills and expertise to be a safe choice for state-funded yoga. From reading contemporary reports, both Sunita and Iyengar had an exceptional ability to give an almost immediate experiential understanding of what they termed yoga to many with whom they interacted, although the means to obtain this aim were somewhat different for each. According to Max Weber's (1947: 328) theories, this type of authority could be termed charismatic. Weber characterized charismatic authority as the motivating force for change in society, an inherently unstable, potentially revolutionary force that is "foreign to everyday routine structures" (ibid.). For any lasting organization to be created from charismatic authority, Weber argued that charismatic authority must be "radically changed" and he termed this process the "routinization of charisma" (ibid., p.364).

In this chapter I focus on the importance of the routinization of charisma for creating global Modern Postural Yoga. However, this discussion is not intended to deny that the charisma of a guru remains an important reference point for many yoga practitioners. The transformative potential of an intense teacher-student interaction remains an integral aspect of many people's experience of yoga. But by drawing attention to the process of how charisma was routinized (or not), the tension between the emphasis on yoga teaching qualifications and the transformative experience of a guru-śiṣya relationship can be better understood.

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