What did the Victorians think of yoga?

Don’t ask me what possessed me to log through the archives of Nature, the MOST prestigious scientific journal in the world (sorry Science – although as an ex-Nature journal family editor, I suppose I’m biased) for references of yoga. Unsurprisingly, there wasn’t a huge amount. But what was really exciting was finding some historical gems of discussions of yogic breathing practices and of their therapeutic benefits on body and mind.

The articles are from 1890! (yes, Nature has been going for that long). My levels of geeky excitement were immense. This is yoga and science history, my friends.

I have no idea who any of these people are and if any of them were doctors or scientists (as you can tell from this cover, in those days science was more of a hobby than a profession). But you can really picture it – these posh Victorian gentleman, in their suits and top hats, discussing these strange Eastern practices they have experienced through their travels in the Empire.

Is there something in the breath–mind connection?

In 1890, someone asked a question: why haven’t we considered the breath–body–mind connection? It’s a random note on a random 4-page section filled with random staff, which starts a cascade of responses that give us fascinating insight into 1890 and what they thought of Eastern practices.

The note attributes the question to a certain Professor Leumann – after all, doesn’t our pulse rise when we discuss ideas we are passionate about, he adds? Don’t we have great ideas when we have a fever?

I have to admit, I read the whole paragraph and I have no fucking clue what he was on about in the rest of it – remember, this is 1890, and some of the language is a bit strange.

The influence of blood circulation and breathing, on mind-life, has been too little considered

The yogis have been doing it for ages

Clearly something in this comment made more sense to the 1890’s Nature crowd than it did to me – Mr Max Mueller and Mr Barrett Pope rush to respond to Prof Leumann’s comment by pointing out that breath manipulation is in fact a yogic practice that is detailed out in the Yoga Sutras.

They both explain that:

  • pranayama is used as a tool to steady the mind
  • it can lead to a state of deep meditation (or, as is described here, a ‘cataleptic trance’)
  • it is used therapeutically in some instances (I kind of don’t fully believe this but I suppose it’s possible, but they can’t have been taken seriously)

In America, some spiritualistic doctors prescribe these practices

  • but overall have been underexplored and underappreciated

It is strange that this correspondence between the states of the brain or mind and the lungs has not been admitted in science

Supernatural powers?

The tale of the yogi who could do all sorts of tricks like fly, simply through the power of his mind, is a common story, especially during this era. Max Mueller tells the editors that the practice of the top three limbs of yoga (dharana, dyana, samadhi), which pranayama supports, deliver powers

which seem to us incredible but which nevertheless are attested by the ancient yogis in a very bona-fide spirit and deserve examination

Harriet Murray-Aynsley (a woman! unless there is a male Harriet too, English names can be weird sometimes), in response to Max Mueller, adds that in her extensive travels through the country, she has see people use these practices to achieve supernatural power (and that this is shared among Mahometans, which I assume refers to Muslims in India).

I saw in each place a man who, to all appearance, seemed to have attained the power of perfect abstraction. In the former case, the villagers asserted that the devotee rose only once a week from his most uncomfortable and constrained position ; in the second instance, the man-a most singular-looking person-remained absolutely immovable the whole day.

And just for fun (because it’s not 1890)

There was one more letter that I completely missed when I first found the Max Mueller article (the one that started my whole expedition into this conversation) but thankfully someone pointed it out to me. Here, Mr Clement Ley describes the use of pranayama as a form of anaesthesia.

Remember, this is 1890. Not really sure what anaesthesia looks like in those days, but there probably wasn’t a lot of, if at all.

According to Clement Ley, vigorous pranayama with lots of breath retention (so presumably Kapalabhati or Bhastrika) can be used to basically make patients pass out at the dentist, so that he can then go on to perform surgery. He adds:

The procedure can be performed, painlessly. I have heard of no casualties or evil effects for this mode of treatment

100+ years later…

The fact that a random little note sparked so much discussion of yogic breathing practices and how they influence the mind and body – in 1890 no less – is blowing my mind.

I suppose it’s not that surprising that well-travelled Victorians will have observed the practices. But the fact that they considered the impact yogic practices might have on mind and body, and their potential therapeutic use, seems revolutionary. Especially considering that we have barely touched the surface over 100 years later.


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