Each week with Rétrosports, the BNF press site, we take a look at a sports history as told by the press of the time. This Saturday: yoga in France from esotericism to the phenomenon of society.
“Yoga, by adapting and responding to the normative injunctions of our time, sees its practice mainly focused around physical exercises, where the idea of the conservation of the body and the quest for eternal youth have definitely replaced the original posture of renouncing the world ”, poses the sociologist Seghir Lazri in a sociosports chronicle of Release. “It’s a book about yoga and depression […], things that don’t seem to go together. In reality, if: they go together ”, assures Emmanuel Carrère on the back cover of his latest novel, quite simply baptized Yoga. Far from the performative experiences of one or the neurasthenic of the other, the French press of a hundred and twenty years ago rather saw in this practice an exotic folklore by which the Brahmans would engage in levitation exercises.
“Another practice followed by ascetics in India is Kumba-yoga which consists of closing the nose and the mouth to hold the breath, expose the sling of May 10, 1899. The phenomenon of levitation also accompanies this exercise: “About thirty years ago, says a native, when I was a little boy of 10 years old, in Benares. [en Inde], I saw a relative of mine who was known in the city for practicing yoga-dharma (law of union in God). This venerable old man could raise his body in the air a foot and a half above the ground and thus remain suspended for more than a quarter of an hour. […] We asked him with childish curiosity, the secret of this phenomenon, and I remember very well that he told us that, through Kumba-yoga, the human body becomes lighter than the air which surrounds it and can thus float above the ground. “”
The term yoga appears for the first time in the French press on February 11, 1809. The National Gazette publishes the Journey to the East Indies of the missionary Paulin de Saint-Barthélémy. He describes yoga as a tribunal of Brahmans whose decisions are infallible and who “Decides on matters of engagement, marriages, dowries and tribal crimes”.
Almost a century later, Lantern of April 7, 1903, enlightens that of his readers by describing a sectarian and fanatic practice with rites as esoteric as they are ridiculous for a Frenchman of the early century in an article called: “Fanaticism, the monks of India.” “The Yoga religion, a sect of Brahmanism, seeks the Union (yoga means union) of human individuality with the universal Soul, that is to say God. […] The aspiring yogui must live alone. Once installed in his hermitage, he begins Hatha-yoga training. This training includes four courses of indefinite duration, as detailed in the newspaper. 1- Practice of Asanas (various postures). 2- Pranayama exercises (concerning breathing). 3- Practice of Mudras (practices and operations relating to various parts of the body). 4- Practice intended to directly provoke Samadhi (complete ecstasy). […] By this little program, we can judge the degree of fanaticism to which these unfortunate people have reached ”, complains the newspaper.
That same year, on June 5, an ad insert in the uncompromising testifies to the image of yoga in France: a circus act. Conjuring that would pretend to believe that the “fakirs” who practice it are nothing less than immortal.
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After skepticism and irony, fascination and proselytizing converts. In the 1930s, the French press saw in the practice of yoga the assurance of a long and happy life without the worries of the body and the torments of the soul. So we read in the day of August 7, 1936 “Stay young, live old. You will be interested in reading a recently published book named Hatha Yoga, or the art of living according to mysterious India. You will find many hygiene systems there, exercises that are beneficial for beauty and longevity.»
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Constant Kerneïz, author of Hatha Yoga cited above is the main yoga missionary in France. Astrologer, professor of philosophy, journalist, he was initiated by meeting an Indian master in London and drinking in reference books. He transmits by becoming the first yoga teacher in France and by writing classics himself. There is an ad for his work Hatha Yoga in the review spirits from 1is January 1936.
Despite Constant Kerneïz’s popularization efforts, the discipline remains close to spiritualism for initiates, as written Paris-Evening of April 7, 1938 in an article devoted to a new book by the latter, Western Yoga : “This time we get acquainted with the exercises which facilitate the purification of the mind and bring it to the knowledge of certain supernormal phenomena. […] This book, which is beyond the understanding of many readers, will be of interest to all those curious about occultism and mysticism. “
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Description of exercises in support, review Midinette of April 22, 1938, invites its readers to practice yoga. “Daily work prevents most people from doing a lot of physical culture, which is however necessary for the maintenance of good health. […]. This is why everyone must do their utmost to restore the calm necessary for the good balance of body and mind at home. Here is a little known: yoga, invented by Hindu Brahmans called yoghis, which gives amazing results according to Europeans who have practiced it. Very complete, it is both fun and relaxing. ” After a quarter of an hour of exercise, “We can imagine something beautiful: it can be a rose, a face, a statue, a flower”. The newspaper collected the testimony of a “Yoga enthusiast”: “When I inhale the scent of my imaginary roses, everything seems better to me. And when obstacles irritate me, I know that I am the author of my own troubles because I forget to follow the melody of life. ”
In these 1930s, despite its popularization, yoga remained for a certain press a practice for initiates that mocked for example, with biting irony, the Journal in August 1939: “These subjects are ascetics who engage in a workout known as yoga. This word means union, the goal of yogis being to achieve the union of their soul with that of Brahm, the supreme god, of which Brahma is only the hypostasis. It is enough to say that the feeling which dominates them is, under the mask of humility, an unlimited pride. “
No mockery or exoticism in Comœdia of December 4, 1943. The article attempts to restore the essence of yoga. “Interior purification, extinction of desires (let us add: disappearance of the personality, which marks the great cut, with the holiness of Western religions which on the contrary exalt the personality in man and in God). These are the supreme goals. It is therefore neither a philosophy strictly speaking nor a revealed religion, rather is it not an exercise of the whole being to reach beyond all form and all change an absolute, which for us has, at first glance, the aspect of nothingness. But how do you get there? How can we suppress the consciousness that we have of ourselves, the consciousness that we have of the world through us? The discipline called Yoga teaches us that. ”
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Continuation of the story. In the 70s, a time favorable to the flowering of more or less artificial paradises, we rediscovered yoga. Always adorned with almost magical virtues as written, Science and Life from 1is September 1972. “Stay young, stay flexible. Discover true relaxation and self-control by doing yoga at home ”, headlines the newspaper which describes “A new method designed for Europeans and which gives surprising results.” The magazine is amazed at the extraordinary benefits that practitioners derive from it: “It is curious to note that this method, discovered 2000 years ago by the philosophers of India, seems to have been conceived for the man of the XXe century. Anxiety, depression, physical or mental nervous tension, the pump stroke, all these problems that threaten us are solved by yoga. It’s a real well-being cure. ”
Vinyasa, bikram, aerial and even sports (with competitions), yoga is available today in France in many forms. 2.6 million people practice it, 79% of whom are women. Its followers are of all ages but 25-34 year olds (26% of practitioners) and 45-54 year olds (24%) are particularly attracted, according to the first Yoga Barometer (March 2019). The first three reasons given for the practice are, in order: “Relieve my stress, relax” (for 83% of respondents), “Maintain my body” (65%) and “to stay healthy” (37%). People who practice yoga spend an average of 522 euros per year on its practice, including 468 for classes, the rest being absorbed by clothing and accessories. But these are trivial questions of money. Which does not count with regard to the promise of a lifetime “happy and calm ” as wrote Midinette, the certainty of a “Existence which will have for us only rays of gold”.
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