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Sinister Yogis Paperback – November 1, 2009

3.9 out of 5 stars 8 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews


“This is a riveting account of the early history of yoga and yogis in India that weighs the perspectives of both the yogis and the public culture of yoga. The history of yoga practice, and of yogis, is finally receiving the critical attention from scholars that will alter the views made popular by modern yoga teachers who believe their doctrines of mental and physical culture constitutes ‘classical yoga.’ David White’s entertaining and intelligent account of yogis drawn largely from Hindi and Sanskrit sources will contribute enormously to this corrective project. White has a real gift for making difficult, opaque material comprehensible, and he does so in writing that is bright and lucid.”

(Frederick M. Smith, University of Iowa)

“White swept us up with The Alchemical Body and blew us away with Kiss of the Yogini. Now along comes Sinister Yogis. Prepare to be taken over completely by this final installment in White’s ‘siddha’ trilogy. These are no ordinary yogis, at least not in the way yogis have been conceived for many a generation, and not simply by Western scholars and spiritual entrepreneurs. And they are not figures of a literary imagination. They are flesh and bone—when they want to be—and they have walked among us, making and remaking the world. White unravels a vast and interlacing literature on the theory and practice—and especially practitioners—of yoga, ranging from Harappa to the British Raj, and all points in between, and he demonstrates time and again that self projection and body possession, what he calls ‘omni-presencing’, are the keys to South Asian religion.”

(William R. Pinch, Wesleyan University)

“Full of entertaining stories of yogis behaving badly.” 
(New York Review of Books)

“In this fascinating counter-history of yoga, White shows us that the slim slice of yoga we Americans practice, and even the yoga most academics study, is leaving quite a lot of yoga’s deep roots out. . . . White offers a surprising, counterintuitive take on the roots of an extraordinary, sometimes mystical discipline.”
(Barnes & Noble Review)

"Sinister Yogis . . . successfully provides a fuller, more contextualized history of yoga, opening up some of the elisions that come when a tradition goes cross-cultural."
(Times Literary Supplement)

"David Gordon White's Sinister Yogis is brilliant, digressive, non-linear, and likely to be criticized by readers who find fault with specific interpretive and translational choices that he makes. Writing a book such as this one takes courage. It is safest in the modern academy to burrow into the minutiae of a single era or philsophical school and to write only for a small group of initiates. Sinister Yogis is the most comprehensive work to date in a movement that is fundamentally re-shaping our understanding of what yoga is."
(Andrew J. Nicholson Journal of the American Oriental Society)

"Huge fun, fascinating, and beautifully written."
(Fortean Times)

"This wondrously captivating, richly detailed book is a must for anyone interested in conceptions of the Indian yogī and of yogic practice."

About the Author

David Gordon White is professor of religious studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and the author of several books, including The Alchemical Body: Siddha Traditions in Medieval India and Kiss of the Yogini: “Tantric Sex” in its South Asian Contexts.


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 376 pages
  • Publisher: University Of Chicago Press (March 30, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0226895149
  • ISBN-13: 978-0226895147
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (8 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #711,671 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
While the title seems to demand a corrective recognition of the breadth of yogic practices and motivations, Sinister Yogis is instead a significant supplement to our understanding of Indian religion. David White is very clear in delineating between the exposition of yoga in practice manuals (which has been addressed significantly by other scholars & authors) versus his own project, which is documenting the popular social assessment of yogis through narratives from different strata and times throughout Indian history. Anyone with an interest in India or religious history will find this book a fascinating and pleasurable read.

However, I want to address what I see as the two "elephants in the room" that are everywhere implied in this book yet never spoken. The first is the obviously shamanic nature of the experiences White is chronicling. They fit quite neatly into the mode of what contemporary researchers call either Out of Body Experiences (O.B.E.s) or Near Death Experiences (N.D.E.s). Given White's training at Chicago and significant exposure to the Eliadian discourse (itself a largely "pan-shamanic" enterprise), it is quite odd that the word "shaman" is never referenced in this book, even if it were to be discounted as an outdated trope. With this omission, White misses the opportunity to set his study within a much wider context of religious chronicles of experiences with non-ordinary states of consciousness.

Which brings me to the second "elephant": entheogens. Pretty much everyone who has studied Indian religion is aware of the (at minimum) rhetorical importance of soma, the divine elixir of the gods that was clearly a powerful visionary plant ally.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This is definitely not for the casual reader...it's dense with hypothesis, examples, citations, quotes, lists...almost written like a thesis, and geared for the academic reader. Editorially, it is not organized for the average Jane/Joe...you will get lost in the density of the supporting examples...it is not an easy read, but it is nevertheless informative.

For example, the word yogi, according to the author, denoted a cannibalistic Bacchus-like character, and/or a shape(human)-shifter. Only much later did "yogi" take on more a positive, spiritual context. At the same time, "yogi" could also denote a charlatan, a side-show (man could hold his breath for one hour, etc), and even a grifter. There is even some interesting information on the Naths and their political power.

Yogi/yogini did not always mean a person who does stretching poses to get ready for meditation, nor did it denote a spiritual leader. The author contends that it was only in recent history that asanas (positions) were established, and that more positive associations were linked to yogis. And it will surprise you to know of the actual origin and context of asana. This latter information is not terribly new (see Paul Brunyon and NE Sjoman), and is only briefly discussed in this book.

I do agree with others reviewers in that the shamanistic aspect of the yogi is not as emphasized as much as the sinister aspect, but this may have been addressed in previous writings. Also, the author is probably trying to draw readers to yoga history by giving the topic a little more controversy.

If you want a fast, easy, history of yoga, I would read the preface to "Yoga" by Linda Sparrowe, but if you already have a few yoga history books on the shelf, this would be a good addition to your learning.
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Format: Paperback
This is a classic for the genre, and helps destroy a lot of the 'neo-pagan/new-agers' ideas by telling that us that Yoga is a lot more than a stretching exercise for house wives. It has a dark side too - something which can easily be attested to by anyone who has picked up a book on Tantra. Contrary to be associated with being a 'sex manual' in the Occident, Tantra is connected more to the Occult world in India. Therefore I must applaud this work for removing some of the silly preoccupation New Agers have with 'Sacred Sex'.

It is also nice to see DGW picking up on topics he touched upon in the Alchemical Body and Kiss of the Yogini. Maybe for his next book he could elaborate on some of the occult treatises of the Tantras which have yet to be translated.
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This book examines how yoga has been practiced historically, in contrast to how yoga is described in the official literature. It is well written and as compelling to read as an fantastic novel, yet provides a deeply insightful approach to the historical record. The book ranges from the oldest visual and textual references to yoga to the development of modern postural practice. Be prepared to have your opinions about yoga challenged in an entertaining and thought-provoking manner.
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