Women, yoga history and new understandings

We probably think we know what the history of women in yoga is. My assumptions were that yoga was originally, and until about 100+ years ago, a male-dominated (or even male only) tradition. This is what most books and articles say. However, recent research on the history of yoga e.g. Norman Sjoman’s book on the yoga traditions of the Mysore Palace, which is an excellent precursor to Mark Singleton‘s book on the origins of modern Western yoga, is not only challenging our assumptions about modern yoga, but also questioning the male-only picture that is generally presented in relation to the origins of yoga itself.

Stone statue of woman goddess

‘A tantric goddess’ – public domain from Wikimedia

I first came across the idea that woman had played not only an important role, but perhaps the central role, in yoga in a blog post ‘Did women invent yoga?’ from 2011. Research by different people is unearthing evidence that “suggests there was a widespread female-centered communal yoga practice dating from the upper Paleolithic and Neolithic. Celebrating the natural powers of “bleeding, birthing, healing and dying”, this early yoga was practiced in rituals of trance and dance.” (Vicki Noble, quoted in the blog post). Research by other women, including Monica Sjoo, Uma Dinsmore-Tuli and Miranda Shaw, links the very early tantra and kundalini yoga traditions to women.

“Archeological evidence from 1300 BCE shows the roots of tantra, an approach to spirituality that embraces all aspects of human experience as a means to liberation. The roots of tantra include practices that honour the yoginis (goddesses and women who practice yoga) and celebrate the powerful energies of menstruation and birth as opportunities for profound spiritual initiation. It’s from the roots of tantra that hatha yoga grew. Hatha yoga is the son, but tantra is the mother.” (Uma Dinsmore-Tuli guest blog on Feminist Times.)

But as with many other histories around the world, the power of women became repressed and feared, as patriarchal societies become dominant. Within the yoga context this can be seen in the yoga-Vedic links becoming dominant, and the yoga-Tantra connections being sidelined.

The core of Uma Dinsmore-Tuli’s book Yoni Shakti is to re-establish more female-centric practices, alongside her extensive history of yogic goddesses.

Female yoga statue

Indian yogini. Image CC2.0 licence from Wikimedia

So far, so good. But, “Many feminists find this emphasis on women’s biology problematic because it entrenches patriarchal ideas that reduce women to just their biology. … [But] [w]ho benefits by pretending that vaginas don’t matter? Certainly not those who possess them. … Does acknowledging that there may have been a female-centred yoga which revered the sacred powers of the women’s body really threaten to send women’s rights back to the dark ages?” (From Body Divine Yoga blog post.)

“And so … what was once an embodied ritual practice and ecstatic encounter with the divine feminine, became a new ascetic knowledge reserved for a male spiritual elite – and it changed the nature of what we call yoga forever.” (From Body Divine Yoga blog post.)

So where does that leave us yoginis? I think it’s healthy and important to challenge traditionally held views, to consider alternative histories. Yoga, in its physical and spiritual dimensions, is a personal practice, and I leave it up to you to explore your connection with yoga and its complex history.

By the way, it’s international women’s day on 8th March, a couple of days away as I write this.

One thought on “Women, yoga history and new understandings

  1. Shiva and shakti are inseparable in Yoga. Women have potent energy. For example, when Ganesh was created by Parvati, Vishnu and Shiva teamed up to kill him in a duel when he was guarding the palace in her honor. Parvati unleashed all of the potent feminine energy onto Vishnu, Shiva and their minions. It forced them to bring Ganesh back to life given him the head of an elephant as a sacrifice. Because of Parvati’s power, Ganesh must be worshiped before all of the other deities. Just an example of Women being just as equal in the making of Yoga. As a personal note, I feel that Mark Singleton has a very limited and distorted view on Yoga, and makes these claims just to further his fame at the expense of a vast tradition.

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