Women in yoga history

While yoga is today mainly practiced by women in the West, diving into yoga history in South Asia reveals disciplines dominated by men. How can we explain this discrepancy? Were there any women practitioner in pre-modern yoga traditions? Can contemporary yoga be a liberating practice for women?

We asked these questions to Amelia Wood, doctoral candidate at SOAS, University of London, researching abuse in modern transnational yoga movements. She alsor completed an MA in the Traditions of Yoga and Meditation at SOAS in 2015, where she specialised in representations of women in pre-modern yoga texts.

Citta Vritti | Can we find any women practitioners in premodern yoga history ?

Amelia Wood | In pre-modern hatha texts women are referred to directly and indirectly, but individual women are not named. Women are always referred to in relation to men and men’s practice, and there are very few instructions on women’s practices, specifically. In the 12th century text the Dattātreyayogaśāstra, for example, the text warns that success could result in the yogi looking like a god of love, which will result in women desiring him (in section 3.1.3 on prānāyama). This is considered a bad thing and is a warning to the yogi – if he has sex, he will lose semen or bindu. The yogi is instructed to preserve his semen in order to preserve his strength. The instructions clearly address men and therefore exclude women. Later in the text the yogi is told he should strive to find a woman devoted to the practice of yoga in order to practice vajrolimudrā (the method to preserve or draw semen up the urethra). There’s a tension between this initial rejection of women and then the requirement to find a woman who is also a yogic adept. Perhaps the author is making a distinction here between lay women (i.e. non-practitioners) and women who are also accomplished yogis, who are willing to engage in sexual practices for spiritual purposes. The text does not tell us what it means to be both a woman and accomplished at yoga – must she be married to a household practitioner, or is it possible for her to be an independent practitioner of hatha yoga?

A noblewoman visiting a group of ascetics. Murshidabad, c. 1770 (British Library Add.Or.5607))

In the Dattātreyayogaśāstra it seems that women are either a hindrance to men achieving yoga, or required as an aid for men to achieve success. In the Amrtasiddhi the yogi is told: ‘when first practising, the yogi should always shun the use of fire, associating with women and constantly travelling’ (19.6-7). Perhaps when the yogi is more accomplished, associating with women, or travelling, is allowed? These examples show how men’s spiritual goals are prioritised in the textual sources, rather than women’s. It is not clear how much agency women had within their own spiritual lives – the texts show us representations of women’s role, not the lived reality of their lives.

Are women considered as suitable for liberation in premodern yoga traditions?

Moksha, the liberation from the cycle of death and rebirth, literally, the freedom from samsara, is the goal of many different religious traditions of South Asia. Women are not explicitly excluded from achieving this in the hatha texts, but it can be hard to find sources that directly address women’s spiritual paths, as we can see from the examples above.

"There were women ascetics, but it is not clear if they practiced yoga, or hatha yoga, specifically"

In Roots of Yoga, Mallinson and Singleton write that the sources – the yoga texts – are written from the point of view, and for, male practitioners and therefore it can be hard to determine whether or not women practiced yoga as a means toward liberation, and if they did, what that looked like. There were women ascetics, but it is not clear if they practiced yoga, or hatha yoga, specifically. There are some indications that women could practice vajrolimudrā and retain menstrual fluid (rather than semen) – this mudrā is the path to success.

Despite the lack of sources written by and for women, it would be wrong to say that women’s spiritual lives or achievements are lesser than men’s, or that they have been involved in the religious fabric of society to a lesser degree. This is something Beatrix Hauser writes about – women have rich religious and spiritual lives, evidenced through Hauser’s (and other’s) ethnographic work. It is not that women are unable to achieve moksha, it is that their spiritual and religious experiences have been systematically ignored and therefore we know less about them.

Une femme ascète et ses disciples. Farrukhabad, c. 1770 (British Library J.66, 5)

We often use the term yogini to talk about women practitioners, what does this term refer to ?

‘Yogini’ can refer to many different things! It is, as Shaman Hatley says, a polythetic term. This means there are many different, but commonly occurring, things that can make one a yogini. And of course, it depends which sources you look at. Often, a yogini is a divine being that possesses powers, can shape-shift and fly. In the 8th century tantric text, the Brahmayāmala, yogini’s are also many things – the goddess in her living form, divine beings that women can become, mortal women who play a role in tantric rituals. In this way, the term ‘yogini’ does not simply mean a woman who practices yoga – the yogini figure represents the collapse of the boundary between the divine and mortal. A yogini is not the female equivalent of a yogi (assumed to be male). The Hathapradīpikā, however, suggests a woman can become a yogini through yogic practices, which breaks away from earlier hatha texts.

Bhairavi with Shiva, ca 1630-1635, attributed to Payag, India

Are there any women practitioners in hatha yogi contemporary sects in India ?

There are some women ascetics in India today and some of these practice yoga, but they are the exception. The majority of ascetics are still men. Daniela Bevilacqua has written about women ascetics in contemporary India and found that their experiences are different from those of male ascetics. There are limitations placed on women that hinder them from pursuing the life of a wandering ascetic. In some cases women aren’t allowed to travel alone so they travel in groups; they can be treated badly by householders as well as other ascetics.

Female ascetics in a procession at the Kumbha-melâ (Pot Festival). Haridwar (Vishnu's Gate), Uttarakhand (North Part), India; March, 1974. Source: Heikki Nylund, Flickr

How did contemporary postural yoga become mostly a women’s practice ?

There are so many reasons why, outside of India, women dominate the practice of modern yoga – it comes down to cultural forces and the influence of key individuals.

In the late 19th century there was a rise in physical culture. The modern Olympics began in 1896. Initially, women weren’t allowed to compete but this revival had a huge impact on society and by 1924 they did participate. Mark Singleton writes about the cultural space that was created and yoga moved into, in the west. In the late 19th and early 20th century women did physical activity that was a kind of spiritual stretching known as harmonial gymnastics, to keep them slim and young looking.

"Seal" posture in the Harmonial Gymnastics of Mollie Bagot Stack, from Building the Body Beautiful, the Bagot Stack Stretch-and-Swing System, 1931. It closely resembles Salabhasana, locust pose, an asana in modern hatha yoga. (Source: Wikipedia)

Mollie Bagot Stack founded The Women’s League of Health and Beauty in the 1930s in the UK and developed mass market keep-fit exercise classes. She had travelled to India and studied hatha yoga but at the time did not name her exercise system as yoga, specifically. The movements she developed looked very similar to some kinds of yoga. It became socially acceptable for women to participate in this kind of thing and not long after this yoga became something that mostly women did (in the UK and US, at least). It must have been familiar, acceptable.

In the US, in the 1940s, Indra Devi set up a yoga studio in Hollywood and was teaching yoga to famous actresses, as well as regular women. Her classes and books were really popular and marketed to women.

Portrait from Yogini Sunita's self-published Pranayama Yoga , 1965. (Photo courtesy of Kenneth Cabral.) - image tirée de l'article de Suzane Newcombe, The Institutionalization of the Yoga Tradition: “Gurus” B. K. S. Iyengar and Yogini Sunita in Britain

In the 1960s in the UK, Yogini Sunita taught hundreds of women yoga in the UK. By the second half of the 20th century yoga became associated with the natural childbirth movement. At various points in the UK there were TV shows about yoga where you could practise along with it, scheduled at times when women would be typically be watching. Also in the UK yoga was offered as part of the adult education programmes. These were quite gendered and typically men took woodworking or car maintenance classes, for example, and women did yoga (amongst other things).

At the same time, yoga was (and is) part of the alternative spiritual movement in the west. Women have always been at the forefront of this – they have less power than men within mainstream religions in the west and have had to look elsewhere. As women gained new found social, political and economic freedoms (the right to vote, bodily autonomy, their own bank accounts, the ability to go to university) the Church has not kept up. So what we see is that, in the 20th century, women were doing postural yoga but were also actively supporting spiritual gurus and swamis, especially in the US, in search of spirituality.

Yoga is sometimes presented today as an empowering practice for women – yet the yoga world is filled with normative images and discourses about how a woman’s body should be. Can yoga play an emancipatory role for women ?

Yoga is not essentially good or bad, empowering or disempowering. It can, and has been, used in different ways and contexts. As you say, yoga can be normative. Postural yoga is one of many movement practices that have been used to establish and maintain beauty standards and body ideals expected of women – white, thin, flexible, able bodied. In commercial group movement classes (modern postural yoga is part of this) there’s always been an emphasis on staying young looking – for women, this is part of health and wellbeing and is not particularly feminist, empowering or radical.

On the other hand, having spaces where women can come together and move their bodies can be considered subversive, radical and feminist. Women’s bodies are monitored, controlled, and regulated in legislative and cultural ways, and the spaces they’ve been allowed to exist in have also been regulated. Yoga is not exclusively for women but it can and has often provided an opportunity to gather with other women. In this way, yoga is part of women’s empowerment. I wouldn’t say yoga, of any kind, is inherently feminist or empowering – this would be too essentialist.

If you are interested in Amelia Wood's work, you can follow her on Instagram: @amelia_wood_yoga 

And on her website: amelialwood.com

She teaches a variety of short courses that bring together her academic and teaching experiences. Topics include power in yoga, trauma and yoga, teaching skills and the therapeutic application of yoga to the individual. She currently teaches a course based on her work on the history of women in yoga in pre-modern and modern times. Her work is interdisciplinary and intersectional and is informed by feminist theory. Amelia has been teaching yoga and working in the industry since 2010. She is currently a lead tutor on the Yogacampus 200-hour yoga teacher training diploma. Amelia trained in the Krishnamacharya tradition in the UK.

One response to “Women in yoga history”

  1. Jef dragon avatar
    Jef dragon

    Good topic, dommage de ne pas l’avoir traduit pour celleux qui ont du mal avec la langue de Shakespeare !

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