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.
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.
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.
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.