A History of the Yogic Body

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The International Yoga of Day on 21 June was recognised by the United Nations in 2014, promoted by the Indian government led by Narendra Modi, to celebrate yoga worldwide. Yet what is yoga? Yoga is many things to many people in many contexts. In these diverse contexts across the world, yoga is associated with at times health and wellness, transcendental philosophy, alternative lifestyles, glamorous representations of glossy bodies, and perhaps less frequency the myriad messiness of practitioners and their practices in all their translocal contexts. Yet what we can say unambiguously is that modern yoga is predominately practised by women.

Initial motivation for my doctoral research was to look for women in the historical sources, the early Sanskrit texts on haṭhayoga (11-15th c. CE), particularly as I have a practitioner background. However, whilst there are scattered dismissive or pejorative statements about women in general, there are few references to female practitioners in particular. Yet the ‘yogic body’, esoteric maps embedding the cosmos in the body susceptible of being leveraged for powerful and liberative objectives, is definitively marked by gender. So instead I charted yogic body paradigms that hinge on gendered principles. Many of you might be familiar with kuṇḍalinī (the snake-like energy that rises through the body as a result of yogic practice) but less well known are yogic body paradigms figured on sexual fluids. Bindu is semen or the elixir of immortality. Rajas is female sexual fluid or menses. According to the early sources such as the 11th-century Amṛtasiddhi, in ‘ordinary’ people these fluids flow downwards and dissipate in the production of children or death. In a spiritual involution of creation, the ‘yogi’ interiorises and reverses this flow for power and immortality. The practitioner is instructed to halt this downwards flow, raise these fluids upwards through the yogic body, and preserve them. It is in tracing the flow of sexual fluids that we come full circle and find brief references to women who practise and become empowered by manipulating their own menstrual blood.

Rather than only orienting the scholarship towards marginal groups and practices, this project resists latter-day interpretations that emphasise the transcendence of the body. Instead, it reveals a nuanced account of the yogic body that recentres the stuff of the body as the site of embodied liberation. The body is construed as deeply gendered, a mapping that serves the functional purpose of haṭha yoga.

What can these sources reflect to us of the social contexts in which they evolved? I argue that we cannot treat these sources in an esoteric silo, divorced from the social contexts in which they were produced and without ramifications for real-world social and sexual relations. Yet they can only offer partial explanations.

This is not a comprehensive genealogy of the development of such concepts, but by comparison with antecedent and contemporaneous contexts, an intellectual history can be mapped out. For example, a comparison of menstrual practice in Indian and Chinese sources enables speculation on the techniques and desirability of such practices. As well as immortality, could there have been motivations for birth control and purity?

The International Day of Yoga celebrates yoga and represents yoga’s history in various ways. This research has been inspired to ask particular questions of the textual sources, questions that can only be answered partially by such sources. I am using linguistic and text-historical methods to explore these materials. These materials have been more latterly deployed as sources of authority accessible to the few but used to justify praxis for the many. I hope this method unpacks the sources and democratizes access whilst acknowledging the epistemological privilege of textual authority and the related issues of the generation of esoteric and social power.

Ruth Westoby is a CHASE-funded doctoral candidate in the School of History, Religions and Philosophies at SOAS, London. Her research project is titled, ‘A Matter of Bodies: Gender and the Yogic Body’.

As an Ashtanga practitioner Ruth has collaborated with the Haṭha Yoga Project (2015-2020) on reconstructions of āsana (in 2017 and 2018) contributing to the development of a new methodology: embodied philology. This has broken new ground in reconstructing textual sources on physical yoga on the cusp of modernity in India. See enigmatic.yoga.

Image credit: Illustration of khecarīmudrā, Jogpradīpikā, add ms 24099, British Library.

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