Monday, November 12, 2018

Interview with Seth Powell, Part 2: Early History of Yoga for Women

by Patrice Priya Wagner
Female guru and her disciple, Mughal dynasty, c. 1650
Watercolor and gold on paper, Museum Rietberg, Zűrich
While taking an online course “An Introduction to the History and Philosophy of Yoga” with Seth Powell, I became very curious about the origins of yoga instruction for people who weren’t male and from an upper caste in India—the primary demographic we had studied. When, for example, did people with disabilities gain access to the teachings of yoga in India? What about women or other marginalized groups? Despite his busy schedule of teaching, writing a PhD dissertation, and having a family-life with children, Seth Powell agreed to an interview to shed some light on these questions.

Because the final interview was quite long, with detailed and fascinating answers to each question, I decided to divide it into separate posts, with one question and answer in each post in the series.

Priya: What is the earliest textual evidence we have of women in India gaining access to yoga asana and meditation practice?

Seth: That’s a big and important question. The historical record (including texts, sculptures, paintings, etc.) suggests a predominantly male and renunciate culture and demographic of yogi practitioners. However, there are important exceptions to what were, by and large, predominantly patriarchal traditions—especially when we look at the broader history of Indian religion. The Upaniṣads feature some important learned female sages, such as Gargi, who famously questions Yajñavalkya about the nature of reality in the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad. Buddhist and Jain institutions have for most of their history included both male and female monastic orders. During the medieval period, with the rise of devotional Bhakti and Tantra traditions, challenges were waged at issues of caste, gender, elitism, and the “orthodoxy” of the male Sanskritic Brahmanical traditions. (These are, to be sure, very complex and multidimensional issues that we are only very loosely summarizing here).

Many of the Bhakti poet-saints were female, low-caste, or even illiterate; singing and performing their religiosity through poetry, song, and dance, and often in the local vernacular languages specific to place, rather than the elite language of Sanskrit—which was a linguistic register typically limited to the highly learned and elite. While these were not always “yogis” as such, the language and poetry of Bhakti is often highly infused with yogic terminology and themes, such as the meeting place of the inner rivers (nāḍī), or the notion of God as the ultimate lord of the yogis (yogeśvara), or the annihilation of the egoic self (ahaṃkāra).

A Tantric mystic and poetess from fourteenth-century Kashmir known as Lalleshwari (or Lal Ded) is remarkable in this respect, and her poetry is evocative of someone with a deep personal commitment to yogic practice. Here are a few of her exquisite poetic sayings (vākh):
Modern painting of Lalleshwari. Artist unknown.
My mind boomed with the sound of OM,
my body was a burning coal.

Six roads brought me to a seventh,
that's how Lalla reached the Field of Light. (Vākh 51)

I trapped my breath in the bellows of my throat;

a lamp blazed up inside, showed me who I really was.
I crossed the darkness holding fast to that lamp,
scattering its light-seeds around me as I went.
(Vākh 52)

To the yogi, the whole wide world ripples into Nothingness:
it splashes like water on the water of Infinity.
When that Void melts, Perfection remains.
Hey priest-man, that’s the only lesson you need!
(Vākh 114)

— trans. Ranjit Hoskote, I, Lalla: The Poems of Lal Ded

In the scriptures known as Tantras, we can witness a broader shift to house-holder yogic traditions, with yogic practices (typically ritual, visualization, breath-control, mantra) aimed not only at ascetics who had renounced the world, but those living and working in the world.

This shift is echoed in the medieval Haṭha Yoga texts, which promote a certain type of “yogic universalism,” we might say. For example, the Dattātreyayogaśāstra, or “Dattātreya’s Yoga Treatise,” (c. 12-13th century CE), one of the first texts to teach a system named Haṭha Yoga, states the following:

"If diligent, everyone, even the young or the old or the diseased, gradually obtains success in yoga through practice. Whether Brahmin, Ascetic, Buddhist, Jain, Skull-bearer or Materialist, the wise man endowed with faith who is constantly devoted to his practice obtains complete success. Success happens for he who performs the practices—how could it happen for one who does not?” (DYŚ 40-42, trans. James Mallinson)

This rhetoric of inclusivity is echoed throughout many of the Haṭha Yoga texts. The idea is that regardless of one’s social or religious background, anyone can do the practices, so long as one does the practice. The Dattātreyayogaśāstra also mentions that this yoga should not be limited by one’s gender.

“A man should strive to find a woman devoted to the practice of yoga. Either a man or a woman can obtain success if they have no regard for one another’s gender and practice with only their own ends in mind.” (DYŚ 155-56, trans. James Mallinson)

These are powerful statements for a medieval Sanskrit yoga treatise. However, as a historian of yoga, I always seek to tread carefully when encountering such lofty proclamations. It is important to understand that these are often “prescriptive” and thus idealized yogic texts, describing particular visions of how yoga should be practiced, but are not necessarily “descriptive” of what is actually happening on the ground. We should be cautious here, then, and still ask who would have actually had access to the practices of yoga? And who would have been reading such yoga texts? Though we see occasional references to householders, and even female yoga practitioners in the Haṭha Yoga literature, they still appear as outliers to the broader audience and culture of male ascetic yoga.

At the same time, I think we can look at such references as what Wendy Doniger has called, just the “tip of the iceberg.” If the Dattātreyayogaśāstra casually mentions that there are women “devoted to the practice of yoga,” there is surely a broader social phenomenon beyond this statement, that we are only getting a glimpse of through the male gaze of the redactors of these Sanskrit yogic texts. A unique seventeenth-century Mughal painting, for example, depicts a female ascetic guru and her male disciple, in front of a yogic hut (see image above).

For as much as we know about medieval yoga texts and traditions, there is far more that has yet to be uncovered! It is a very exciting time in the academic field of yoga studies, as new research and developments are unfolding all the time. 

Seth Powell is a longtime practitioner of yoga and a scholar of Indian religions, Sanskrit, and yoga traditions, and is the founder of Yogic Studies. He is currently a PhD Candidate in South Asian Religions at Harvard University, where he is writing his dissertation on the history, theory, and practice of medieval and early modern yoga traditions. Seth also holds degrees in the study of religion from the University of Washington (MA) and Humboldt State University (BA). He has taught and lectured for numerous university courses on the religions and literature of India, Hinduism, Buddhism, and yoga traditions, and presents his research regularly at international conferences. Seth conducts online courses and teaches regularly on the history and philosophy of yoga at studios, teacher trainings, and universities around the country. You can find him online at

Further Reading (pertinent to all posts from the interview with Seth Powell—only the second and third on the list are directly related to this post):

Birch, Jason. 2018. “The Proliferation of Āsana in Late Mediaeval Yoga Traditions.” In Yoga in Transformation: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives, edited by Karl Baier, Philipp A. Maas, and Karin Preisendanz, 97-171. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht Unipress.

Dattātreyayogaśāstra. Mallinson, James, ed.and trans. 2013. Draft translation.

Diamond, Debra, ed. 2013. Yoga: The Art of Transformation. Washington, D.C.: Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.

Jones, Jamal Andre. 2018. “A Poetics of Power in Andhra, 1323-1450 CE.” Ph.D. dissertation—University of Chicago.

Mallinson, James. 2011. “Haṭha Yoga.” Brill Encyclopedia of Hinduism 3: 770–81.

Powell, Seth. 2017. “Advice on Āsana in the Śivayogapradīpikā.” Guest blogpost for The Luminescent.

Powell, Seth. 2018. “The Ancient Yoga Strap: A Brief History of the Yogapaṭṭa.” Guest blogpost for The Luminescent.

2018. “Etched in Stone: Sixteenth-century Visual and Material Evidence of Śaiva Ascetics and Yogis in Complex Non-seated Āsanas at Vijayanagara.” Journal of Yoga Studies (1): 45-106.

Singleton, Mark. 2010. Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

This post was edited by Patrice Priya Wagner, co-editor of Accessible Yoga blog and member of the Board of Directors.

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