Ritualised, tactile, erotic devotion was a feature of the Kāmākhyā worship explored by Monika Hirmer who is working on ‘Becoming the Goddess: Study of a contemporary South Indian Tantric tradition and its implications for concepts of personhood, gender relations and everyday life.’ Monika’s presentation explored the outcomes of her research in relation to worshipping and embodying the goddess, entitled ‘Playing (with) Devī: Praxis, māyā and ungendered femininity’. Monika introduced the methodology of her fieldwork, provided an ethnographic profile of the temple complex where she worked and described the cosmology that informs the life of the Śrīvidyā practitioners she lived with. Monika analysed Devī’s propensity for play (līlā), the shrine which plastically expresses Devī’s yoni and womb, and a conception of the body at atomic and subtle level. Monika argues that this points to a pervasive underlying feminine substratum.
The ritual of kalāvāhana focuses on ritualised worship of the divine by physically pleasuring the devotee through touch. Pleasure is believed to generate a state of nondistraction and be the utmost offering to Devī—if she is pleased the ritual will be efficacious. The kalāvāhana may be a recent innovation based on an older practice. It can be done through ritual, as at the temple complex studied by Monika, or meditatively as described in the piece by Madhu Khanna, one of the suggested readings for this session. Monika’s informants performed an embodied ritual where the body is the śrīcakra.
Some of the social implications of this practice are a valorising of maternal qualities in male as well as female devotees. Monika described caste inversions, yet not as described by anthropological ritual theorists—the privileged status of the low-caste temple priestess extended beyond the duration of the ritual inversion—i.e., beyond the ritual itself.
This practice community appears to be living out the tantalising prospect of a feminine divine, beyond a polarity of masculine and feminine. Yet the feminine was still characterised with ideas of maternal sentiment. For Monika the absolute principle was specifically female: not beyond gender, but female. Monika described bindu as premanifest energy and the female absolute as the primordial creatrix. A fascinating discussion ensued around whether this female absolute could exist as gendered female prior to a masculinity in relationship with which such characteristics could be articulated: is it possible to have a female without a male referent?
In her session with us Daniela explored ‘traditional’ female asceticism in India and the difficulties faced by women who want to become ascetics. She then gave a detailed case study of Rām Priya Dās, a female yoga practitioner who belongs to the Rāmānandī Sampradāya, a Vaiṣṇava order. Rām Priya Dās is one of the few examples of a yogi rāj, someone who has learnt the practices from childhood. There are few women in this category most likely due to the challenges faced by women who wish to become ascetics.
Daniela’s research on notions of Haṭhayoga amongst practitioner communities in India shows the disjunction between textual and ethnographic studies: rather than calling on textual sources to justify and source authority for their teachings there is a tendency to disparage written sources. One of Daniela’s articles we read for the session explored these themes in relation to āsana (Bevilacqua, 2017a). Our second reading focused on female practitioners (Bevilacqua, 2017b).
Lucia mingled emic and etic approaches by placing affect theory alongside a more Āyurvedic and energetic understanding of the porousness of bodies and ritual purity: ‘Through gaining proximity, devotees aim to consume the affective power of the guru—to absorb it into their bodies. The possibility of this transmission depends on the premise that bodies are comprised of porous boundaries that interact with and absorb from others and their environments. As Teresa Brennan has argued, affect, or “the physiological shift accompanying a judgment” is also transmitted between bodies and their environments.’ Lucia explains that ‘Affect can also be explained as transmittable “force,” “energy,” and “physiological shift,” which makes it particularly applicable here because its transmission closely resembles the language used to interpret the guru’s transmission of śakti’ (Lucia, 2018: 967 ff). In her reading of work to date on abuse of power in yoga Amelia is careful to unpick the attribution of responsibility and agency, highlighting where it has been and often continues to be attributed to the victim / survivor.
Our second reading for this session was Josna Pankhania’s whistleblowing work on the Bihar School and the findings of the Australian Royal Commission of Inquiry (Pankhania, 2017). Of particular note for me was the essentialist East-West dichotomy which at times appear in the analysis. For example, one concern around trans-cultural dislocation of the guru–śiṣya (teacher-student) relationship is that Western communities import the teachings but not the controls, such that guru models are imported into spheres where the traditional role of a guru is not understood. Pankhania does note that this rhetoric is problematic. The Australian broadcaster ABC suggested that yoga taught according to Western standards would result in a decrease in abuse by asking, ‘Is the claiming of yoga now by the West as a western practice going to save it from abuse?’ Pankhania noted that ‘This concept is not only problematic, but also symptomatic of the West’s continued angst about ‘the white man’s burden’, the supposed duty of the white race to engage in civilising missions to liberate the ‘savages’’ (Pankhania, 2017: 115). Pankhania links this issue with the much broader debates around identity politics and the postcolonial critique, by noting that, ‘As ‘the white man’s burden’ is unable to convincingly justify European colonialism, so too a crisis of ethics in any yoga organisation can surely not be adequately resolved through the process of cultural appropriation by the West. Concern with abusive gurus is certainly very much present in Indian society, too.’
Agi is focusing on women-oriented Iyengar yoga practice and the emergence of a historical narrative to lend authenticity to this practice within the Iyengar tradition. She notes that the Iyengar yoga tradition identifies itself as a continuation of an ancient and classical yoga lineage and argues that it justifies the inclusion of women and the adaptation of the practice through an alternative reconstructed narration of yoga history, in which women continuously practiced yoga. The current academic consensus is that there is little evidence of female practitioners of Haṭhayoga, especially āsana practitioners (we saw in Daniela’s presentation that there were few female yogi rājas, adept at physical practices, partly due to the structural challenges facing women who wished to pursue this lifestyle). Rather, historically, yoga appears to have been an androcentric practice. Whilst there may be evidence that women did practice they were probably a minority and had little impact on the standard hegemonic histories of yoga.
In addition to this reconstructed historical narrative of women practicing yoga Agi described the repurposing of ‘classic’ (androcentric) practices, adapting them to women’s physical, physiological, mental and socially perceived needs. In an androcentric approach women are the marked category. Alternative practices for menstruation and the segregation of menstruating practitioners can be considered an ‘othering’. The requirement for a public (or semi-public) announcement of menstruation and the offering of alternative practices may be experienced as empowering yet also negatively impacts progression through postures and teaching qualifications. Agi’s research questions the ways in which this offers an inspirational model for women or whether it (further) restricts the options available to women and entrenches segregation in yoga classes. Her analyses suggest that it creates a glass ceiling beyond which women cannot rise in the Iyengar echelons, but does not have to result in negatively perceived segregation.
Suzanne offered a two-part presentation drawing on her research from manifold sources—interviews, government records, physical culture journals and correspondence archives. Suzanne’s focus was on the historical context of how yoga became popular in Britain during the twentieth century. She noted that whilst yoga recapitulated all the problems of British society it was also a space for change. In the context of widespread popularisation in the 1960s and 70s she argued that yoga’s popularity can be partially accounted for by the way it simultaneously supported women’s traditional identities of wife and mother, as well as a more independent identity promoted by second-wave feminism. Women typically attributed better physical health and emotional well-being to their practice of yoga and this was an important reason for their participation in classes.
Suzanne’s research has also explored the instructions given to BKS Iyengar when he received a monopoly to accredit teachers at adult education centres by the Inner London Education Authority. The ILEA insisted that ‘Instructional classes in Hatha Yoga need not and should not involve treatment of the philosophy of Yoga’. Thus the stipulation that ‘yoga could be approved ‘provided that instruction is confined to “asanas” and “pranayamas” (postures and breathing disciplines) and does not extend to the philosophy of Yoga as a whole’ came from the ILEA and not Iyengar’ (Newcombe, 2006: 42). Whilst Iyengar was already focusing on the physical practices of yoga rather than meditative ones this may have pushed him further in this direction. To my mind this is a significant factor in the development of modern globalised yoga as synonymous with āsana.
The first part of her session entitled ‘With hollow eyes and skull garlands: Fierce goddess imagery in purāṇic literature’ gave an overview of fierce goddesses in Hinduism and her research to date. We turned to a close reading of key passages of purāṇic lore from the Agnipurāṇa. Here, Cāmuṇḍā, who appears as an individual goddess and as part of sets of divinities such as the mātṝkās and yoginīs, is invoked to defeat enemies and called upon with a variety of detailed epithets.
Strictly, goddess studies is not yoga studies, yet there is a close relationship between goddesses, yoginīs, and the powers attributed to those who are successful in yoga. The difficulty of disambiguation is similar to that of āsana (postures) and tapas (austerities). The divinizing of the feminine as the goddess opens a window on the manifestations of gender in the religious imagination and practice. The vidyā or incantation to the goddess whilst ostensibly directed at winning wars can also be used to distinguish the gross from the subtle body.
The readings for this session were a chapter from the Agnipurāṇa (Mitra, 1870: Ch. 135) and the introduction to Wild Goddesses in India and Nepal (especially 19-25). In this latter work I was intrigued by the tabulation of a typology of goddesses into mild and wild, or saumya and ugra—despite the author’s warning against dichotomous models. The tabulation was meant to be read as polyvalent, ambiguous and dynamic rather than dichotomous and static. Sandra was sensitive to the problematic Orientalist bias of much research in this area.
It was a privilege for me to curate the first such research group for the Centre of Yoga Studies and I am very grateful to the researchers who generously shared their findings. The wide-ranging presentations and discussions drew out points of content, method and theory whilst bringing in the research interests of all participants. We will be offering further study groups in due course. Please stay in touch with the SOAS Centre of Yoga Studies for forthcoming programmes.
Figure 1: Cāmuṇḍā.
Khajuraho region (10-11th century).
Harvard Art Museums/Arthur M. Sackler Museum.
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Howard E. Houston.
Figure 2: Photograph of a sannyāsinī (female ascetic).
Oman, John Campbell (1905: 227). The Indian Mystics & Saints of India.
Figure 3: Photograph of Rām Priya Dās censored by biro.
Figure 4: Lyn Marshall, Richard Hittleman and Alan Babbington
on stage at the Royal Albert Hall on 8 July 1972.
As found in Yoga & Health, October 1972, Vol. 2 (8): 3.
Bevilacqua, D. 2017b. “Let the Sādhus Talk. Ascetic practitioners of yoga in northern India.” Presentation at the conference Yoga darśana, yoga sādhana: traditions, transmissions, transformations. Krakow, 2016. Retrieved from: https://www.academia.edu/25569049/Let_the_Sādhus_Talk._Ascetic_practitioners_of_yoga_ in_northern_India
Grinshpon, Y. 2002. Silence Unheard: Deathly Otherness in Pātañjala-Yoga. Albany: State University of New York Press. http://public.eblib.com/choice/publicfullrecord.aspx?p=3407943
Khanna, M. 2016. “Yantra and cakra in tantric meditation.” In: Eifring, Halvor, ed. Asian traditions of meditation. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2016. xv, 254: 71-92.
Lucia, A. 2018. “Guru Sex: Charisma, Proxemic Desire, and the Haptic Logics of the Guru-Disciple Relationship.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Vol. 86: 953-988. https://doi.org/10.1093/jaarel/lfy025
Mitra, R. 1870. Agnipurāṇa: A Collection of Hindu Mythology and Traditions, Chapter 135. Calcutta: Asiatic Society of Bengal.
Michaels, A., Vogelsanger, C. and Wilke, A. (Eds.). 1996. “Introduction.” In: Wild Goddesses in India and Nepal, Studia Religiosa Helvetica, Vol. 2: 15-34. Bern: P. Lang.
Newcombe, S. 2019. Yoga in Britain: Stretching Spirituality and Educating Yogis. Sheffield: Equinox.
Newcombe, S. 2007. “Stretching for Health and Well- Being: Yoga and Women in Britain, 1960-1980.” Asian Medicine, Tradition and Modernity, Vol. 3(1): 37-63. Brill: Leiden. https://doi.org/10.1163/157342107×207209
Pankhania, J. 2017. “The Ethical and Leadership Challenges Posed by the Royal Commission’s Revelations of Sexual Abuse at a Satyananda Yoga Ashram in Australia.” Responsible Leadership and Ethical Decision-Making. Research in Ethical Issues in Organizations, Vol. 17: 105-123. Emerald Publishing Limited. https://doi.org/10.1108/S1529-209620170000017012
White, D.G. 1998. “Transformations in the Art of Love: Kāmakalā Practices in Hindu Tantric and Kaula Traditions.” History of Religions, Vol. 38: 172-198.
Ruth Westoby is a doctoral researcher in yoga and an Ashtanga practitioner. Alongside practice and research Ruth runs workshops and teaches on some of the principle teacher training programmes in the UK. Her thesis is on constructions of gender in Sanskrit texts on Haṭhayoga at SOAS under the supervision of James Mallinson. For more information please see www.enigmatic.yoga.
Westoby, Ruth. 2019. “Yoga and Gender Study Group: SOAS Centre of Yoga Studies–Chair Notes.” The Luminescent, 2 August, 2019. Retrieved from: https://www.theluminescent.org/2019/08/yoga-and-gender-study-group.html