Thursday, 31 October 2019

The Arabic Pātañjalayogaśāstra

By NOÉMIE VERDON
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(Left) First page of the Kitāb Pātanğal written in the margin of the manuscript.
Credit: Köprülü Library, Istanbul.


At the dawn of the first millennium CE, the Muslim intellectual al-Bīrūnī (973-ca. 1050), a native from Khwarezm in today’s Uzbekistan, interpreted Patañjali’s treatise on yoga (ca. 350-450) into Arabic. Al-Bīrūnī’s book, titled Kitāb Pātanğal and literally meaning the Book of Patañjali, is the first known translation of the Pātañjalayogaśāstra into a non-Indic language.1

At the time, the north-western sub-continent, including parts of modern Afghanistan and Pakistan, was experiencing the second wave of Muslim incursions into its territory under the Ghaznavid dynasty. Amid these territorial disputes, al-Bīrūnī traveled with the court of the sultan Maḥmūd of Ghazna chiefly to north-western Panjab, gathered Sanskrit books and interacted with Indian thinkers.

Among these Sanskrit texts, he found a copy of the Pātañjalayogaśāstra and, more than five hundred years after its original compilation, made an interpretation of this Yoga text. He also translated a work related to Sāṅkhya. The yoga work rendered into Arabic is extant today in the form of a single text written on the margins of a manuscript (Ritter 1956: 165), while the Sāṅkhya work did not survive the test of time and only portions of it are found in another of al-Bīrūnī’s writing. These two works are the only translations he made of so-called orthodox Indian philosophical literature. The reasons why he chose to translate these works in particular remain obscure. Was he especially interested in the viewpoints elaborated by these two systems of thought? Or did he only meet Indian philosophers of Yoga-Sāṅkhya? Both speculations may be true to some extent, because there is evidence that Sāṅkhya was well-known in the regions he visited, and al-Bīrūnī was certainly sympathetic to the Yoga path, as will be discussed below.

He writes about these two texts:
I had translated two books into Arabic: the first of them on the principles (المبادئ) and a description of the existents (وصفة الموجودات),  named Sānk (سانك); the second on the liberation of the soul from the fetters of the body (تخليص النفس من رباط البدن), known as Pātanğal (پاتنجل). These two [books] contain most of the fundamentals (الاصل) around which their (i.e., the Indians) faith revolves, without the subdivision of their religious laws (دون فروع شرائعهم) (Taḥqīq 1958: 6.1-4).2
This description thus testifies to the popularity of the two texts among the Indians whom al-Bīrūnī encountered, and at the same time indicates the focus of each of the philosophies. His understanding of Sāṅkhya as ‘a description of the existents’ concurs with our knowledge of the doctrine elaborated in the Sāṅkhyakārikā, which sets out and defines the ontological principles of existence. His explanation of the Book of Patañjali as dealing with the ‘liberation of the soul from the fetters of the body’ is a reformulation of the idea of liberating the self (puruṣa) from materiality by the different practices described at length in the Pātañjalayogaśāstra.

In addition, al-Bīrūnī provides us with a valuable account regarding the history of transmission of the Pātañjalayogaśāstra as a text. Some commentators regard Patañjali as the author of the aphorisms (sūtra) and Vyāsa of the commentary (bhāṣya). More recently, however, scholars have questioned this view. It is likely that the dissociation between the aphorisms and commentary is a relatively late convention, and that one author in fact compiled the whole work under the Sanskrit term śāstra, i.e., treatise. (Bronkhorst 1985: 203; 2013: 57-68). Al-Bīrūnī translated the whole treatise, intermingling the aphorisms and the commentary in a dialogue, and attributed the totality of the work to a person named Patañjali (Maas 2013: 59-60).

However, al-Bīrūnī’s yoga text is not a literal translation of the Pātañjalayogaśāstra and, as a matter of fact, differs from it in many respects. Due to the technical character of the Sanskrit original, al-Bīrūnī had to modify it to fit his conceptual framework. In a sense, he faced similar difficulties to those of today’s translators of philosophical Indian texts (Maas and Verdon 2018: 321-328).3

Two examples of how al-Bīrūnī handled these problems are given below. First, however, two facts about his interpretation should be mentioned. He never translated the aphorisms as such. Instead, he created a dialogue including questions and answers which intermingles the two layers of the original text and reshapes its content (Maas and Verdon 2018: 317-320).

In this manner, the content of Pātañjalayogaśāstra 1.1-2 is summarised and paraphrased in the two first questions of al-Bīrūnī’s work. The widely known sūtra 1.2 can be translated as:
Yoga is the suppression of the activities of mind.
yogaś cittavṛttinirodhaḥ
Al-Bīrūnī conveys the meaning of this sūtra in the following way:
[The true knowledge is] to compress what is spread outward from you, in such a way that you are only engaged with yourself, and to prevent the faculties of soul from clinging to what is different from you (Ritter 1956: 170.2-3).4
قبض المبتثّ عنك نحو الخارجات اليك لئلا تشتغل الا بك و قمع قوى النفس عن التشبّت بغيرك 

Al-Bīrūnī translates the ‘self’ (puruṣa) and the ‘mind’ (citta) interchangeably with the term nafs (نفس). In Arabic, this word is polysemic and means ‘soul’, ‘spirit’, ‘mind’ or ‘human being’. So, he interprets cittavṛtti (i.e., the activities of the mind) by the expression ‘the faculties of the soul’ (قوى النفس). 

In his Book of Patañjali, al-Bīrūnī never uses the term yoga. In other words, he did not transliterate it into the Arabic script, nor did he directly translate the concept, as seen in sūtra 1.2 above. Nonetheless, question 5 of his dialogue includes the content of sūtras 1.5 to 1.11, and describes the five faculties in a way that is consistent with the definitions of the five yogic mental activities in the Pātañjalayogaśāstra; which confirms his translations of vṛtti (activities) by the term faculties in Arabic.

Al-Bīrūnī’s translation of samādhi is equally interesting. In the Sanskrit text, samādhi is mentioned in numerous instances, while in its Arabic version, only one passage appears to explicitly refer to this concept. This passage corresponds to Pātañjalayogaśāstra 1.17-18. Al-Bīrūnī’s translation states that there are two types of contemplation: one is perceptible with matter, which corresponds to saṃprajñāta-samādhi, and the other is contemplation of the intelligible, free from matter, which is asaṃprajñāta-samādhi. In both instances, al-Bīrūnī’s rendering differs from the original Sanskrit text, as he used terminology indebted to his Islamic intellectual background. However, in both cases, he conveyed the message rather faithfully. As shown by his interpretation of samādhi, al-Bīrūnī appears to have simplified technical concepts and partly omitted the complex discussions on the meditative states in the Pātañjalayogaśāstra.

There are two main reasons underlying such adaptations. First, as mentioned above, al-Bīrūnī, as any translator, depended on his cultural, linguistic and intellectual framework when he rendered technical concepts of yoga into Arabic. Secondly, the mental processes and the methods taught in the Pātañjalayogaśāstra to achieve a transcendent state of liberation from materiality resonated with al-Bīrūnī, as he was acquainted with theories of healing and elevating the soul, which were developed by Islamic thinkers. Therefore, he appears to have been keen to facilitate the transmission of these Indian ideas to his Muslim readership. While most of the message of the original text is preserved in al-Bīrūnī’s Arabic Book of Pātanğal, his work most certainly constitutes an interpretation, rather than a translation.


NOTES

1 This post is based on my PhD research (Verdon 2015), which can be downloaded on the following link: https://serval.unil.ch/resource/serval:BIB_779D64E820E1.P001/REF. Therefore, I do not refer to it, but only to other relevant studies in this communication.

2 See also Sachau 1910: I: 8.

3 The reader interested in the complete Kitāb Pātanğal can refer to the English translations by Pines and Gelblum (1966, 1977, 1983, 1989). 

4 See also Pines & Gelblum 1966: 313-314.


BIBLIOGRAPHY


Bronkhorst, Johannes. 1985. Patañjali and the Yoga Sūtras. Studien zur Indologie und Iranistik, 10, 191-212.

Maas, Philipp A. 2013. “A Concise Historiography of Classical Yoga Philosophy.” In E. Franco (Ed.), Historiography and Periodization of Indian Philosophy (pp. 53-90). Vienna: De Nobili Series.

Maas, Philipp A. and Verdon, Noémie. 2018. “On al-Bīrūnī’s Kitāb Pātanğal and the Pātañjalayogaśāstra.” In Karl Baier, Philipp A. Maas and Karin Preisendanz (Eds.), Yoga in Transformation: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives. Vienna: Vienna University Press, (Vienna Forum for Theology and the Study of Religions 16), p. 283–334.

Pines, Shlomo and Gelblum, Tuvia. 1966. Al-Bīrūnī’s Arabic Version of Patañjali’s Yogasūtra. Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, 29(2), 302-325.

Id. 1977. Al-Bīrūni’s Arabic Version of Patañjali’s Yogasūtra: A Translation of the Second Chapter and a Comparison with Related Texts. Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, 40(3), 522-549. Hyderabad: Da’irat al-Ma’arif il-Osmania Publications.

Id. 1983. Al-Bīrūnī’s Arabic Version of Patañjali’s Yogasūtra: A Translation of the Third Chapter and a Comparison with Related Texts. Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, 46(2), 258-304.

Id. 1989. Al-Bīrūnī’s Arabic Version of Patañjali’s Yogasūtra: A Translation of the Fourth Chapter and a Comparison with Related Texts. Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, 52(2), 265-305.

Ritter, Hellmut. 1956. Al-Bīrūnī’s Übersetzung des Yoga-Sūtra des Patañjali. Oriens, 9(2), 165-200.

Sachau, Carl Edward. 1910. Alberuni’s India. An Account of the Religion, Philosophy, Literature, Geography, Chronology, Astronomy, Customs, Laws and Astrology of India about AD 1030. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co.

Taḥqīq. 1958. Al-Bīrūnī’s Kitāb fī taḥqīq mā li-l-Hind min maqūla maqbūla fī l-ʿaql aw marḏūla. Hyderabad: Da’irat al-Ma’arif il-Osmania Publications.

Verdon, Noémie. Forthcoming, 2020. Al-Bīrūnī’s Kitāb Sānk and Kitāb Pātanğal: A Historical and Textual Study. Vienna: De Nobili Research Library.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR


Noémie Verdon is a post-doctoral researcher at the Institute for Research in Humanities of Kyoto University under a Swiss National Science Foundation scholarship. Her PhD examined al-Bīrūnī's life and his interpretation of Saṅkhya and Yoga Sanskrit texts into Arabic. Her current project explores Pre-Islamic and early Islamic Kāpiśī and Gandhāra focusing on the interactions between political and and religious agents of the region mainly based on textual sources, Arabic and Sanskrit. Her research interests generally focus on the history of transmission of ideas and knowledge between cultures in early medieval South Asia.


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Citation: 

Verdon, Noémie. 2019. “The Arabic Pātañjalayogaśāstra.” In The Luminescent, 30 October, 2019. Retrieved from: https://www.theluminescent.org/2019/10/the-arabic-patanjalayogasastra.html.



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Thursday, 12 September 2019

Post-Lineage Yoga & Dandelions

What dandelions have to teach us about 'post-lineage yoga'.


By THEODORA WILDCROFT
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Figure 1: A dandelion (Taraxacum species): flowering plant growing with young ferns.
Watercolour. Credit: Wellcome Collection. CC BY


In the course of researching my PhD into alternative yoga subcultures in Britain, I needed to create a new term to describe the community relationships I was seeing in my fieldwork. That term, post-lineage yoga, has much wider usefulness for talking about the ways in which yoga practices have been shared through time and across the world. As a result, the label ‘post-lineage yoga’ is used more and more in contemporary yoga media, but there’s been a great deal of confusion about what exactly it means.

The problem with describing a previously-unresearched phenomenon like post-lineage yoga is that, to begin with, it’s very complicated. It takes months to hone the picture that fieldwork is showing into a clear and accessible concept that others can understand. Now that I’ve published my PhD thesis (Wildcroft 2018), I’m working hard on a book or two, and getting out and about, talking to yoga communities, describing my research and what it might mean. These recent efforts at disseminating my research are making it easier to describe post-lineage yoga in ways yoga teachers and practitioners can understand. So I’m grateful to The Luminescent for letting me share with you a simplified version of ‘post-lineage yoga in a (betel) nutshell’.1

Hopefully this post will clarify the term for those of you that have been hearing it a lot, and for others, it might tempt you to read the whole thesis, which you can find on an open access server at this link: http://oro.open.ac.uk/59125/.

One of the first academics to describe what is modern about modern yoga, Elizabeth De Michelis (2007), gave us a term to describe the yoga that is most visible in mainstream culture: modern postural yoga. Whilst terms such as this one are useful, they of course don’t fit all cases. Any new categorisation is also a generalisation. And when one describes a cultural shift, it does not mean necessarily that one approves of it. Almost all evolutions in cultural practice will have positives and negatives. De Michelis wasn’t saying that all yoga fits her typology neatly, nor that any kind of yoga is ‘better’ than another. But we’re still using the term ‘modern postural yoga’ because understanding when contemporary practice does and does not fit this definition still leads to us understanding more about what unites and divides practitioners of yoga.

Academics often say that typologies are ‘good to think with’. Post-lineage yoga has been good for me to think with for the past few years, and increasingly, other scholars and yoga teachers are finding it good to think with also. You might decide that post-lineage yoga isn’t a way of working that you approve of. But it’s probably still helpful to think about and recognise what its key features are. In fact, when most yoga teachers listen to the real definition, they recognise themselves at least a little in what they hear.
Post-lineage, as its name suggests, is a change not in the content of yoga, but in how it is shared. What it does not mean is anti-lineage, or non-lineage, and it certainly doesn’t mean anti-tradition.  Briefly put, post-lineage yoga is a description of the authority processes that govern the teaching of yoga—how you decide what you’re sharing with others is authentic and safe, and how it relates to the teaching of yoga in the past, and the teaching of yoga around the world.
Post-lineage yoga describes a shift that many yoga teachers and practitioners go through—they might start out only learning from one teacher, and never questioning their authority. But at some point, many look beyond the lineage teachings to expand their understanding of how yoga works in practice. They might or might not maintain a strong respect for their original teachers, but they might read books from other lineages, or be fascinated by the latest neuroscience research, or share a practice with peers or go to workshops with other teachers.

So why is thinking about the term post-lineage yoga important? Partly it’s a way of recognising the contribution of saṅghas (communities), as well as guru-śiṣya (teacher-student) relationships, to the sharing of yoga. But the last couple of decades have also seen many aspects of authority in yoga communities come under scrutiny. Whether it’s new evidence challenging the health claims in Iyengar’s Light on Yoga (Broad 2012), or the uncovering of abuse by apparently enlightened teachers (Remski 2019), or new historical evidence concerning the development of āsana practice (Birch 2013, Mallinson and Singleton 2017), many yoga practitioners now feel they need more than established yoga hierarchies to justify how they practice and teach.

Post-lineage networks support and correct the vertical hierarchies of yoga knowledge with peer-negotiated knowledge. That’s a complicated sentence, so here’s my favourite way of explaining it.

We often talk about the ‘roots of yoga’, and we commonly visualise the various schools of yoga like branches on a tree, with each practitioner connected in a long line back to the roots. But in order to draw on those roots, each individual depends completely on the integrity and absolute knowledge of every person between them and the ground. If the established structures of authority in yoga start to be questioned for some reason, any of those branches could break. There is not a lot of resilience in the system overall.

A lot of plants have a very different root structure, and happily, there are theories of learning that have already noticed this. A lesser known ‘branch’ of research focuses on ‘rhizomatic’ learning (Howard 2013; Lionel and Le Grange 2011). Dandelions are rhizomes. Each dandelion might not look as impressive as a tree, but together, the roots of dandelions form a web, sharing resources underground. As any gardener will tell you, the awesome and infuriating thing about dandelions is that they can survive being chopped down, because they grow back from even the tiniest bit of root. So individual dandelions might not be impressive, but together, they are very resilient, and adapt to almost any change, and any part of their network being broken.

According to learning theory this means that when knowledge is embodied by a whole group of people, and when the knowledge needs to adapt to circumstance and be resilient to change, it tends to form networks that look more like a horizontal web than a vertical tree. In this metaphor, each practitioner, each teacher shares as much as possible with others, across boundaries of lineage and school, nationality and intention. That way, even though an individual teacher or a particular practice might be ethically compromised, or just ill-adapted to new cultural conditions, each practitioner can draw from many sources, and calibrate their practice as it evolves with everyone else. As such, Yoga as a flow of cultural practice through time, survives in the network as a whole.

To do this most effectively, the network must also be as democratic as possible, and each person in the network should be encouraged to play an active part in the sharing and production of knowledge about the human condition. It works less well when students cannot question or adapt the teachings that they learn. That is why post-lineage communities are often found in trauma-sensitive and accessible yoga, because these are types of yoga that encourage resilience and self-reliance in each student, and also because they celebrate the benefits of diversity, in practice and in humanity.

Hopefully some of you have already realised that this is a very simplified picture. There is much more to my thesis. In particular, like previous traditions, post-lineage yoga is marked by power and oppression, and differences of access. However, in a post-lineage network, the depth of each person’s practice might not correlate completely to how long they spend in a single school. My research suggests that many post-lineage practitioners have a deep and abiding attachment to the practice and aims of yoga. Their roots may be as deep as they are wide. For many, it was this commitment that got them through a crisis of faith in a particular teaching or teacher, and allowed them to find new ways to practice. For others, new knowledge from outside their lineage allows them to keep updating the practices they love, and to share their own teacher’s wisdom with a wider audience.

Post-lineage yoga seems to be at its most resilient when it recognises the value in both horizontal and vertical knowledge, that is, a yoga culture that honours both precedent and, what Etienne Wenger called, ‘communities of practice’ (Wenger 1999). Post-lineage yoga is incompatible with any doctrinal view that claims that only one way of practicing can ever be valid and that methods should not be mixed between schools. These ways of teaching form mini-networks that remain isolated from others—perhaps like a series of trees in pots rather than trees in a forest. Such views aren’t necessarily wrong, they just might not be sufficiently resilient to weather a crisis.

Returning to the natural metaphors then, it’s satisfying to note that each tree in a forest is not a self-sufficient island. In fact, a tree is connected by a vast, invisible network of horizontal fibres called mycelium, which carries resources and information from one tree to another (Stamets 2005). The oak might look like the most impressive tree in the wood, but without the friendly fungi that connect it to every birch, beech and hazel, it wouldn’t thrive as well.

If there’s one recommendation that comes out of my research, it is that if we want contemporary yoga practice to continue to thrive, and adapt, and survive the shock-waves of change, we might do well to pay attention to the health of our humble connections between yoga teachers, as well as to the bureaucratic and pedagogical hierarchies that are so much more visible.

Maybe that looks a lot less like more training and more rules, and a lot more like hanging out at conferences, and festivals instead. If you want me to come and hang out and facilitate that conversation, get in touch. More and more post-lineage yoga practitioners are finding it helpful to talk with me not just about trees and dandelions, but starlings and geese, borders and osmosis, consent and contact too. More on that later.



NOTES

1 Read this: https://www.wildyoga.co.uk/2018/05/on-betel-nuts/ for an explanation of why I’m fascinated by betel nuts.



BIBLIOGRAPHY


Birch, J. 2013 (Published 2018). “Proliferation of Āsana-s in Late Mediaeval Yoga Texts” in Baier, K. Maas, P. & Preisendanz, K. (eds.). Yoga in Transformation: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives. Vienna: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht Unipress.

Broad, W. J. 2012. The Science of Yoga: The Risks and the Rewards. Bath: Simon & Schuster.

De Michelis, E. 2007. “A Preliminary  Survey of Modern Yoga Studies” in Asian Medicine, 3: 1-19.

Howard, R. G. 2013. “Vernacular Authority: Critically Engaging ‘Tradition’” in Blank, T. & Howard, R. G. (Eds.), Tradition in the Twenty-First Century: Locating the Role of the Past in the Present. Logan: Utah State University Press.

Lionel, L. & Leonard Le Grange. 2011. “Sustainability and Higher Education: From arborescent to rhizomatic thinking” in Educational Philosophy and Theory, 43: 742-54.

Mallinson, J. & Singleton M. 2017. Roots of Yoga. London: Penguin Books.

Remski, M. 2019. Practice and All is Coming: Abuse, Cult Dynamics, and Healing in Yoga and Beyond. Kentucky, USA: Embodied Wisdom Publishing.

Stamets, P. 2005. Mycelium Running: how mushrooms can help save the world. Berkley, Calif: Ten Speed Airlift.

Wenger, E. 1999. “Community” in Wenger, E. (Ed.), Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Wildcroft, T. 2018. Patterns of Authority and Practice Relationships in ‘Post-lineage Yoga.’ UK: Open University. Retrieved from: http://oro.open.ac.uk/59125/.


About the Author


Theodora Wildcroft PhD is a researcher investigating the democratization and evolution of physical practice as it moves beyond yoga lineages. Her first peer-reviewed article was the co-written ‘Sacrifices at the altar of self-transformation’ with Alison Robertson, and she has a chapter in the forthcoming Routledge Guide to Performance Philosophy. She is the Managing Editor of the peer-reviewed journal Body and Religion and an active member of the British Association for the Study of Religions. Her monograph Post-lineage Yoga: from guru to #metoo is currently in production. A yoga teacher herself with over a decade of experience, she also blogs, appears on podcasts, on panels and conferences and writes numerous other articles on yoga, on social justice, on hope, and on untold stories. Theo consults with a number of major yoga organisations, and she teaches workshops across Europe and North America.


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Citation: 

Wildcroft, Theodora. 2019. “Post-lineage Yoga & Dandelions: What dandelions have to teach us about ‘post-lineage yoga’.” in The Luminescent, 12 September, 2019. Retrieved from: https://www.theluminescent.org/2019/09/post-lineage-yoga-dandelions.html.



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Saturday, 24 August 2019

118 Asanas of the mid-17th century

BY JASON BIRCH
An extract from:
Birch, J. (Submitted 2013, 2018). "The Proliferation of Āsana-s in Late Mediaeval Yoga Texts." In Yoga in Transformation: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives. Karl Baier, Philipp A. Maas & Karin Preisendanz (eds.). Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht Unipress.


Detail from the Krishna Vishvarupa (ca. 1740)
which includes various Gods & a Nāth yogī seated in an āsana with ankles crossed.
Bilaspur School. Himachal Pradesh, India.
Opaque watercolour and gold on paper. H x W (Image): 19.8 × 11.7 cm (7 13/16 × 4 5/8 in).
Catherine and Ralph Benkaim Collection.

Birch writes:
Two centuries after the Hathapradīpikā, several large yoga compilations which integrated teachings of Haṭha and Rāja Yoga with those of Pātañjalayoga and Brahmanical texts were written. One such work is the early seventeenth-century Yogacintāmaṇi of Śivānandasarasvati, an Advaitavedāntin who probably resided in Vārāṇsī during the reigns of the Moghul rulers Shāh Jahān and his sons. The latter half of this work is structured according to the standard eight auxiliaries of yoga. In the section on āsana, there are descriptions of thirty-four āsana-s from a wide selection of sources [...]. 
Among the five manuscripts and one printed edition of the Yogacintāmaṇi that have been consulted for this chapter, one manuscript contains considerably more āsana-s than the others. The manuscript in question, which I refer to as the “Ujjain manuscript” [dated vikramasamvat 1717, Thursday, 5 June 1659 CE], is held at the Scindia Oriental Research Library in Ujjain. [...] The names of āsana-s in the Ujjain manuscript have been reproduced in [the table], below. 
The Ujjain Manuscript of the Yogacintāmaṇi, folio 62v.
Photograph: Jacqueline Hargreaves (2009).
The Ujjain manuscript extends our knowledge of āsana-s practised in the seventeenth century by providing lists 1b, 2 and 3. List 1b consists of the twenty-eight āsana-s that have been added to list 1a. List 2 adds thirty-nine āsana-s to lists 1a and 1b. List 3 adds another seventeen, which yields a total of one hundred and eighteen āsana-s in the Ujjain manuscript. Therefore, the Ujjain manuscript contains an additional eighty-four āsana-s to the thirty-four in other manuscripts of the Yogacintāmaṇi (i.e., list 1a). Eight of these have been taken from Vācaspatimiśra’s Tattvavaiśāradī. However, I am yet to find the names of the other seventy-six additional āsana-s in any yoga text dated before the sixteenth century.




Table: Names of āsana-s listed in the Ujjain manuscript of the Yogacintāmaṇi
.

The Yogacintāmaṇi (Ujjain ms.) contains descriptions for sixty-two (62) of the 118  āsana-s listed. Apart from those few which are based on Vācaspatimiśra’s Tattvavaiśāradī, I am yet to find the majority of these descriptions in another text or manuscript. 
[...]
Generally speaking, most of the seated, forward, backward, twisting and arm-balancing poses in modern yoga have been anticipated by these seventeenth and eighteenth-century sources. This may not be so apparent in comparing the names of āsana-s from one tradition to another, because similar āsana-s can have different names. This is true for both medieval and modern yoga. Such differences may reflect regional influences and attempts by gurus to distinguish their own repertoire of techniques. The main exceptions to this are the names of āsana-s in the well-known, principal texts such as the Pātañjalayogaśāstra and the Hathapradīpikā. Since these texts have been invoked to establish the traditional credentials, so to speak, of more recent lineages, the names of their āsana-s have endured. 

Yogin seated in a squat
with ankles crossed, holding a mālā.

Wellcome Library (MS Hindi 371, folio 62r).


About the Author


Jason Birch is a Post-doctoral Research Fellow on the Hatha Yoga Project, SOAS University of London. His current area of research is the history of physical yoga on the eve of colonialism. He is editing and translating six key Sanskrit texts on Haṭha and Rājayoga, which are outputs of the project. He holds a DPhil in Oriental Studies (2013) from the University of Oxford and is a founding member of the Journal of Yoga Studies

Citation:
Birch, J. (Submitted 2013, 2018). "The Proliferation of Āsana-s in Late Mediaeval Yoga Texts."
Yoga in Transformation: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives. Karl Baier, Philipp A. Maas & Karin Preisendanz (eds.). Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht Unipress.




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Friday, 9 August 2019

YOGA AND GENDER STUDY GROUP

SOAS Centre of Yoga Studies – Chair Notes


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Figure 1: Cāmuṇḍā.
Khajuraho region (10-11th century).
Harvard Art Museums/Arthur M. Sackler Museum.
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Howard E. Houston.

For five weeks in the Summer Term 2019 the SOAS Centre of Yoga Studies organised a study group on yoga and gender. The seminars were an opportunity for students and researchers to engage with cutting edge work being conducted through SOAS and further afield and show-case rising researchers as well as more established scholars. We wanted to explore yoga and gender from a cross-disciplinary approach, integrating philology, ethnography, sociology, iconography and critical theories—exploring themes of gender, sex, power and abuse, female praxis, the esoteric feminine and ferocious goddesses in historical and contemporary contexts.

As a research student at SOAS working on constructions of gender in Sanskrit texts on Haṭhayoga convening this group was an opportunity to learn from colleagues and extend research networks. Alongside the fascinating content, I was keen to see how different projects were designed and carried out practically, and how contrasting methodologies and theories were drawn upon to interrogate the data.

The format for the sessions was short presentations followed by interactive discussions based on both the material presented and prior set readings. The intention was to curate an environment where interaction of ideas and reflection was optimised. The sessions were well attended by an inquisitive and diverse body of academic researchers and yoga professionals including teachers, museum guides, and documentary film-makers and photographers.

SOAS welcomed five researchers: Monika Hirmer, a SOAS doctoral researcher working on goddess worship at a Kāmākhyā shrine; Daniela Bevilacqua, a post-doctoral ethnographer working on the Hatha Yoga Project; Amelia Wood, a SOAS doctoral researcher working on abuse of power in modern yoga; Suzanne Newcombe, Open University Lecturer and AyurYog post-doctoral researcher who has published on women in Britain; and Sandra Sattler, a philologist and art historian at SOAS researching for a doctoral degree on fierce goddesses. We were also able to include a presentation by Agi Wittich, a doctoral researcher at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem working on women in the Iyengar yoga tradition.

Kāmākhyā Worship


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?

Monika’s rationale behind suggesting the quite distinct readings for the session was to illustrate the different results derived from different approaches: Madhu Khanna (2016) was working from the everyday life of practitioners whilst David Gordon White (1998) was extrapolating a textual response.


Female Asceticism in India


The second session welcomed Daniela Bevilacqua to present ‘An historical and ethnographic view of yoga physical practices and female asceticism in India’. Daniela is a postdoctoral researcher on the ERC-funded Hatha Yoga Project, a South-Asianist collecting, through fieldwork, historical evidence of yoga practice and ethnographic data among living ascetic practitioners of yoga. She conducted doctoral research on the Rāmānandī Sampradāya and was awarded a doctoral thesis from the University of Rome, Sapienza and from the University of Paris X Nanterre Ouest La Défense. Daniela has recently published her first monograph Modern Hindu Traditionalism in Contemporary India which examines the Rāmānandī order (sampradāya) and gives a portrait of the Jagadguru Rāmānandācārya Rāmnareśācārya.

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).


Figure 2: Photograph of a sannyāsinī (female ascetic).
Oman, John Campbell (1905: 227). The Indian Mystics & Saints of India.


In looking at ‘gender’ there is a risk of equating gender with women’s studies. Here women are the category marked by gender whereas the male is the neutral, a priori body. Women tend to be characterised by social roles, particularly motherhood, and are associated with maternal expectations. In her above mentioned article on women ascetics, Daniela notes ‘Generalized labels to define what is “typical female” and what is “typical male” risk of flattening the idea of female asceticism’ (Bevilacqua, 2017b: 72). In our discussion of motherhood and gender where women are marked by maternal duties or sentiment, it emerged that men, even when engaged in paternal duties, are not marked by paternity. In contrast, Monika’s research found that men were positively characterised by maternal qualities as a mark of being closer to Devī.

The enduring image of Daniela’s session was a photo of the sādhvī Rām Priya Dās censored by biro: in an inversion her clothing slips down, and her exposed thigh has been scribbled over. As the Hatha Yoga Project enters its final year and the team turn to writing up their findings I look forward to reading further outputs.


Figure 3: Photograph of Rām Priya Dās censored by biro.


Yoga, Power and Gender


Amelia Wood is at the forefront of bringing a critical perspective to abuses of power in yoga, a topic which has recently received sustained attention particularly since the exposures prompted by the #metoo movement. Amelia is researching for a doctoral thesis at SOAS on ‘Yoga, power and gender: an investigation into the abuse of power by modern gurus’. Amongst the case studies that she is exploring are Bikram Choudhry (inventor of Bikram Yoga), Kausthub Desikachar (lineage holder to his grandfather’s legacy, TKV Krishnamacharya) and the head of Satyananda Yoga in Australia in the 1970s and 80s, Swami Akhandananda. The intersectional questioning she is bringing to bear on these cases include asking about the extent to which the transnational dislocation of cultural categories such as yoga, gender and spiritual authority has contributed to the abuse of power within the global modern yoga context. She brings a normative thrust to her project by asking ‘How can discussions of abuse support victims rather than those already in positions of power?’ Amelia has an unrelenting commitment to refocusing the critical gaze from the actions of gurus to the predicament of victims / survivors. We prepared for the session by reading Amanda Lucia’s theorising of abuse (Lucia, 2018) where the emphasis is placed on the structural, systemic dynamic of charisma opening up space for abuse to occur. Lucia defines ‘haptic logics’ as the ‘disciplinary logics of physicality’ and follows a social constructivist theory of charisma. Lucia argues for haptic logics as a systemic approach rather than the psychological analysis usually served to ‘headline stealing hyper gurus’.

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.’


Women-oriented Iyengar Yoga


Agi Wittich, PhD candidate in the Department of Comparative Religions at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem joined us in this session to share her findings to date. Agi is working on ‘Yoga for Women in the Iyengar Yoga Tradition’. One of Agi’s supervisors is Yohanan Grinshpon, who’s Silence Unheard: Deathly Otherness in Pātañjala-Yoga (2002) has been a longstanding favourite of mine (for its classification of those who have interacted with the Yogasūtra and its unrelenting insistence on taking the implications of the practice for the yogin to its grisly conclusion).

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.


Yoga in Britain


Suzanne Newcombe led a session on ‘Yoga in Britain: Reinforcing or challenging traditional gender roles?’ Suzanne is Lecturer in Religious Studies at the Open University and Research Fellow at Inform, based at King's College London. She is also working on the ERC-funded project AyurYog ‘Medicine, Immortality and Moksha: Entangled Histories of Yoga, Ayurveda and Alchemy in South Asia.’ Her doctoral research at the University of Cambridge was on the popularisation of yoga and Āyurvedic medicine in Britain. From 2002-2016 her work at Inform specialized in new and minority religious movements in contemporary Britain, especially originating in or inspired by South Asian beliefs. Hence her insight was particularly informative on the previous week’s topic of power and abuse.

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.



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.

Of the factors influencing the popularity of yoga for women Suzanne notes in her work that of ‘bored housewife syndrome’, where resentments of middle-class women for their duties of managing every aspect of housework and childcare was an important part of how aspirations conflicted with restricted social roles. This was an impetus for second-wave feminists to compare their positions less favourably to those of men. For a fascinating discussion please see our reading to accompany this session (Newcombe, 2007: 37-63). Second-wave feminists also challenged the medicalisation of women’s experience especially for example around childbirth which Suzanne argues is closely related to the interest in yoga. The discussion touched around Western and Āyurvedic medicine—my view of the hegemony of Western medicine was tempered by Suzanne’s incisive suggestion that the unquestioned supremacy of Western allopathic medicine was (only) between the discovery of Penicillin and the catastrophe of Thalidomide.

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 second part of Suzanne’s session presented careful evidence to nuance the picture of contemporary yoga as defined by neoliberalism and cultural appropriation. As part of her research Suzanne had participated in a teacher training offered by Baba Ramdev. She argued that it is in these contexts that Indian bodies can be found, including Muslim bodies, rather than mainstream yoga studios. She noted the light-heartedness of the attendees, regardless of religious affiliation, which softened the apparent contradiction between the diversity of attendees and a leadership which supports the supremacy of Hindus at the expense of Muslims. I am looking forward to more of this analysis in Suzanne’s new monograph which, according to its jacket, ‘resists the flattening of the neoliberal and cultural appropriation critiques’ (Newcombe, 2019).



The Fierce Goddess


Sandra Sattler was our final speaker and is conducting doctoral research on the iconography of fierce goddesses in Hinduism at SOAS. She is tracing the development of fierce deities such as Cāmuṇḍā and Kālī by analysing selected Purāṇas and art historical material. Her working title is ‘Cāmuṇḍā’s Glory: Representations of the Fierce Goddess in Purāṇic Literature and Indian (Temple) Art’. Sandra’s background completing her BA and MA at Goettingen University, also on fierce goddesses, and her work there as a research assistant for four years teaching Sanskrit, Sanskrit literature, goddesses, and Indian art gives her a strong background for her research project. I was keen to see how Sandra worked both as a textual historian and how she drew on art historical sources. In her research she is leaving aside questions of interpretation from a psychoanalytical perspective but will incorporate symbolic references contained in the primary sources.

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.




Bibliography


Bevilacqua, D. 2017a. “Are women entitled to become ascetics? An historical and ethnographic glimpse on female asceticism in Hindu religions”. Kervan—International Journal of Afro-Asiatic Studies, Vol. 21: 51-79.

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/10.1163/157342107x207209

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.





About the Author


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.

Citation:
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









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