Understanding Women’s Role in Yoga History and Why They get No Credit for it

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Yoga may have had some feminist history according to research but like many other things it too was completely forgotten due to the patriarchal takeover of yoga by its gurus. Little wonder even now when you think of yoga’s most prominent teachers, you think of men but when you think of practitioners of yoga in everyday life, you think of female instructors. Yoginis, according to history, were a strong community by themselves. The initial development of yoga can be traced to over 5,000 years ago, thanks to evidence of yoga poses found on stone drawings.

Yoga originated in India under the philosophies of Sāṃkhya, Vedanta, and beliefs that the goal of the yogic practice, was to seek emancipation or moksha. Discovery of further history, social changes and new interpretations have affected the way the practice of yoga was understood. 

As per a paper compiled by Agi Wittich for Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Gerald Larson, professor emeritus in the department of religious studies at Indiana University, explains, “Yoga is as old or older than recorded history, its origins for the most part lost in the antiquity of Central, Western, and South Asia.” Some theories also say its basis lies in the crossroads of beliefs of Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism.

Spiritual Women of History

According to this detailed study, it is estimated that few efforts in ancient history could succeed without the presence of women because they reflect on the power of growth and fertility. One research shows, basis the Upanishads, that if Yoga was a method of gaining liberation from the bonds of this world (moksha) then there were many ‘wise’ women part of it. And these wise women practised different ways to connect with their body and the divine. Sulabha, who argues with king Janaka that women are able to achieve liberation by the same means as men, and regarding their true soul and self, i.e atman , there is not a real difference between men and women.
Another is Gargi, who debates with the wise Yajñavalkya ( Hindu Vedic sage) and almost defeats him, but is being silenced instead. Mitreyi, the wife of Yajñavalkya, is said to be a knower of God and is interested in spiritual knowledge above all other things. “A closer look should be given to one of the moral codes that refer to celibacy, or sexual control, i.e. brahmachariya. It is possible that in the Vedic tradition, discussed briefly above, women were free to study and become a brahmacharinī,” Wittich’s research shows.


Through the Bhakti movement, which was one to use songs and other devotional practises, history saw the rise of women spiritual poets. Songs were accompanied by intense love and ecstasy for gods and were performed with an aim to unify with god. Bhakti Yoga is also referenced by Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita as an accessible way to access the Divine through love and devotion. If yoga at some level was making a connection with gods, research leads us to believe Akkamahadevi from Karnataka, Janabai from Maharashtra and Mirabai from Vrindavan were leading that movement.

“Another famous poet from Kashmir was Lalla Yogevari also called Lal Ded, from the fourteenth century renounced her husband and walked the street singing devotional songs. Lalla’s poetry is filled with a mixture of  philosophical term from tantra, yoga and vedant,” says Wittich’s paper.
Tantra and Shakti traditions have been relegated by history as magical and therefore not elaborated enough. But as this article notes, it was crucial to “revive the pre-patriarchal, pre-Brahminical values of feminine inclusion.” Tantra is reduced to ‘sexual practice’, but is in fact a demanding spiritual path that includes meditation, yoga, dance and elaborate circle rituals that evoke the ecstatic experience with the devine in and through the physical body.
Some of the hymns in the history Rig Veda (Vedas as the source of all knowledge for Hindu, and Rig Veda is the most ancient), were penned by the rishikas, or the 27 women sages. A woman who stood out among these learned women was Lopamudra, a seer who used music as her intellect and taught both men and women of those times. As Wittich notes, the somewhat inclusiveness of women in the Vedic era was replaced by a patriarchal brahminical era, which was expressed in the Laws of Manu, Manava Dharma. Women were ascribed to be householders, i.e. strī dharma. This is also a reflection of how women and their interest in yoga, devotion and spirituality though existed but was not always legitimately accepted from the point of view of history.


“Unlike men, who were supposed to learn, prior to their marriage, and leave their house in pursuit of spiritual life in the forest. Another approach to this subject is of metaphysical gendered dichotomy: while the true self, is considered to be masculine, the material world, that eludes our mind, is considered to be feminine,” the paper notes.

And so from much of ancient history, except for the few stones discovered with women in yoga and tantric poses, there was hardly anything recorded about women’s contribution to the practise. Modern Yoga History in the 20th century doesn’t have any  Indian women featured either. Eugenie Peterson, known as Indra Devi, learnt yoga from Tirumalai Krishnamacharya who was then considered the “father of modern yoga”. Born in Latvia in 1899, she embraced yoga around 1910-15 and took it to the western world at a time, when it was just practised in India. She grew the practise significantly and in 1947 she opened her first studio in Hollywood.