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