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Women and Yoga: Dispelling A Myth

by Ramesh Bjonnes

Editor's Note: Even though more women are dong yoga than men, many men are credited with the history, origins and mastery of yoga. Ramesh gives insightful history that was new and compelling for me to discover- enjoy! I certainly did. ~Donna

Some contemporary yogis in America claim that women were not allowed to practice yoga until about 50 years ago. I think that’s a bunch of yogi baloney.

One reason such myths are popular here in the West, I think, is that the mythmakers often proclaim that yoga is mainly the practice of hatha yoga, mainly standing on your head doing asanas, or yoga postures. But perhaps these yogis are standing with their heads in the sand?

One such myth-making enterprise is the recent, scholarly book Yoga Body by Mark Singleton. While the book itself is built on solid research and gives a startlingly comprehensive overview of the modern history of posture yoga, it also perpetuates the myth that yoga, even posture yoga, developed fairly recently.

Western academicians claim that hatha yoga developed in the middle ages, because that is when the Hatha Yoga Pradipika was published. This book contains about 32 yoga postures, the most essential postures for spiritual growth.

Western academicians, including Singleton, confirm that these postures were developed by Shaiva Tantrics, in particular the naked Natha yogis. They fail to emphasize, however, that Shaiva culture was already several thousand years old prior to the writing of the Hatha Yoga Pradipika (we know that from the Puranas, among other places, the oral history texts of India) and thus we may conclude that yoga postures are likely to be thousands of years old as well.

Moreover, there are textual references to this fact in the Puranas and in oral stories by traditional teachers. There are also archeological findings that support these texts.

Think about it this way: We know that Sequoyah developed the Cherokee alphabet in the early 1800 and that the first Cherokee literature was published in 1827. Does this mean the Cherokee language is only about 200 years old? Does this mean the Cherokees did not have stories before this time? Of course not. This is the kind of logic the Western yoga academicians use, however, when discussing the history of yoga. As if all yoga practice started at the time the literature of yoga was published.

That’s yogi baloney.

That’s like saying shamanism started when the first book of shamanism was published.

Hence, they tear the Indian oral history to shreds and claim that whatever archeological evidence exists—the Shiva seals, for example, of a yogi in the goraksasana position,  which carbon dating has confirmed is over 5000 years old—is not conclusive enough to confirm that yoga postures existed in India 3000 years before Christ.

If we modern yogis want to know more about the history of yoga practice and culture, it’s important to study and include the oral history of yoga.

Just like shamanism, yoga has mostly been an oral tradition for thousands of years. And also like shamanism, the yoga tradition changed very little for thousands of years. Very, very little. Hence, if a sophisticated asana like the goraksasana existed thousands of years ago, it is also, as the oral tradition claims, highly likely many other types of asanas existed as well.

Indeed, according to the oral yogic tradition, which I studied in India and Nepal, yoga is thousands of years old, and hatha yoga has been practiced since its beginnings, which the carbon dated Shiva yogi seals quite conclusively confirm, and not just in recent years as Singleton claims. More importantly, these practices were also practiced by women.

Not surprisingly, then, Krishnamacarya, the hatha yogi most responsible for bringing the culture of yoga postures to the West, through his main student B. K. S. Iyengar, went to the Himalayas to learn these postures first hand. Singleton questions this, of course. Why? Because there is no written proof of the text Krishnamacarya claimed he studied, namely the Yoga Kurunta.

One of the main texts on yoga, the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, mostly uses the word asanas to describe it as the seat of meditation. In other words, as the lotus or half lotus position. There are no other asanas described in the Yoga Sutras. Hence, it is easy to claim, as most yoga academicians do, that hatha yoga developed much later.

The Yoga Sutras is not a how-to book on practicing yoga postures, it’s a philosophical treatise on the eight limbs of yoga. Most importantly, it is estimated by most scholars to have been written around 200 BCE. A few thousand years before 1960, when women supposedly were allowed to practice yoga for the first time.

But there are no disclaimers in the Yoga Sutras proclaiming that women cannot perform yoga. More importantly, yoga is not only the practice of physical postures, yoga is also the practice of meditation, the practice of chanting, praying, studying scriptures, dancing ecstatic dances, etc.

Hence, the famous spiritual teacher Ananda Mai Ma (30 April 1896 – 27 August 1982) would certainly qualify as a yogi, or more properly stated, a yogini. During her influential life, she attracted thousands of followers who saw her as an embodiment of the Goddess and a true practitioner of yoga.

Another reason this myth has come about has truthful and dark origins: India, like so many other places on the planet, is sexist and racist. Women have been treated like second class citizens in India for centuries. But yoga is not the cause of this sexism. Men are the cause. Sexist, elitist, bigoted men are the cause.

Historically, India has had two great sacred influences: the Vedic and the Tantric. And it is the latter stream of sacredness that supplied the esoteric and physical technology of yoga. Not the Vedic stream. That is, not until the Upanishads and the Gita were written down some 1000-500 years before Christ, and which represents the height of yogic literature and also a beautiful blending of Vedic thought and Tantric practice.

But unfortunately most yoga scholars in the West claim that yoga has ancient Vedic origins. Not really true. And this myth is another reason why they claim yoga has not been practiced by women until very recently.

While the Vedic sacred stream has had a dismal track record in relation to women, Tantra has done a much better job.

Just consider this quote from the Yoni Tantra, written about 500 years ago, and a classic of Shakta ( a branch of Tantra) literature:

“In Kaula every woman is thought of as a manifestation of the Goddess. No man may raise his hand, strike or threaten a woman. When she is naked, men must kneel and worship her as the Goddess. She has equal rights with men on all levels.”

Throughout the history of Tantra Yoga, which many scholars think is perhaps 7000 years old, and which grew out of shamanism, women have been held in high regard. Why? In part, because Tantric culture has been largely matriarchal, not patriarchal, as in Vedic society. Moreover, in Vedic culture, only men were teachers, in Tantric culture, both men and women were teachers.

So, while there is plenty of evidence of suppression of women in India, and also evidence of women not being able to read or study the scriptures, dance, practice yoga, etc., there is little evidence within traditional yogic or tantric culture to support the myth that women have not been allowed to practice yoga until recently.

True, women have not been allowed to be Vedic priestesses in India. No one can argue against that. But women have been allowed to be yoginis for thousands of years. The way out for women in Vedic society was that they were allowed to be swamis, ochre clad holy women, or yoginis. That tradition has been alive and well in India for thousands of years. And, as I said above, that tradition represents a mixture of Tantra and Veda.

More importantly, within the more genuine, non-Vedic culture, where Tantra was widely practiced, women have always been allowed to teach and practice. Indeed, in Tantric yoga, women have been gurus, healers, yoginis, and Goddesses since the beginning of time.

Women have always been allowed to practice yoga in India, at least within the traditional culture of India were Tantra has been influential—in Bengal, Kashmir, and parts of South India. It is unfortunately true, however, that India has long been suffering from sexism, racism and casteism, in large part due to the influence of Vedic dogmas. These dogmas have also influenced the practice of yoga. Hence, most all of the famous hatha yoga teachers coming out of India in recent years, have been men. This is unfortunate, but true.

But it is not true that women were only allowed to practice yoga until recently. Women have been practicing and contributing to the yoga tradition for thousands of years, as students, teachers, scholars and gurus. In fact, it is estimated that about 10 percent of the sadhus of India, the traditional ascetics, or yogis, are women, or sadhvis.

The Bauls of Bengal are ecstatic singers, dancers and meditators who have wandered all over India since the Middle Ages. Many of the Baul ecstatics are women, and some of them became well known yoginis and gurus, including the well known teachers Ananda Mai Ma, Arcanapuri Ma, and Laksmi Ma.

The number of female yoga adepts may have been considerably higher in India’s past, however, when Tantra was more commonplace. Acclaimed yoga scholar Georg Feuerstein writes in his book The Yoga Tradition:

“Allama Praphudeva [a tantric yogi from the Natha tradition] was a contemporary of Basava (1120-1168 CE) and the head of an order that included three hundred realized practitioners, sixty of whom are said to have been women.”

If we consider a yogini to be someone only practicing yoga postures, there are few such yoginis in Indian culture, primarily because hatha yoga is just one of many branches on the large tree of yoga. However, if we by yogini also include the mystics who meditate, sing devotional songs, practice solitude, fasting, and other spiritual austerities, then there have been thousands, if not millions, of such yogini practitioners and gurus throughout the ages.

Ironically, in America today, this trend has changed. Here, more than 80 percent of those practicing yoga today are women. Practicing hatha yoga, that is. If we include all the Buddhist, Zen and Hindu meditators as yogis, as well as all other mystics, which we should, then the number of men will increase, of course.

But this piece is about women, so here is a short list of a few great women yoginis from India to dispel the myth that women were only allowed to be yoginis before quite recently. Not true.

Ananda Mai Ma

Anandamai Ma, renowned yogini and guru from the Baul tantric tradition in Bengal (19th century)

Mirabai—celebrated poet, singer, and renowned Bhakti Yogi (ca. 14th century)

Sarada Devi—Bengali yogini and spiritual head of the Ramakrishna Mission after

her husband Ramakrishna’s death (19th century)

Kaoshitaki, yogini, great scholar and wife of the celebrated yogi Maharishi Agastya, from South India (ca. early Middle Ages)

Karkati Rakshasi, Ayurvedic doctor and one of India’s first yogini surgeons, apprentice of Shiva (the King of Yoga (ca. 5000 BCE) (surgery was part of ancient Tantric Ayurvedic medicine but not practiced in areas were Vedic dogmas were dominant, due to caste prejudices)


Watch Yoga and Menopause with Donna Davidge.


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About the Author

Ramesh Bjonnes lived for nearly three years in India and Nepal learning directly from the masters of tantric yoga. He has practiced yoga for over 30 years and lectured on tantra, yoga and meditation in many countries and most of the US states. Bjonnes is co-founder of the Prama Institute, a holistic retreat center outside Asheville, North Carolina, USA. He has written extensively on tantra, yoga, culture and sustainability, and his articles have appeared in books and numerous magazines and newspapers in Europe and the US. He is currently contributing editor of New Renaissance, a blogger for Elephant Journal, and a columnist for Fredrikstad Blad, a Norwegian newspaper. He lives in an eco-village in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. Read his blog on Elephant Journal.




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