YS 103: Yoga and Hindu Asceticism, From Past to Present

A 4-week online course (Aug 26 - Sep 19, 2019)

with Dr. Daniela Bevilacqua,
Haṭha Yoga Project, SOAS


Distance Learning

Study the history and philosophy of yoga, at your own pace, from the comfort of your own home. 

Digital Svādhyāya

Engage in the traditional practice of "Self-Study," using the latest in modern online learning technologies.

Online Community

Join a thriving online community of yoga teachers, practitioners, and students from around the world. 

What is the relationship between yoga and asceticism? What's the difference between a Yogi, Sadhu, or a Baba? What is the role of Haṭha Yoga for Hindu ascetics in India today?

Join renowned yoga scholar, Dr. Daniela Bevilacqua, Post-Doc Research Fellow at SOAS, Haṭha Yoga Project, and a global cohort of students, for this exciting and rare opportunity to study and explore the fascinating world of yogic asceticism in India—past and present.

Yoga + Asceticism

This online course explores the age-old connection between yoga and asceticism in India, through the world of the sādhus. We will look at the development of Hindu asceticism from both a historical and ethnographic point of view. Special attention will be given to the practice and the understanding of yoga and Haṭha Yoga by sādhus belonging to the main traditional Hindu ascetic groups present in India.

Through a comparison of past and present evidence, the course provides students with an overview of the different understandings and approaches that sādhus had, and have, towards physical yogic practice, and yoga as a religious discipline. It will also explore contemporary developments in the ascetic world which have more recently been influenced by the spread of transnational yoga.

All live sessions will take place using the online Zoom platform* 


Weekly Lectures (2 hours)

Mondays @ 10-12am PST (California) = 1-3pm (New York) = 7-9pm (Rome)
Aug 26, Sep 2, 9, 16


Weekly Q&A (1 hour)

Thursdays @ 10-11am PST (California) = 1-2pm (New York) = 7-8pm (Rome)
Aug 29, Sep 5, 12, 19



Course Modules

Module 1 — Intro to Asceticism: Historical and Ethnographic Perspectives

This first module will provide a historical introduction to Indian Asceticism considering Brahmanical textual sources, but demonstrating that Hindu renunciation was and still is very complex. To do so, we will confront these textual evidences with the present reality of few main orthodox ascetic religious orders—mainly Nāth, Daśnāmī, Udāsīn, and Rāmānandī sampradāyas. We will examine the importance of the concept of sampradāya and paramparā in the Indian context, followed by a brief introduction to these major orders—especially as they are traditionally connected to the practice of Haṭha Yoga, and yoga sādhanā in general. In this first session we will also briefly deal with the issue of female asceticism.


Module 2 — Who is the Yogi? Insights from the Sādhus’ World

In the past the yogi was the tapasvin (the practitioner of austerities), then he was also the individual with superhuman powers. In general, today among sādhus the yogi is the one who has accomplished the yoga sādhanā. In this module, we will focus our attention on the figure of the “yogi” from a historical point of view, and then we will analyze the various “yogis” present in the ascetic world. In order to do so, we will consider the meaning of Haṭhayoga. We will briefly take into consideration the definition we find in the Haṭhapradīpikā, then we will analyze the various meanings that the label Haṭha Yoga recalls among sādhus and we will look for them in textual sources. This emic understanding will allow us to make a distinction between the terms haṭha yogi, yogi raj, and yogi. Eventually, we will deal with the broader understanding of Yoga as a sādhanā for sādhus.


Module 3 — Entering the Ascetic World: Tapasyā and Yoga Sādhanā in Practice

In this module we will enter the ascetic world through its practices. We will stress the role and importance of the guru in deciding the sādhanā for his/her disciple. We will examine the practice and the aims of tapasyā to describe then the steps of the yoga sādhanā. We will give particular attention to the practice of kriyā, āsana and their use or exhibition. We will investigate the way sādhus learn the different practices, stressing the importance of pilgrimages and religious festivals and taking into consideration the relationship of such practices to traditional scriptures.


Module 4 — Transnational Yoga and Sādhus: Future Developments?

Transnational yoga has now spread all over the world. In this final module we will evaluate its consequences in the sādhus’ world. We will deal with sādhus who learn about yoga in modern centers, and also take degrees or even PhDs in Yoga, as well as sādhus who simply attend “western yoga class” to be able to teach it abroad, but distinguish this yoga from the yog taught by their guru. Likewise, we will discuss the influence some religious orders have today and how more and more foreigners look for “traditional” gurus for their practice and also take initiation as renouncer. We will see how social media and the Internet are influencing the practice and the way some sādhus talk about yoga. Attention will also be given to some controversial yogic figures such as Baba Ramdev and Yogi Adityanath, and how they are received by the broader ascetic community in India today.

Can't attend the LIVE SESSIONS? No Problem.

All sessions will be recorded. Students will have LIFETIME access to all course materials, so you can review the course lectures again and again.

Students enrolled in this course will receive:

  • 4 pre-recorded video lectures + Q&A (2 hours)
  • 4 pre-recorded Q&A sessions (1 hour)
  • 12 Hours of CE credit
  • Course Syllabus with Recommended Readings (PDF)
  • 4 Multiple Choice Quizzes (for fun)
  • 4 Weekly Handouts (PDF)
  • Yogic Studies Certificate upon completion (PDF)
  • Access to the private Yogic Studies Online Community Forum

This course is eligible for 12 hours of Continued Education (CE) credits with Yoga Alliance

Your Instructor


Dr. Daniela Bevilacqua is a South-Asianist who received her PhD in Civilizations of Africa and Asia from Sapienza University of Rome, and in Anthropology from the University of Paris Nanterre. Her doctoral research was published by Routledge under the title, Modern Hindu Traditionalism in Contemporary India: The Śrī Mah and the Jagadguru Rāmānandācārya in the Evolution of the Rāmānandī Sampradāya. She is currently a Post-Doc Research Fellow at SOAS, working for the ERC funded Haṭha Yoga Project (2015-2020).

Through years of diligent fieldwork in India, she looks at the present practices of Haṭha Yoga among sādhus belonging to “traditional” sampradāyas. The purpose of this research is to confront ethnographic material with textual and historical evidences to reconstruct the development of these practices.

Her recent article, "Let the Sādhus Talk. Ascetic understanding of Haṭha Yoga and yogāsanas" will be a primary reading for this course.


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