Join world-renowned scholar, Dr. James Mallinson (SOAS, University of London), and a global cohort of students, for this unique opportunity to study and explore the fascinating and lesser-known history of Haṭha Yoga.
This online course will chart the history of physical yoga practice in India from the first-millennium BCE up to the 15th century CE, at which point it became classified under the catchall term "haṭha yoga." It will show how until about a thousand years ago the only physical methods associated with yoga were those of ascetic bodily mortification, in which the body was something to be controlled and suppressed. These methods are still practiced to this day, but they are complemented—and sometimes contradicted—by a system of practice that appears in the material and textual record around 1000 CE, in which the body is valorized and used to attain mystical states.
Drawing on the study of texts and art-historical material, together with insights from years spent living in India with traditional yoga practitioners, the course will present the very latest research findings on the history of physical yoga practice. It will explore what we can learn about yogic practice from textual teachings and from looking beyond the texts. It will also contextualize the history of yoga within the history of religion in India, in particular the development of the different religious traditions whose members were yoga practitioners.
This course will be illustrated throughout by a unique archive of visual materials, artifacts, sites, and practitioners important for understanding yoga’s rich history.
Each Module also includes: recommended weekly readings, a PDF handout, and optional quiz.
The name Haṭha Yoga is understood by scholars and practitioners outside of India to mean the physical yoga methods taught in texts such as the Haṭhapradīpikā. Ask someone in India about Haṭha Yoga, though, and they will think of extreme methods of bodily mortification, such as standing up or holding an arm in the air for years on end. The earliest evidence for such practices dates to the time of the Buddha, and they continue to be practiced in very similar forms to this day. This module will explore the history of these practices and look at explain how they can be understood as a technique of yoga.
This module will look at the first textual teachings on Haṭha Yoga. The term is first found in Buddhist texts from the first millennium CE, in which it denotes a method of sexual restraint used in tantric ritual. It is subsequently used to denote a system of practice taught in a c. 11th-century tantric Buddhist text called the Amṛtasiddhi, which teaches a tripartite method of controlling the breath by means of physical techniques in order to achieve liberation while living. This meaning is gradually expanded through a series of texts until, in the c. 1400 Haṭhapradīpikā, Haṭha Yoga’s most influential text, it is used to denote physical yoga as it is widely understood today: posture (āsana), breath control (kumbhaka) and techniques for manipulating the vital energies (mudrā).
This module will start by looking closely at the yoga method of the Amṛtasiddhi, the root text of Haṭha Yoga which Dr. Mallinson is editing together with Dr. Péter-Dániel Szántó. It will then look in detail at the other practices which came to be classified under the name Haṭha Yoga in the Haṭhapradīpikā: the āsanas, kumbhakas and mudrās.
This final module will look at who practiced Haṭha Yoga and why. It will identify the ascetic lineages from whom the Buddha learned methods of self-mortification. It will trace the origins of the Nāth Saṃpradāya among tantric Buddhist and Śaiva yogis in the late first and early second millennium and follow its development through to the second half of the second millennium CE. By looking at Haṭha Yoga’s use among the Daśanāmī Saṃnyāsīs, Rāmānandīs and Udāsins, the module will show how no single group can claim to be its originators, and how it may be practiced by anyone. Finally the module will gather together the relatively meagre evidence of the practice of Haṭha Yoga by women, and show what conclusions may be drawn from it.
Dr. James Mallinson is considered by many to be the world's leading scholar in the field of Haṭha Yoga studies. His pioneering research has radically altered our knowledge of yoga's past.
Dr. Mallinson is Reader in Indology and Yoga Studies at SOAS University of London. His research focuses on the history and current traditional practice of yoga and his primary methods are philology, ethnography and art history. Dr. Mallinson is currently leading the Haṭha Yoga Project, a five-year six-person research project on the history of physical yoga funded by the European Research Council. The project’s core outputs will be ten critical editions of Sanskrit texts on physical yoga and four monographs on its history and current practice.
Dr. Mallinson’s publications include Roots of Yoga (Penguin Classics, 2017, co-authored with Mark Singleton) and The Khecarīvidyā of Ādinātha, a Critical Edition and Annotated Translation of an Early Text on Haṭhayoga (Routledge, 2007). The latter is a revision of his doctoral thesis, which was supervised by Professor Alexis Sanderson at the University of Oxford, where Dr. Mallinson also read Sanskrit as an undergraduate. Dr. Mallinson has spent more than ten years living in India with traditional ascetics and practitioners of yoga, and at the 2013 Kumbh Mela was awarded the title of Mahant by the Rāmānandī Saṃpradāya.
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