Join Ruth Westoby (SOAS, PhD Candidate), and a global cohort of students, for this unique and timely opportunity to study the history of women and yoga.
This online course offers a broad survey of the history of female yoga practitioners drawing on rich narrative and visual accounts of practitioners. We will bring this historical material into conversation via key themes and analytical approaches. The course explores gender from metaphysics to bodily maps and probes how these relate to lives lived. Participants are asked to dialogue with the material explored, to challenge their perceptions and motivations to practise and study.
Each Module also includes: recommended weekly readings, a PDF handout, and optional quiz.
This module begins by framing our inquiry into the history of female practitioners by asking us to reflect on our histories as students and perhaps practitioners of yoga. It offers interpretive strategies for approaching history—our own and others—drawing on critical pedagogical approaches. This session sketches broad historical outlines and key themes. What do we mean by female, what do we mean by yoga? What does a chronology of female practitioners look like through stone, art and word? How is gender used as an organising principle in metaphysics, particularly cosmogony and philosophy, in Vedic hymns and Sāṃkhya philosophy? The role of women in Indian society is circumscribed by law texts and extolled in myth. We will explore the tales and spiritual negotiations of ‘perfect wives’ and philosophers—Lopamudrā, Maitreyī, Gargī, Gandharī, and Sulabhā—and consider how they relate to lives lived: who told the tales and why?
The second module tells the tales of ascetic practitioners such as Pārvatī and investigates the lack of women in the Haṭhayoga sources—asking why this is so. Widening the frame we consider ascetic and devotional practices more broadly—as figured by the female poetess from Kashmir, Lal Ded—before exploring in detail the term yoginī. This opens to a discussion of tantra and the ‘divine feminine’. Where does this leave Haṭhayoginīs—especially those portrayed in Mughal era imagery—are these depictions of practitioners or erotic fetishizations?
This third module locates female practitioners in the haṭha corpus through their blood, rajas. Drawing on her recent research Ruth outlines paradigms of the yogic body—kuṇḍalinī, bindu/rajas, and more ascetic models—before detailing those rare but specific accounts of female practitioners in the haṭha sources. We will also briefly explore Daoist internal alchemy (nüdan) to offer a speculative but enticing comparative study.
The final session asks why modern global yoga is so dominated by female practitioners, at such stark contrast with the premodern South Asian story? This module outlines key lenses and themes: femininism, neoliberalism and body politics, appropriation, power and abuse. These themes are illustrated via an anecdotal history of women in modern yoga—the enigmatic Helena Blavatsky, Genevieve Stibbens, Molly Bagot Stack, Indra Devi, and Yogini Sunita. We will conclude the course by coming full circle: what are we doing when we look for a history of female practitioners? What does this say about us, and the future of the study and practice of yoga?
Ruth Westoby is a doctoral candidate at SOAS, University of London, researching for a doctoral thesis on the yogic body in premodern Sanskrit texts on haṭhayoga, under the supervision of Dr. James Mallinson.
As well as offering workshops and lectures at studios and conferences, Ruth teaches on some of the principal teacher training programmes in the UK and beyond. She facilitates Yogacampus’ online History of Yoga course and serves on the steering committee for the SOAS Centre of Yoga Studies.
Ruth is also a longtime Ashtanga practitioner. She began to explore yoga practices in 1996 and started teaching postural yoga in 2004. In 2010 she received an MA in Indian Religions from SOAS with Distinction. In 2016-17 Ruth collaborated with the Haṭha Yoga Project’s ‘embodied philology’, interpreting postures from the 18th-century Haṭhābhyāsapaddhati, an important textual precursor of modern yoga. The film has been showed as part of the Haṭha Yoga Project’s Embodied Liberation exhibition in 2020.
Sign up today and reserve your spot in the course.