Join renowned yoga scholars, Dr. Jason Birch and Jacqueline Hargreaves, and a global cohort of students, for this unique opportunity to explore Rājayoga—through its history, theory, and practice.
This course will delve into premodern traditions of Rājayoga—the practice of meditative absorption that became an inseparable counterpart to physical yoga, more generally known as Haṭhayoga. Yogis learned physical yoga to accomplish meditative absorption (rājayoga), which was supposed to result in liberation from worldly suffering. Historical textual sources on Rājayoga contain insights into the practice of meditation, the purpose of physical yoga and how postures (āsana), breath retentions (prāṇāyāma), and internal muscular locks and seals called bandhas and mudrās, were combined to achieve meditative absorption quickly and effectively.
Dr. Jason Birch will provide a general overview of the history of Haṭha- and Rājayoga, as well as read and discuss translations of several unpublished Sanskrit Rājayoga texts. At the end of the course, students will know the various meanings of the word rājayoga in diverse historical contexts, and understand the continuities and discontinuities between different traditions of yoga, including Patañjali’s Yogasūtras. Moreover, this course will provide insight into premodern ideas on the benefits of Rājayoga and the liberation (mokṣa) that is supposed to arise from it.
A unique component of the course will be two interactive, practical sessions led by Jacqueline Hargreaves. In these sessions students will explore the methods of absorption that are designed to move the practitioner towards the state of stainless perfection. Inspired by the teachings of samādhi (a synonym for rājayoga) in the Gheraṇḍasaṃhitā (an early 18th century text), premodern meditation techniques will be practised that are said to perfect both body and mind in order to achieve the goal of Rājayoga, which is liberation-in-life.
Each Module also includes: recommended weekly readings, a PDF handout, and optional quiz.
This module will explain the historical context of Rājayoga within the broader history of yoga, and will look specifically at the earliest known text on Rājayoga, which is called the ‘no-mind state’ (amanaska). This type of Rājayoga derived from older tantric religions of Śaivism, and much of the terminology and conceptual framework in the Amanaska shaped subsequent traditions of Rājayoga. Central themes include the nature of meditative absorption, the meditative techniques undertaken to achieve it, the relationship between the mind and breath, the teacher’s role in learning meditative absorption, and how the liberated yogi acts in the world.
The second module will focus exclusively on how physical techniques of yoga were combined with the practice of meditative absorption. Initially the physical techniques were one of several auxiliary methods for achieving Rājayoga, but over time the relationship changed to one of interdependence. On the one hand, the most gifted students could attain Rājayoga without Haṭha by practising certain meditative techniques, such as Śāmbhavī Mudrā and fusing the mind with the internal resonance (nādānusandhāna). Selected passages of the Amaraugha will be read to explore this model of Haṭha- and Rājayoga. On the other, Haṭhayoga ultimately became a universal system of many physical techniques that all types of students were supposed to practise in order to attain Rājayoga. This model was enshrined in the Haṭhapradīpikā, the fourth chapter of which is arguably the most concise and comprehensive teaching on Rājayoga ever produced.
Rājayoga, the state of meditative absorption in which the yogi becomes as still and steady as a mountain, was considered to be the necessary cause of liberation in most yoga traditions. But what type of liberation arose from it? Indian philosophies and religions produced various conceptions of liberation from worldly suffering, and at least two different conceptions can be seen in the early traditions of Rājayoga. This module will present selected passages on liberation and the liberated yogi from early texts on Rājayoga to offer speculative answers to questions such as ‘How did the liberated yogi live in the world?’, ‘To whom might yogic conceptions of liberation appeal?’, ‘Were these conceptions similar to those of earlier tantric traditions and other religions of India?’, and ‘Why are most Rājayoga texts so terse and ambiguous in their descriptions of liberation whereas other traditions discuss the topic at greater length?’.
After the Haṭhapradīpikā (15th cent.), the notion that Rājayoga was the best of all yogas—in other words, the king of all yogas—demarcated the battleground, so to speak, of various traditions as they vied with one another to teach the best yoga. This module will survey many different interpretations of Rājayoga that derive from this period, and will argue that the term rājayoga became little more than a label for highest teaching or yoga of a particular lineage or religious tradition. In more scholarly yoga compendiums, the term rājayoga was equated with the highest level of samādhi in Patañjali’s yoga. In some philosophical traditions, the gnostic yoga of the Yogavāsiṣṭha was called rājayoga. Certain Vedāntins understood it as the yoga for kings, and threefold and sixfold systems of Rājayoga were developed. We shall see that it was probably as recently as the 19th century that Patañjali’s yoga became widely known as Rājayoga.
Jason Birch (DPhil, Oxon) is a senior research fellow for the ‘Light on Hatha Yoga’ project, hosted at SOAS University of London and the University of Marburg. He is also a visiting researcher on the Suśruta Project at the University of Alberta. He is well known for his important paper on the meaning of haṭha in early Haṭhayoga, which has reshaped our understanding of the origins of this term by locating it within Buddhist literature. His dissertation focused on a seminal Rājayoga text called the Amanaska. Through extensive fieldwork in India and the reconstruction of primary sources, Birch has identified the earliest text to teach a system of Haṭhayoga and Rājayoga, namely the twelfth-century Amaraugha. His most recent publication has defined a corpus of Sanskrit and vernacular texts that emerged during Haṭhayoga's floruit, the period in which it thrived on the eve of colonialism.
Jason has published articles in academic journals and critically edited and translated six texts on Haṭhayoga for the Haṭha Yoga Project 2015–2020; taught Masters courses and Sanskrit reading classes at SOAS and given seminars on the history of yoga for MA programs at the Università Ca’ Foscari in Venice, Won Kwang University in South Korea and Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles. He is a founding member of the Centre of Yoga Studies SOAS and the Journal of Yoga Studies, and combines his practical experience of yoga with academic knowledge of its history to teach online courses with Jacqueline Hargreaves on The Luminescent.
Jacqueline Hargreaves is an Engineer, senior Yoga Teacher, and independent researcher who examines the contemporary meeting place between historical Yoga practices and their application in the modern world. She is a founding member of the Journal of Yoga Studies, a peer-reviewed academic journal, and the co-founder of The Luminescent, an independent open-access educational platform for publishing cutting-edge, original research from primary sources. She has travelled throughout India for fieldwork into the origins of Haṭhayoga and studied meditation extensively, including mindfulness-based meditation (MBCT and MBSR) and intensive Zen practice in a remote part of Japan.
Hargreaves collaborates with scholars, artists, and scientists to communicate research on both premodern and modern facets of Yoga. Most recently, she curated the exhibition Embodied Liberation I and II at the Brunei Gallery in London for the Hatha Yoga Project (SOAS University of London). In collaboration with the AyurYog Project (University of Vienna), Jacqueline curated the Untangling Traditions series and designed a web-based visual and interactive timeline for premodern yoga and Āyurveda.
Hargreaves is currently producing a documentary film, which aims to bring to life the unique content of the postural practice preserved in an eighteenth-century Sanskrit yoga text, Haṭhābhyāsapaddhati, through a visual reconstruction of its extraordinary section on āsana.
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