YS 119 | Yoga and Esotericism

Available for Self-Study


Course Description

In this course, we will examine exchanges between South Asia and the rest of the world that had a significant effect on yoga’s history and contemporary life. After setting the stage for how to view such exchanges in as holistic a way as possible, we will show the multiplicity of voices among esoteric authors and artists who wrote books, drew diagrams, and composed songs to try and apply structure to yogic engagement with what they perceived to be an infinite universe both externally and within the body.

Engaging these voices will bring us to examine texts and traditions from the eighteenth century to the present that reflect disparate yet sometimes strangely similar currents. These include currents and practices as varied as Islamic esotericism, theosophical meditation, and learned ritual magic(k), yet often united in a very yogic preoccupation with sustained individual control over the posture, breath, and mind.

Throughout the course, we will also highlight esotericism’s central place as an avenue of cultural exchange up to the present day. Whether or not you now or will after the course view such exchanges between yoga and esoteric worlds as hopelessly syncretic, inauthentic, or even problematic, the cultural and historical questions raised may very well be of profound interest.

Examples include: “How was yogic cosmology interpreted esoterically in Islamic and other seemingly distant religious terminology?” “What made yoga so interesting to weird-but-often-classy nineteenth- and early twentieth-century European, American, and Australian magicians, travelers, novelists, and poets?” “Are there examples of Indian authors on yoga who learned and engaged in esoteric practices?” “Was yoga ever seen as a kind of astral projection?” “How did esoteric authors and poets from any land justify removing or altering practices from specific religious and cultural contexts — isn’t that supposed to be wrong?”

Join us as we explore these and more topics of concern to yoga and esotericism in a culturally sensitive and nuanced way that reflects many recent developments in contemporary academic scholarship.

Course Modules

Students Will Receive: 

  • 4 Pre-recorded Video + Audio lectures (90 min)
  • Pre-recorded Q&A sessions (90 min)
  • 4 YS Credits
  • 12 Hours of CE credit with YA
  • Course Syllabus (PDF)
  • Weekly Readings (PDF)
  • 4 Multiple Choice Quizzes
  • Yogic Studies Certificate (PDF)
  • Access to the private Community Forum

Dr. Keith Edward Cantú

Visiting Assistant Professor, St. Lawrence University

Keith Edward Cantú is a historian of religions whose interdisciplinary research especially focuses on South Asian yoga, tantra, and the interface between Sanskrit and Indic vernacular languages like Bengali, Tamil, and Hindi, and on modern occult movements in Europe and North America such as Thelema and the Theosophical Society. He is currently both Research Affiliate at the Center for the Study of World Religions at Harvard Divinity School, where he will begin a full-time postdoctoral fellowship in Asian Religious Traditions next June as part of the Transcendence and Transformation Initiative, and Visiting Assistant Professor in Religious Studies at St. Lawrence University. He previously was a research fellow at FAU Erlangen-Nürnberg in the “Center for Advanced Studies in the Humanities and Social Sciences: Esoteric Practices and Alternative Rationalities from a Global Perspective (www.cas-e.de)” and Assistant Professor (postdoc) at the Jagiellonian University in Kraków, Poland in the project “Cultures of Patronage: India 1674–1890,” and received his doctoral degree in Religious Studies (South Asian religions) in 2021 from the University of California, Santa Barbara. Keith’s first monograph, Like a Tree Universally Spread: Sri Sabhapati Swami and Śivarājayoga, has been published this year by Oxford University Press (Oxford Studies in Western Esotericism series), and he is actively engaged in reprinting and translating several previously unknown or largely forgotten Tamil and Hindi works of Sri Sabhapati Swami and of his gurus. In addition to work on the swami, he is the author of numerous chapters and articles as varied as an ethnography of Tantric songs and sādhana or “practice” in Bengali, Indological research on south Indian mantra and yoga practices at tumuli and temples and on the Sanskrit alchemical mythology of Srisailam, modern yoga and discourses of Orientalism and cultural authenticity, haṭhayoga as “black magic” in Theosophy, and Islamic esotericism in the songs of the Bāuls and Fakirs of Bengal. 

A scholar-musician, Keith regularly sings and performs the Bāul songs of the nineteenth-century Bengali humanist poet Lalon Fakir (Lālan Phakir, d. 1890) as well as Śyāmāsaṅgīt or “music for the dark Goddess,” which he learned directly from sadhus and sadhikas during immersive stays in Bangladesh and West Bengal, India over the past twelve years, and regularly co-teaches a course on Tantric meditation and its connection with this music at the Esalen Institute near Big Sur, California. English versions of many of Lalon’s songs as translated by the late Carol Salomon can be found in City of Mirrors: Songs of Lālan Sā̃i, published in 2017 with Oxford's South Asia Research series, which Keith co-edited together with Dr. Saymon Zakaria.

Enrollment is OPEN for Self-Study

Regular Tuition


One-Time Payment

  • Lifetime access to YS 119

Regular Tuition

$88 x 2

Two Monthly Payments

  • Lifetime access to YS 119

Membership Program


Monthly Subscription

  • Access to YS 119

  • Access to all YS + BS courses—including live and future courses 

  • Access to SKT 100a + SKT 100b


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

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