YS 126 | Theosophy and Yoga

Available for Self-Study


Course Description

Who exactly were the South Asian, European, and American authors behind the first English translations of important yoga texts like the Haṭha Pradīpikā, the Śiva Saṃhitā, the Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali, and the Śiva Svarodaya, some of which have only relatively recently attracted the attention of international scholars and philologists? How did yoga change under the British Empire, even before Swami Vivekananda came on the scene, and later come to play a role in the independence of India and Pakistan? Who popularized the idea that rāja yoga or the “yoga of kings” is mental and spiritual and that haṭha yoga or the “yoga of force” is merely physical? How was a yogic diagram published by a certain Madras Yogi subsequently reinterpreted and globalized as an image of the astral body? How did South Asian authors use the language of esotericism, mesmerism, and occultism to support their own ideas on yoga? 

Join us for an unprecedented exploration of the oft neglected yet important connections between Theosophy and modern yoga. While the roots of Theosophy go even in deeper, we begin with the founding of the Theosophical Society (TS) in 1875 in New York City by prominent authors and travelers like Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, born in what is today Ukraine, Henry Steel Olcott, and William Quan Judge. We then discuss the implications of the decision by these “Founders” to shift the emphasis of the TS to South Asia, and especially the effect this had on the history and practice of modern yoga. 

Not content to just sit at home with their books, Olcott and Blavatsky traveled widely around South Asia (especially Bombay and Lahore) and even established the TS headquarters seven years later in Adyar, today part of present-day Chennai in Tamil Nadu, India. Theosophy's reach and publications out of South Asia facilitated a steady increase in readers' understanding of yoga, which at that time had been limited by a lack of reliable sources, and the legacy continues to this day—pretty much any researcher doing serious work on South Asian texts or religions will at some point visit the Adyar Library and Research Centre within the TS headquarters, which has faithfully preserved many important manuscripts and printed books on yoga as well as a host of other subjects.

Yet there is another twist: Most of the Theosophical or Theosophy-adjacent authors who were initially behind this increase in global awareness of yoga were not from North America or Europe. They were from various regions of South Asia. They not only had knowledge of occult currents and Sanskrit but also of the regional yoga traditions in the places they lived and worked. In this course you learn how their efforts as authors, mystics, and pandits led to texts and practices that helped mediate a global understanding of yoga for almost a century. While their perspectives and texts today may often require rethinking and  re-editing in the light of contemporary research on yoga, their stories and publications are nevertheless  inextricably intertwined with the very fabric of what modern yoga was, is today, and where it is heading in the future.

Course Modules

Students Will Receive: 

  • 4 Pre-recorded Video + Audio lectures (90 min)
  • 4 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 126

Regular Tuition

$88 x 2

Two Monthly Payments

  • Lifetime access to YS 126

Membership Program


Monthly Subscription

  • Access to YS 126

  • 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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