I wanted to dive a little deeper into history of women in yoga with you – something I’m obsessed by! Well, from ancient times to modern times, women have played multiple roles in the story of yoga. Even though the Goddess has been worshipped through the years in India, her human form and role have been as complex and multi-dimensional as the practice of yoga itself. Her voice has been at times strong, clear, and visionary, and at times, purposefully silenced.
Yoga emerged from ancient India a few thousand years ago and has been a dynamic and evolving framework for spiritual, emotional, and physical transformation, merging and morphing with the changing socio-political-cultural landscape. Women in yoga have rarely been a subject of study, making it challenging to accord their rightful place in the lineages of teachers, giving rise to many misunderstandings, such as the notion that women didn’t practice any yoga until the practice gained popularity in the West.
We need to understand the many roads traveled by the ancient yogini. For example, during the Indus Valley Civilization, a woman was a vital presence in spiritual life, associated with fertility, growth, abundance, and prosperity. Women’s roles in society have varied over time, with the decline of the Indus Valley Civilization came the fall of women’s status and their participation in religious life. During the Classical Period of yoga, a woman’s position was predominantly tied to the men in her life. Still, some texts around that time point to some agency with women.
You should also consider the primary audience for the Sutras (the most widely used text for students of yoga) were young boys, and one has to keep this context in mind as we study them. Most translations are by men furthering the patriarchal lean of our understanding of philosophy. Around that same time, there was a more democratic, less ascetic, and severe tradition: tantra. In Tantra Yoga, Shakti (“the Divine Feminine”) is revered. Women were teachers and practiced freely, especially in the rural communities. These Tantric Yoginis rejected societal norms and defied the Brahmanical practices of the day.
Tantra and Shakti traditions both helped revive the pre-patriarchal, pre-Brahminical values. Today, women continue to make significant contributions to the world of yoga, and it’s important to acknowledge their rightful place in the history of this practice.
In modern times, women have played a crucial role in popularizing yoga in the West. However, it was not until the 1960s and 1970s that yoga gained mainstream popularity in the West. Women like Indra Devi and Lilias Folan became pioneers in teaching yoga to Western students, and their influence can still be seen in the way yoga is practiced and taught today.
In recent years, there has been a growing recognition of the contributions of women to yoga, and efforts are being made to honor and celebrate their legacy. There are now many female-led yoga schools and organizations – such as YogaBellies -, and women are increasingly being recognized as leaders in the field.
The REAL history of women in yoga is a complex and multi-dimensional story, spanning thousands of years and encompassing a wide range of traditions and practices. From the early yoginis of ancient India to the modern pioneers of the West, women have played a crucial role in shaping the practice of yoga and helping it to evolve and adapt to changing times. By exploring and celebrating their legacy, we can gain a deeper appreciation for the rich history and diverse traditions of yoga, and honor the contributions of the women who helped make it the global phenomenon it is today.
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I’m an inclusive, not scary, totally normal yet heavily qualified yoga instructor and founder of YogaBellies® and the Birth ROCKS Method. I’m trained in self hypnosis and meditation and what I love is helping women (ALL women) enjoy yoga without having to whisper all the time and wear fancy activewear that cost a month’s rent.
I believe Yoga is for everyone.