Did Women Invent Yoga?

If you don’t think yoga is a feminist issue try suggesting as author and feminist historian Vicki Noble does, that women invented the ancient practice. Noble’s assertion brings to light something rarely acknowledged or addressed in the yoga world – that throughout it’s 5000 year history women have been completely excluded from the practice of yoga.

Today the majority of yoga practitioners are women. While fair access to downward dog might seem on the surface like a feminist victory, Noble and other feminist researchers tell a very different story. They ask – why are women still practicing a form of yoga developed by men – only for men? In fact, their research is uncovering evidence of an alternative, much more ancient female centered yoga practice that preceded the Hindi yogis by thousands of years.

Who knew?

Noble’s research into what she called the “female blood roots” of yoga suggests there was a widespread female-centered communal yoga practice dating from the upper Paleolithic and Neolithic. Celebrating the natural powers of “bleeding, birthing, healing and dying”, this early yoga was practiced in rituals of trance and dance.

In this way disease was believed to be purged from the community and fertility in women, animals, and food crops enhanced. Noble points to the images of female Buddha’s and high-ranking shaman priestesses which are so are pervasive in the artifacts and figurines of Old Europe (6000 BCE).

She proposes that the varied poses shown in these early sculptures, as well as frescoes, murals, and rock art through the ages, are expressions of an ancient shamanistic yoga eventually codified into the formal schools we know today.

Modern yoga is acknowledged to be largely derived from the Hatha tradition, but Hatha’s roots can be documented to reach further back to the female centered practices of Tantra Yoga.

Miranda Shaw is a historian on the female roots of Tantra Yoga. In her book Passionate Enlightenment she describes the remains of round, open-air stone temples still found in India where animal-headed statues of dancing women, stand as a reminder of these yogini’s ecstatic rites.

Shaw writes how yogini’s gathered at feasts to play “cymbals, bells, and tambourines and danced within a halo of light and a cloud of incense.” Within this nocturnal congregation, “a circle of yoginis feasted, performed rituals, taught, and inspired one another”. They sang “songs of realization” regaling one another “with spontaneous songs of deep spiritual insight.”

The magical potency of Tantra was transmitted by a female line “power-holders” – a mysterious sect of women called the Vratyas – and they were not an isolated case.  Taoist Yoginis from China and Dakinis from Tibet were also powerful spiritual teachers, giving empowerments and initiations.

Monica Sjoo is another feminist historian whose books explore the legends of priestesses found in art, myths, and historical records. Sjoo claims that from the Pre-Neolithic through to at least the Bronze Age, across India, across the Silk Road to China, that women were performing ecstatic healing rituals for the benefit of their communities.

Sjoo claims that the concept of raising Kundalini energy,  fundamental to yoga philosophy and practice, originated with these yogic priestesses. They were the first to pull “the serpentine bio-mystical energies up the spine to achieve “wings” of illuminated consciousness”.

Both Sjoo and Noble argue that the concept of Kundalini originated in the female “Siddhis” (yogic powers) of menstruation, female sexuality, natural birth, and menopause. Noble believes these ancient yogic rites encouraged the free, spontaneous flow of kundalini energy through the female group, and by extension, throughout the entire community.

Did the idea of kundalini, recognized as central to yogic philosophy and development, originate with ancient yoginis? And if so, why do we know so little of their history today?

Noble, Shaw and Sjoo agree that with the advance of patriarchy, the ecstatic techniques of women were gradually swallowed up by the more ascetic practices of men. In seated meditation, the transcendent was sought not through the body, but through the practices of mind.

Women and their biological functions came to be negatively equated with the life of the body and soon female rites were outlawed altogether. Yogini’s, dakini’s and shaman priestesses became “witches,” “ogresses,” “demonesses,” or “temple harlots”.

Over time we forgot there was once a different kind of yoga. One in which the inherent powers of the female body were celebrated and harnessed for illumination, freedom and compassion.

Noble believes yoga is a feminist issue because until we understand women’s central role in the development of yoga, it cannot be a truly effective female practice. Noble teaches what she calls Lunar Yoga, a yoga tuned to the ancient lunar calendar and the natural cycles of women. Here the focus is not on perfecting yogic postures but on experiencing energy “flow”. She urges women to reclaim the “natural, biological ways of accessing and experiencing the yogic power of our ancient fore-sisters”.

Noble writes although the idea of woman’s yoga ” might appear to glorify the female at the expense of the male, or capitulate to a worn-out 1950’s idea that “biology is destiny,” it actually does neither.” Instead it seeks to acknowledge the “dynamic quality of ecstasy that especially seems to mark the female-centered yoga experience.” It seems Noble’s call is being heard.

Today some schools of yoga are evolving into a more fluid, even ecstatic practice. Priestesses like Shiva Rea are all about energy flow, as opposed to the static practice of traditional Hatha.

Shiva has sold millions of yoga DVD’s and is the creator of what she calls “Trance Dance Yoga” a free-form trance dance that invites us to experience the free flow of Shakti, (the divine feminine energy) to lead us back into our bodies and rejuvenate us with Prana, the vital energy of life.

Today the influence of Shiva’s Trance Dance Yoga is felt in nearly every yoga community. Classes in Goddess Yoga, Prana Flow and Sacred Dance abound. Some of the trendiest studios even feature Yoga Dance Raves by candlelight.

Does this herald a return to a yoga once practiced by our fore-mothers, a yoga of ecstatic embodiment? As we gather in communal classes, I wonder if our practise of yoga can become, like the practices of our ancient ancestors, a ritual of blessing and healing within the community.

According to Noble, the legacy of the ancient yoginis can be “activated in the here-and-now to bring balance and renewal to our community through our delight in the powers of the physical body.”

To me this seems like a yogic heritage well worth keeping. So I just don’t get why, despite the recent spate of articles and books exploring the historical roots of yoga, so few mention women’s contributions.

Why is it that the current debate amongst yoga scholars regarding the true historicity of yoga (is it 5000 years old or just 500) barely takes into account the legacy of ancient yoginis? I find this blind spot puzzling. I can’t help but wonder, in this so-called post feminist era, if yoga really has “come a long way baby”?

Yoga and the Biology of Transcendence: Part One

“The yogis have said for ages that spiritual practice changes the brain, and they have a very systematic method for doing so… The Yoga Sutra is a manual for how to do this”.       Joan Shivarpita Harrigan, director of Patanjali Kundalini Yoga Care(How to Boost Brain Power, Yoga Journal, October 2008)

According to Yogic tradition, a tree to enlightenment grows within us. By directing our life force energy or consciousness (the sacred serpent Kundalini) upwards from the root of our spine, to ascend the tree trunk (spinal cord), into the highest branches of our brain (the Ajna Chakra or third eye), we blossom into cosmic consciousness and realize our true nature as divine beings.

Does this yogic metaphor of ascension have a basis in our biology ? Today there is a great deal of evidence to suggest that yoga directs cerebral energy and blood flow upwards from its oldest and most primitive roots, into its highest neural branches, the most highly evolved area of our brain, the pre-frontal lobes.

Can this be seen as “climbing the tree” of our brain’s reptilian and limbic systems? I believe so. In this series, I will explore how, by teaching us to harness the power of the pre-frontal cortex (or Ajna chakra), yoga trains us to overrule the stimulus response, action-reaction parts of the brain and initiates a “ biology of transcendence” that is our full evolutionary potential.

The Tree of Evolution

Only this newest system can organize the entire brain into a smoothly synchronous intention, linking all our lower instincts, as well as thinking and feeling, with higher fields of intelligence and translate all the higher human attributes such as love, empathy and creativity into daily action.                            Joseph Chilton Pearce, ”The Biology of Transcendence”

In order to understand yoga’s potential to evolve the brain, we must first understand that nature never abandons a system, but builds upon the old. Each epoch of animal life is still literally contained within our brain and develops in utero in the order of appearance in evolutionary history. Each of these structural regions corresponds to particular behaviours.

The reptilian brain or brainstem appeared with the dinosaurs approximately 500 million years ago. It takes shape in the first trimester of gestation, and is concerned with survival and reproduction. The reptile brain cannot think or feel; only react and becomes dominant when threatened by fear or anxiety.

The second brain is the mammalian brain or limbic system (approximately 200 years old), and it branches out of the brain stem in the second trimester. Our emotional mammalian brain gives us the ability to nurture and bond, as well as the herd instincts that create our social worlds. It is responsible for the body’s ability to heal itself. Hormonal function, the immune system, and even allergic responses are handled by our mammalian brain.

The neo-cortex (the human brain) first appeared 50 million years ago and it develops in the third trimester. This is where we lift ourselves out of our ancient animal instincts into a higher order of functioning. It is the source of our intellectual capacities to think, compute, reason, analyse, imagine and so on.

Sprouting up from the neo-cortex only a mere 100,000 years ago, the pre-frontal cortex makes its debut after birth. Considered the command center of the brain, it is the seat of concentration and focus. It grants us freewill, the ability to create intent, look at situations objectively, organize our thoughts, make a plan of action and follow through.

Neuroscientists have found that when we concentrate, the brain circuits associated with time, space, and feelings, and sensory perceptions of the body literally quiet down. In other words, when we focus on what we want, the pre-frontal can regulate the emotions of the mammalian brain and the survival reflexes of our ancient reptilian system, to stop our biology from distracting us.

The pre-frontals are considered a largely latent, fourth evolutionary system. Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, points out that for most of us, the pre-frontal cortex remains largely silent, meaning little activity can be recorded there. Neuroscientist Marian Diamond states that because our older brains require far less energy to function, the prefrontal cortex is ”the laziest muscle in our body”.

Most often our attention in everyday life is divided among the three older brains (each with its own agenda) so we are thinking one thing, feeling something else and acting from impulses below our conscious awareness. In this distracted or conflicted state, the lower brain will hijack the emotional or higher brain whenever it deems necessary, usually when fear, feeding, sex or threats to social status are involved.

Even negative thoughts have been demonstrated to shift cerebral energy down from our thinking forebrain to the survival oriented hindbrain (and do so completely beneath our conscious awareness).

According to the pre-eminent neuroscientist Dr. Paul MacLean reptilian behaviours are identified with an obsession with sex, food, control, domination, aggressiveness, territoriality, greed, hoarding, conformity, deception, habitual repetition of the same patterns and never learning from error.

This shift into the reptilian brain can also throw our limbic system into the “flight or fight response”, drawing energy away from the healing systems of the body, and depressing the immune system for up to six hours. Studies also show that poor or low function in the pre-frontal cortex is linked to depression, addiction, anxiety disorders, and criminal behaviour.

It seems clear that when we are in the grip of the hindbrain we do not have access to evolutions highest intelligence and react on a primitive impulsive level. This is where yoga comes in. In Part Two, we explore how by exercising self-awareness and self-control, yoga grants us the freedom to transcend our lower instincts and harness the power of the pre-frontal cortex.