Rewilding The Yoga Body

rewilkding

Recently a fb image of a young, white, lithe yogini balancing in an extremely deep back bend disturbed me. Not because she was just another example of the yoga Barbie -er yoga body –which saturates my yoga feed, but because she was posing in a sun-dappled forest grove accompanied by the hashtags “Fantastic #yoga” and “#rewilding inspiration.”

But c’mon. Isn’t rewilding about returning to a more natural, undomesticated state? How can an icon of a corporate culture which keeps us striving to achieve artificial, cultural ideals be associated with what is wild, free and unsullied by human intervention – exactly?

Many ‘rewilders’ see the Paleolithic as a time when earth, its flora and fauna, and humans existed in a true primeval state. And if we look to our stone-age ancestors its pretty clear ‘the yoga body’ just wasn’t in. For tens of thousands of years, painted on cave walls and carved into stone, the female body was depicted as abundantly fleshed – breasts, buttocks and bellies not only large, but mountainous.

1-blog7-001I’m not arguing that this is the body ‘au naturale’, it’s an image of its time, place and culture as much as the yoga body is of our ours. I merely want to make the point that equating the yoga body with the wild female body of our ancestors is just a stretch.

Now I have no idea what a ‘wild’ body actually looks like, but I doubt it would look like a tattooed Tara Stiles wearing a loincloth. And I’d wager that any of the programs and retreats that promise to rewild your body in 30 days (yes they are out there) will just leave you working your yoga body ever harder to measure up.

I’m with my pal Jennifer Matsui when she writes “For “inspirational”, forget hot babes doing yoga poses at sunset on a cliff, and think Kabuki she-demon and buzzard pal eating pomegranates under a tree”. Yes, that is probably more like it. Because from Lilith to Kali, to crazed flesh-eating Greek Maenads, African Amazons and medieval witches, the wild woman was licentious, disheveled, abandoned and carnal – she was never about being pretty.

shedemon

I reject the yoga body’s attempt to colonize the wild. I see it as yet another endeavor of the ‘powers that be’ to convince us that the unruly messy female body and it’s base desires must be tamed. And it obscures the view of the very real and fruitful relationship that yoga and ‘rewilding’ could potentially have. One that could free us the from the tyranny of the yoga body and engender a whole new level of “body positivity” in the process. And I believe that rewilding the yoga body begins by rewilding yoga itself. Returning to its earliest origins, the prehistoric mists of the upper Paleolithic and Neolithic, a time when woman’s bodies were not yet defiled – but divine.

yogicritualpostureToday it is generally accepted that much of contemporary yoga practice (ritual postures, meditation, mantra’s, mudra’s etc.) are sourced in Tantra Yoga – which predates the Vedic (less women friendly) traditions by thousands of years. But what is less acknowledged is that Tantra takes root in a prehistoric shamanic practice in which woman’s bodies were seen as vessels of powerful forces connected with the fertility of the earth.

Feminist scholar Vicki Noble has written extensively on how this early women’s ‘yoga’ was celebrated in ecstatic rituals of dance and trance. This communal practice was believed to purge disease and enhance fertility in women, animals, and food crops. Noble believes the bio-mystical techniques of these early priestesses became codified within Tantra – and were later co-opted by the Brahmin Priesthood. (For more on this see my post Did Women Invent Yoga?)

In her book Passionate Enlightenment: Women in Tantric Buddhism Miranda Shaw documents the lives of Tantric women, many of which were esteemed teachers and Buddhas. Called by many names, Dakinis (woman who flies) Vidyaharini (knowledge-holder of magic, ritual , mantras, mudras antantricgoddessd meditation techniques) Vira (heroine) the most common term was Yogini (keeper of the occult secrets).

Described in Tantric texts as wild, ferocious and ‘fearless’, these “eternally transgressive yoginis” are described by Shaw as deriving “pleasure from the fact they are untameable”. She writes of “tantric feasts, or communal assemblies” in which yoginis engaged in esoteric rites of dance, poetry and song. Today the remains of their round, open-air stone temples are still found in India “where animal-headed statues of dancing women, stand as a reminder of their ecstatic rites.” tantricgoddess2

Shaw writes “Discovering the ‘divine female essence’ within her, was the female Tantric’s path.” And because of her biology, a Tantric yogini’s kundalini was much easier to awaken than her male counterparts. In fact according to Noble, the menstruation cycle, female sexuality, birth, and menopause were once seen as explicitly female siddhi’s – natural biological connections to spiritual power.

Today we might consider this veneration of the female body as “essentialist”. Many feminists see this view of a woman’s body as essentially different from a mans or as closer to nature as problematic. After all the whole “biology is destiny” thing has long been used to justify women’s oppression. But Noble urges us to extricate ourselves from the patriarchal view that those ‘differences’ make us ”lesser than” and reclaim our bodies as sources of power.

vajrayoginniOn this matter, I personally take cue from the “beautiful, passionate and untamed” Vajrayogini who figures so prominently in Tantric iconography and literature. In the Yogini Tantras she announces , “Wherever in the world a female body is seen, That should be recognized as my holy body”. Now that’s body positivity at work.

That’s why I believe there is a better way to resist the forces which seek to denigrate our natural functions and attempt to keep our bodies under control. We must begin with reconnecting with what is essential or authentic to our experience of being embodied – because how else will we know what is artificial or imposed?

Rewilding the yoga body means disconnecting from the artificial construct of “body image” itself, the strictures of race, class, gender that tell us to look, act and feel in certain way. It means entering the true yoga body of our sensations and feelings, to reconnect with the processes and cycles of the natural world, which flow through us. And it returns us to the ancient understanding of our fore-mothers, one in which our bodies and our biological processes are sacred and numinous.

In her book Women Who Run With the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype, author and psychologist C.P. Estes coined the term ‘Wild Woman Archetype’ to refer to the conceptualization of the female psyche and soul as rooted in the ‘wilds’ of instinct and uncivilized energy.“ She writes: “These words, wild and woman, cause women to remember who they are and what they are about. They create a metaphor to describe the force which funds all females. They personify a force that women cannot live without.”

Rewilding the yoga body is about much more than donning leather underwear and doing acrobatic poses in the great outdoors -because our bodies are more than’ images’, they are the source of our deepest nature. And I’m pretty sure it’s where we’ll find what we’re really looking for -the lost wilds of our soul.

Khmer-Yogini-Dancer-2aSo no matter how many images of yoga bodies alluringly posed amidst the wild forests or on windswept beaches – come before you – don’t be fooled. They are sirens who will seal you into a cycle of perpetual striving – because you will never measure up. Imagine instead the wild, dancing shamanic priestesses and the untamed transgressive Tantric yoginis. Seek instead to reclaim the “dynamic quality of ecstasy” that Noble writes “seems to especially mark the female-centered yoga experience”.

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 defies the common myth that women were not allowed to practice yoga until the past century. But as Tantric scholar Ramesh Bjonnes writes “women have been gurus, healers, yoginis, and Goddesses since the beginning of time”.

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 Vedic 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, anyogagoddess12d rock art through the ages, are expressions of an ancient shamanistic yoga eventually codified into the formal schools we know today.

Noble believes these sculptures, seals and figurines depict women in body postures startlingly similar to yoga asana. Many show women seated with eyes closed, legs crossed over one another or standing feet together with arms raised. Some wear waist necklaces and beaded hip-belt over their pubic area, resembling later images of Indian Yoginis or Tibetan Dakinis.

Noble writes “although such figures predate the formal codification of yoga in India by many thousands of years, each of them could be said to graphically depict steps of yoga that lead to “progressively deeper levels of awareness and functioning until, finally, ordinary consciousness is transcended in the bliss of ecstasy.”

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMonica Sjoo is another feminist historian who has written extensively about the history of women’s yoga. Sjoo claims that the concept of raising Kundalini energy, so  fundamental to yoga philosophy and practice, originated with these yogic priestesses. She points out that many prehistoric figurines show women merged with tree’s, with snakes coiling around their bodies, and emerging from their heads. Were these women raising the serpentine energy (kundalini) up the world tree ( human spine) to achieve ‘wings’ or illuminated consciousness (enlightenment)?

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.

indus_woman_2Today yoga scholars generally agree that the discovery of a seal in the Indus Valley (depicting a man seated in what we would now refer to as Lotus posture) is the first historical reference to yoga. But there are many similar seals and figurines depicting women in ritual body postures – and many of them much older. As Uma Dinsmore-Tuli writes in her book Yoga Shakti: A Guide to Women’s to Power and Freedom Through Yoga and Tantra “ ”The fact that most of the figurines unearthed in the Indus Valley were female is the Indian link from the matriarchal Paleolithic civilizations to the prehistory of yoga.”

yogicritualposture

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.”yoginitemple

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.

Female Tantrics were called by many names, Dakinis (woman who flies) Vidyadharim (knowledge-holder) Vira (heroine) but the most common term was Yogini (keeper of the occult secrets). So who were these women – and 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 and dakini’s became “witches,” “ogresses,” “demonesses,” or “temple harlots”.

goddessBut their teachings, as Sjoo and Noble contend, were not extinguished – they were co–opted to become the new “secret” knowledge of a new spiritual elite, the Brahmin priesthood. And 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 – and the benefit of community.

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  communal yoga of ecstatic embodiment? More and more we reject a view of the body as defiled, coming into alignment with an ancient feminine view of the body as sacred, a vessel for the divine. As we gather in communal classes, I wonder if our practice 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”?