“The identification of the human woman with the Universal Goddess is most explicit in tantric theology- yet the very existence of female masters, lineage holders and tantric adepts, although referred to repeatedly by tantric texts, is still doubted by some…Here there is no quarter given to feminist spiritual yearnings, or for women mystics to seek to follow the liberating footsteps of the ancient yogini who dared to think themselves divine.” Rita DasGupta Sherma
Women’s history month is a good time to remember the spiritual foremothers of yoga – the Tantric yoginis. After all we rarely give them much thought. Their erasure from history is an injustice that lies silent at the very heart of contemporary yoga – and one with far reaching implications today. Because without questioning a history of yoga written by men, solely for men, can yoga ever be an equitable, “socially just” practice?
Now lets be clear, I’m not referring to yoginis as celestial beings or goddesses of the chakras, – but as real flesh and blood women who practiced and taught yoga for hundreds, if not thousands of years. While mainstream yoga scholarship does little to enlighten us about their historical reality, medieval Tantric texts abound with references to yoginis thought to possess exceptional powers, women who were transmitters of tantric doctrine, and were “initiators” along with men. So who were these women? What did they teach? What happened to them? And why aren’t questions like these being asked more often?
Giti Thadani’s book Mobius Trip: Digressions from India’s Highways documents the complete neglect of historical evidence of the yogini in contemporay India. She claims there are hundred of Tantric texts and yogini statues which still lie collecting dust “hidden in vaults in museums and universities” and she cites many examples of written texts where the feminine of the original Sanskrit has been translated as masculine.
While conventional scholarship tells us that Tantric yoginis were exploited for ritual purposes, scholar Miranda Shaw unearthed a very different history, one in which yoginis were not “helpful attendees in the male enlightenment process” but powerful gurus held “in awe, reverence and obeisance”. The presence of female Buddhas like the “beautiful, passionate and untamed”Vajrayogini in Tantric iconography and literature demonstrated that women could attain Buddha-hood in her present lifetime, in her present female body.
So why do we know so little of these women today? It seems clear that women’s role in yoga has been obscured by centuries of patriarchal control over written texts – but it doesn’t explain why endless analyses on the history of Tantra today continue to use almost exclusively male pronouns. And while it may be a linguistic convention, it also renders women invisible. So is it a wonder we barely remember -or even care -that yoginis actually existed?
As a female practitioner I’m deeply interested in these yoginis, and I dont understand why there is so little scholarship on the role of women in yoga before patriarchy demonized them as witches, harlots and the bearers of disease . While there is much research and commentary regarding how the male yogin utilized women’s bodies, energies and fluids for their enlightenment – there is almost nothing about where these ideas of women’s bodies possessing “powers” actually came from?
Could it be that women’s bodies and their functions remain just as troublesome to us today as they were for ascetic sages? Maybe, if you consider ‘alternative’ historians such as Vicki Noble, Monica Sjoo, and Uma Dinsmore Tuli whose contentions that yoginis were the “power-holders” and inheritors of a widespread shamanic female-centred yoga practice that laid the foundations for Tantra and Hatha – are mostly ignored by the yoga community. (For more information click here).
Noble writes “My research suggests that women had invented yoga by the 7th millenium B.C.E. and 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 and widespread female-centered communal practice of yoga which was eventually codified into the formal schools that we recognize today.” Noble’s assertions that yoginis were the first to raise Kundalini Shakti by channeling their biological powers, their life-giving sexuality, their power to bleed and give birth through ecstatic rituals of trance, dance and body posture, are far from embraced – they are deeply problematic to contemporary feminism.
But what is in dispute is not just whether these yogini and these teachings actually existed. The issue at stake is that Noble’s interpretations of this female-centred yoga are essentialist – meaning that by celebrating the biological power of the female body, they glorify the idea of gendered difference – an idea equality feminism has been working to eradicate for decades.
An example of this is Dinsmore Tuli’s book Yoni Shakti: A Woman’s Guide to Power and Freedom through Yoga and Tantra which explores the role of women’s bodies have played in the development of yoga. She invites women to reconnect to their “cunt power” through the practice of yoga that “honours and respects femininity, womb cycles and the deep cyclical wisdom of women’s cycles”. Critics believe ideas like these are dangerous because they threaten to reinforce old patriarchal notions that reduce women to just their biology (i.e. having a womb means one is lesser than, less smart, less rational, less divine etc. than men).
Does practicing a yoga that acknowledges women’s bodies have different needs, functions and abilities than men, really threaten to return us to a time when women were discriminated against on the basis of biology? After all, we practice a yoga that is hardly gender neutral, it has been historically shaped by men, for men. Isn’t practicing a yoga from which women’s bodies (and vaginas) have been censored, oppressive to those who possess them?
Essentialist or not, there is plenty of textual evidence supporting contentions that the yogini’s inherent biological powers of birth, menstruation and sexuality, were the very source of her siddhis (yogic or occult powers). As Shakti incarnate, her physiological functions and fluids are envisioned as the material manifestation of the power of the Goddess. “The shakti’s yoni is analogized to the ‘great yoni” (matrix of the universe) and her menstrual blood is a sacred substance”. In the Shri Shankara it is said: “The first menses appearing in a woman who has lost her virginity is Svayambhu blood -the substance causing the granting of any desire.”
Does acknowledging that there may have been a female-centred yoga which revered the sacred powers of the women’s body really threaten to send women’s rights back to the dark ages? Or could it promise a tide of ‘body positivity’ in its wake – one in which women’s bodies and their functions – are powerful and demand respect?
The Yoni Tantra is a classic of Tantric literature and it states quite clearly that “No man may raise his hand, strike or threaten a woman. When she is naked, men must kneel and worship her as the Goddess. She has equal rights with men on all levels. Miranda Shaw in her book Passionate Enlightenment:Women in Tantric Buddhism quotes the great female buddha Vajrayogini in the Candamaharosana tantra “Wherever in the world a female body is seen, That should be recognized as my holy body”.”
And in a society where female sexuality and nearly all our biological functions from menstruation to breast feeding are still considered taboo, I think these teachings are, well, pretty progressive. And lets remember too, that it was these very ideas, according to Monica Sjoo, that became so deeply threatening to the rising powers of patriarchy which saw the body, and especially women’s bodies, not as holy, but as evil and defiled.
Violating the strict class and caste structures of the ascetic Brahmanic priesthood, the yogini’s ecstatic practices became dangerous“transgressions” and they were forbidden to teach. But according to Sjoo, the Brahmanic priesthood not only wanted the yogini gone – they wanted her yogic powers for themselves. And so in the original act of cultural appropriation, what was once an embodied ritual practice and ecstatic encounter with the divine feminine, became a new ascetic knowledge reserved for a male spiritual elite – and it changed the nature of what we call yoga forever.
Whether you accept Sjoo’s interpretations or not, it’s hard to deny that the yogini or a female tradition of yoga once existed. So by limiting our search for the historical roots of yoga within “acceptable” narratives – are we perpetuating the misogynic ideologies that sought to erase the yogini in the first place?
It may well be that the yogini and her history raise many uncomfortable questions -but does that justify omitting her from the official timeline of yoga history? Maybe it’s time to reclaim women’s bodies as sources of power? Because without confronting the profoundly anti-woman bias that permeates historical yoga – can we truly provide “safe spaces” for practice today?
So this women’s history month let’s remember that there is a whole history of yoga that awaits exploration. And while it may be politically incorrect to say so – one in which women’s bodies were respected and revered. Maybe it’s time we started paying attention? Because maybe, just maybe, the Tantric yoginis have something to teach us.