“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
There’s no question that the role of women in yoga has been obscured by centuries of patriarchal control. But why is it, as scholars comb through historical texts to learn more about the “authentic” roots of yoga, there is almost nothing about the real flesh and blood women who practised and taught yoga for hundreds, if not thousands of years?
I find this frustrating because, despite the many references to yoginis as revered adepts, “initiators” and “transmitters of doctrine” in ancient Tantric texts, contemporary yoga “history” tells us almost nothing about who they were, what they believed, or what they practised?
As a female yoga practitioner, I want to know more about these yoginis before patriarchy demonised them as witches, harlots and the bearers of disease. And it seems to me, that women’s bodies and their functions remain just as troublesome to us today as they were for ascetic sages.
This neglect of the yogini certainly isn’t due to a lack of material. Author and academic Giti Thadani documents the neglect of historical evidence of the yogini in contemporary India. In her book Mobius Trip: Digressions from India’s Highways she tells of her discoveries of hundreds of yogini statues and Tantric texts with references to their practices “hidden in vaults in museums and universities”. Thadani travels to the sacred sites and temples of yoginis and finds them forgotten, in disrepair, or revamped in honour of male gods. And she cites many examples of written texts where the feminine of the original Sanskrit has been translated as masculine.
Loriliai Biernacki, in Renowned Goddess of Desire: Women, Sex, and Speech in Tantra, presents Tantric texts written in Sanskrit from the 15th to 18th century in which women appear not only as objects of reverence but as esteemed teachers and gurus. In Passionate Enlightenment: Women in Tantric Buddhism, Miranda Shaw’s research focuses on Tantric manuscripts of female authorship, and she points out these women did not see themselves as “helpful attendees in the male enlightenment process, but as religious aspirants in their own right.” The presence of the “beautiful, passionate and untamed” Vajrayogini in Tantric iconography and literature demonstrated that women could attain Buddhahood in her present lifetime, in her present female body.
And going back further, deep into prehistory, feminist author and historian Vicki Noble‘s research into the “blood roots” of yoga led her to conclude that yoginis were the “power-holders” and inheritors of an ancient, shamanic female-centred yoga practice. One that was widespread across Egypt, Crete, India to Asia, dating as early as 7000 BCE. In this these ancient shamanic cultures, women’s bodies contained life-giving energies which brought fertility, growth, longevity, material and spiritual well-being.
Noble believes that varied poses shown in early cross-cultural 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 acknowledges such figures predate the formal codification of yoga in India by many thousands of years, but she believes they depict states that lead to “progressively deeper levels of awareness and functioning until, finally, ordinary consciousness is transcended in the bliss of ecstasy.”
Her assertions that early shamanic priestesses were the first to raise Kundalini Shakti by channelling 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. Deeply problematic to modern feminism, they are largely ignored by the yoga community.
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about why this is. And it seems what is in dispute is not whether these yoginis 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.
Another example is Dinsmore Tuli’s book Yoni Shakti: A Woman’s Guide to Power and Freedom through Yoga and Tantra. Exploring the role of women’s bodies in the early 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 bodies”.
This emphasis on women’s biology, the idea that women’s bodies are more deeply connected to the cycles of nature, threatens 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 civilized, less divine etc. than men). And today in our pursuit of the new idea of gender neutrality, gender essentialism has grown even more contentious. Women who wore “pussy hats” during recent Women’s Marches held across the world, were criticised for excluding those women who did not possess pussies.
But essentialist or not, it is most likely these yoginis saw their bodies linked to the cycles of nature and a great mother goddess. According to author Laura Amazzone “Many of these goddesses have elemental energies, others contain certain powers of the natural world, and still, others emulate the powers of the female body and sexual and reproductive cycles as well as stages within a woman’s life.”
In fact, there is plenty of textual evidence supporting contentions that the yogini saw her her inherent biological powers of birth, menstruation and sexuality, as the very source of her siddhis (yogic or occult powers). As Shakti incarnate, her physiological functions and fluids were 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”… “the substance causing the granting of any desire.”
It was these kinds of ideas, according to Monica Sjoo and Barbara Mor in their book The Great Cosmic Mother: Rediscovering The Religion of The Earth, that became deeply threatening to the rising powers of patriarchy. They 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 practices became dangerous “transgressions” and they were forbidden to publicly practice or teach.
And according to Sjoo and Mor, the Brahmanic priesthood not only wanted the yogini gone – they wanted her yogic powers for themselves. And in the original act of cultural appropriation, to paraphrase Noble, 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 these 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 practices raise many uncomfortable questions – but does that justify overlooking her role in the development of yoga history?
I understand that we don’t want our essential being defined by our biology alone, but the yoginis saw their bodies as sources of power. After all, we practice a yoga that is hardly gender neutral, it has been historically shaped by men, for men.
So isn’t practising a yoga from which women’s bodies (and vaginas) have been censored, also oppressive to those possessing them? Our reproductive cycles shape nearly aspect of our biological function. Does practising a yoga that acknowledges women’s bodies have different cycles, functions and abilities than men, really threaten to return us to the dark days when women were discriminated against on the basis of biology?
Today we live in a time when depicting female biological functions like giving birth, breastfeeding and menstruation will get you banned from Facebook. Isn’t it high time to reclaim our biological powers and demand respect? As the great female Buddha, Vajrayogini puts it the Candamaharosana Tantra “Wherever in the world a female body is seen, That should be recognised as my holy body”.
By reclaiming the legacy of the yogini, a yoga in which the female body was divine and it’s biological processes celebrated and harnessed for healing, ecstasy, compassion, freedom and illumination, I believe we can learn something about the true meaning of “body positivity” today.