Bea: Thank you for agreeing to speak to me You are from an Aṣṭāṅga background but also involved in academic work at SOAS. I am curious as to how the worlds of academia and yoga, which is experiential, go together…
Ruth: They do and they don’t – academia doesn’t always like practice!
Scholar-practitioners find a fruitful friction in this, and most people in yoga come from a practical orientation, even if it’s not explicit in their work. Practice and academia can both collide or support each other. Many faith communities contribute to the academic study of their religions.
Bea: What brought you to yoga?
Ruth: I started yoga at 16 with my mum, then practiced Aṣṭāṅga with Hamish Hendry and did a teacher training with Richard Freeman. I loved the History and Philosophy. The practice and teaching comes alive because of the depth behind it. Were yoga only exercise it would not have maintained my interest.
Both practice and philosophy feed into each other. In Aṣṭāṅga we practice with a set sequence – so we can contemplate; where am I? Am I in this body? What is leading? Am I coming from the heart or the head? What is dominant in this movement. Practice is a site to reflect on the philosophy.
Bea: So as I understand it, you developed your interest after the teacher training by studying for an MA in Indian Religions at SOAS and now you are working on a PhD?
Ruth: Yes, I studied for an MA in Indian Religions at SOAS – where they now offer an MA in Traditions of Yoga and Meditation. I am struck by how old school academia favours the written word, and particularly Sanskrit, and studies of the mind are privileged over studies of the body. Applied to yoga this translates into to how we study Sanskrit texts which are generally written from the male perspective. The mind is also seen as the masculine and the body the feminine.
My PhD looks at gender within the yogic body; where are the female voices in the 11th to 15th century haṭha sources? Where are the women practitioners? There are very few! So I’m exploring what yogic body models are at play and how gender is playing out, such as in kuṇḍalinī, rajas, bindu. What actually is the body in these texts? Men are generally told to avoid women. Although the yogic texts are replete with goddesses and female gender in the yogic body, essentially what we have here is a study of masculinity – any mention of women is from a male perspective. The corpus of texts is for men about men by men.
To find women and women’s voices, we need to find new sources. There are no female-authored haṭha yoga texts in the pre-modern period. It was the monasteries that had a monopoly of the written word, the nunneries did not. The female voice was not therefore preserved. To find the women’s voices we have to look at sources such as songs from Bengal, where female voices are recorded. Taking a feminist perspective to this would be to find multiple discourses, not one ultimate truth, to look at questions from the margins, the embodied knowledge from practice rather than that preserved in texts. I’m not actually doing this in my doctoral research as I am focusing on the Sanskrit corpus.
Bea: You speak of embodied knowledge. Can you elucidate?
Ruth: In the early period the body is described as something to be overcome or purified, in order to liberate the mind. Haṭha is more about physical practices, as the body is the site of the practice. Vedānta teaches the realisation of the self or ātman which can be seen as God or similar to God, but it’s not so much sited in the substance of the body. Tantra and Haṭha incorporate an exploration of the emotions: after all the body is caused by karma, by emotion.
Bea: But nowadays we find that women feature far more in the yoga world! Many more women practice yoga for a start.
Ruth: Yes indeed. But it has more do to do with yoga in its encounter with modernity. Mark Singleton, Anya Fox and Beatrix Hauser have studied this period. Beatrix Hauser for example has looked at 1950s German exercise manuals which promote yoga on the basis of health, cleanliness and hygiene, and youth. Mark Singleton compares the marginalised and exoticised male fakir body and the transition to yoga as proximately abut the female body. It was teachers like Indra Devi who popularised and articulated yoga for women and non-Indian practices.
Bea: Your talk for us is about History as Practice. Can you tell us a little more?
Ruth: Yes, the argument is that history is important . It is relevant to our practice. In these times of COVID, of uncertainty, everyday life has become even more unpredictable with an impact on practice and delivery. The question, ‘What is uncertainty?’ is at the root of what the pre 5c BCE sources, including Buddhism, are trying to address. We are searching for certainty in an uncertain and impermanent world. Yoga has tried to give us tools to deal with this. I will suggest that all the philosophical schools or darśanas are about personal enquiry and I will argue that this intersects neatly with contemporary critical theory which asks ‘How do we come to be where we are?’;
Our practice is one that draws on many threads from different times and places. We need to identify the threads. To look at why practice matters so we can address issues of cultural appropriation, purpose and authenticity. By doing this we can honour the tradition and go deeper into our practices and enquiries.
Bea: Thank you Ruth. You have given me a great deal to reflect on and I haven’t even heard the lecture yet!
You can read more and book Ruth Westoby’s forthcoming lecture here
Ruth can be found at www.enigmatic.yoga