Yoga – the Mahasagar from time immemorial
Event details: SOAS CYS summer school, 2021
This post written by: Richa Agarwal
We asked a couple of students on our summer school to write a few reflections provoked by their time studying with us. This is one of two pieces in response.
When you grow up as an Indian infused with a culture of rich classical Indian traditions like Yoga and Vedanta since childhood, the understanding that ‘Yoga is not just Asana’ is a living reality for you. Growing up as a millennial in the post partition – constitutional republic of India, my thoughts were similar to millions of Indians for whom Yoga is not a multibillion dollar industry that the “developed western” world has culturally appropriated and turned into a business[i]; rather it is an ancient practice passed down by our ancestors to achieve the highest goal of human life: the realization of the peace and happiness of self and everyone else, including the environment.
However a lot of my preconceived notions were fine-tuned when I recently attended the annual SOAS Yoga Summer School 2021 which turned online this year in response to the global Covid-19 pandemic. Sometimes adversities come with opportunities – this was one of them. The online mode brought Yoga enthusiasts from all over the world – Japan, Singapore, China, Iran, Turkey, France, UK, Brazil, USA and of course my own country – India, which was truly a blessing in disguise. Deftly and brilliantly coordinating this diverse bunch was our lovely host Lucy May Constantini (Ph.D. candidate at the Open University) who made this year’s summer school a joyous, smooth ride for all of us. In addition we had the pleasure of studying under the scholars of “The Hatha Yoga Project” – a European Research Council funded project which aims to throw light upon a lot of interesting aspects of this ancient Indian practice.
The following weeks would throw an interesting curveball where almost every faculty member stressed ad-nauseum that Yoga is more than just Asana and Yoga as a term incorporates a variety of cross-disciplinary topics, each of which is equally important in the current times. The multidisciplinary dimension of Yoga is evident in its usefulness for health and as therapy, in renewed interest in the Sanskrit language[ii], the scriptural history and depth of wisdom Yoga contains, and in the challenges of authenticity, lineage and abuse that this new century has witnessed, along with the multi-billion dollar monetizationof the practice[iii]. This practice originated in the Indian subcontinent as a means to attain freedom or Moksha from the incessant cycles of births and deaths (Samsara) but found a worldwide audience that realized that Yoga could help them deal with ordinary issues to the most complex physical and mental issues in day to day life – Yoga has come a very long way. While Ruth Westoby highlighted the various nuances in defining the word “Yoga” and the role of women in Yoga movements, other scholars like Suzanne Newcombe and Karen O’Brien-Kop emphasized beautifully the importance of decolonizing Yoga, and Yoga in the light of growing social movements like race, color and discrimination around gender and sexuality around the world.
Personally my favorite sessions were those on the rich philosophy and praxis of various Yoga shastras from famous scholars like James Mallinson and Jason Birch of the Hatha Yoga Project[iv] on rare and rich Yogic magnum opuses like the Amrtasiddhi and Haṭhābhyāsapaddhati respectively. No amount of time spent in learning these classics is enough to appreciate their depth and relevance to our lives – and listening to them I realized that it is this depth and wisdom that makes Yoga so magical and popular. The secret ingredients of transforming a human life remain hidden in these ancient texts.
The lectures on Sanskrit language by Lidia Wojtczak and the one on Mantra – sacred Vedic sounds by Finnian Gerety were extremely informative to especially those participants who were unaware of the crucial role of Sanskrit[v] and chanting in the practice of Yoga. There now exist recent scientific studies on Yogis who chant and meditate regularly, and researchers are finding that these practices significantly improve brain and heart function, reduce stress chemicals, and naturally calm the nervous system[vi]. Daniela Bevilacqua’s twin lectures on contemporary ascetic practice of Yogis in modern India were a lot of fun and learning at the same time. Finally we had Theo Wildcroft teaching in a very unique style about the issues that come with the “teaching” aspect of Yoga and some of the ways in which modern Yoga teachers are trying to navigate the essence and authenticity of Yoga traditions which may or may not be native to their religion and culture.
My Yoga Guru taught me on the first day of my Yoga class – “Yoga is a means of unifying love and kindness for all with wisdom of thought to lead a life of awareness”. Of-course, Yoga – the practice, the concept, the word, the philosophy, and the tradition of the great Indian subcontinent – holds profound secrets that require scholastic unraveling as much as it requires authentic lineage practitioners. However during my time at the Yoga summer school, I realized how this goal has found new meanings and flavors for people all over the world according to their conditioning and cultural upbringing.
I greatly enjoyed this year’s Yoga summer school and would recommend it to anyone who has a genuine curiosity about Yoga as a contemporary multi-disciplinary topic. Unlike a lot of Yoga-schools that I have attended, this program is unique. It is neither a Yoga TTC nor a retreat course that promises to magically transform you – rather it is a well-designed program for the modern Yogi-thinker-practitioner. Sarva- Maṅgalam!