Yoga’s (not so) distant relatives
Event details: SOAS CYS summer course, 2022
This post written by: Lea Stiller
We asked a student on our summer course to write a few reflections provoked by their time studying with us.
When I first started studying Sanskrit, our teacher asked a question: “Who came here because of Yoga? And who came here because of Buddhism?” Around the same number of students raised their hands for each of these questions. Back then, this seemed like a clear and logical distinction to me. I had been to Yoga studios and I had been to Buddhist meditation centres and as far as I was concerned, what they practiced had little in common. My view on the Yoga-Buddhism-relationship started to complicate when I got deeper into my studies of Yoga. Suddenly, the lines were not that clear anymore. Especially some of the concepts in Patañjali’s Yogaśastra seemed strangely Buddhist to me. When friends asked me: “So what’s the difference between Yoga philosophy and Buddhist philosophy?”, I was struggling for answers. Now here’s where the Short Course this summer came in and gave proof to my suspicion that there were many links and cross-influences.
On the first day, Karen O’Brien-Kop spoke about Buddhist terminology and concepts in Patañjali, even common metaphors like the “seed” of affliction and intertextuality in Buddhist and Yoga texts. It turns out there likely were interactions between these communities, debates that found their way into each of their works of writing. More connections were revealed by James Mallinson in his lecture on early haṭhayoga – the medieval roots of physical yoga practice. What came as a major surprise to me was that the Amṛtasiddhi, the first text that teaches haṭha-like practices, dated 11th century CE is, in fact, a tantric Buddhist text, and more than that, haṭhayoga is mentioned in a good amount of other medieval Buddhist texts.
Aside from exploring the Yoga-Buddhism-connection, I spent a lot of time after the course pondering a possible definition of yoga. Amelia Wood, the convenor of the course, had us write down what we think “Yoga” means at the very start of the week, and then again in the end, after all the lectures, questions, debates, and our visit to the British Museum. I found it even harder to pin down what Yoga meant after the course, having seen so many new viewpoints and approaches. How can we use the same word, apply the same category to Theo Wildcroft’s research on modern communities of practice doing postural yoga and James Mallinson’s research, in which the word “yoga” turned out to mean a goal, not a practice, in most early sources? How can a store full of Instagram-worthy yoga clothes use the same word, the same name, as wandering ascetics use for their practices? The five components of Hinduism (Sontheimer, 2001) came to my mind. They emerged out of continuous research and the difficulty in defining Hinduism using western concepts of religion. It occurred to me that maybe we must see “Yoga” as a network of different components and processes that interact with each other, are interrelated, and sometimes even inverted (looking at you, beer yoga), instead of a single notion. An umbrella that shelters wildly different things, times, practices, and people, none of which necessarily even have one central feature in common.
Sontheimer, 2001: Hinduism. The Five Components and Their Interaction. In: Sontheimer; Kulke: Hinduism Reconsidered.