Women’s Importance Through Yoga’s History
Written by AYC Instructor, Sierra Hollister
We all know that a regular yoga practice offers multiple benefits for the body, mind and spirit. These benefits include increased flexibility, enhanced physical strength, clarity and calm for the mind, better circulation and so much more.
For women specifically, yoga can support wellness through every stage of life, from child to child-bearing years, prenatal and postnatal, and beyond. Of all the yoga’s offered, Kundalini Yoga in particular has rich, deep and specific teachings for those that identify as women. The man who brought the teachings of Kundalini to the United States, Yogi Bhajan, was incredibly inspired by women, beginning with his mother and grandmother. More than half of the legacy of teachings that Yogi Bhajan shared were dedicated to spreading the ancient sacred teachings of yoga with women specifically. The motivation to reach women with these teachings was based on his deep belief that the world would never know harmony or peace until women had their rightful place of recognition and respect in the world.
According to the teachings of Kundalini, “Woman is the embodiment of God’s creative power, Shakti. Woman embodies the feminine aspect of God, through which the world was created. That primal power is called the Adi Shakti and has been worshipped for centuries in the form of various goddesses. Every woman has that divine goddess power in her own being, waiting to be recognized.”
While students of Kundalini are immersed in this rich understanding of the role and power of women, many more students in this country are told that as far as women and yoga go, the history is recent. This story has been created by western teachers and unfortunately, yet somewhat reliably, centers a white woman, Eugenie Peterson, as one of the first women to practice yoga. Eugenie Peterson went on to be known as Indra Devi, and while Indra Devi did contribute greatly to the story of yoga in this country, by no means was she the first woman to practice yoga.
Feminist artist, scholar and teacher, Vicki Noble, suggests that women invented the practice of yoga. Noble’s research proposes that there was a widespread female-centered yoga practice dating all the way back to the Paleolithic and Neolithic ages. This early yoga was ritual based and celebrated the blood mysteries of women, birth, healing and death. Graduate student Agi Wittich points to archeological findings that suggest women were a significant part of spiritual life all the way back to the earliest evidence of classical yoga – the Paśupati Seal, dated to 2500 BCE. As support for this thesis, Gates Janica, California Yoga Research and Education Center faculty, says, “women’s inclusion in rituals was considered auspicious, even necessary for the presence of the divine, and women were positively associated with fertility, growth, abundance, and prosperity.” Gates goes on to point out that there are numerous references in the Vedas to female scholars, teachers, mystics, priestesses, and philosophers and as many as twenty-seven female sages.”
Wittich continues to point out in her paper, “Yoga and Women: A Possible History,” that later texts, ones that many of us are much more familiar with, including several of the Upaniṣads and the Mahābhārata, mention wise spiritual women and go so far as to define some as “yoginis”.
Local tantric scholar Ramesh Bjonnes writes that “women have been gurus, healers, yoginis and goddesses since the beginning of time.”
All of which to say, isn’t it time that we stop centering Indra Devi in the story of women and yoga and reach back through time, as yoga itself does? Not only does it feel more powerful to acknowledge that women, especially dark-skinned women, have been practicing, shaping and creating yoga for as long as yoga has been around, but it is also true and gives yoga back its roots and truth.
The practice of yoga, for women by women, is deep, profound and a celebration of the nature of women, our monthly cycles as well as our life cycles. By practicing this way, we open ourselves to the flow of energy rather than achievement of a posture. The journey, rituals and experience of the practice, rather than the physicality of the practice, are paramount.
More than anything, we understand that yoga is who we are, rather than what we do.
If you’d like to learn more about women’s role in yoga, here are a few resources for you.
Sierra Hollister offers a weekend immersion each year for women that wish to understand more about their unique yogic path, “The Moon Path” at Asheville Yoga Center.
Sierra also teaches WARM Kundalini & Gentle Kundalini weekly at Asheville Yoga Center. View our class schedule here.