Paradox: History changes by Ruth Westoby


Paradox: History changes. Recent research on the history of yoga has added new insights and re-framed old accounts. With the next iteration of Yogacampus’s course A Comprehensive History of Yoga starting in March, Ruth Westoby - a doctoral researcher in yoga at SOAS, an Ashtanga practitioner and teacher, and facilitator of the online History course - wanted to share with the Yogacampus Community some of the latest research of the teaching faculty at the newly opened Hatha Yoga Project "Embodied Liberation" exhibition at the Brunei Gallery in SOAS London.

Paradox: History changes. Recent research on the history of yoga has added new insights and re-framed old accounts. With the next iteration of Yogacampus’s course A Comprehensive History of Yoga starting in March I wanted to share with you the latest research of the teaching faculty – some of which I collaborated on.

The online course includes the work of, amongst others, all the researchers on SOAS’s Haṭha Yoga Project. Their latest work is on display in the exhibition ‘Embodied Liberation’. Recently opened in SOAS’s Brunei Gallery in London, the exhibition showcases the fascinating research discoveries of the Haṭha Yoga Project now entering its fifth and final year. The exhibition is curated by Daniela Bevilacqua and Jacqueline Hargreaves and scheduled to run until 27 June (with a brief closure 22 March to 16 April to change some of the exhibits). If you’re in London head down – or even better, book onto a tour led by Jacqueline Hargreaves (www.theluminescent.org).

In a creative mash-up of philology and practice, I collaborated in filming a reconstruction of poses from a text that the project team have been working on, excerpts of which feature in the exhibition. Alongside practitioner-colleagues from India and the UK we worked with Jacqueline Hargreaves, Jason Birch and Mark Singleton to interpret postures from the eighteenth-century Haṭhābhyāsapaddhati. This is a likely source text for Krishnamacharya – the father of modern postural yoga who from the 1930s in Mysore was so influential on systems such as Iyengar and Ashtanga Yoga. Mark Singleton and Jason Birch have recently published ground-breaking research on this text in the Journal of Yoga Studies. The six sequences of postures in the Haṭhābhyāsapaddhati are exhilaratingly arduous – in training for filming I loaded up on protein (and coffee) and practiced up to four hours a day. The close reading by the project team nuanced my tendency to default to familiar Ashtanga interpretations of the descriptions. In the Sanskrit, there are no instructions on the length of holds and limited instructions on how to breath in the postures. There are helpful apparent cross-references with the illustrations of the Śrītattvanidhi text – which are perplexingly orientationless and appear to defy gravity.

Agi Gazda, the Mysore programme teacher at The Life Centre, Islington - Yogacampus’s sister organisation - worked with me on the project alongside Philipa Asher. They both feature in the exhibition. Agi and I demonstrated the postures at a conference on Sanskrit texts on yoga in 2016 at SOAS, footage of which is incorporated in a film of the proceedings (Hatha Yoga Project video embedded at the bottom of the page).

It is an odd experience to share what for me is a very private practice with a larger audience through these filming projects: a strange experience to leverage the consequences of a private practice – strength and flexibility – in the production of public discourse on the history of yoga. This project integrated private practice in the production of history.

Learn More:

Do join the next iteration of the Yogacampus online course to learn from these leading researchers who continue to push the frontiers of yoga’s history and change the landscape of modern yoga. This course is unrivalled because the lectures are delivered by the world’s leading researchers in yoga studies. Through the online interactive discussion facility of this course participants and I can share our reflections and insight on the course and perhaps the interface between history and practice.

Live on Campus:

In case you didn't get to catch us LIVE at the Embodied Liberation exhibition, here's a replay of Ruth giving Yogacampus viewers a sneak peek into the gallery and giving us more insight into this comprehensive course. 

Meet Ruth:

Ruth Westoby is a doctoral researcher in yoga and an Ashtanga practitioner. Ruth offers workshops and lectures at studios and conferences and works on some of the principle teacher training programmes in the UK. Ruth convenes the SOAS Yoga Studies Summer School, facilitates Yogacampus’s online History of Yoga course, and curates yoga seminar programmes through the SOAS Centre of Yoga Studies. Ruth collaborated with the Haṭha Yoga Project’s ‘embodied philology’, interpreting postures from an 18th-century text teaching a precursor of modern yoga, the Haṭhābhyāsapaddhati, in 2016 and 2017.

Ruth began to explore yoga practices in 1996 and started teaching postural yoga in 2004. In 2010 she received an MA in Indian Religions from SOAS with Distinction. Ruth has studied closely with Hamish Hendry and Richard Freeman. She is researching for a doctoral thesis on the yogic body in premodern Sanskrit texts on haṭhayoga at SOAS under the supervision of James Mallinson. For writings, films and workshops please see www.enigmatic.yoga.