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The Hatha Yoga Project: Mapping Indian and Transnational Traditions of Physical Yoga through Philology and Ethnography

Periodic Reporting for period 4 - HYP (The Hatha Yoga Project: Mapping Indian and Transnational Traditions of Physical Yoga through Philology and Ethnography)

Reporting period: 2020-04-01 to 2021-03-31

The Hatha Yoga Project sought to chart the history of traditional physical yoga practice in India from its origins through to the 19th century when it first came into sustained contact with the West and on to its practice by ascetics today. Yoga has become a hugely popular pastime all around the world, but its history is little studied and until recently was based either on unreliable oral traditions which claimed it is 5000 years old or three texts, which, though important for understanding yoga's history, were studied in isolation from the broader corpus and without regard to their historical context.

The HYP’s central method was textual: hundreds of manuscripts were scanned (primarily under the oversight of Jason Birch) and collated in order to try to ascertain the likely original form of ten key texts on physical yoga dating from the 11th to 18th centuries. This philological work was supplemented by fieldwork among traditional yogis in India. Daniela Bevilacqua spent two years in India living with traditional Indian yogis. She was sometimes joined by the project's PI, James Mallinson. In addition to their ethnographic research Mallinson and Bevilacqua visited hundreds of historical sites in India to examine artistic depictions of yoga practice. Through these methods the HYP team analysed yoga's development in India and identified what constituted yoga practice in India on the eve of colonialism. One of the team's researchers, Mark Singleton, showed in his earlier work how much of modern yoga practice is the result of the interplay between various physical disciplines during the 20th century. His insightful analysis was necessarily tentative as it was not clear what actually constituted yoga in India before this time. The work of the HYP has identified the core practices of yoga in India in the 19th century. This is important in itself, but is also important for society today as it enables those who are promoting, studying and practising yoga to know what is traditional and what is a modern innovation. Scientists attempting to measure the efficacy of yoga's techniques, for example, will have a more reliable body of practices to test.

The project ran smoothly and successfully with sustained accumulation of data and several groundbreaking discoveries. The team was relatively lucky with regard to the Covid-19 pandemic in that its last fieldwork trip, to Pakistan, concluded on 10th March 2020, just before the implementation of lockdowns. Some pandemic-induced difficulties led to an extension of the project’s final deadline to 31st March 2021.
The project team, in particular Jason Birch, acquired scans of several hundred Sanskrit manuscripts on yoga from libraries in India. Workshops were held at various institutions around the world to read with experts working editions of the ten texts that have been edited as part of the project. These editions have been finalised and their texts translated. Four of the editions have been accepted for publication after peer review, the remaining six are all close to completion, as are the project team’s monographs. The critical editions are being published in a new Hatha Yoga Series by the Ecole francaise d'Extreme-Orient in Pondicherry, India.

The project team together with research assistants based in Pondicherry, India, made digital transcriptions of approximately 75 texts on yoga in a variety of Indian languages. These constitute a searchable e-text database which the team has been using for its research, and which will be uploaded to the project website for public access.

The project began in 2016 with a workshop to which twenty world-renowned specialists in historical yoga studies were invited to give presentations on the project’s theme, physical yoga practice. A series of workshops was held in the UK and at various international venues (Pondicherry (India), Portland (Oregon, USA), Procida (Italy)) from 2017–2019 to which specialists were invited to read with the team working editions of the ten texts to be edited. In 2019 a workshop was held at SOAS to which 15 international scholars were invited in order to examine the influence of other physical disciplines on the development of yoga.

In addition to trips to libraries in India to acquire scans of manuscripts, the team conducted ethnographic fieldwork and visits to historical sites to inspect artistic depictions of yoga practice. The primary ethnographer, Daniela Bevilacqua spent two years in India, during which she has interviewed more than 100 traditional practitioners of physical yoga.

The project team members have written several articles for journals and edited volumes. The ten critical editions are all either complete or almost so, with four accepted for publication. The team members' four monographs analysing the project’s data are nearing completion.

The project team made a film based on one of the texts to be edited, the Haṭhābhyāsapaddhati, which teaches 110 different yoga postures, using as models advanced practitioners based in the UK and India. This film was part of an exhibition of the project's work held in the Brunei Gallery at SOAS from January to June 2020.

The team has given numerous lectures in the UK, internationally, and online, in which they have disseminated the project’s findings.
Key findings beyond the state of the art:

1. The Amṛtasiddhi, the earliest text to teach physical yoga, was written by Buddhists, not Hindus as previously thought.
2. Another of the texts edited in the project, the Amaraugha, has been shown to be the earliest non-Buddhist text to teach haṭhayoga.
3. The transition of physical yoga practice from a Buddhist to Hindu tradition has been shown to have happened in approximately the 12th century at Kadri on the coast of southwest India.
4. Certain key aspects of yoga practice, specifically dynamic and balancing postures, and complex breathing techniques were innovations of the haṭha corpus.
5. Prior to the composition of the haṭha corpus the body in yoga was something to be subdued by ascetic methods.
6. The body-positive turn long prefigured any influence from globalised health movements in the 19th and 20th centuries.
3. The Haṭhābhyāsapaddhati may teach sequences of postures, foreshadowing their 20th-century development in India.
4. The project team discovered statues of yoga practice on an early 13th-century archway in Gujarat, the earliest known such depictions by 300 years.
5. For living ascetics in India, haṭhayoga means extreme self-mortification, not the more wholesome yoga propagated in haṭhayoga texts.

The team accumulated a huge amount of data.This has been presented and analysed in a series of articles, monographs and critical editions which, in combination, chart the development of physical yoga practice in India from its origins to the beginnings of its engagement with the wider world.
Raised leg posture from Mahudi Gate, Dabhoi, 1230CE
Headstand from Mahudi Gate, Dabhoi, 1230CE
Lotus posture headstand from Mahudi Gate, Dabhoi, 1230CE
Headstand variant from Mahudi Gate, Dabhoi, 1230CE