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Medicine, Immortality, Moksha: Entangled Histories of Yoga, Ayurveda and Alchemy in South Asia

Periodic Reporting for period 4 - AYURYOG (Medicine, Immortality, Moksha: Entangled Histories of Yoga, Ayurveda and Alchemy in South Asia)

Reporting period: 2019-12-01 to 2020-05-31

The practice of yoga is today widely associated with the improvement of health and well-being. In India, yoga is considered an indigenous form of health practice: The Ministry of AYUSH supports education and research in yoga medicine, and has established first steps in the regulation of practice with a voluntary certification scheme through the Quality Council of India. Now predominantly associated with physical practices (postural and breathing exercises), the health-related aspects of yoga practice have been promoted globally since the middle of the twentieth century. However, in its historic origins, the attainment of yoga was understood as a soteriological undertaking, and its auxiliary practices were directed at the attainment of spiritual aims. When did yoga become medicine? And how are medical claims within yoga traditions connected to the dominant Indian medical traditions of the past? Can ideas about healing and well-being arising in historic yoga traditions be linked to the scholarly medical tradition of ayurveda, or to the heterodox medicine of rasaśāstra (Indian alchemy and iatrochemistry)? How do these traditions compare with each other in their medical goals, concepts and practices?
To answer these and related questions, the Ayuryog project examined the histories of yoga, ayurveda and rasaśāstra from the ninth century to the present, focussing on the disciplines' health, juvenescence and longevity practices (Sanskrit: rasāyana) as potential key areas of exchange. The goals of the project were to reveal the entanglements of these historical traditions, and to trace the trajectories of their evolution as components of today's global healthcare and personal development industries.
Drawing upon the primary historical sources of each respective tradition as well as on fieldwork data, the research team explored the shared terminology, praxis and theory of these three disciplines and examining why, when and how health, juvenescence and longevity practices were employed; how each discipline’s discourse and practical applications relates to those of the others; and how past encounters and cross-fertilizations impact on contemporary health-related practices in yogic, ayurvedic and alchemists’ milieus.
Research was divided into three main areas of enquiry: In research area 1, Dagmar Wujastyk examined the reciprocal influence of ayurveda and rasaśāstra (Indian alchemy and iatrochemistry) on each other, exploring in particular the development of iatrochemical formulations and their use in applications in health, rejuvenation and longevity therapies (rasāyana) in Sanskrit medical and alchemical literature. Together with Patricia Sauthoff, she has also worked on a Sourcebook of Indian Alchemy, to provide a survey textbook on this less well-known historical discipline. In research area 2, Christèle Barois and Jason Birch studied the influence of ayurvedic thought on representations of yoga in relevant Sanskrit yoga literature. In research area 3, Suzanne Newcombe explored the more recent history of interactions between ayurveda, and yoga in institutionalized and in heterodox religious settings, examining continuities and disjunctures of aims and practices in the colonial and post-colonial period with the medieval and early modern forms of ayurveda, and yoga.
"Research results are available in a series of publications, while a number of publications are in press or under review/forthcoming. We have convened one international workshop (October 2016) and one international conference (August 2017) on the subject of longevity practices in medical, alchemical and yogic milieus. Both have enabled valuable discussion between colleagues working on the histories of similar beliefs and practices in different geographical and linguistic areas of expertise.

As an outcome of these meetings, we have edited a special issue of the Open Access journal History of Science in South Asia, entitled “Transmutations: Rejuvenation, Longevity, and Immortality practices in South and Inner Asia”. The special issue contains an introduction and three articles by the Ayuryog research team members, representing some of the initial findings and explorations of the Ayuryog project; as well as six further articles by scholars researching longevity practices in various South and Inner Asian traditions and literatures. All of these articles represent cutting-edge research and substantially further our understanding of the relations between South and Inner Asian medical, alchemical and yogic traditions. The volume has been reprinted in India with Dev Publishers (2020).

All Ayuryog researchers have given lectures and presentations at academic conferences and public events to give updates on our research and to engage in discussion. Videos of our presentations and those of speakers invited to the Ayuryog events can be viewed on the Ayuryog YouTube channel at

Our website at outlines the project and gives updates on our progress through a blog. It also contains an interactive timeline tracing the development of yoga as medicine.

The website also contains lists of our publications.

In lieu of a planned final conference (cancelled due to the Covid 19 pandemic), we have recorded a series of interviews with AyurYog team members and others with whom we have collaborated during the project. The interviews can be viewed on or directly on the AyurYog YouTube channel in the playlist ""Untangling Traditions"".
We have also made a series of documentaries of a research experiment, in which we recreate alchemical procedures described in a tenth-century Sanskrit alchemical work. These can be viewed on the AyurYog YouTube channel in the playlist ""A reconstruction of alchemical procedures"". There are also several accompanying blog posts on

The project has also created an interactive timeline of the historical connections between yoga and ayurveda, and health practices recorded in yoga texts."
- The research project advanced the field beyond the state of the art by combining traditional scholarship with new- and multi-media methods to expand its reach to new audiences. Additionally, by utilizing these methods we have gained unique insight into the development of historical ideas and interconnections between traditions that will push the field forward for those using a variety of methodologies.

- It was the first academic investigation into the shared terminology, theory and practice of Yoga and Indian medicine, which has distinctly mapped the historical landscape for both practitioners and academics alike.

- Our research clearly affirmed the use of Yoga techniques as a form of medicine and disease prevention in the premodern India.

- The project has forged a new field of study in Indian alchemy through the identification of previously unknown textual sources and resulted in a reader of primary sources for non-specialists.

- The reconstruction of medieval procedures has enriched our understanding of ancient methods, tools and thinking, which has sharpened the critique of present-day indigenous medicines and procedures.

- Our research has clarified the key milestones and historical events which have led to the government of India's and international health authorities' endorsement of Yoga as a tool for worldwide health.