Recently on Instagram I have been posting quite a bit about 'what is Yoga?' as much for my own inquiry as anything else. I am not the one to answer this, but I can make suggestions and start discussions. There are far, far, FAR cleverer people that me doing research into the field; such as Dr Daniela Bevilacqua, who is part of the Hatha Yoga Project at SOAS University. I've been immensely privileged to be attending a 'Gender and Yoga' study group and learning so, so much from people dedicating their lives to studying Yoga. By that, I don't mean studying what we see on the mat, but Yoga as a religion/science/philosophy.
Daniela mixes textual analysis with field work. That is going to India and experiencing what she studies first hand, interviewing subjects and delving deep. In her research paper 'Are women entitled to become ascetics?' she encounters a woman named Ram Priya Das. I would like to paraphrase Daniela's paper in order to share the story of this remarkable woman with you. I will keep the language as layman as possible to keep it accessible.
At the age of six Ram Priya Das had a 'spiritual calling', knowing that the traditional marriage route was not for her. She spent six years of her life going to a cave to attend the religious practice of her eventual guru, Sri Ramcaran Das Tyagi ji, and if her parents didn't let her she would cry her eyes out. At twelve years old she spent a year of service at his ashram, and at thirteen she became initiated into the order of her guru and was able to start practicing Yoga. Her family did what they could to change her mind and then at this stage they cut all ties with her. She had lost her family, and whilst she had gained another one, it wasn't easy as she was a woman. It was incredibly rare for a woman to go this path, particularly at such a young age, primarily because 'this wasn't the path for females'.
She gets up at 3am every morning, and from 3.30-5.00 she practices pranayama (control of the breath), asana (she has 84 poses she has mastered), vyayam (exercises; note how this is different to asana) and meditation. For a couple of hours in the morning and evening she then reads and studies religious texts. She does this in devotion, not as intellect.
The society she is in is mainly for men, which she has the upmost respect for, and was taught at a young age how to behave 'correctly' for different people. Without this and the support she had from her guru, there would be no way that she would be in the position that she is in now.
I know this story doesn't sound quite as touching when written as when spoken by Daniela and seeing the love and admiration on her face. So why am I telling this story? I think it's important to know the huge struggles that women in India face to practice Yoga. Our Western privilege is phenomenal! People can go to India and pay for titles that women in their own country cannot receive. We can just go to a Yoga class at nearly any time of the day here (depending where you live), no matter what gender or class we are. When practicing 'Yoga' it can be taken for granted, because it is so easily accessible. So be truly grateful for that. I also hope that this story makes you wonder; are we really practicing Yoga?
If you would like to read the actual research paper for a lot more detail then please get in touch.