I’m not long back from my first international academic conference: “Yoga darśana, yoga sādhana” in Kraków, 19th-21st May 2016. I’ve written this report for my supervisors, and also the BASR bulletin, but some of you might be interested here too! Elsewhere, I’m still considering radical deity and the sticky relationships between yoga and appropriation; yoga and trauma. More later, but just before I pack for Colourfest…
Every few years the international academic community gathers for a conference specifically about the study of yoga. This one was organised by Jagiellonian University (Krakow) and the UK-based Modern Yoga Research group. As these events are relatively rare, and the scholarly community they serve small and truly international in flavour, the conference started with a great deal of excitement, and felt very friendly and supportive. The UK was well-represented, with many papers from SOAS and members of the Modern Yoga Research group in particular, but also James Madaio from the University of Manchester and Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies, Suzanne Newcombe from Inform and LSE, and indeed myself. Most of the sessions were filmed, and will hopefully be shared widely, not least allowing attendees to catch papers they regret missing in person.
The organisers had chosen to divide the three days according to their three sub-themes: traditions, transmissions and transformations, grouping the historic and contemporary papers to either end of the schedule. Whilst this was thematically useful, it did leave those of us with specific interests with a number of timetabling clashes, as most of the contemporary research was presented on the same day, in parallel sessions. However, the field of yoga studies is so very diverse in both subject and approach, creating a coherent structure in itself must be an appreciably difficult task that was admirably handled.
And so on day one, we were treated to new perspectives on major and more obscure yoga texts, including the Patanjali Sutras, the Mahabharata, the Kirataparvan, the Sivadharmottara and the Matangapramesvaratantra. There were examinations of historical influences on modern practice, such as Jainism, East Asian Buddhism and old Javanese texts. Papers were delivered on the development of devata yoga, Samkhya yoga, Burmese mindfulness, the development of kundalini, and guru-induced Samadhi. Among those offerings at the conference from the Hatha Yoga Project, was Daniela Bevilacqaua’s ethnographic paper on modern sadhus. And a lively keynote confronted issues of authorship and dating (and even naming) of the Patanjali Yoga Sutras, by Michel Angot and Philipp Maas – so lively in fact, that extra time was dedicated on the last day for a rematch, although of course, no final conclusions were reached.
Even given the recent turn to research that moves beyond the textual discussion of yoga, on the second day there were an impressive number of papers and research projects under discussion into more visual representations of yoga, including sculpted reliefs of non-seated asanas at Hampi, paintings of asanas from Rajasthan, and early Hungarian images of yoga. The keynote session was a much-anticipated update from the ERC funded Hatha Yoga Project, in which Jim Mallinson shared pre-15th Century images and Jason Birch post-15th Century images specifically of inverted asanas, as they develop from simple methods to stay upside down as a method of practicing austerities, to detailed and diverse medieval mudras for the reversal of energy flows, and increasing cultivation rather than mortification of the body. Further papers discussed philosophical and metaphysical aspects of yoga, from Vedanta and gnosis, to death portents, the Baul tradition’s embrace of material existence, Tantric metaphysics, European esotericism, and the evolving meaning of the term ‘yoga’ itself.
There were two interesting case studies tracing modern translations of older practices: one by Raphael Voix on the recent and deliberate invention of Loknath Yoga within the diaspora in South America, and its self-mythologisation via association with a 19th Century guru. In the second, Sravana Borkataky-Varma compared the vastly different kundalini yoga practices and communities in India and the US respectively, with particular reference to levels of secrecy and modes of transmission, but with also very different aims and outcomes. There was an entire panel on the live and ongoing politicisation of yoga in Turkey, which gained in importance with the worrying knowledge that the scholars presenting are themselves under significant governmental surveillance.
Elsewhere, some of the diversity of European engagements with yoga was in evidence, from the USSR, Germany and Finland, and there were two papers on Iyengar yoga: one from Matylda Ciołkosz who was also conducting the vital and slightly herculean task of administering the conference proceedings. In the evening there was a performance art piece on encounters with Tantra, in spoken word and soundscape, which delighted some but not others. It was at the end of a long and stimulating day, and the city of Krakow itself was in many ways spectacular enough; green and welcoming on a warm Spring evening.
Day three was shorter, beginning with a particularly useful review of recent yoga research by Elizabeth de Michelis, who synthesised the field into the following trends: psychomatic and medical studies; practice-based research and pedagogy; and more traditional humanities and social science research. Some work is being done to combine contemplative studies of disciplines with studies through disciplines – bringing contemplative awareness into the academy itself. This is taking place especially at the three MAs dedicated to Yoga Studies: in London, Venice and Los Angeles, who combine a variety of pedagogical approaches, content, and more personalised dissertations. We also have two recent successes in major ERC grants: for the aforementioned Hatha Yoga Project and the AyurYoga Project, led by Dagmar Wujastyk, on which Suzanne Newcombe also presented at the conference.
All three leaders of the MAs (Christopher Chapple, Ulrich Pagel and Federico Squarcini) were included with Dagmar Wujastyk and Michel Angot on the final keynote, which continued the sharing of approaches and issues into yoga in the academy. Major grants are rare, and all three MAs are self-funding. Interestingly, the three leaders reported that many enrolments are coming from within the modern yoga community itself, suggesting an increasing and hopefully productive symbiosis between the evolving research and the field of study. Not all conversations between the academy and the world of yoga are as benign, however, as Borayin Larios pointed out with a paper on scholars and authority in modern yoga. Accusations of cultural appropriation and even academic imperialism and Hinduphobia confront more high-profile scholarship, as the question ‘how do we define yoga?’ becomes tangled with both Protestant extremism centred in the US, and Hindu sectarianism transnationally. Confidentially, scholars shared particulars of harassment on social media, concerns about the ethics of accepting funding from certain bodies, and generally there is a feeling that any research into the smallest and most obscure aspects of yoga practice, culture and philosophy could be targeted for political gain. Moving forward, our increasing engagement and impact on and with the diversity of modern yoga culture is seemingly easy to evidence, but possibly harder to endure.
The day ended with a smaller number of papers on contemporary yoga ‘transformations’, including a panel on the complex relations between scientific discourses both about and in yoga. Elsewhere, it was time to present my own paper on post-lineage yoga in Britain, which was well-received and fitted well in a panel including a paper applying somaesthetic theory to yoga, and another on ‘Yoga as synthesis. Yoga as revival’.
Outside of the formal business of the conference, stimulating conversations and exchanges were held on more recent research, overlaps and comparisons in ongoing projects, and the sharing of references, resources and contacts. Many of my own conversations included speculative comparisons between historic and recently emergent practices – such as more modern examples of inversion asanas, from Iyengar suspensions to the recent popularity of aerial yoga. I was also interested to note a common dual identity of scholar and practitioner in unspoken evidence – indeed, when asked if they considered themselves practitioners, the vast majority of the attendees agreed, even if few had previously volunteered the information. Factors such as funding, and pay-for courses further muddy the waters of positionality, but on another level, I wondered if and how people were keeping up their practices whilst here. There’s a fascinating potential paper in the varied yoga practices and allegiances of scholars who research yoga, and how it impacts our research and even daily working life. My suspicion is that most scholars here are practicing in the more mainstream schools and lineages.
This would go some way to explain a widespread lack of awareness here of the diversity of modern yoga outside of North America, perhaps because yoga scholarship in the US is much more dominated by modern subjects, whilst in Europe arguably more weight is given to historical and textual analysis still. As a whole, US and transnational yoga marketing materials were commonly used as shorthand for a generic, representative modern yoga practice, with the assumption that modern yoga culture is accordingly material and commercial. There is much less recognition of the widespread role of counter-cultural movements in the development and present evolution of transnational yoga, even in the US, and evidence of a number of papers presented suggests that yoga is markedly less commercial and more counter-cultural in Europe. My own work presented evidence of easy-to-find and well-established counter-cultural yoga in the South-West UK that was a surprise to almost everyone there. There is a perceivable gulf between marketing and actuality; between generally accessible classes and more specialised events for dedicated practitioners; between what teachers teach to the mainstream and the practice they share themselves. After all, we don’t assess the content and experience and research of yoga academics through reference to the MA marketing materials their institutions put out, and every one of the MA cohorts discussed here are filled with yoga teachers and practitioners seeking further depth to their knowledge.
Finally, the two ERC funded projects: Ayuryoga and the Hatha Yoga Project were anomalously generous grants supporting projects that are being closely watched and championed by scholars internationally. Meanwhile, small Sanskrit and similar historical departments are having to prove their relevance to the ‘public’ in ever more rigorous ways. It is not easy justifying one’s existence in the humanities in Europe today, as we know.
As the conference wound up, a whole host of us adjourned to the rather lovely Hamsa restaurant, serving us ‘hummus and happiness’, and even yoga scholar-practitioners know how to share at least one beer with companionship, reminiscences and gossip. I had the delightful company of first Jacqueline Hargreaves and then Mark Singleton, among others who may not have offered papers, but were key presences at the conference. Overall, the city was beautiful, the weather pleasant, and the conference a great success. Often one returns from such events with a head full of ideas and a stack of new contacts. More rarely does one return with a handful of new friends.