After 3 years and a great deal of writing, I finally graduated from SOAS with an MA in the history and Traditions of yoga and Meditation.
Walking across the stage on July 28th, 2022, as a SOAS university of London MA graduate I was consumed with a mixture of relief, amazement, and a little nervous trepidation. (Due in part to the high heels which generally don't feature very often in my yoga teachers' wardrobe).
Having embarked on the SOAS MA program in The History and Traditions of Yoga and Meditation, over three years ago, there were times when I thought I might never reach the end of my studies. I have since discovered there is never really an end to yoga study, there is always something else to discover, some new evidence, new research, or a new interpretation of something very old indeed.
Along with a supportive group of like-minded yogis, I chose to take my MA part-time to fit in with teaching my classes and running my own BWY Certificate and Diploma courses. Having not studied in an academic environment for a very long time, I wrote an application essay (proofread by our own BWY course development officer Terri Hilder) and was subsequently accepted onto the MA program.
Living close to London I was able to make the journey to SOAS each week, using my time on the train to read a vast array of articles, books and papers in preparation for the lectures ahead (until unfortunately, study moved online due to Covid).
The SOAS MA program investigates the origins and development of yoga and meditation from ancient times to the modern world.
One of the perennial questions that we explored extensively was, what actually is yoga? Dr. Mark Singleton's response being, 'It depends on whose asking.' This is a valid statement as the question is contingent on time, place and context. The haṭha yoga we know today has evolved from a set of practices undertaken in the distant past, largely by celibate ascetics (from differing traditions) with soteriological aims. For some practitioner's yoga was a devout discipline, fundamental to specific belief systems and was both the means and the goal. For others yoga was and still is associated with the meditative practices expounded by the fourth-century Pātañjalayogaśāstra. Since the early Middle Ages yoga has been allied with the application of physical techniques including mudrā and prāṇāyāma. Followed later by āsana as taught within the fifteenth century Haṭhapradīpikā. For modern-day practitioners' yoga can be anything from therapeutic breath and movement to fitness-based exercises in a gym or yoga studio, with an ever evolving number of derivatives in between. The MA course unpicks these tangled roots of yoga with both philological and ethnological approaches, giving clarity and structure to yoga's history, philosophies and multicultural background.
The MA course has core elements that are compulsory including modules on the History of Yoga, taught by Dr. James Mallinson and Dr. Graham Burns. Buddhist Meditation taught by Professor Ulrich Pagel and a fascinating module on the Religions of India delivered by Dr. Karen O'Brien Kop.
Students choose another 'open' module to expand and widen their knowledge base. I selected Indian Temples taught by Dr. Crispin Branfoot. This was a thought-provoking foray into understanding and exploring sacred architecture and its images from South Asia. This module tied in perfectly with my own travels to India, giving me a deeper appreciation of what I have witnessed within temple sites that I have visited over the years. This newfound understanding has heightened my comprehension of the complexities of vāstu śāstra (sacred architecture) and given insight into the colourful ceremonies I have observed and the devout worship of deities in an array of temples and religious sites.
As well as the taught modules, part of the MA is dedicated to writing a 10,0000-word dissertation on an area of interest. I focused on the history of the fifteen āsana of the Haṭhapradīpikā. I had no idea that fifteen postures would take me down so many rabbit holes. Writing my dissertation was totally absorbing, uncovering how much information has been written on Padmāsana and how little is known about the origins of other āsana, such as Dhanurāsana or Matsyendrāsana. My research involved, using many and varied textual sources including the Jain Hemacandra's Yogaśāstra, the Buddhist Amŗtasiddhi and the Dattātreyayogaśāstra, a predominantly Vaiṣṇava
text that was the first to teach a systematised form of Haṭha yoga.
I ploughed through a vast array of commentaries of the Haṭhapradīpikā, this was in itself challenging, as with all things in yoga some interpretations are more reliable than others. I am delighted, however, that Dr. James Mallinson and Dr. Jason Birch are currently working on a new critical edition and English translation of Svātmārāma's Haṭhapradīpikā, funded by The Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) And the German Research Foundation (DFG). This new edition will be an essential resource for yogis across the globe.
After very many hours writing and research and much discussion with my supervisor (the ever patient and extremely knowledgeable Dr. Graham Burns), I completed my dissertation. Finishing my studies initially left a large gap in my week, which has since been filled with plenty of BWY committee work.
If you teach yoga, practice yoga, or are simply interested in delving deeper into to yoga's roots to discover how its history has evolved, developed, and shaped what we practice on our yoga mats today, then I can highly recommend this inspiring and fascinating course. As with many things in yoga, it is not always easy, but the rewards are immense.