|Did Women Invent the Ancient Art of Yoga?
by Vicki Noble
While the occurrence of spontaneous kundalini awakening may happen (and certainly has happened) to
anyone, anywhere--male or female, young or old--it has expressed itself in my life through the explicitly
female "siddhis" (yogic powers) of the menstruation cycle, female sexuality, natural birth, and menopause.
It is this gendered approach that I would like to focus on here, as it has compelled my imagination since the
moment I laid eyes on the ubiquitous Neolithic female figurines from around the Mediterranean and Old
Europe. My research suggests that women had invented Yoga by the 7th millenium B.C.E. and that the
varied poses shown in these early sculptures, as well as frescoes, murals, and rock art through the ages,
are expressions of an ancient and widespread female-centered communal practice of Yoga which was
eventually codified into the formal schools that we recognize today.
It's the dynamic quality of ecstasy that especially seems to mark the female-centered Yoga experience. In
any pentecostal church on Sunday morning, there is likely to be some woman who channels the blessed
energy of the "serpent power" through her ecstatic surrender to a Christian version of the rising kundalini
energy. In Brazil and the Caribbean, women function as trance mediums all the time in the Yoruba religion
imported from Africa during the slave trade. African Bushpeople speak of the "Num" that boils up inside them
during their healing ceremonies, bringing prophecy and healing power to the lucky recipients, and it is
specifically the bleeding women who are encouraged to place their hands on the very ill. (Katz) In Science
and Civilization, Joseph Needham wrote at some length about the prehistoric female shamans (yoginis) who
danced ecstatically to make it rain. (Needham, vol. II)
Women's inherent relationship to Yoga would be more obvious if our particularly feminine attributes and
shamanistic rites hadn't been denigrated and pushed into the background over the course of many
centuries, while the more ascetic ("quietist") types of practices have gained ground. Carmen Blacker
describes in The Catalpa Bow how in Japan, for example, arriving Buddhism split the (formerly female)
shamanistic functions into male and female genders, giving ceremonial functions for the first time to men,
leaving "mediumship" to the women. I.M. Lewis, in a brilliant work on female Ecstatic Religion around the
world, shows that women's religion has continued throughout the course of history in most places,
becoming peripheralized rather than central as it was replaced by the more austere religions dominated by
I began to investigate the "female blood roots" of Yoga and shamanism, coming to understand the lunar
rhythms with which women are naturally entrained, teaching a course called "Lunar Yoga" for women (and
men) in the late 1970's and early 1980's, and eventually writing extensively about the practices, principles,
and approaches to this intuitive study. Lunar Yoga was particularly focused on energy, rather than form, and
emphasized the bodily sensations and other ways that students could register impressions that occurred as
a result of their Yoga poses. I suggested that there were two bodies, the dense physical one which appears
solid, and another invisible one that functions like a snake moving and interpenetrating with the physical
one. It was to this serpent body that I drew the attention of my students in their practice.
I noticed in my own practice that modern women are routinely counseled (inadvertently) to go against our
inner knowing, and to conform to external patterns of discipline that in recent times have been developed
by and for men, as if our needs would be precisely the same ("universal"). For example, I encountered on
the one hand a deep silence in relation to the menstrual period, and on the other, anxious warnings to
avoid Yoga during this important time every month. Yet not only did my body crave the practice of Yoga more
strongly during my monthly menses than any other time, but both my psychic and physical powers were
enhanced and more clearly available then as well. What to do? Even now, twenty-four years later, aside
from Geeta Iyengar's wonderful book, Yoga: A Gem for Women, there is very little written for women about
Yoga during the menstrual period. Yet in the tantric practices of India, it was the "menstruating Shakti" who
was held as a guru capable of initiating the (male) adept into the sacred sexual rites that she performed
during her "red" period. (Marglin)
Eventually the power of my personal Yoga practice won out, and I simply did whatever my body dictated. I
found that one of the most important "side-effects" of my intense daily Yoga practice was that I could locate
and reside temporarily within my own sacred center, becoming (for awhile at least) the subject or "central
agent" of my own life. The task had to be accomplished again and again, renewed everyday, as my adaptive
conditioning had made me overly responsive to the needs and desires of everyone else, and my lifestyle as
a self-employed single mother of two kept me busy enough that I could always forget my focus. This
essential experience of "loss of self" is shared by the population of women in general, and its antidote,
what I like to call "female spiritual authority," is one of the main benefits of a woman's daily Yoga practice.
It is this inherent sense of sacred self-possession that I observed in various indigenous and tribal women
when I first traveled outside of the U.S., and it is the same sense of inner sacred authorization that I
perceived in the ancient figurines and painted images of women functioning as shamans, ritual priestesses,
So I conducted my own research project by performing yoga during my period as I pleased, doing whatever
postures ("asanas") I felt like doing, with extremely healing and beneficial results. In 1984, when I became
pregnant with my son, Aaron Eagle, I searched desperately for concrete information or guidance about the
safe practice of Yoga during pregnancy. Consistently strong reprimands against performing inverted
postures and difficult or strenuous poses caused me reluctantly to suspend my regular 15-minute
headstand, as well as the other rigorous postures that I enjoyed very much as part of my daily sadhana,
and which had served to heal my body of its illness almost a decade earlier.
Imagine my chagrin when--in my final month of pregnancy--a friend brought me a picture book showing a
full-bellied Geeta Iyengar doing the headstand and other advanced asanas in her last month! Although I
was able to experience a happy, healthy, and natural homebirth in the presence of loved ones, I will never
know if the prolapsed uterus at the end of my term could have been prevented by an unbroken continuation
of the daily practice that had sustained me prior to my pregnancy.
It is inspiring just to see photos of pregnant Geeta Iyengar upside-down, or 83-year old Vanda Scaravelli
blissfully performing asanas most of us can't even imagine. Women benefit greatly from female role models
and teachers who understand our particular needs, and who can support and affirm our inner authority and
knowledge. Iyengar's book is a case in point. An Indian woman writing for women in 20th-century India, she
speaks directly and sympathetically to the hardship of the female sex role, emphasizing the stabilization
that Yoga practice will bring to a woman who "has to pay a high price physically and psychologically in her
role of mother, wife, sister, and friend...Her salvation lies in practicing (asanas)." As a traditional Indian
woman, Iyengar perceives motherhood as a woman's "ordained duty" and "highest religion," which makes
women at times "servile" and "overwhelmed by the burdens of her life." Iyengar prescribes Yoga as an
avenue toward internal freedom from the "endless struggle of being a woman and a mother, being tied to
her work and her duty" which "trains her to face the world and its duties with equanimity." (Iyengar, 1983,
Snake Power: The Active Female Form of Yoga
The arousal of "serpent power," called kundalini, is recognized as central to yogic development. Kundalini,
representing the body's "psycho-sexual" energy, is still perceived in Indian culture today as a Goddess and
a sacred snake. From the earliest image of three cobras slithering across a stone plaque from the site of
Ma'alta, Siberia, in 26,000 B.C.E. (where "Venus figurines" were also found) to the wild serpent-haired
Gorgons all over the Mediterranean in the 5th century B.C.E., women's yogic potencies were represented by
Snake Power. Whether a particular yogic path warns against arousal of the kundalini with its attendant
"dangers" (insanity, uncontrolled sexuality, nervous system burn-out), or encourages its deliberate
awakening in order to reach enlightenment in the form of "an experience of ecstasy without a trace of
duality in consciousness," (Feuerstein & Bodian, 8) for any Yoga practitioner, the snake power cannot be
The emphatic perception of serpent power as female ("Kundalini Shakti") goes back to an ancient worldwide
ecstatic religion facilitated by women. The Indian "Buddhi Nagin" is depicted as an old female snake, and the
ancient Chinese Creator Goddess Nu Kua was half-snake, half-woman, very much like an image painted by
the contemporary women of Mithila in the north of India. (Johnson, 172) Indian Kali wears garlands of
serpents and skulls, like her Mexican counterpart, the Goddess Coatlique. Known as the "Lady of the
Serpent Skirt," Coatlique was portrayed wearing rattlesnakes as a skirt, with a fanged snake-face that,
when you take a second look, is contrived of two rattlesnakes facing one another eye-to-eye at her
forehead. "The concept of a force that erupts from the head seems to have been indigenous to the ancient
goddess religion." (Johnson, 173) Mayan funerary vases show a woman (believed to be the Goddess Ix
Chel) in various explicit yoga postures such as the "twist," in congress with a giant serpent (who appears to
be her alter ego) and a tantric male figure identified as the Old Fire God. (Robicsek, 115)
From prehistoric Crete, a serpent woman from 6000 B.C.E. is portrayed in a yogic meditation posture; she is
clearly crowned. (photo) Such a crowned figure similarly seated in meditation can be seen in a small museum
in Central Turkey, dated to approximately the same time period. Gimbutas called the Crowned Snake
Goddess the "Queen of the Snakes" or the "Mother of the Snakes" and suggested links to contemporary
folk customs in Lithuania where snakes were still revered when she was growing up. (Gimbutas, 236) Many
early yogic women are shown in trance states or ecstatically altered consciousness. Even the ones from the
Greek islands, treated as "death Goddesses" and called "stiff nudes" by Gimbutas, could equally well be
described as being in samadhi. And although such figures predate the formal codification of Yoga in India by
many thousands of years, each of them could be said to graphically depict the eight steps of Yoga that lead
to "progressively deeper levels of awareness and functioning until, finally, ordinary consciousness is
transcended in the bliss of ecstasy." The steps include "moral observances, self-discipline, posture, breath
control, sensory inhibition, concentration, meditation, and ecstasy." (Feuerstein & Bodian, 16)
Miranda Shaw, in her eloquent treatise on the female roots of Tantra, describes "tantric feasts, or communal
assemblies" of the yoginis of northern India, citing "abundant evidence that women themselves staged
feasts independently of men." (Shaw, 81) Like earlier Greek Maenads ("wild women"), tantric yoginis
"played cymbals, bells, and tamborines and danced within a halo of light and a cloud of incense," in a
nocturnal "gathering" or "congregation" or "circle" of yoginis, or an "assembly of dakinis," in order to "feast,
perform rituals, teach, and inspire one another" according to texts that Shaw translated herself under the
guidance of her "venerable teachers" in India and Katmandu. (Shaw, 83) The yoginis sang "songs of
realization" at their tantric feasts, regaling one another "with spontaneous songs of deep spiritual insight."
(Shaw, 89) Some of the yogini songs quoted by Shaw "celebrate the exhilarating sense of freedom from the
prison of ego." (Shaw, 93) Many of the yoginis were spiritual teachers, giving empowerments and initiations,
and the remains of their round, open-air stone temples, where animal-headed statues of dancing women
were placed in niches around the circle, stand as a reminder today of their unconventional and ecstatic rites.
In the western Ukraine there are Neolithic figurines that, if you didn't "know better," could be taken as
precursors of Indian yoginis or Tibetan dakinis depicted in the 20th century. One Late Cucuteni figure
wearing two necklaces, one hanging down to her waist, and a bead hip-belt over her pubic area, resembles
a contemporary image of Tara or the Tibetan dakini, Machig Lapdrom. Naked female figures wearing string
belts have been found at prehistoric sites in Russia and the Ukraine from as early as 30,000 years B.C.E.
showing that women wore ritual costumes from the very beginnings of modern human (Cro-magnon)
culture. Many figures wearing hip-belts, some with round clay discs and others with fringes, were unearthed
from Bosnia and Yugoslavia (Vinca, 5th millenium B.C.E.).
A beautiful predynastic Egyptian (perhaps Nubian) female figure carved from lapis lazuli, with strong African
features, has characteristics that prefigure the rigid female sculptures for which the Greek Cycladic islands of
the Aegean Sea are so well known. (photo) The Cycladic islanders, who created hundreds of exquisite
female figurines carved of white alabaster, were especially known for their obsidian and saffron, both of
which relate to women's "yogic" practices. Obsidian was used to make the polished mirrors which so often
accompany female burials, especially those of oracular "priestesses" or "cultic" facilitators such as female
shamans. Even Amazons are reported to have worn mirrors on their belts, and a female mummy unearthed
from Pazyryk in the Altai Mountains of Russia (from the time of Herodotus) had such a mirror that she carried
in a leopard-skin bag buried with her.
Saffron is a powerful medicinal herb with "distinctive effects on women's reproductive systems," including
the stimulating capability of evoking "long, distinctive orgasmic sensations." The most sacred of Indian
herbs, saffron is "an integral part of many Hindu and Buddhist ceremonies, the forehead streak often being
prepared from saffron." (Buhner, 219) Women in the Greek islands were beautifully depicted in Bronze Age
frescoes that show them gathering and processing saffron from crocuses, offering saffron to their central
enthroned priestess or Goddess, and marking themselves with saffron tattoos as well as wearing clothing
dyed the same saffron gold color later worn by Buddhist monks and Indian Sadhus (holy men and women)..
Greek archaeologists have begun to describe island sites such as Crete and Santorini as "ceremonial
centers" rather than the "towns" or "palaces" that they were believed to be in earlier times. From the
mounting evidence, we can see these sites as places of worship or pilgrimage--island
sanctuaries--facilitated by priestesses whose essential yogic functions are depicted in the many marble,
clay, and bronze figurines and exquisite wall murals found there. They built large stone platforms at the
edges of cemeteries (where women were buried with more grave goods than men, including hundreds of
the characteristic marble figurines). (Getz-Preziosi, 1987, 15) These "dance platforms," used for ritual and
ceremony from early times, become alive in our minds when associated with the famous Minoan Snake
Goddesses discovered under the floor in the throne room of the old "palace" at Knossos. (photo) In one
particularly dramatic example, archaeologists excavated 55 lifesize terracotta female dancing figures in
Minoan-style dress from a large Bronze Age temple on the island of Kea (ancient Keos). (Caskey,1986)
Although Yoga in its most formal context today is part of the high-caste Brahmin Hindu religion, it is in the
villages of Kerala in India that the old Goddess religion is still alive in a more indigenous or primal form that
includes snake shrines tended by living priestesses. A scholar of Indian religion describes such a snake
priestess today: "Possessed by the goddess, she will dance wildly, use obscene language, drink intoxicants,
spit on spectators, and push people around with her backside. She seems to take special delight in abusing
members of the high castes." (Kinsley, 1986, 207) Like the raving Greek Maenads who walked on hot coals,
"Fire walking, carrying burning pots on one's head, and swinging while suspended on hooks through one's
flesh are all common during these festivals and are associated with trance and possession." (Kinsley, 206)
In the early 1980's, I was shown a video of Ammachi, the Indian holy woman who now has such a strong
following in the U.S. that thousands of people line up on any given night to do "darshan" and receive a hug
from her. Emanating radiant compassion toward all of her devotees, Ammachi is understood to be a
manifestation of the Great Goddess on earth - a living Avatar. The videographer's version of Ammachi in
India (prior to her arrival here in the States) showed her engaged in a vigorous Kali dance, swinging a huge
curved sword in great circles over her head. Like the earlier yoginis described by Miranda Shaw, Ammachi
began - at the tender age of five - to compose sacred ecstatic songs, for which she became famous in
Villages in southern India belong to their particular Goddesses, who are considered to have created them.
At the center of such a village, the Goddess is often "associated with a 'navel stone' located somewhere in
the village," just as at Delphi the "omphalos" or "navel of the world" was the oracular seat of the
priestess-yogini in her trance-induced state of prophetic power. (Kinsley, 198) The favorite deity of ancient
Dravidians, Manasa, was a snake Goddess who sat on a lotus throne wearing a tiara of seven cobras. Buffie
Johnson describes the Indian belief that the snake deity is a primeval form of the Goddess herself, and says
that 98% of Bengalis still worship the Mother Goddess (as represented in a stone figure or a pot). (Johnson,
173) A Bengali chant is sung to the "Queen of Serpents who presides over all that moves." (Johnson, 168)
And just as in the ecstatic rites of the Greek Maenads, Manasa's magical power is manifested in "her
complicated relationship to childbirth." (Johnson, 174)
Fine Amazons, Indian Yoginis, and Tibetan Dakinis
Recent evidence strongly suggests that there is a direct line of connection (perhaps even descent) from the
Mediterranean Bronze Age yoginis and those historical yoginis recorded two thousand years later in India
and Tibet. Eurasian mummies unearthed from burials in the Altai Mountains of Mongolia and the Tien Shan
Mountains of China have changed our ideas regarding Bronze and Iron Age peoples, showing that they
traveled thousands of miles in their migrations and shared cultural contacts that connected them all the way
from Turkey and Greece to Tibet, India, and the western edges of China. (Mair, 292) Buddhist monasteries
and temples were financed by merchants engaged in active commerce along the Silk Road that linked China
to Rome. Female priestesses wearing high conical black hats (like Russian "Babas" and European witches of
the Middle Ages) have been found in the Tarim Basin from the late 2nd millenium B.C.E., bringing to life the
many enigmatic textual references to "dakini witches" and "yogini queens" in the later histories of
pre-Buddhist Tibet that have only recently become available in English.
Tantra and the Role of Female Sexuality in Yoga
In a recent translation of the life story of the Tibetan yogini Yeshe Tsogyal, it is stated that the yogini and
her young male consort (chosen for her by the Guru Padmasambhava) "went to a cave that no one had ever
found before (indeed it is now known as the Secret Cave of Tsogyal), and there for seven months they
devoted themselves to the cultivation of the Four Joys." This concentrated tantric yoga practice, which
included sexuality as its mainstay, allowed her to cultivate powerful siddhis. "The Lady Tsogyal could pass
through any kind of object, and her body was no longer subject to the phenomena of aging, sickness, and
decline." (59) Later, she took up various solitary ascetic practices in order to develop her spiritual
consciousness further through the generation of tummo (inner or psychic heat), stabilizing her Yoga
Can Today's Busy Women Be Yoginis?
When contemporary women do Tibetan Buddhist or Hindu Yoga practices, we are calling in the ancient
archetypal forces utilized by yoginis, dakinis, and other early practitioners of Yoga and meditation. When I
chant, when I perform my "yoga mudra" in the morning and enter a sustained, deep meditation state for
fifteen minutes, I am transported to and from some place where ancient or tribal women, perhaps yoginis,
have been giving me instruction and teachings for more than twenty years now.
But even if modern women can't find the time to spend 15 minutes in a lotus posture every morning, there
are natural, biological ways of accessing and experiencing the yogic power of our ancient foresisters. More
and more women are "circling" today, to judge from the Women's Spirituality programs and contemporary
books on the subject. Just as women today in dorms or other communal living situations will synchronize
their menstrual cycles and end up getting their periods at the same time, so the kundalini energy is also
contagious in circles of women. Ancient communities apparently took advantage of this fact and sanctified it,
making women's blood cycles the center of their social organization. The origins of Yoga lie in this
ancient social organization that allowed and encouraged the free, spontaneous flow of kundalini
energy through the female group, and by extension, throughout the entire community.
Bleeding, birthing, healing and dying were supported by rituals of trance, dance, and an
instinctual form of ecstasy facilitated by the women. In this way, disease was purged from the
community through ritual, and fertility (in women, animals, and food crops) was enhanced and magically
supported by the simple enjoyment of the biological ecstasy of life on earth. Truly, those were the days of
Yet even nowadays, women can contact powerful yogic energies by being faithful to our natural biological
processes, rather than turning them over to the medical establishment as the current fashion dictates.
Medical interventions often pre-empt natural processes that might involve the spontaneous awakening of
kundalini. Direct contact with the functions of birthing, bleeding, menopause, and natural healing all invoke
strong vibrational energies to enter our bodies and conduct their age-old business of ecstasy.
Participants at any natural home birth have an opportunity to experience the contagious nature of the
powerful kundalini-shakti energy generated through the act of birth.
When I attended the home birth of a friend in the 1980's, toward the end of her labor when the
contractions were becoming painful, we sang and chanted with her, encouraging her to make the instinctual
sounds that would help her manage the difficult end stages of her active delivery. Bodyworkers and
midwives acknowledge that opening the throat will catalyze vaginal and uterine openings, so chanting and
groaning serve a very practical purpose while, at the same time, being quite sacred. As she neared the
crowning moment, the raised vibrational energy was felt by everyone in the room as we experienced the
trembling and light-headedness that often accompanies a kundalini experience. My own midwife in Arizona,
after the birth of my son, ran out of the house, stripped naked, and jumped into the freezing cold waters of
nearby Oak Creek in order to release the strong energies that she said were always the result of a good
But is there room for spontaneous experiences of ecstasy in today's modern Yoga practices? Just as birthing
in the west has moved out of the home and into the hospital, thereby changing the raw, instinctual nature
of the activity into something that must be monitored, sterilized, and kept under a kind of decorous control,
so Yoga has moved out of the temple and into the gym. This dislocation of an ancient ritual practice that was
formerly secret, sacred, and spiritually charged has changed the nature of what we call Yoga, which is at
once a disciplined system of physical practices and techniques leading to healing and knowledge of the
authentic self, as well as an experimental and experiential encounter with the universe (the "divine").
As a "science" in which the body leads the way to illumination, freedom, and compassionate understanding,
Yoga is particularly relevant to women who have, throughout written history, been equated with the life of
the body. Although the idea of there being something essential about "Women's Yoga" might appear to
glorify the female at the expense of the male, or capitulate to a worn-out 1950's idea that "biology is
destiny," it actually does neither. Without understanding women's central role in the development of Yoga,
as it is currently articulated and taught then even Yoga itself cannot always provide the necessary container
for effective female practice and progress. We can find and renew our inherent female power by
remembering and reconnecting with the ancient female-centered Yoga practices of our ancestors all over the
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