Reba Rakshit was a star of Indian circus in the 1950s. Trained in yoga and bodybuilding in Calcutta, her feats included elephants and vehicles treading over her chest. One day, she walked away from the fame and glory to spend her years teaching yoga to women. She died in relative anonymity in 2010.
In 1955, another yoga practitioner from West Bengal, Labanya Pandit, published a book on the discipline with illustrations of over 40 asanas. Her writing in Shariram Adyam was praised by Rabindranath Tagore, but the only known copy of the book remained in the National Library of India in Kolkata, from where it was checked out for the first time in more than 50 years in April.
The stories of Rakshit and Pandit would have stayed wrapped in obscurity if not for an ongoing project that seeks to highlight women’s role in popularising yoga in West Bengal in the early and mid-20th century. The research project – called the Women of Yoga – is being spearheaded by American musician and yoga exponent Ida Jo, with Indian journalist Chandrima Pal assisting her.
“The goal is to dive into the Bengal region of the 1900s and start this conversation on the women of yoga,” Jo told Scroll.in. “Who were the women of this time period? Why do we not know of them? This project explores their contributions to yoga but also considers the social situations they were up against because of the time period they lived in.”
Yoga is India’s biggest soft power export, but the discipline as we know it today – the practice of asanas to achieve mental and physical wellbeing – is a relatively recent creation. Yoga was for most part a spiritual practice, until a renaissance in the early 20th century incorporated physical fitness into it. The shift occurred almost in parallel to the physical culture movement, which began in Europe in the 19th century and spread to India, courtesy of the British colonial rule.
The men who popularised yoga during this period are well-known. Tirumalai Krishnamacharya, who is hailed as the father of modern yoga, was one of them, as were Swami Kuvalayananda and Shri Yogendra. Swami Vivekananda is often credited with taking yoga to foreign shores with his US lecture tours in the 1890s. Paramhansa Yogananda’s seminal Autobiography of a Yogi (1946) and BKS Iyengar’s Light on Yoga (1966) further entrenched yoga in the West.
But what about the contributions of women? “While the men were taking yoga to the world, who was carrying the story forward in its place of origin? The women were,” said Pal. “Sadly, their stories never got told.”
Jo, who teaches Ghosh Yoga, a form based on the teachings of Bishnu Charan Ghosh (1903-1970), first learnt of this gap in yoga’s history while helping edit her friend Jerome Armstrong’s book Calcutta Yoga. Ghosh, a bodybuilder and yoga teacher, was the brother of Paramahansa Yogananda and a key figure in the physical culture movement in West Bengal in the 20th century. He set up the College of Physical Education in Calcutta (now known as Ghosh’s Yoga College) in 1923. His students included Rakshit, Pandit, Bikram Choudhury – the founder of Bikram Yoga – and Monotosh Roy, who in 1951 became the first Indian to win the Mr Universe title.
Calcutta Yoga traces the history of yoga in West Bengal through the maverick Ghosh and his pupil and son-in-law Buddha Bhose. Undivided Bengal was a key centre of yoga’s resurgence, where yoga, wrestling and bodybuilding were being used to promote a brand of muscular nationalism and to rebel against the colonial stereotype of Bengali men as effeminate.
“While working on the book, we realised that there were many female characters who played important roles in yoga and physical culture but have remained mostly unknown,” Jo elaborated. “I saw singular photos, or heard little snippets about certain women, but had no deeper understanding or access to materials to learn from. It became obvious when looking a little deeper that there was more to be found. It just needed focus and effort to find it.”
Her research revealed the way women democratised yoga, taking it into the homes of ordinary men and women. Pandit, for instance, encouraged incorporating household objects in the practice. Another woman who was active in the 1930s, Reba Das, talked about using a chair in asanas.
“These women were way ahead of her time,” said Pal. “They were talking about things that a studio in Bandra would talk about today. Labanya Pandit was talking about how even a walk on the beach or rowing a boat can be yoga. This was a social-cultural revolution, a gender revolution happening at that time.”
These female practitioners also attracted a larger number of women to yoga. “If a class was split between men and women, you needed female teachers,” Jo said. “These women were great yoga experts in general, but also tailored their instruction and approach towards women. For example, Reba Rakshit wrote in an article for the Bayam Charcha magazine, ‘Now I shall talk about females, who do not have the privilege of going to any gym and regulate their health. I recommend yog-byam for them – they do not need to go anywhere but practice at home in privacy’.”
The process of finding these women has been arduous, requiring much legwork, said Pal. “There’s some material in an older form of Bengali, which involves translation,” she said. “[But] a lot of things have not been documented. We have help from the National Library and the Anand Bazaar Patrika archives. Bishnu Ghosh’s family, who Ida knows, pointed us to some people.”
The project is in the fund-raising stage and donations are being accepted on the Ghosh Yoga website. It will culminate in a book and, the researchers hope, in films and online series. Through the project, Jo and Pal hope to flesh out a more cohesive and inclusive history of yoga. “The stories of these women serve as a link between yoga’s past and present,” said Jo. “Historically, yoga teaching and practice have largely been reserved for men. Now though, what we see in Western culture is a practice largely done by women. There’s a huge gap between what was and what is today. These women bridge that gap.”