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Jacqueline Hargreaves

(This article was published in the British Wheel of Yoga, Spectrum Magazine, Spring Issue 2024.)

SOAS Students in China at Iyengar Yoga class

In October 2022, SOAS University of London launched an online educational programme in China entitled the “Yoga and Meditation Education Certificate”. This year-long intensive study programme was the first instance in which the Euro- and American-centric academic research in the burgeoning field of yoga studies was to be offered in translation, specifically into Chinese Mandarin. At that time, the population of China was still living with lockdowns and travel restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Our aim was to design an innovative educational course for yoga teachers and practitioners to access world-leading scholarship from home and in their spoken language.

Within China, the desire for higher education in yoga studies has grown in parallel with a modern postural yoga ‘boom’ that rivals that of Britain, Europe, and the Americas. A recently published paper on the Yoga Industry in China estimates that the number of practitioners was 12.5 million in 2018 with an expected year-on-year growth rate of approximately 19%.1 These enormous figures are comparable to the estimate of over 36 million yoga practitioners in the USA that was published in the 2016 Yoga in America Study conducted by Yoga Journal & Yoga Alliance.2

Yoga in China is by no means a twentieth-century phenomenon. A workshop hosted by SOAS University of London in 2019, under the auspices of the Haṭha Yoga Project, resulted in an edited volume that includes two papers which look specifically at the premodern history of physical yoga in China. Dominic Steavu (2023) investigated the 6th–7th century health and longevity techniques of daoyin (“guiding and stretching”) and the postures labelled as the “Indian massage method” and “Brahmanic callisthenics”.3 Dolly Yang (2023) considered the similarity between neidan (“inner alchemy”) of China and the haṭhayoga techniques of bodily inversion and breath control as well as the use of an alchemical language.4 Both of these papers tantalisingly hint at, but do not resolve, the cultural exchange and dialogue between India and China in the premodern period.

Nonetheless, the popularity of physically-focused yoga in China in recent decades is entangled with the global success of particular styles of yoga, such as Astanga Vinyasa and its celebrity advocates. In the main, there is an emphasis on complex postures (āsana) and the pursuit of health and wellbeing. Contemporary Chinese yogis appear to be motivated by “improving physical condition, improving psychological condition, gracing appearance, and establishing social connection.”5

In a similar way to Britain, the pandemic had the unexpected impact of accelerating the digitisation of the yoga teaching profession with more people in China willing to participate in online learning and yoga classes. This change in learning patterns did not impact the sector evenly. The pandemic resulted in the closure of a significant number of small, independent yoga studios and gyms whilst allowing larger, more financially robust companies to expand online and offer their services throughout the country. A white paper by Deloitte and CHINAFIT (2020) has examined the fitness sector in China and determined that: “During its 20 years of history, China’s fitness industry has been constantly reshuffling and reshaping itself, forming a unique market landscape. It is now about to enter into another round of vigorous development. […] The COVID-19 pandemic has also accelerated the industry reshuffling. In the future, true nation-wide leading brands are expected to emerge.”6

To formulate a study programme that would suit this evolving landscape, SOAS partnered with Iyengar Yogashala China, YogaMālā, Yoga Journal China, and Yogasala China. These established Chinese institutions combine to offer a nation-wide reach through the publication of yoga-oriented books, magazines, professional teacher training, and products.

Students of the Yoga and Meditation Education Certificate 2023/24.

Although SOAS has offered its Masters degree in the Traditions of Yoga and Mediation for more than ten years, our faculty and the course structure had to adapt to the cultural- and language-specific needs of our students in China. Access to recent scholarship that is shaping our understanding of yoga’s premodern roots and its use within multi-varied religious and secular historical contexts is restricted to those with good English language skills who have the ability to delve into academic publications. As such, to make this research accessible, all of the programme material needed to be professionally translated into Chinese Mandarin. 

The programme explores the origins and historical development of yoga and meditation in India from ancient times to the modern world. In addition, several seminars cover perspectives, context, and methodologies designed to provide students with a broad understanding of the thematic components and cross-regional perspectives.

The outcome, we hope, is that our graduates in China who have invested considerably in their education, will feel confident to provide evidenced-based answers to the most common questions that arise:

The inaugural programme, convened by Prof. Ulrich Pagel, commenced on the 1st October 2022 with a cohort of seventy-five (75) students who will graduated in March 2024. Over the past year, these students have formed life-long friendships and collegial bonds as they kept up with the learning objectives and tackled their final assessments.

Graduates of the inaugural programme.

Cohort of inaugural graduates of the SOAS Yoga and Education Certificate in China are standing on a platform with their certificates in hand. The are accompanied by Prof Ulrich Pagel of SOAS University.

Jacqueline Hargreaves, BE (Hons), E-RYT, is Programme Convenor for SOAS YogaStudies Online and Project Coordinator for the SOAS Centre of Yoga Studies. She collaborates with researchers to communicate their findings in new and accessible ways.

For the AyurYog Project (Vienna University, 2016–2020), she constructed a web-based visual and textual timeline for premodern Ayurveda and Yoga, and in collaboration with the Haṭha Yoga Project (SOAS University of London), Jacqueline curated the exhibition Embodied Liberation (2019–2020) at the Brunei Gallery, London, which included the documentary film that brought to life the eighteenth-century yoga of the Haṭhābhyāsapaddhati. 

Jacqueline Hargreaves holds a Bachelor of Engineering (with Honours) from the University of NSW. She is a founding member and online editor of the Journal of Yoga Studies, a peer reviewed, open access academic journal.

Footnotes

1  Fan, Y. 2021: 79–80.

2  Ipsos Public Affairs on behalf of Yoga Journal and Yoga Alliance. 2016: 4.

3 Steavu, D. 2023.

4 Yang, D. 2023.

5 Susan (Sixue) Jia. 2018: 1.

6 Deloitte and CHINAFIT. 2020: 14, 28–40.

References

Deloitte and CHINAFIT. 2020. “2019-2020 China Health and Fitness Market White Paper.” Public version. Retrieved from: https://www2.deloitte.com/cn/en/pages/technology-media-and-telecommunications/articles/2019-2020-china-gym-market-development-white-paper.html

Fan, Y. 2021. “The Development of Yoga Industry in China Under the Background of Big Data.” In: Atiquzzaman, M., Yen, N., Xu, Z. (eds) Big Data Analytics for Cyber-Physical System in Smart City. BDCPS 2020. Advances in Intelligent Systems and Computing, vol 1303. Springer, Singapore. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-33-4572-0_12

Ipsos Public Affairs on behalf of Yoga Journal and Yoga Alliance. 2016. The 2016 Yoga in America Study Conducted by Yoga Journal and Yoga Alliance. Retrieved from: https://www.yogaalliance.org/Portals/0/2016%20Yoga%20in%20America%20Study%20RESULTS.pdf

Jia, S. 2018. “Leisure Motivation and Satisfaction: A Text Mining of Yoga Centres, Yoga Consumers, and Their Interactions.” Sustainability 2018, 10, 4458. DOI:  https://doi.org/10.3390/su10124458.

Steavu, D. 2023. “Is There Such a Thing as Chinese Yoga? Indian Postural Therapies in Mediaeval China.” In Yoga and the Traditional Physical Practices of South Asia: Influence, Entanglement and Confrontation, Eds. Daniela Bevilacqua and Mark Singleton. Journal of Yoga Studies (Special Issue): 375–412. DOI: https://doi.org/10.34000/JoYS.2023.V4.011.

Yang, D. 2023. “Knowledge Transfer of Bodily Practices between China and India in the Mediaeval World.” In Yoga and the Traditional Physical Practices of South Asia: Influence, Entanglement and Confrontation, Eds. Daniela Bevilacqua and Mark Singleton. Journal of Yoga Studies (Special Issue): 413–440. DOI: https://doi.org/10.34000/JoYS.2023.V4.012.

SOAS MA Traditions of Yoga and Meditation

Enrol now.

Mimi Kuo-Deemer reflects upon her time studying the MA Traditions of Yoga and Meditation at SOAS University.

– Mimi Kuo-Deemer

Dr Tessa Watt

In September 2023, a report on Mindfulness at Westminster was launched, celebrating 10 years of Mindfulness training in the UK Houses of Parliament. Politicians reflected on how mindfulness has been beneficial to them in numerous ways, from increased resilience and focus, to bringing them together across party divides and helping them to ‘disagree better’ with political opponents. 

As a long-time teacher and current project lead on the programme,  I’ve seen for myself how helpful it can be for Members of Parliament and their staff to have an oasis of calm within a challenging environment; developing skills that support them as individuals and also have the potential to make a positive impact on the wider political environment. During the launch event in the impressive wood-panelled Speaker’s State Rooms, I was acutely aware of how far mindfulness and meditation have come from the days in the 1990s when I first discovered these practices for myself, but was often wary of discussing them with colleagues for fear of sounding too ‘hippy’ or left field. 

In my late 20s I left a quiet academic life as a historian and took up a demanding job as a producer with BBC Radio, which was exciting but took its toll on my stress levels. A friend brought me to his Buddhist meditation centre, the place to learn meditation in those days, before it became mainstream. I discovered that meditation went much deeper than just reducing stress, and began a path that took me through many retreats and trainings to becoming a meditation instructor in a Tibetan Buddhist tradition.

In 2008, soon after leaving the BBC, I heard about a new movement called ‘mindfulness’, which presented simple ways to train the human mind and heart without the spiritual bells and whistles. I trained in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, running courses in church halls and other local venues, and later specialised in mindfulness for the workplace. Now I lead the mindfulness programme for clients like the UK Parliament and a large global bank where we have trained hundreds of internal ‘Mindfulness Champions’ to guide practices for their colleagues.

The key to teaching mindfulness in any workplace is to meet people where they are and to address the reality of their working environment. The courses we teach in Parliament include formal mindfulness practices, but also ‘mindfulness in action’: that is, helping them to build habits of awareness and presence in their daily working life. This includes tiny ‘micro practices’ to create pauses, and finding more mindful ways to approach meetings, information overload, conflictual situations and other challenges.

SOAS has played a big part in my journey since 2013. In that year I approached Professor Ulrich Pagel with a proposal for a festival at SOAS to celebrate 50 years since the arrival in the West of the influential Buddhist teacher Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, founder of the meditation tradition in which I was trained. It seemed like a long-shot that SOAS would be interested, but I had not counted on Ulrich’s strong vision to make the teaching of Buddhist and yogic traditions relevant and alive for people actually practising in those fields. Our ‘Awake in the World’ festival was a huge success, and meanwhile, I personally signed up for the first cohort of SOAS’s brand-new MA in Traditions of Yoga and Meditation.

Studying the historical and philosophical roots of mindfulness has added depth to my understanding and teaching. In 2018 I went on to teach one of the modules on the MA, and also to curate another event bringing together mindfulness practitioners and academics:  a conference on Mindfulness in Public Discourse. More recently I created a pod course on Mindfulness in the Modern World for SOAS YogaStudies Online. This explores the roots of mindfulness, discusses some of the controversies in the field, and looks at movements to create wider societal impact in key areas such as education, healthcare, politics and the environment.

My own latest project falls into this last category: I’ve been co-facilitating a course on Mindfulness Based Sustainable Transformation. We have completed highly successful pilots within EU organisations and for the general public, and now I’ll be helping to lead our first teacher training. The course focusses on cultivating the inner resources necessary to face the realities of climate change and from that place to help drive pro-environmental action. Research shows that cultivating the right inner resources is a key ingredient for effectiveness in creating the outer changes that we want to see in the world.

Dr Tessa Watt is a former Senior Teaching Fellow in the Department of Religions and Philosophies at SOAS. She has a PhD in History from Cambridge University and an MA in Traditions of Yoga and Meditation from SOAS. She teaches mindfulness in leading global organisations and is lead trainer for the mindfulness programme in the UK Houses of Parliament. Her publications include Introducing Mindfulness, Mindful London, and ‘Spacious Awareness in Mahāyāna Buddhism and Its Role in the Modern Mindfulness Movement’.

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