Skip to main content

Dance Professor Pallabi Chakravorty Discusses Research on Yoga, Healing

Listen: Dance Professor Pallabi Chakravorty's Research on Yoga, Healing

Pallabi Chakravorty
Audio Player Controls
0:00 / 0:00

This spring, Professor of Dance Pallabi Chakravorty discussed her current research on yoga, dance, healing, and the hybrid intercultural body that is both artistic and scientific in contemporary culture as part of the Second Tuesday Café Series sponsored by the Aydelotte Foundation. Chakravorty’s areas of interest are reflected in the classes she teaches, which include Kathak, dance theory, and dance and anthropology.

"Yoga was austere. It was about focusing on the minute alignment of the thighs, the buttocks, the spine, and the muscles, the nerves and the bones. This is the brick and mortar of the physical body," she says. "The breath has to be found and used as a force to get to the asana postures. The breath had to be conscious, and this was new for me."

In this year’s series, “Global Swarthmore: Research Across Borders,” faculty shared how they: engage in collaborative research across the world, analyze global issues and processes, address global problems, and consider globalization’s impact in the arts.

An anthropologist, dance artist, and choreographer, Pallabi Chakravorty studies performance in India and does fieldwork in Kolkata, Mumbai, Pune, and Ahmedabad.  Her works bring together the visual and performing arts, history, anthropology, film and media studies, and gender and postcolonial studies.  


Audio Transcript


Carina Yervasi: Hello everyone. Good afternoon. Good afternoon, bon appetit. Welcome to the Aydelotte Second Tuesday Café Series on the topic of Global Swarthmore: Research Across Borders.

Professor Chakravorti: Bon appetit.

Carina Yervasi: Bon appetit. I am Carina Yervasi. I am in French and Francophone studies. I am also the Interim Coordinator in Black Studies, and with my colleague, Ayse Kaya in political science, we are also the co-coordinators now of Global Studies. And as always, I like to begin with thanks, so thank you to the Aydelotte Foundation, and especially to Pam Shropshire, for making this series successful, both in front of and behind the scenes, so thank you.

Ayse and I are also especially grateful to our first cohort of graduating seniors who are embarking on this new minor in Global Studies, a program that, in fact, inspired this café series, or are putting together that program, really inspired this. So, as I've mentioned, Ayse and I proposed this café series as a way to showcase what we learned from the many conversations we had with over, I think, 60 colleagues. Is that about right? Yeah, it was over 60 colleagues, about what the concept of global meant to them and how Global Studies could be envisioned here, on this campus.

Throughout this café series, we ask speakers to reflect, again, on what global means to them, their discipline, their research, and their work. So, today I would like to introduce Professor Pallabi Chakravorty. She comes to us today to speak about yokings, yoga dance, and healing, really excited for this talk. She'll be presenting from her new project on yoga performance and healing, its interdisciplinary work in combining medical anthropology and physical practices. And so Professor Pallabi Chakravorty comes to us from the Department of Dance, where you might think this is a little bit different from, say, her earlier research on Kathak, which is the classical dance form from North India, or on dance reality shows, which she wrote about in her book, This Is How We Dance.

But, in fact, Pallabi's work centers on the concerns of movement. So be it dance, performance, or physical practice, or even in her community center arts organization called Courtyard Dancers, that aims to make dance works for post-colonial modernist voices. So, understanding the vitality of the performing arts, she tells us, and the importance of that to all societies and their connections to the humanities and social sciences, and now medical anthropology as well, is what makes her really an exemplary critic and practitioner of what it means to be truly global here at Swarthmore.

So please help me in giving a warm welcome to Professor Chakravorty.

Professor Chakravorti: Thank you, Carina. What a wonderful summary of my work. Thank you so much, and thank you, Carina and Ayse, for inviting me to present on this café series. I am, of course, very excited to be presenting today, and thank you all for coming. I know the weather is really beautiful outside.

I want to tell you, first, that this is very preliminary. I am just exploring the possibilities of yoga and performance right now. I have no conclusion, and the paper that I will be presenting to you will be extremely exploratory and very open to questions.

So, before I start, I just want to tell you a little bit about my introduction to yoga. I grew up in India. I grew up in Calcutta, so of course I was introduced to yoga as a child growing up there and also as an adult. I finished my undergraduate degree there. So, it's nothing new for me, but what I am engaging with right now is absolutely new. So, I am engaging with yoga as a scholar, and also as a student. And the status of yoga is very new in the world right now, so I'm going to sort of do a little bit of a history of that, and then go on to talk to you about what I am interested in looking at.

Yoga simply means to connect. I'm interested in exploring the intersection between yoga, dance, and healing, and the emergence of a hybrid intercultural body that is both artistic and scientific in contemporary culture. There are multiple trajectories of trans-national yoga. These trajectories lead the history of dance in India with the history of dance in the U.S., and both with physical culture movements, help, and healing. The confluence of physical culture movement in India and the wider world, along with the renaissance of what is now called postural yoga, which is itself a new term, pave the way for universalizing the yoga body, both as cultural, national, trans-national, and global. So my question is, what is this yoga body?

I attempt to untangle some of these criss-crossing narratives that created yoga as both art and science, dance and neurobiology. In the process, I show its a-cultural and universal status, and claim back its Indian roots as it circulates the globe. Mark Singleton argues that, to a large extent, what we practice today, as assonance, or postural yoga, emerged in the first half of the 20th century. It was a hybrid product of colonial India's exchange and assimilation of the world-wide physical culture movement, which included the launching of the popular physical culture self-instruction genre.

Incidentally, the staging of the first modern Olympic was also around the same time, which coincided with the publishing of Vivekananda's Raja Yoga in 1896. This is key to the modern yoga revival in India and around the world. Vivekananda's called for national awakening through the teachings of Vedanta, and yoga in colonial India also included the reconstruction of masculine vigor among the native population.

Yoga ... Indian nationalists like him posited that yoga was going to develop the bodies, characters, and souls of the Indian people that had been emasculated by the colonial rule. The development of physical body with national character echoed across many chambers, and even women, such as Sarala Devi, who was Rabindranath Tagore's niece, that is poet Rabindranath Tagore's niece, campaigned for the building of health and vigor among the youth through martial arts, yoga, and physical culture. The key figures of yoga as part of the physical culture movement in India were Veeramani Kro and Tiruka.

The latter studied with the renowned figure of yoga renaissance in India. Swami Kuvalayananda is the founder of the experimental Kaivalyadhama Yoga Institute and Research Center. He established it in 1924 in Lonavia, Maharashtra. This is where he carried forth his scientific research on yoga with human subjects and brought yoga closer to western medical science. In fact, it's so interesting, even yesterday I was looking at a talk that was announced from Jefferson University where a student of Swami Kuvalayananda was actually doing this talk with a researcher who's working with cannabis for pain. They're talking about yoga and healing and pain together. And his name still comes up in the global context.

So, I just want to show you some images of these very important ... The scientific claims of yoga was not only part of the international physical culture movement, but was also part of the international spiritual movement around the turn of the 20th century. The work of Theosophical Society in India by Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, from 1886 is key here. The teachings of the Society mingled Darwinian ideas of human development or evolution with concepts of karma and reincarnation in Hinduism, especially derived from dualistic Sangha yoga. Sangha is one particular tradition, yoga is another particular tradition. They come together in Theosophical Society's work, and also in Patanjali's Yoga Sutra, which is what I'll be talking about.

Blavatsky, along with [...] published on yoga by reviving Patanjali's Yoga Sutra based on sangha yoga, and was responsible for infusing Indian indigenous cultural knowledge with western rationalism. The influential political and spiritual leader, Annie Besant, who became the president of the Indian National Congress, and fought for home rule against British, also the President of Theosophical Society, was responsible for deeply establishing theosophical thought in India. She recruited Rukmini Devi Arundale, the pioneer of India's dance revival, to help the Society after her. Rukmini Devi brought yoga and classical Indian dance on the same platform by imbuing both with Brahminic ideology. The intersection of classical Indian dance revival, and the revival of yoga in India is a fascinating subject of appropriations and erasures. And this is what I actually accidentally landed on, when I started looking at yoga, that how closely it matched the revival and regeneration and reformulation of what is called classical in Indian dance.

The magnificent iconography of the dancing Shiva invoked right of minion other cultural revivalists brought the two traditions together, where dance became yoga and yoga became dance of life. And these are some of the concepts that are attached to it. So this is a figure of dancing Nataraja, or Shiva, and obviously comes from Indian dance traditions, or rather the dance traditions that we have called classical, actually, symbolically attributes to these kinds of images and iconography. And the other picture is from temples of India.

And there are many of these cultures in temples, and this particular figure is perhaps something called Yakshi. Yakshi symbolizes fertility goddesses perhaps Salabhanjika. There are many ways of ... Sala means just hanging on to a tree. So they just come ... They are represented in temple cultures, and some people argue that, oh, perhaps they're also doing yoga. I mean, you can just look at these images. Image after image, or sculpture after sculpture, you see these things. Of course, scholars have said that perhaps not. I mean, these are not yoga-meaning asanas, perhaps not.

Is it dance? Now, scholars, some historians have said no, it isn't dance either. So, some kind of movement posture. The yoga dance of Shiva found its expression in the writings of the renowned art historian, A.K. Coomaraswamy, and was later elaborated and theorized in classical dance by Kapila Vatsyayan, but both in dance and yoga, the importance of establishing a golden age in classical Brahminical heritage became the call for the nationalists to claim an independent Indian identity. And there have been many critiques of this, as how Indian ideal national identity actually represents the high class Brahmanic identity, and of course ignoring the other identities of the dalits, of the lower castes, and the muslims, and the Buddhists and other religions in India, like jinns.

In order to establish such a narrative, both yoga and dance had to be removed from the degenerate practitioners of the colonial narrative, such as the courtesans, fakirs, and the sadhans, and raise to the status of Vedic classicism. A case in point is the tribal group known as Kalbelia Rajasthan. They are traditionally snake charmers and dancers associated with the caste Yogi. They are also practitioners of yoga and healing, but do not belong to the high class Brahmans, and thus are not associated with classical yoga.

The removal of yoga from the lift practices of the sadhus and fakirs that included low-caste Hindus and Muslim sufis, so what I'm arguing ... Not I am arguing, but scholars have argued as well, is that yoga was not just Hindu; it also incorporated Muslim sufis. And its promotion through Vivekananda's Raja Yoga not only made yoga a spiritual pursuit, but elevated it to a high intellectual status. This elevated status of yoga could no longer include the tribal and backward castes in India, nor the Muslim practitioners. Not unlike the exclusionary history of classical Indian dance, which is what I've looked at previously.

So, this is basically ... I've mentioned these people. Rukmini Devi Arundale, she's the pioneer in reviving classical Indian dance, and her club kind of dance is called bharata natyam, which is from southern India. And Annie Besant is a very important figure that I had already mentioned in terms of both the Theosophical Society and bharata natyam, and her relationship with Rukmini Devi.

This is Madame Blavatsky. She's the founder of the Theosophical Society, and she spent many years in India. She also wrote a book on yoga, or many books perhaps on yoga, and was very much part of the yoga renaissance in India.

Now we come to the sadhus. You know, yogis are also called sadhus in India, especially in the Hindu context, and these pictures are contemporary yogis or sadhus. And this is a picture ... Of course, these are all from the internet. I haven't done original research on this, but this particular image is of the Kalbelia caste that I'm talking about. They are Rajasthani folk dancers. Now they have become very popular among tourists. But you can see that they are not part of the ... At least right now, they are not part of the yoga narrative, but of course they are very much flexible with their bodies. Whether it is an asana posture is the debate, right? Are these yoga postures, or asanas, or are these just contortions? Is this gymnastic, this dance? But certainly something to do with the body.

The revival of classical Indian dance from indigenous practices was also promoted by modern dance pioneers in the U.S., such as Ruth St. Denis. The turn of the century oriental dance practiced by St. Denis and others was a synthesis of Asian-inspired techniques of transcendentalism, theosophy, Vedanta, and yoga. Singleton quotes Matthew Allen to explain the symbiosis of yoga and Indian dance in western modern dance, where they are all players in a ... And I quote, "A drama of appropriation and legitimation with the pan-Indian south Asian framework of nationalist aspiration and cultural regeneration."

Ruth St. Denis founded the Society of Spiritual Arts in New York and the New York School of Nataya with La Merill in 1938. Her approach to spirituality and physicality was through her study of Delsarte technique. Delsarte between 1811 and 1871, this is his lifetime, was interested in how emotions are physically expressed in the body, and categorized them in charts and diagrams. His technique was later named harmonic gymnastics, and popularized by Genevieve Stebbins. Stebbins performed her own interpretations of ancient dance onstage and Ruth St. Denis was inspired by seeing her as a young child. Stebbins' book on Delsarte theory, titled "The Delsarte Systems of Expression", which was published in 1885, became a hugely successful publication in the international market.

Singleton writes that some of Stebbins' deep breathing techniques are connected to pranayama or yoga breathing, as practiced by Brahmans. Through Stebbins, dance and yoga becomes intricately associated with western modern dance, which is later taken up by St. Denis and mingled with classical Indian dance. So, this is where it becomes an amalgamation of various different dance forms, which is what is modern American dance.

Ruth St. Denis's creations, such as east Indian nautch dance and bharata are expressions of such orientalist imaginings. Dance scholars ... Can you hear me? Dance scholars, such as Wetzein ... Oh, great, thank you. So this is, of course, Delsarte and these are some of the sketches of the Delsarte technique that I'm talking about, and each of these postures are supposed to express some emotion. So, he connects movement and postures to emotion. He was very interdisciplinary, so you see his ...

I'm just going to go ahead and ... This is the picture of Genevieve Stebbins. Her harmonic gymnastics is supposed to have highly influenced yoga. What we know as yoga, or asanas today. Again, this is very controversial because then it takes yoga away from India and Indian indigenous roots of what we see today, but definitely her contribution is very much there, in terms of what is called modern yoga.

And this is Ruth St. Denis. As many of you know, she is an American modern dance pioneer. So, dance scholars such as Wetzein have theorized about classical Indian dance, movements, postures, and gestures by analyzing temple sculptures. The dancing figures of these temple sculptures show that many of the postures resemble yoga asanas. On the other hand, contemporary scholars of yoga have argued that the proliferation of postural asanas, what we see today in yoga practice, is a development of recent times.

As a dancer myself, I've often seen the similarities of virasana with the movements and grounded stances embodied by mythological Hindu deities like Durga, Kali, and the image of Shakti. One might argue this to be a tantric root of yoga. That's another trajectory, a thread that I'm not exploring here. However, what is relevant here is the work of contemporary dancer/choreographer, the late Chandralekha, who used the philosophy of sangha yoga and the tantric body of the purusha and prakriti. The purusha and prakriti concept, I'm not going to go into, but this is basically what was revived by Patanjali's Yoga Sutra, this concept of the human body as the desire and the matter, and purusha is the soul.

This is different than what is most commonly known as aditya vedanta, which doesn't see the binaries at all. This is a very binary Hindu philosophical thinking. In her dance piece, Sharira. This is Chandralekha's piece, Sharira, which literally means the body, a number of asanas march to be performed onstage to express the feminine power of Shakti, or power. She wanted to bring Indian dance back to the physicality of the body, other than superficial spirituality.

She emphasized the role of prana, that is, the force. Prana is the breath that people use during pranayama. The life force or the hatha ... Hatha is force. In hatha yoga, in the regeneration of the mind and the body, her yoga practice in conjunction with bharatanatyam, which is a classical Indian dance from southern India. Rukmini Devi Arundale, the image you saw, she was the one who kind of revived this form from ancient sculptures and colonial courtesans.

So, classical Indian dance style bharatanatyam once again re-established the Vedic groups of yoga, but within the framework of physicality, such as asana practice rather than spirituality. So, this is Chandralekha and she is considered ... She is almost like ... What you would think about is the Indian parallel of Merce Cunningham, perhaps. You know, around the same time, 1980s.

The asana practice has gained visibility in classical and contemporary Indian dance now, but differently situated than the past. It is now having a conversation with both modern and contemporary western dance in the reformulation of dance, somatics, and the body, as started by the Judson Theater, who actually pioneered post-modern dance in America. Here, the body is recognized for its biological and corporeal existence. Soma literally means the organic body which includes the body and the psyche, and dance is not just art, but an aspect of lift experiences and movement in relation to others.

The dancing bodies, like other bodies, are anatomically understood through the senses and perceptions and touch and psyche, and not just through the visceral means or aesthetic means. It is both aesthetics and aesthesis, writes Fraleigh. According to Fraleigh, dance was to engage with the embodied consciousness that would include eastern perspectives of the body, such as in yoga, and western phenomenology, and neurobiology. However, this perspective is not new in the anthropology of the body and the psychological anthropology field. The importance of the senses and the touch connected the physical body to its regeneration and rehabilitation through therapeutic means.

The importance of prana or breath awareness as a method to achieve health and healing was highlighted through the rediscovery of the yoga body that began with rationalists, such as Vivekananada and firmly established by Kuvalayananda and others. In this new understanding of the hybrid body, the ancient knowledge of the body through chakras, kundalinis, shushumna ... These are the yogic understanding of the body ... Is not rejected, but is much with the medical, anatomical body.

Joseph Alter compares this new reconfiguration of yoga and medical body as a cyborg, after Donna Haraway's Cyborg Manifesto. Maybe some of you are aware of that article. So, this is the yoga body, or how the body is imagined in yoga. And some of you might be familiar with these concepts of chakras. The body is supposed to have these chakras and kundalinis, what is supposed to rise to the head as you become enlightened. And the chakras are also called lotuses.

And this is from a painting. The first one is from a painting of it. The chakras are represented in a very artistic way. And this particular, the one to your right, sorry, left ... Would be ... Is basically trying to look at the anatomy, the medical anatomical body, and finding correlation with the lotuses of the chakras.

So where do I come into this picture? So, this is basically the general layout of the debates and the controversies, as well as the regeneration of yoga in India through nationalism, and now around the world. It's a very interesting topic, I think, yoga, because right now in India it's been appropriated with the right wing Hindutva movement. Because they say that yoga is basically the property of the Hindu right wing.

In this country, there is a whole discourse on yoga and race, because yoga is performed ... Practiced by the white upper class elite, and it's not democratic. And in fact, there is a yoga studies departments or programs, sorry, in Berkeley, where people are presenting papers on this subject. So, it's very interesting where yoga is today, and of course I'm not even mentioning the huge amount of corporatization that has gone into it, that it's completely a corporate product and people are being trained to become teachers. Every day there's something in the New York Times or some other newspaper about what's happening with yoga.

So, a lot of people are claiming to be gurus or sadhus, spiritual leaders, which is not new in America. This has happened many times. So, it's at a very interesting crossroads, I think, yoga right now.

I entered my yoga research through Iyengar yoga in Pune to heal a disc herniation in my neck that was going to put me through a complicated neck surgery. Mr. Iyengar Gur-Ji, as he is referred to by his students, is the most prominent and brilliant man of modern yoga. He's the student of krishnamacharya, who is credited to have blended asanas with physical culture, practice, and gymnastics. Iyengar yoga uses a particular method of pulleys, props, and blankets to achieve the benefits of asanas for all practitioners, regardless of their expertise.

His method largely emphasizes the importance of alignment and symmetry that brings it close to dance. Rather than going in-depth about the contribution of B.K.S. Iyengar in creating modern yoga, and his role in popularizing it in the white world, I will focus on my own experience of working with one of his senior-most disciples, Gunasz Desta. Through my own personal experience in Pune this past summer, in an ethnographic mode, I will share how I became conscious of my own physical body through what is known as svadhyaya, or own practice or self-study.

Through this experience, I found glimpses of the generative body that is both agenerative and resourceful, but also limited and vulnerable to pain and suffering. A little bit about Gunasz Desta, my teacher. I found her absolutely interesting because she breaks all this stereotypes associated with yoga. She is not Hindu, she is Muslim, and neither is she, obviously, white. So, she does not fit into the usual yoga representation that you see in the wider public. So, it was very interesting to work with her, and her relationship to yoga, which is another story.

So, these are from my ethnographic notes. Gunasz's white hair frizzed around her forehead in a riot of white pearls. Her voice is forced from a cough, but she's focused, practicing on her yoga mat when I entered the class. She tells me she's ready to work with me. I am nervous, yearning to learn and absorb as much of the field as I can. I am also slightly apprehensive of the poses. What if they trigger pain? Gunasz has a supremely confident approach to the body and the benefits of asanas. She explains in detail why she's trying to achieve ... What she's trying to achieve with my body. She jokingly admonishes me for over-taxing it with bonding my feet, spinning, and dancing. She knew my dance style well, and where the body can be damaged from long years of practice.

She tells me what happens with aging naturally has been intensified by the process in my case. Now that alignment has to be readjusted. She is always super-confident. The pelvic area has to be opened up. She goes over the standing poses, one by one, with me: trikonasana, virabhadrasana, uttanasana. These are taught using various supports and props.

I begin from a ballet-like bar and work with various wooden structures that make it easier for me to execute a particular asana, but alas, it is still difficult for me. All the details of the right and the left hand stretching over the bar, the placements of the bricks, the slow removal and addition. In the meantime, my knees keep giving up. My buttocks stick out and my thighs cave in. She addresses the arch of my lumbar and says, see how much you have curved it.

I respond that is through my practice of kata, the arch reveals the beauty of the geometry of the body. She smiles and says, but that is unnatural. My heels and knees had to be pushed back and rooted properly on the ground. Gunasz explains that the grounding has to come so that the spine gets attached to the tailbone. The entire lengthening can happen only then. She says yoga is all internal. Some say it is like gymnastics, but it is not. It is about striking difficult poses and being flexible.

It is about internal connections and ... Sorry. It is not about striking difficult poses and being flexible, but it is about internal connections and understanding the internal architecture of the body. I feel stretched, pulled, twisted, and released. I feel my neck is joining the torso, the cervical is joining the lumbar and my limbs. My spine seems to be coming together.

Another day I lie on the yoga mat. Gunasz adjusts my body, and turns my neck on the right and then on the left. She reminds me that I have to come to the center. I hold the toes and she says to lift the body, the torso upward. I go with my spine to watch the sky. She says go higher and dig into your heels. She continues, arch your back, tuck your buttocks, make your thighs tighter, and up you go. My head and neck are on the floor as I raise my torso. I try to cling to her every word.

I remember vaguely my learning through my body when I was a young child. I was preoccupied with the Tala system, the rhythmic structures, the eyes and the hands, the wrists and the stomping, and the turns. I was preoccupied with the edges of my body: my feet, my palm, my fingers, and emotional connection to the expressions of the song, the recitations of the rhythms. That was kathak, a classical Indian dance from northern India.

This was different. Yoga was austere. It was about focusing on the minute alignment of the thighs, the buttocks, the spine and the muscles, the nerves and the bones. This is the bricks and mortar of the physical body. The breath has to be found and used as a force to get to the asana postures. The breath had to be conscious, and this was new for me. I regularly attended Gunasz's medical yoga class. I observed, learned, and tried to talk to the people taking her classes. I spoke to a woman who comes in with terrible pain. Gunasz says everybody has pain, it is how we deal with it.

The woman sits on a chair. Gunasz works with her hands. She says breathe and exhale. The woman groans. Gunasz prepares tools, bolsters, and blankets for another of her patients to lie down. Then she puts weights on the body. The class quickly turns into a hospital ward, with patients with different ailments of the mind and body. They have great faith in Gunasz, Iyengar, and yoga.

I have read that yoga journey will ultimately leave one with [inaudible 00:32:40]. I know my kosha, that is the gross body, to siddthe, the liberated body or the subtle body. So, you leave your physical body to enter a spiritual body. Here in the medical class in Pune, nobody seems to focus on that. Rather, on the mundane aspects of having a functioning body and a functioning mind.

And I just want to end with some of the pictures of the hospital ward, or the medical yoga class. Sorry, this is a picture of Iyengar yoga, and ... I'm sorry, Mr. Iyengar, and of course I think many of you are aware of his contribution to yoga, and this is Gunasz Desti, my teacher, and obviously she's an amazing teacher and she is now the senior most teacher in the Institute, the Iyengar Institute in Pune. And this is the medical yoga class. You can see that Iyengar uses props and pulleys to work with the patients.

And this is Gunasz working with all the patients here, and this was a regular thing in the Iyengar medical classes. And so many people came from all over the world. It's not just from India. Many of them came to train as yoga teachers, to teach in many different places, again, all over the world. And many came for physical and mental reasons.

So that's my talk, and I'll open it up.

Submissions Welcome

The Communications Office invites all members of the Swarthmore community to share videos, photos, and story ideas for the College's website. Have you seen an alum in the news? Please let us know by writing