Yoga has become a huge part of British popular culture, but back in the 1950s and 60s, it was an exotic and ‘foreign’ activity. We’ve all heard of the male teachers who brought about the popularisation of yoga in the UK – world-famous figures, such as B. K. S. Iyengar and Sri K Pattabhi Jois – but did you know that there were two female yoga teachers who played a crucial part? We didn’t either!
So, let’s play our part in celebrating the role of women in yoga and the history of yoga in this country.
The first of these two women is Yogini Sunita, (1932 – 1970) real name, Bernadette Boccaro. She was born in a suburb of Bombay to a Catholic Portuguese-Indian family. Her early life was eventful, as at the tender age of 15 she was about to be married off to a man she deemed unacceptable (clearly a determined young woman), and to escape the marriage she took the drastic step of becoming a nun. That choice didn’t suit her and eventually, she escaped and returned home to her family. Lonely and rejected by her friends, she took to walking by the seashore, where, as luck would have it, she met the famous yogi Narainswami, who taught her yoga and pranayama. A second marriage was then arranged and this time it was a happy one.
This marriage took her to Birmingham in 1960 with her young son, where she discovered that there was a need for yoga and all the art of relaxation that it brought. She formed her own yoga methodology, which she called pranayama yoga, and chose her ‘yoga’ name, Yogini Sunita.
Fast forward five years later and she was teaching an amazing 780 yoga students at the Birmingham Athletics Institute. Her students describe her as a charismatic teacher who taught a flowing sequence of poses, bizarrely, many with at least one knee bent, resting a foot in the groin.
She was well-known at the time with many newspaper articles being written about her, and she appeared on Women’s Hour in 1961, where she described how the mental relaxation of yoga allows people to engage with life’s demands more efficiently.
Her tragically premature death at the age of 38 cut short what was a hugely productive life. Shortly before her death, she had started training others to teach, but she left behind no formal training syllabuses or manuals. She was emphatic, however, that “the gift and ability to impart such a subject can never be decreed by letters”, which underlines the important point that yoga cannot simply be learnt, but must be experienced to be taught well.
Another woman who played an important part in the popularisation of yoga in Britain was Kailash Puri(1926-2017) who taught yoga alongside her husband, Gopal Singh Puri, from her home in Crosby, Merseyside. Clearly an intelligent and multi-skilled woman, Kailash not only taught yoga but was the published author of five novels, and was most well-known for her books on sex, based on ancient Sanskrit texts! This was a challenge as she was writing in the inhibited Punjabi language, so she coined new terms: madan chhatri (cupid’s umbrella) for the clitoris, and pashm (silk) for pubic hair. What a woman.
She also gave lessons in healthy, vegetarian cooking and acted as an Indian cookery consultant to Marks & Spencers during the 1970s. On the side (and encouraged by her husband) she taught yoga asanas, pranayama and relaxation methods, while he gave talks on the philosophy of yoga and practiced as an Ayurvedic practitioner.
Why we should remember them
These two women pursued their passion and generously gave their time, experience and knowledge to others to spread the word of yoga. Their messages were inclusive, non-religious and focused on the power of yoga to relax the mind and benefit the body.
The fact that it was mainly women that were drawn to yoga back then was probably in part thanks to their inspiration and example. Practically, yoga was a gift to women at the time. It offered a way out of what one
yoga teacher in 1976 termed “housewife syndrome”, through the opportunity to be reinvigorated, both physically and mentally. The option to become a yoga teacher was also a job that offered flexibility and could fit around domestic duties while earning more than other part-time roles at the time.
However, because neither of them set up formal guidelines for teacher training their legacies have not flourished as their male counterparts have. But their determination and devotion to yoga should nevertheless be remembered.
To read more about these inspirational pioneers of yoga, go to this article.