The AyurYog Project: An Interview with Professor Dagmar Wujastyk

This is a guest post by Udita Das.

The AyurYog Project concerns with the tangled histories of South Asian yoga, Ayurveda, and alchemical traditions, locating its shifts and turns from the 10th century to modern health and wellness practices. Combining primary sources with rigorous fieldwork and experimentation, the project considers the theoretical and practical dimensions of these three traditions in their variegated histories. The project has produced multiple publications and presentations as well as alchemy reconstructions and detailed historical timelines. In this post, I interview Professor Dagmar Wujastyk, the principal investigator for the project, who is also an Associate Professor in the Department of History, Classics, and Religious Studies at the University of Alberta.

Q1. My understanding is that the AyurYog project focuses on the relationships between yoga, Ayurveda, and alchemy, and how these areas are related to modern healthcare and self-development industries. Is this an accurate understanding? Please elaborate.

The project ran from 2015 to 2020 (though we’re still putting some research results out). The basic idea was to look at the histories of what is usually conceived as three separate disciplines: Yoga, Ayurveda, and rasashastra (alchemy and iatrochemistry), and explore how they intersected and influenced each other. We were looking at a very long-time span – about 1000 years, starting from the first emergence of alchemical and hatha yoga literature – to the present. All three play a role in modern healthcare and self-development industries, so that was one of the common factors we examined when looking at the modern period. You can see some of the insights arising from our research in our timeline of Ayurveda and Yoga. There’s a separate timeline for the Indian alchemical tradition, because we realized during the project that this discipline was by far the least well-known of the three and that we needed to offer some basic insight into its parameters and its literature. You can learn about this here.

Q2. How did you arrive at the idea for this project? How did you arrange funding and build a team of collaborators?  What challenges did you face and how did you solve them?

I had long wondered about why modern forms of yoga are associated with positive health outcomes. I had studied the literature of Ayurveda and had not found much in it that would associate the practice of yoga with health outcomes. So, I thought it would be interesting to see whether yoga literature would provide insight into why yoga is now associated with health. Alchemy comes into the picture through its association with Ayurveda, and pharmaceutical production of mineral medicines in particular. For the connections between Yoga and Alchemy, we knew of a shared lineage in terms of spiritual authorities but wanted to explore these connections in more detail.

The project was funded by the European Research Council. This was a Starting Grant, and I was its Principal Investigator. The project team was partly constituted of colleagues I had worked with before and who had relevant expertise. We also advertised two further positions and collaborated with other projects, such as the Hatha Yoga Project at SOAS.

The main challenges were to bring the mass of data we assembled and produced over five years into a coherent narrative. All of us worked on quite different areas within the project and produced individual results based on our different areas of expertise. We needed to make space within our research to bring our various results together as a group; and then to communicate them to our academic peers, as well as to a larger public.

Q3. Who is the project’s intended audience?  For whom are these resources designed?

The project is first of all intended to further our knowledge of the three Indic disciplines: this is cutting-edge academic research that furthers the field (South Asian studies, history, etc). However, any project funded by the ERC has an element of outreach and a didactic purpose as well. And some of the resources we created, such as the website, the YouTube channel, the two timelines, and the videos, are about communicating our research to a wider public. We designed some of them with the expectation that they will be used for teaching in both academic and non-academic settings, such as yoga teacher trainings.

Q4. Does this project complement your other scholarship?  If so, how?  And how has it shaped your research?

The project has really widened my horizon. I had long worked on the history of Indian medicine and had started working on the history of Indian alchemy, so I could develop both these areas in the project. But I also learned a lot from my team members, who were focusing on different aspects of the history of yoga. The project has made me think more strategically about collaborative work and how to approach research questions from the perspective of different disciplines.

Q5. What are your plans for the future of this project?  Are you planning to expand or change it?

The project formally concluded in 2020, but some of our results are still being published. Most recently, we published the translation of the Usman Report (1923), which is a collection of reports by Indian practitioners on the state of their art in the first quarter of the twentieth century. The volume provides a snapshot into what Ayurveda was in that period. Another publication is forthcoming: The Indian Alchemy Reader, an anthology of Sanskrit alchemical texts in translation.

Future research will depend on available funding but may focus on the history of connections between Indic yogic, medical, and alchemical traditions and East Asian ones.

Q6. Do you envision this project as a part of digital humanities? If so, please explain.

I did not specifically envision this project as a part of digital humanities. However, the online resources we developed seemed a particularly good way to reach wider audiences and are a part of the project that I am personally very pleased with, though it was not part of the initial plan.

Q7. What advice do you have for younger scholars who are interested in working with digital resources, or who want to somehow make information and scholarship digitally available? What specialized skills should they acquire?

I am really no specialist in digital humanities, but it is clear that we all need to stay on top of (or at the very least, have an awareness of) technological developments that help us to document and present our research. 

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