SOAS University of London

New Programme Launch: MA Traditions of Yoga and Meditation

13 December 2011
Buddha statue

(Subject to approval)

This MA offers an in-depth introduction to the yogic and meditational techniques and doctrines of India, Tibet, China and Japan within the historical and cultural context of their formation. Furthermore, it explores the nature of spiritual experience that arises from yoga and meditation through a cross-cultural, inter-regional perspective.

Classes will be held on three evenings per week with Full-time and Part-time Study Available.

The Programme

The thematic, but inter-regional, focus of this MA programme promotes the academic study of the different traditions through the deployment of a wide range of regional perspectives. Its core unit explores the methodological foundations at the heart of yoga/meditation practice. The specialist components integrated within this MA are organised to serve as platform for further (MPhil/PhD) graduate research; the more general components of the programme provides those students who do not intend to pursue doctoral research with an advanced introduction to the physiological dynamics, doctrinal foundations, history, regional context and theoretical presuppositions that shaped the traditions of yoga and meditation. The programme will thus offer students (a) advanced knowledge of the background to, and understanding of, yoga and meditation, from their origin in ancient India to their apex in mediaeval Japan; (b) advanced skills in research and writing on topics that pertain to yoga/meditation, drawing on both primary sources (in translation) and secondary sources; (c) advanced skills in presentation and communication of their knowledge of the topics covered in the lectures. 

This MA is taught through evening classes, typically running between 18.00h and 20.00h on weekdays, at the SOAS Russell Square Campus in Central London.

The reading materials connected to all four courses of this MA programme are largely disseminated through online resources. Essay submission takes place either in hard copy or electronically. 

The thematic components and cross-regional perspectives would typically suit students with the following
interests and/or aspirations:

  • Experienced practitioners of yoga and meditation who wish to gain a deeper understanding of the historical and cultural contexts that shaped their traditions.
  • Students with a background in psychology seeking to gain knowledge of meditation and mindfulness for their clinical work.
  • Students planning to pursue further research which may involve, at a subsequent stage, the acquisition of a doctoral degree and a career in higher education.
  • Students seeking to pursue a career or professional activity for which advanced knowledge of the yoga and meditation traditions of Asia is required.
  • Students who wish to pursue the academic study of these traditions as a complement to their personal experience.
Methods of Assessment

Students are required to follow taught units to the equivalent of three full courses and to submit a dissertation of 10,000 words. All courses in this MA are assessed through a combination of short and long essays. An overall percentage mark is awarded for each course, based on the marks awarded for individual assessment items within the course. The MA may be awarded at Distinction, Merit or Pass level in accordance with the common regulations for MA/MSc at SOAS.

Entry Requirements

SOAS has general minimum entrance requirements for registration for a postgraduate taught degree and these can be viewed at
The entrance requirements for the MA ‘Traditions of Yoga and Meditation’ are in line with those of SOAS. However, due consideration is given to the applicants’ individual profiles, and to the fact that great potential for the successful undertaking of the academic study of religions is not necessarily acknowledged or certified through the applicant’s academic qualifications. Interviews can be arranged for applicants who do not meet the minimum entrance requirements, and early contact with academic members of staff is generally encouraged.

The Courses and their Contents
Yoga and Meditation: Perspectives, Context and Methodologies (0.5 unit) (Term 1 only)

This teaching unit constitutes the core course for the MA programme ‘Traditions of Yoga and Meditation’. It is designed to provide students with an understanding of key theoretical approaches to the interpretation of the subject, as well as a familiarity with those methodologies that will be utilised in the context of the other three courses within the MA. The first component of this course—‘Perspectives’—will focus on the study of experience. The categories of the emic and the etic, which provide accounts of cultural behaviour and belief from the standpoint of the insider and the outsider, respectively, will be probed, and examples of their application to ethnological data provided. This background will then be used to explore the ways in which meaning and value are interpreted in relation to the category of ‘religious experiences’, such as those obtained through yoga and meditation. Another important perspective to be examined is the construction, deconstruction, or giveness of the subject or Self as it has been seen within contemporary academic analysis. The second component of the course— ‘Context’—will present the broad historical, social, economic, cultural and doctrinal contexts which will be explored in detail in the three other courses belonging to this MA; the purpose is to tie together the regions and cultures by discussing them in relation to a common historical framework and examining their interactions over the period in which ideas relating to yoga and meditation were developing across the sub-continent, the Himalayas, and East Asia. Finally, ‘Methodologies’ will investigate academic approaches relevant to the study of yoga and meditation. This begins with a discussion of Pierre Bourdieu’s emphasis on practice for the iteration of cultural meaning, then discuss the idea of performativity in relation to the definition of identity, as developed by Judith Butler, and to disciplinary techniques, as charted by Foucault. These specific ideas will be related to the broader field of ritual theory. Finally, the course will treat the psychological and physiological aspects of yoga and meditation on the basis of current research, involving mindfulness. (All part-time students registered for this MA will need to enrol in this core course during Year 1.) 
Dr Ulrich Pagel, Dr Antonello Palumbo, Dr Ted Proferes

The Origins and Development of Yoga in Ancient India (1 unit)

This course focuses on the development of yoga techniques and philosophy within the brahmanical and tantric traditions of ancient and early medieval India. The course will begin by considering the iconographic evidence from the Indus Valley civilisation and the oft-repeated argument that yogic postures and symbols are found there; emphasis will be placed on the difficulty in defining continuity of practice on the basis of such evidence and comparing the images in question with other pre-historic images found from well outside India. The evidence for various forms of askesis found in the early Vedic texts will be explored, particularly those involved in the process of the initiations preceding ritual performances. The concept of tapas, ‘ascetic heat’, will be examined in relation to the accumulation of inner power relevant to some forms of yoga in the later period. Doctrines of consciousness and its relation to the external world will be discussed on the basis of the early Upanishads before the evidence for a systematised form of yogic practice is presented in relation to the later verse Upanishads and the so-called Yogic Upanishads, as well as in the Bhagavadgītā and the texts included in the mokṣadharma section of the Mahābhārata. Bronkhorst’s theories regarding the origins of ascetic practice and the culture of Magadha will be discussed as it relates to a consideration of the so-called śramaṇa groups. The relationship between yoga and tantric teachings will be explored, specifically in relation to the cultivation of the body to achieve spiritual goals. This will provide occasion to discuss briefly Indian alchemical theory as well as Ayurvedic medicine and the way these traditions developed and extended relationships between the body and the cosmos known already from the early Upanishads. Patañjali’s Yoga Sūtras will be studied closely (in English translation), as will the Hathyogapradīpikā, influenced by the Nātha tradition. Finally, the course will examine the global movement of yoga in the modern world. Prior knowledge of Hinduism is not required since this course includes an introduction to the Hindu traditions of India.
Dr Ted Proferes

Buddhist Meditation in India and Tibet (1 unit)

Buddhist Meditation in India and Tibet sets out to provide a systematic account of the origins, features, phasing and roles of meditation techniques on the Buddhist path to liberation. Broadly speaking, it falls into four segments. (1) It identifies the doctrines and practices that connect the brahmanical and Buddhist schools of meditation of ancient India; (2) it explores the characteristics of Buddhist meditation as developed in the Pali Nikāyas and Therāvāda commentarial and practice literature with their role on the Buddhist Path. For example, it will map and challenge the interplay between concentrative calm (samatha) and analytic insight (vipassana), discuss the role of the four immeasurables (appamāṇa) and examine the role of mindfulness (smrti) in the process of mental purification; (3) it charts the changes in meditation theory and practice following the advent of the Mahāyāna at the beginning of the common era. Meditation practice in Mahāyāna Buddhism possesses a set of fundamentally different objectives and requires radical adjustments in the parameters of the spiritual training within which it is cultivated. This section connects with the yogic ideals followed by the Mahāsiddha tradition and their role among the emerging tantric practitioner of the Vajrayāna; (4) finally, the course explores the transition of Indian Buddhist meditation practices to Tibet and the ways in which they found accommodation in their new geographic and cultural setting. It will commence with a study of issues at stake in the Great Debate of Lhasa and then proceed with an analysis of the advanced systems of meditation cultivated by the rDzogs chen communities. This segment will also consider meditation practices current in the Central Asian Buddhist communities of Tang China and their impact on the Tibetan tradition. This will provide the student with a near seamless transition to ‘East Asian Traditions of Meditation’. Finally, and still within the Tibetan component, the course will examine the role of the yogic traditions in Tibetan religious culture, from inception to the 15th century, and chart the range of practices—as well as the benefits they purport to generate—most commonly observed in those traditions. It also serves as nexus, connecting the other two courses of this MA and thus helps to create a conceptually integrated, geographically interwoven and chronologically linked study of the traditions of yoga and meditation in India, Tibet and the Far East. Prior knowledge of Buddhism is not required since this course includes an introduction to the Buddhist traditions of India and Tibet.
Dr Ulrich Pagel

East Asian Traditions of Meditation: From Taoism to Zen (0.5 unit) (Terms 2)

The course is structured into four main areas of instruction, each one of which should be ideally covered in two lectures. The first segment will introduce the main Taoist traditions of meditation, paying particular attention to the nexus between bodily experience and cosmology. It will discuss in succession the earliest forms and texts such
as the Neiye (4th-3rd c. BCE), the visualization of spirits within the body in the Book of the Yellow Court and related scriptures, meditation and ecstatic flight in the Shangqing corpus, and Internal Alchemy. It will also briefly assess the link between the Taoist tradition and modern forms of practice such as qigong. The second segment will present Buddhist meditation in China outside and before the Chan tradition. It will therefore introduce the main features of Chinese Buddhism in its creative connection to Indian antecedents and counterparts. Foci will include Chinese versions of the Pratyutpanna samādhi, the series of ‘Contemplation sūtras’ (guan jing, especially the Guan
wuliangshou Fo jing) with the visualization of Pure Lands, the debates on the nature of enlightenment, and the great systematization of meditative practice in the early Tiantai school with Zhiyi’s (538–597) Mohe zhiguan. The third section will focus on Chan Buddhism. Building on the previous segment, it will explore the emergence and
development of Chan as a distinctive culture of meditation in medieval China. Authoritative masters, lineages and doctrinal trends will be discussed in succession, including the so-called patriarchs of early Chan, the Five Houses (wujia), individual leading masters of the classical period (Mazu Daoyi, Baizhang Huaihai, Linji Yixuan), and the
legacy of Chan Buddhism in contemporary China and Taiwan, with personalities such as Sheng-yen. The fourth and final part of the course will introduce Japanese Zen both as the inheritor of Chan and in its specific developments. It will offer an overview of the main denominations (Sōtō, Rinzai, Ōbaku) and leading personalities (Dōgen, Nanpo), focusing on the varieties of practice and transmission and the different rhetorics within each group. Finally, we shall briefly consider the impact of East Asian traditions of meditations in areas of Western literature, philosophy and neuroscience.
Dr Antonello Palumbo

Dissertation in the Traditions of Yoga and Meditation (1 unit)

This is a 10,000-word research project on a topic linked to the course chosen as a major in this MA. The dissertation is normally written over the summer period, and submitted in September. The dissertation provides an opportunity for individual research into a topic central to the traditions of yoga and meditation developed in South Asia, Tibet or East Asia. The School’s proximity to several national repositories holding valuable source material on these traditions (eg., The British Library, British Museum), together with the presence of a number of prominent yoga/meditation centres in Central London as venues of fieldwork, greatly enhances the potential for dissertation research.

For further information, contact:

Dr Ulrich Pagel

Ph. 020 7898 4782