Origins of Yoga in America

Bija: The Seeds of Yoga in the West (History of Yoga in US, Part 1)

Bija: The Seeds of Yoga in the West

Over thousands of years, wandering Jain, Buddhist and Hindu Ascetics in the Indus Valley (currently parts of India, Pakistan, Nepal and Tibet), developed a set of physical, energetic and philosophical practices to optimize the human mind, body and spirit; to help us to live in the world more effectively; and to harmonize with the divine whole. Research indicates that there was also a similar set of practices in Egypt and North Africa, that predate the Indus Valley version by a few centuries. These were the seeds of yoga.

Yoga philosophy is contained in some of the earliest Hindu texts, the Upanishads and Sutras, beginning in the 4th century BCE. At that point, the physical methods of daily practices were still transmitted person to person, through direct oral conveyance. Somewhere in the 4th century, the oral teachings were gradually solidified in written form, first by the Indian Sage Patanjali, in the Yoga Sutras, and subsequently in scrolls, texts, sculptures and paintings by multiple artists and scholars. Yoga, as it solidified into a body of knowledge, became one of the 6 schools of Hindu orthodoxy. Yoga in Hindu orthodoxy was a method of liberation. It largely emphasized breathing techniques, concentration, refined direct perception, and guidelines for living a good life. There wasn’t a single chaturanga in the texts!

Like other liberation theologies (Early Christianity, Buddhism, etc), for a thousand years following, this knowledge and practice was largely kept and advanced by monks, holy men and Brahmins in India (the scholars of Hindu orthodoxy). And like other liberation technologies and theologies, as it was dispersed to broader audiences, it was co-opted by existing power dynamics, hierarchies and structures (including in the 1990s in America, with the vast impact of capitalism and materialism), as I’ll expand on in this article.  It’s my thesis that this movement diminished yoga’s potential impact on the individual.

From the 1600s to the 1900s, during and subsequent to British colonial influence, the contact between east and west intensified. Globalism began to expose mainstream philosophers and religious people to broader religious thinking. By the mid to late 1800s, in some corners of society, a mystique and romanticism around the elite brahmin theologies of India arose, especially around the nature of consciousness and metaphysics. The philosophies of the east began to migrate to the United States, and in some cases, merged with mystic Christianity. Vedanta, especially, coming through the Krishnamurtis (Both UG and Jiddu), gained a following.  Emerson, Thoreau and other western philosophers were directly influenced by Eastern philosophy, influencing the development of theosophy and spiritualism. The ensuing “American Vedant” was a sort of symphonic integration of multi-cultural transcendentalism, showing up in Unitarian Universalists, Unity churches, Centers for Spiritual Living and more.

These spiritual tradewinds eventually brought Yoga to the US, also.  In 1893, a leading monk, Swami Vivekenanda, visited New York, where he addressed the Parliament of World Religions.  He became the ambassador for not only yoga, but for the recognition of Hinduism as a major world religion. “Sisters and Brothers of America,” he said, “It fills my heart with joy unspeakable joy to rise in response to the warm and cordial welcome which you have given us.” Little did he know that 125 year later, 37 million Americans would be practicing an almost unrecognizable forms of what he was teaching, although it would still be called yoga.. Vivekananda eventually started an ashram in Los Angeles. At the same time, on the East Coast, a man named Pierre Bernard, known as “The Great Oom,” taught yoga to society women. When it emerged that he had seduced several of them, he was dismissed as a charlatan (#metoo, turn of the 19th century edition?). But nonetheless, yoga had gotten a toehold on the North American continent.

Meanwhile back in India, Yoga was changing. The limited asana information in the Yoga Sutras, and the traditional teachings of Indian physical culture, and early vinyasa sequences were being developed into a more modern structured asana practice. Yoga was getting an intense, systemic upgrade- and becoming much more physical. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, a man named Manick Rao “blended European gymnastics and weight-resistance exercises with revived Indian techniques for combat and strength.” Rao’s student, Swami Kuvalayananda (1883-1966), who was considered the most influential yoga teacher of his day, blended asanas with the latest European techniques of gymnastics and naturopathy. He diligently applied scientific method to asana, and taught what could be proven and observed.

Though Kuvalayananda was spiritually inclined and idealistic, he was, at the same time, a strict rationalist. So, he sought scientific explanations for the various psychophysical effects of Yoga he experienced. In 1920-21, he investigated the effects of some of the Yogic practices on the human body with the help of some of his students in a laboratory at Baroda Hospital. His subjective experience, coupled with the results of these scientific experiments, convinced him that the ancient system of Yoga, if understood through the modern scientific experimental system, could help society. The idea of discovering the scientific basis behind these yogic processes became his life’s work.”- Wikipedia

Into this soup came the great-great-grandaddy of American yoga, Tirumalai Krishnamacharya (1888-1989), who studied at Kuvalayananda’s institute in the early 1930s.

Krishnamacharya was unique. He was an incredible scholar in the traditional teachings of Hinduism, with degrees in all six darshanas (the philosophical systems of  orthodox Hinduism- one of which is Yoga), AND Ayurveda. This means that Krishnamacharya, in addition to being a master of yoga, was also: a rationalist scholar, a philosopher, an atomist, a physician of sorts, and thoroughly versed and vested in the authority of Vedas.  

His experience with Kuvalayananda’s athletic yoga, coupled with the traditional yogic emphasis on keen and direct observation (does something work?), caused Krishnamacharya to innovate and develop new forms of fast moving, deep breathing asanas, things that had never been seen before. This development in the 1930s greatly influenced the way yoga would be taught around the world. The method at the time was designed mostly for young men, to calm, fine tune and prepare the body for meditation. Krishnamacharya’s asana was significantly different than other kinds of asana in yoga, and it worked wonders. He became the lead teacher to the Maharaja of Mysore, and located his school on the palace grounds. He was the guru to some of the most influential global yoga teachers of the 20th century, including B.K.S. Iyengar (Iyengar), K. Pattabhi Jois (Ashtanga),  Indra Devi (Classical Yoga) and T.K.V. Desikachar (Viniyoga) all of whom developed major lineages in the US, and whose students in turn seeded further derivative teachings (such as Power Yoga, or Yin Yoga), and spawned what is now a 17 billion dollar annual industry. We’ll get more to the migration of these teachers and the growth of their lineages later in this work.

Indra Devi, The First Lady of Yoga

The next yoga wave in the United States began in the 1950’s when Indra Devi (as mentioned, above a disciple of India’s most famous guru, Sri Tirumalai Krishnamacharya) opened a Hollywood studio in 1947. In her 1959 book Yoga for Americans, she wrote “A great many people seem to have taken up the study of yoga simply because Gloria Swanson, Greta Garbo, Jennifer Jones, Marilyn Monroe, Olivia de Havilland, Mala Powers, Robert Ryan, and also the world-famous beautician Elizabeth Arden are known to have been devotees.” She emphasized the physical aspect of yoga, and didn’t diminish yoga’s capacity to make a person more glowing, slim or beautiful, even while inviting students to aim higher, to aim for enlightenment.

This excerpt from her biography paints a beautiful portrait of who she was:

Indra Devi made an ideal, albeit unlikely, ambassador for yoga, in part because she wasn’t an Indian man. Born Eugenie Peterson to a Russian noblewoman and a Swedish bank director, she was every bit a sophisticated Westerner, comfortable traveling the world and mingling with newsmakers and high society. And yet she was never stern or ceremonious, and her warmth and quick wit endeared her to everyone she came into contact with. She attracted and welcomed students regardless of their motivation: from slimming down to Self-realization.

Devi’s own interest in Eastern spirituality began in her teens, when she came upon the writings of Bengali poet-philosopher Rabindranath Tagore and the American occultist who wrote under the pseudonym Yogi Ramacharaka. In 1926, the 27-year-old actress and dancer attended a gathering of the Theosophical Society in Holland, where she became enthralled with Jiddu Krishnamurti. The next year, she sailed to India, following the renowned spiritual teacher from city to city.

For 12 years, she made India her home, marrying a Czechoslovakian diplomat, starring in an Indian movie (the stage name Indra Devi later became her legal name), and rubbing shoulders with such notables as Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, and Rabindranath Tagore, whose writings first sparked her love affair with the country. It helped to have friends in high places; when Krishnamacharya refused to accept a woman as his student in 1937, his royal patron intervened on Indra Devi’s behalf.

By the time Devi followed her diplomat husband to Shanghai in 1939, Krishnamacharya had warmed up to his sari-wearing student, insisting that she teach yoga. And so she did—for the rest of her remarkably long life. Devi died just shy of her 103rd birthday in Buenos Aires, Argentina, her home since 1985.  Devi brought a woman’s perspective to what had been a man’s world.

Devi’s own students included Magana Baptiste, who, along with her husband Walt, opened the first yoga center in San Francisco in 1955, after training with Indra Devi. They, too, were the “beautiful people” of the time: Walt was Mr. America 1949, and Magana was a dancer. Their three children, especially Baron, would be instrumental in the 1990s surge in yoga.

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