Slow burn to Mass Presence: Woodstock, PBS, the Beatles and Californication (History of Yoga in the US, Part 2)

Want to read Part 1? Part 1 is here (Bija: The Seeds of Yoga in the West)

From the 60s to the 80s, a whirlwind of cultural forces converged to produce a general hunger for a shift in consciousness. This seeking for new kinds of awareness brought yoga along with it.

For the first time in history, after WWII, the United States had a standing army. An entirely new military-industrial-agriculture complex grew out of that. Factories that made cans in times of peace and bullets in times of war split: now there was somebody making bullets all the time. Increased taxation, expanded federal reach, the draft, the petrochemical industry intensification- all of this came out of the decision to make being engaged in war and prepared for war an ongoing business. In addition, the conformity (or post war longing for normalcy, perhaps) of 1950s suburbia had strangled personal expression. Materialism, and the beginning of marketing as a science to create demand where there was none, was beginning to take hold. The Vietnam war was creating an uprising among the young. Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring, the first salvo in attempting to bring the environment into focus. From Alan Watts to the Beat poets, the summer of love, drug culture, hippies: many Americans were looking for a compelling alternative to what was becoming a shallow, shadow culture of materialism and violence in America. The seeds for the interest in and adoption of Eastern philosophy, long planted into the soils of Theosophy and Transcendentalism, bore fruit.

The Beatles, of Course
As with so many other things in the 60s, the Beatles had a hand in raising the public’s awareness of yoga. In August of 1967, the Beatles attended a public lecture on Indian spirituality and mindfulness given by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi at the London Hilton Hotel. The presentation itself, along with the fact that the group members decided to accompany the Maharishi for a 10-day retreat, became instant headline news worldwide.

The Maharishi already had a large, devoted following before this incident, but once the world learned of it, he was an instant celebrity. The public went crazy and sought out time with him and other gurus and swamis for themselves. They wanted to learn what the members of the Beatles were learning.  They wanted enlightenment too. With the Beatles bringing light to the practice of yoga as well as the movement towards peace, more gurus began expanding their teachings. They started to open themselves to students from countries other than India. Schools were also now being open to the public instead of just the elite or chosen few.

The Guru Wave
At the same time that the physical cultures of yoga asana were starting to spread through studios in NY and CA, these broader spiritual rivers were flowing west, and receiving a great, warm welcome. Through various holy men and a few women, yoga consciousness landed in sectarian ways. Many great yogis and leaders first arrived in the late 60s and early 70s, and developed their own following.

Some of the better known gurus arriving in that time period who have had lasting impact in the yoga world in America today include:

  • Maharaji, or Neem Karoli Baba, and his disciples (including Ram Dass, Larry Brilliant, Krishna Das and so many more) brought an entire lineage of love; their yoga was one of devotion to the divine and service to people, with a focus on the servant deity Hanuman, who carried Sita and Ram in his heart (Das or Dasi means servant of).
  • At about the same time, the Hare Krishnas arrived, singing and dancing and feeding the world millions of vegetarian meals. ISKCON, the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, was formed in NY in 1966, by Srila Prabhupad. He taught the Bhagavad Gita, and sang kirtan in public parks, and started temples across the country. In 1972, Srila Prabhupada founded the publishing house Bhaktivedanta Book Trust (BBT), now the world’s foremost publisher of books on Krishna consciousness, or bhakti-yoga, which published translated more than 40 volumes of the great classics of Krishna conscious literature in English, giving elaborate commentaries synthesizing the realizations of previous masters along with his own.
  • Yogi Bhajan, a Kundalini yoga leader, came to America in 1968. He is deeply loved by Kundalini practitioners today, and has created a system of healthy, prosperous living, including entrepreneurship (eg, he founded Yogi Teas, among other things) that is at the center of his teachings. When asked, “What have you brought for us?”, Yogi Bhajan said, “I gave you a Healthy, Happy, Holy way of life. I have not come here to collect students; I will create teachers, and teachers so created in this 3HO, shall teach the world a way of life with style. That’s what we have said, that’s what we are doing, that’s what we are.”
  • Swami Kripalvananda was another teacher who came in the 70s, with Amrit Desai as his disciple, and established the Kripalu center, following a Kundalini yogi methodology.
  • In the 70s and 80s, Osho, or Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, established a global presence for neo-Sanyasins, rejecting religion and embracing the finest essential qualities in human kind, gaining hundreds of thousands of followers. His commune in Oregon went horribly wrong, with his followers attempting horrible crimes to get their way, it is unclear whether their actions were conducted with or without his knowledge.
  • Swami Rama came in the 1960s and established the influential Himalayan Institute.
    Gurumayi and Siddha Yoga, another worldwide phenomenon.
  • Another influential teacher, Parahamsa Yogananda, came to the US much earlier, but his lineage is also alive and well. Yogananda lived in the US for 35 years, establishing Kriya yoga and the Self Realization Fellowship, with a vast and expansive lineage and following (including the infamous Bikram Choudry of Bikram yoga).

By the time the more than 500,000 people at Woodstock heard Sri Swami Satchidananda give his opening speech in August of 1969, yoga had become a household word.

Ashtanga, Iyengar and Viniyoga arrive in Full Force
As the Ashram cultures developed in intense pockets, another trend was underway: the American disciples of Krishnamacharya’s (see Part 1), students were establishing their own presence, establishing studios and teaching across America.

Ashtanga (Asht=Eight Anga=Limbs) Vinyasa, and even more specifically, Mysore practice, was developed by Pattabhi Jois in Mysore, India.  Ashtanga has 6 organized postural series, which all begin with sun salutations and end with a closing sequence, with different intentions in the middle section of each series. The series are progressive. The primary series alone is tonifying for the entire body. The first Westerners found the school in the mid-60s, and began to make their way to Mysore to study with him. Tim Miller was the 1st American disciple of Pattabhi Jois. He has since become a revered teacher in the Ashtanga community, as have Richard Freeman and David Swenson. Ashtanga is the foundation of what later became Power Yoga, as well as a vital foundation in Jivamukti yoga, and more.

BKS Iyengar came to the US in the late 50s, and in 1966 published Light on Yoga, still the best selling yoga book of all time. His yoga is very alignment focused, with more than 200 asanas, and uses multiple props, such as straps, bolsters and blocks, to bring people into extension and full expression of postures. Iyengar yoga also has many breathing techniques. His students and leading lights include Alan Finger, Gabriel Halpern (Yoga Circle Chicago), Rodney Yee (a Gaiam made Iyengar yoga celebrity), and Patricia Walden.

The Power of Television: Lilias Yoga and You

By 1970, yoga had entered the mainstream enough to warrant it’s own television program, a show called Lillias, Yoga and You, with Lillias Folan. A soft, lovely woman with a gentle voice, wearing gymnastics leotards and a braid, accompanied by tinkling piano music, Lillias grew so popular that Time magazine called here “the Julia Child of yoga.” The show rain for 9 years, and was aired on more than 200 stations nationwide, with an estimated audience of more than 10 million viewers. Lilia’s yoga was a soft, stretchy yoga- and formed many Americans earliest impression of what yoga was: for stretching, not for general athleticism, not particularly about enlightenment (and possibly: for women). Like Richard Hittleman in the UK, the combination of media, a pretty face and an accessible practice created a very nice distribution mechanism for yoga.

Continue to Part 3: Capitalism, Yoga and Waking Up

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