It might surprise many people to learn that yoga has a long history in the United States. For a lot of Americans, their knowledge of yoga may only date back to the 1960s, when the concepts of spiritualism and meditation were embraced by the country’s counterculture.
But it might surprise you to learn that yoga has a far longer history in the U.S., dating back to the late 1800s.
In 1883, Swami Vivekananda made an appearance at the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago where he greeted his “sisters and brothers of America”, a salutation that brought a standing ovation from the large audience in attendance. His idea that all of the religions of the world are merely separate parts of a larger religion was a new concept to those hearing him speak about the mind, body and spirit.
Shortly after the arrival of Swami Vivekananda, Yogendra Mastamani also traveled to the U.S. from India and set up a base in Long Island, N.Y. in 1919 and created the American branch of Kaivalyadhama, which is an India-based group that was a leader in the exploration of yoga from a scientific perspective. Mastamani introduced Hatha Yoga to the United States.
One year later, one of the most popular yogis of all time, Paramahansa Yogananda, arrived in Boston to introduce kriya yoga to the U.S. He created the Self-Realization Fellowship, which now has its headquarters in Los Angeles. Yogananda also wrote the world-famous best seller, “Autobiography of a Yogi”, a book that is still an inspirational resource for many yoga instructors and students.
Beginning in the 1930s, Jiddu Krishnamurti achieved a new level of notoriety for a yogi when he began giving well-received, eloquent seminars on Jnana-Yoga, or the yoga of discernment. His enlightening talks brought him attention from a number of celebrities, including actors Charlie Chaplin and Greta Garbo and writers Aldous Huxley and George Bernard Shaw.
In 1924, the U.S. imposed a restriction on the number of Indians it would allow to move to the U.S., meaning students who sought the teachings of yogis had to travel to India. One of these students was Theos Bernard, who traveled to India and came back in 1947 to write the book “Hatha Yoga: The Report of a Personal Experience”, an influential book which is still widely today.
In that same year, yogi Indra Devi, born in Russia, opened one of the original Hatha Yoga studios in the Los Angeles/Hollywood area and was given the title of “The First Lady of Yoga”. Devi was admired by housewives across the U.S., as well as Hollywood stars such as Gloria Swanson, Jennifer Jones and Robert Ryan. Devi passed away in her Buenos Ares home in 2002.
But there is one man who is credited with bringing yoga into the mainstream of America and, ironically, he is not a native of India. While Richard Hittleman did study in India for several years, he came back to the U.S. in 1950 and worked as a yoga instructor in New York, introducing a non-spiritual version of yoga to the country and altered the way yoga is perceived in the U.S. Hittleman emphasized the physical aspects of yoga to a Western audience used to focusing on the body rather than the mind. Hittleman’s goal was to teach American students to gradually embrace the spiritual side of yoga, which many people have.
As Hittleman worked to expand yoga on the East, Walt and Magana Baptiste were working to increase yoga’s scope on the West Coast when they open a studio in San Francisco in the 1950s. Both of the Baptistes were students of Yogananda and Walt brought the influence of Vivekananda to the practice, creating an entirely new approach to yoga. Their yoga legacy is continuing with their son and daughter, Baron and Sherri.
Also in San Francisco, Swami Vishnu-devananda, arrived from India in 1958 and, with sponsorship from famed artist Peter Max, created the landmark book, “The Complete Illustrated Book of Yoga”. It became an essential guide for yoga instructors and practitioners. Vishu-devananga would later go on to create the Sivananda Yoga Vedanta yoga centers, which has become one of most prominent yoga school franchises in the entire world.
As the 1960s embrace of counterculture got into full swing, more and more people began to investigate the spirituality of yoga and possibly the most famous group of yoga practitioners were The Beatles, whose association with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi made him one of the most famous yogis in the world. He created the Meditation school of yoga that today employs more than 40,000 instructors and approximately 4 million followers worldwide.
In the late 1960, Harvard professor Richard Alpert left on a journey through India and returned as Ram Dass, who captured the imagination of the young people of America and sparked their interest in the potential of yoga with his 1970 college tour to support his book, “Be Here Now”. It implanted the idea of taking a spiritual quest as a dream of many young people.
As the 1970s progressed, yoga studios began appearing all over the country. Mount Madonna, founded by Baba Hari Dass, brought residential yoga instruction to Santa Cruz, California. The International Society for Krishna Consciousness, begun by Shrila Prabhubada, created the international spiritual practice of Bhakti Yoga. Ashtanga-vinyasa Yoga was brought to the U.S. by Pattabhi Jois in the mid ’70s and made yoga popular with new groups of people. Swami Satchitananda was probably the most famous non-musician to appear at Woodstock. Female yogi Swami Sivananda Radha is credited with probing the link between the psychology and spirituality of yoga. And Swami Chidananda, a student of yoga master Swami Sivananda, produced one of America’s most famous and familiar yoga instructors, Lilias Folan, whose PBS series, “Lilias, Yoga and You”, which aired from 1970 to 1979, brought into nearly every home in America.
Yoga has continued its influence across America with classes and studios in cities all over, from the smallest town to the major metro areas. Meanwhile, the birth of the digital media market has taken yoga CDs, DVDs and Internet websites to even more homes, making it a mainstay in American life.