The eastern practice of yoga has become quite prevalent in recent years. I imagine that when the Titanic sailed, it was quite rare and exotic. However, England had (shall we say) strong interrelations with India leading up to the early 20th century, so there was certainly some yoga in practice in England. The Titanic was sailing for 4+ days, so if there were any regular practitioners they probably would have used the opportunity. The question really is: among the 2,224 passengers and crew, what is the likelihood that one or more of them practiced yoga regularly?
Introduction of Yoga in earnest to the West only occurred from the late 1920s onwards. The likelihood of any of the few early adopters being on the Titanic is low; especially as no Indian nationals were on the passenger manifest.
- 36 million Americans practice yoga.
- Between 2012 and 2016 the number of Americans doing yoga grew by 50%.
- There are an estimated 300 million yoga practitioners worldwide.
- The worldwide yoga industry is worth $80 billion.
- Americans spend $16 billion on yoga classes and equipment each year.
- 72% of yoga practitioners are female.
- Men practicing yoga rose from 4 million in 2012 to 10 million in 2016.
- 1.7 million children are practicing yoga in the US.
- Flexibility and stress relief are the most popular reasons for starting yoga.
- There are currently 100,000 yoga teachers registered in the US.
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Yoga and the Roots of Cultural Appropriation
To the so many white people who practice yoga, please don’t stop, but please do take a moment to look outside of yourself and understand how the history of yoga practice in the United States is intimately linked to some of the larger forces of white supremacy.
The origins of yoga can be traced back to South Asia, a space colonized by the British and Portuguese. The reasons why yoga became popular, and why various Indian yogis started travelling to England and the United States to “sell” yoga, is also tied up with colonialism. Yoga was often used as a tool to show the British that Indians were not backwards or primitive, but that their religion was scientific, healthy, and rational. This was a position they were coerced into, and unfortunately reified colonial forms of knowledge – that knowledge must be proven or scientific to be worth anything.
Beyond its utility, yoga became popular, in part, because it reinforced European and Euro-American ideas of India. Early Indian yoga missionaries played on the orientalist construction of the “west” as progressive and superior and the “east” as spiritual but inferior. Yoga became — and remains — a practice which allows western practitioners to experience the idea of another culture while focusing on the self.
In today’s consumerist age, yoga thrives because one can produce many products and start businesses using yoga as the foundation. The explosion of yoga studios, yoga videos, apps, yoga pants, and other yoga swag over the last two decades is evidence of this. Yoga contributes to our economic system, but never forget this system is one built upon exploitation and commodification of labor, often the labor of black people and people of the global south.
Yoga, like so many other colonized systems of practice and knowledge, did not appear in the American spiritual landscape by coincidence rather, its popularity was a direct consequence of a larger system of cultural appropriation that capitalism engenders and reifies. While the (mis)appropriation of yoga may not be a life-threatening racism, it is a part of systemic racism nonetheless, and it is important to ask, what are the impetuses for this cultural “grabbing”? In order to delve deeper into this question, it’s useful to look at the roots of U.S. white dominant culture , the foundation of which is rooted in enslavement of West Africans and settler colonialism. Decades of assimilation and the cultural stripping of Europeans as they arrived to the U.S. produced a white dominant culture. People of European descent replaced their ethnicities (i.e. German, Polish, English, Italian, etc.) with whiteness and the privileges that came along with that identity. This history is especially relevant right now as we are seeing white men taking to the streets in mobs shouting, “We will not be replaced.”
We would argue one of the goals of White Supremacy is to buffer white people from the pain that comes from the process of exchanging cultural grounding for the unearned power and privilege of whiteness. This looks like the hoarding of material resources and wealth into the hands, pockets, and bank accounts of white society. Meanwhile, in order to uphold the foundation and on-going functioning of white supremacist and racial capitalism, white people are taught to be ahistorical and emotionally repressed. In order to maintain the status quo, white people are taught to sublimate and anesthetize feeling. To feel — whether joy, sorrow, or grief — is to be counter cultural in this country. Dominant culture teaches white people, as well as People of Color, to numb through materialism, consumerism, entertainment, prescription and hard drugs, and alcohol. It also socializes white people to consciously or unconsciously misuse power and relate to others from a false sense of superiority. Because most white people are not taught to confront and examine the painful and uncomfortable realities of racism, and their complicity in it, the cycle of oppression, repression, and consumption continues.
This is fantastic for anybody interested in yoga: how to decolonize your yoga practice http://t.co/ajeRcFQZus pic.twitter.com/qAU79uczMt
&mdash openDemocracy (@openDemocracy) July 13, 2015
This complex socio-political reality of the U.S. is key to understanding how the cultural void of white society is intimately mixed with white supremacy, capitalism, and globalization and it is within these oppressive structures that cultural appropriation and the yoga industrial complex flourishes. People are grasping for something to belong and connect to outside of the empty and shallow societal anchors of materialism and consumerism, which do not nourish or empower people in any sort of meaningful or sustainable way. People are searching for these things without even understanding why there is a void in the first place. Few white people make the connection between their attraction to yoga and the cultural loss their ancestors and relatives experienced when they bought into white dominant culture in order to access resources. Many Europeans did not fully grasp what they were giving up and what they were investing in, yet many did, and most who arrived on these shores chose to stay here rather than return to their home country. Few white people make the connection between their love of yoga and their desire and ability to access traditions from historically oppressed communities of color.
Most yoga teachers in America do not learn about Hindu tradition or Indian cultural history. Generally in the United States, people practice the physical aspect of yoga, the postures or asanas, which comprise only one-eighth of the practice as a whole. The physical practice — think flowing from one pose to another with awareness of the breath — does help many people decrease stress, anxiety, and depression. However, when “Western” yoga teachers train other practitioners to relate to yoga only on a physical level, without exploring the history, roots, complexity, and philosophy, they are perpetuating the re-colonization of it by diluting its true depth and meaning. This modern day trend of cultural appropriation of yoga is a continuation of white supremacy and colonialism, maintaining the pattern of white people consuming the stuff of culture that is convenient and portable, while ignoring the well-being and liberation of Indian people.
We would be remiss if we did not acknowledge the far too few practitioners who go much deeper than just the physical, into the ancient yogic teachings, and do their best to humbly honor and learn from the lineage they have the privilege of accessing. It is possible for authentic, respectful, and accountable cultural exchange to occur, and for the practices to have a profound healing effect on the practitioner. Herein lies the invitation for white yoga practitioners to go beyond an unaccountable surface level relationship with yoga to a deeper, more transformative place of practice, awareness, contemplation, and engagement.
Given a deeper analysis of yoga, white yoga practitioners and teachers can engage in yoga in a decolonizing way that reduces harm and seeks greater cultural accountability. First, they can be aware of the history, roots, and magnitude of the practice and give credit where credit is due. Humility, respect, and reverence go a long way. More yoga teachers and studio owners need to create space for conversations about cultural appropriation and cultural accountability. Additionally, there is a responsibility to explore issues around access. The cost of Western yoga classes can be prohibitive for low to middle-income people. This often includes People of Color, including recent immigrants, such as Indian women to whom this practice rightfully belongs. The result of this reality is that Western yoga is often represented and marketed in mainstream culture by thin, white, upper middle-class, cisgender, able-bodied women. Another layer to this reality is that white dominant cultural values such as competitive individualism and either/or binary thinking further distort and dilute the ancient teachings. Many people compete for the attention, time, and praise of their teachers, who are often treated as celebrities and many teachers (and practitioners) strive to promote their style or brand of yoga as the best or most superior form of yoga. All of this conspires to create a culture of elitism and is antithetical to the true roots of yoga, which are all about yoking the mind, body, and spirit in order to remember our innate oneness and connection with universal consciousness.
Especially during this time when the underbelly of capitalism — white supremacy, cisheteropatriarchy, and xenophobia– is being exposed, it is imperative that everyone, especially those who have access to spiritual practices like yoga, ask difficult questions of ourselves and one another. We must ask, in what ways are we complicit in a system that harms People of Color, queer and trans people, poor people, people with disabilities, and immigrants? Despite our best values and intentions as individuals, our actions (and inaction) are inherently connected with a system of power, privilege, and oppression. If we want to honor the full yoga tradition and live into our values of love, unity, and fairness, we must examine the ways we are upholding “business as usual.”
Shreena Gandhi teaches in the Religious Studies Department at Michigan State University. She received her BA from Swarthmore College, her MTS from Harvard Divinity and her PhD from the University of Florida where she focused on Religion in the Americas. She is working on revising her manuscript to focus on liberal white supremacy culture and yoga in the US, and is working on a long term project with other scholars of color, tentatively titled, Decolonizing US Religious History.
Lillie Wolff is an antiracist white Jewish organizer, facilitator, and healer. She is an Organizer/Trainer with Crossroads Antiracism and has been a student and practitioner of yoga since 2003. Lillie is passionate about decolonizing and politicizing yoga and the healing arts, and building a sustainable movement for collective liberation that is grounded in accountable spiritual practice and healing justice. She was a Joint Regional Fellow with the Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership in 2017. Lillie earned a BA in Human Development and Social Relations from Kalamazoo College.
The Indus Valley Civilization
The earliest archaeological sites in the Indian sub-continent are known as Harappa and Mohenjo Daro and are located in what is now modern Pakistan. They date back to around 2600 BCE and are thought to have been the major cities of a large empire known as the Indus Valley Civilization, which would have formed around 3300 BCE.
The Seal of Pashupata was found in the ruins of the Indus Valley and is thought to be the oldest representation of a yogic technique known to mankind.
The seal represents a seated figure with three faces generally regarded as the Hindu god Shiva. Shiva is depicted sitting in Mulabandhasana, a highly advanced seated posture with both the knees and toes on the ground and the heels lifted or turned forward so that they press into the perineum.
This pose was commonly combined with long periods of meditation and fasting in later yogic sects.
The Seal of Pashupata is one of the key sources of information on the religion of the Indus Valley Civilization and though there is much room for interpretation, it seems to show that some form of yoga existed that was similar to the yoga practiced in later periods.
The bachelor’s problematic history with yoga
It has always rubbed me the wrong way that almost every season there is a one on one where the lead and a contestant are made to do yoga that often includes many suggestive positions. This is often played off in a comedic or uncomfortable way. There is a huge problem of the West especially white people culturally appropriating yoga, and the bachelor almost takes it to a new levels. Given how few South Asians they have had on the show I think these yoga dates show how deep the need for more than just diverse casting is.
I should have originally put this in to but I forgot. This also extends to the way the show treats other cultures as well it’s just last nights yoga date is what sparked this train of thought for me. Other examples include the constant use of indigenous ceremonies in paradise as a comedic date, and playing off other cultures foods as gross and unclean (Singapore during Colton’s season). It’s something I think the franchise needs to recon with during its anti racism work
Below are great links on the history of cultural appropriation of not just yoga greater parts of South Asian religions
I literally cringed when I saw the woman leading their tantric yoga session.
I found the reiki breathing ceremony from Clare’s date to also be inappropriate in addition to the practice of yoga. They are both cultural appropriation and can be connected to the practice of Hinduism, which is offensive to believers of that religion. As a Christian, I also would not feel comfortable partaking in a religious practice that is not part of my own religion as it could be viewed as worshipping other gods. The producers don’t think about the implications of forcing women on these dates. If you were to speak out against doing an activity, you would most likely be sent home.
I’m sleepy so this is going to be all over the place so I’m going to try to be as comprehensible as I can be.
My issue with anyone who tries to borrow from any culture is the blatant distortion of it. If anyone is trying to learn something from another culture (especially mine), I’d expect you to make an effort to learn about it in a respectful manner.
Yoga starts off with oneself. The yoga and the chakra healings are all used as comedic relief and it’s downright insulting. The yoga dates are crass and straight up inauthentic and sexualised versions of yoga. The fact that no one even makes an effort to namaste correctly is infuriating(sorry, it’s a pet peeve of mine). Make the damn effort to learn about yoga instead of the whitewashed version. [if you can say Timothée Chalamet like it’s meant to be said, you can learn how to say namaste correctly]
If you want to learn from another culture, do your research, ask questions to those willing to help and try not to adulterate said culture. Just make an honest effort. [this standard applies to me, too]
Source: I’m an Indian living in India who has been practicing yoga for ten years although I’m not very good at it.
Seminar. What I am saying is that Serena was put in yoga positions that made her feel uncomfortable and - dare I say - also uncomfortable to voice her opinion! I don’t know if a seminar on consent or empowerment would make u feel like standing up to producers of one of the biggest reality tv empires, but that wouldn’t help me. I think a lot of people would prefer if the show require INFORMED CONSENT before putting contestants yoga positions with sexual connotations. I’m not saying she couldn’t make decisions for herself, she could have got up and walked away, but the show could have made it way easier for her to make that decision.
The world would be such a boring place if you could only do things that are from your culture. Don’t be disrespectful (like making faces after trying something) but do enjoy it. I’m part Indian and I would think it would be a terribly sad if people outside the culture didn’t enjoy Indian food, yoga, etc. Experiencing things from different cultures is what makes life fun. Plus doing otherwise would just segment people into tiny bubbles. Much better for people to experience new things!!
I’m part Indian and I would think it would be a terribly sad if people outside the culture didn’t enjoy Indian food, yoga, etc. Experiencing things from different cultures is what makes life fun.
But is an American woman decked in LuLu Lemon and chanting "Om" (without knowing its meaning or being a practicing Hindu) and "Nama-STAY IN BED" actually enjoying Indian culture or enjoying faux-Indian culture changed and exoticized according to American taste/stereotypes while pretending to be
Iɽ say it's the latter masquerading as the former.
Many of the best things in life are fusions of multiple cultures. Under your test, no cultures do something that was originally from that region. Should Italians stop eating tomatoes (they are from the Americas), should South East Asians stop eating noodles (they got them originally from China). Appropriation can go too far. Definitely agree that you shouldn’t make fun of other cultures but you should be able to appreciate them.
Appreciation and appropriation are two different things.
American yoga removes all the religious and cultural roots of yoga (which is fine if you ACKNOWLEDGE that's what you're doing - stretching is great exercise and should be enjoyed by all!) and then turns around and pretends it's super
. It's not. Why pretend? It's insulting and it's also misleading.
It honestly brings me back to one of the biggest, most fucked-up examples of Western appropriation: the swastika. The swastika is a symbol of GOOD in Hinduism. The West decided to "fuse" (to use your words) their Anti-Semitism with a Hindu symbol and ruined the symbol for practicing Hindus worldwide. That's the danger of people outside of a culture taking something, putting their own twist on it, and pretending it's the original when it's not.
A Brief History of Yoga in the United States
Many people might get surprised upon learning that yoga has an extensive tradition in the United States. For majority of Americans, their facts of yoga may only point back to the 1960s, at the time the ideas of meditation and spiritualism were adopted by the counterculture of the country. But it might amaze you more to know that yoga practice has a far longer past record in the U.S. during the late 1800s.
In 1883, a certain salutation made my Swami Vivekananda marked the introduction of meditative ideas to the Americans. This Hindu man made a presentation in Chicago particularly at the World Parliament of Religions and greeted his American folks with a greeting that gained a round of applause from the huge audience attending the conference. His speech about the concept of body, spirit and mind made a remark to all religious leaders who were present on that event.
Yoga Was Seen From a Scientific Point Of View in 1919
Shortly following the entrance of Swami Vivekananda to the U.S., another man set up a branch in New York in 1919 to promote the principles of yoga. He is Yogendra Mastamani, a Hindu who created the Kaivalyadhama, a group which came from India and the frontline of yoga exploration from scientific point of view. This time, Mastamani pioneered Hath Yoga to the American land.
Starting in the 1930s, another person marked an achievement in bringing yoga to a new level of popularity. Jiddu Krishnamurti conducted eloquent seminars on the yoga of discernment or jnana-yoga, which was gladly received by the people including a number of celebrities such as Greta Garbo, Charlie Chaplin and some writers namely George Bernard Shaw and Aldous Huxley.
In 1924, the United States constitution enforced a restriction law on the number of Indians who entered the US territory so those students who want to explore the teachings of yoga had to cross the seas in order to reach the yogis of India. Theos Bernard was one of those students who traveled India and when he came back in 1957, he wrote a book entitled “Hatha Yoga: The Report of a Personal Experience” which became influential since then up to now. In the same year also, a Russian yogi named Indra Devi launched of the one pioneering Hatha Yoga Studios in Hollywood/LA area and was recognized as the “First Lady of Yoga”.
Richard Hittleman Brought Yoga to Mainstream America
But there is one notable person who deserves the credits of bringing yoga to mainstream America. He is Richard Hittleman, an American who studied yoga in India for several years and when he arrived home, he influenced the American society with his non-spiritual version of yoga. This became the catalyst of the widespread practice of yoga in the Western cultures and has become a mainstay in American lifestyle. Today, with the integration of digital technologies, yoga becomes more and more practical for those people who want to experience the benefits of this
According to Lord Krishna in Bhagavad Gita, Karma yoga is the spiritual practice of "selfless action performed for the benefit of others".   Karma yoga is a path to reach moksha (spiritual liberation) through work. It is rightful action without being attached to fruits or being manipulated by what the results might be, a dedication to one's duty, and trying one's best while being neutral to rewards or outcomes such as success or failure. 
The tendency for a human being to seek the fruits of action is normal, state Hindu texts, but an exclusive attachment to fruits and positive immediate consequences can compromise dharma (ethical, rightful action). Karma yoga, states Bilimoria, is "ethically fine-tuned action".  According to Stephen Phillips, a professor of philosophy and Asian studies, "only dharmic action" is suitable in karma yoga, where one downplays one's own exclusive role or one's own exclusive interests. Instead, the karma yogi considers the interests of all parties impartially, all beings, the elements of Prakṛti and then does the right thing.  However, adds Phillips, there are commentators who disagree and state "any action can be done as karma yoga" and it doesn't have to be consistent with dharma.  
Your work is your responsibility,
not its result.
Never let the fruits of your actions
be your motive.
Nor give in to inaction.
Set firmly in yourself, do your work,
not attached to anything.
Remain evenminded in success,
and in failure.
Evenmindedness is true yoga.
Karma yoga, states Bilimoria, does not mean forfeiture of emotions or desires, rather it means action driven by "equanimity, balance", with "dispassion, disinterest", avoiding "one sidedness, fear, craving, favoring self or one group or clan, self-pity, self-aggrandizement or any form of extreme reactiveness".  A Karma yogi acts and does his or her duty, whether that be as "a homemaker, mother, nurse, carpenter or garbage collector, with no thought for one's own fame, privilege or financial reward, but simply as a dedication to the Lord", states Harold Coward – professor of Religious Studies with a focus on Indian religions. 
According to Phillips, Karma yoga applies to "any action in any profession or family activities", where the yogi works selflessly to others' benefit. This is in contrast to other forms of yoga which focus on self-development and self-realization, typically with isolation and meditative introspection.  The "disinterested action" idea, states Phillips, is not unique to Hinduism, and similar disinterested non-craving precepts for monks and nuns are found in Buddhism and Jainism. 
Bhagavad Gita Edit
According to the Bhagavad Gita, selfless service to the right cause and like-minded others, with the right feeling and right attitude, is a form of worship and spirituality.   [note 1]
Verse 3.4 of the Bhagavad Gita states that avoiding work or not starting work is not the path to become free of bondage, just as renouncing the world and wearing monk's dress does not automatically make one spiritual.  Not acting is a form of action with consequences and karmic impact, and the nature of existence is such that human beings are always acting in their environment, body or mind, and never for a moment are they not, according to verse 3.5.   The verses 3.6 to 3.8 of the Bhagavad Gita state that the action can be motivated by body or manipulated by external influences. Alternatively, it can be motivated by one's inner reflection and true self (soul, Atman, Brahman).    The former creates bondage, the latter empowers freedom. The spiritual path to the liberated state of bliss is to do the best one is able to while being detached to outcomes, to fruits, to success or failure. A karma yogi who practices such nishkama karma (niṣkāmakarma), states Bhawuk, is following "an inward journey, which is inherently fulfilling and satisfying".   
A part of the premise of "disinterested action" is that the more one acts with the hope of getting rewards, the more one is liable to disappointment, frustration or self-destructive behavior. Further, another part of the premise is that the more one is committed to "disinterested action", the more one considers the dharma (ethical dimension), focuses on other aspects of the action, strives to do one's best, and this leads to liberating self-empowerment. 
According to chapter 5 of the Bhagavad Gita, both sannyasa (renunciation, monastic life) and karma yoga are means to liberation. Between the two, it recommends karma yoga, stating that anyone who is a dedicated karma yogi neither hates nor desires, and therefore such as person is the "eternal renouncer". 
The Bhagavad Gita gives a summary of the karma yoga process.  The Gita itself is a chapter from the epic known as Mahabharata, wherein a dialogue takes place between the prince Arjuna, and his friend and chariot driver, Lord Krishna, on the brink of a great dynastic war. Their conversation is prompted by Arjuna as he is engulfed by sorrow and misgivings regarding the oncoming battle in which he has friends and relatives on both sides. In reply, Krishna then elucidates upon a number of philosophical yoga systems and practices (including karma yoga) by/through which Arjuna should indeed continue with the fight on righteous principles.
In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna says:
"tasmad asaktah satatam karyam karma samacara asakto hy acaran karma param apnoti purushah"
Therefore, without being attached to the results of activities, one should act as a matter of duty, for by working without attachment one attains the Supreme. 
Other Hindu texts Edit
The earliest texts that are forerunners of the karma yoga ideas in the Bhagavad Gita are the ancient Upanishads, such as the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad.  Other Vedic texts as well as post-Vedic literature of the Mimamsa school of Hindu philosophy mention karma marga, but these contextually refer to the path of rituals.  According to Raju, the Mimamsa ideas, though orthodox, were the fertile grounds on which the later ideas of Karma yoga developed. 
Karma yoga is discussed in many other Hindu texts. For example, the section 11.20 of the Bhagavata Purana states that there are only three means to spiritual liberation: jnana yoga (knowledge), karma yoga (action) and bhakti yoga (devotion).  Those who are of philosophical bent, prefer the "knowledge path". Those who are inclined to productive application of arts, skills and knowledge, prefer the "karma path". Those who prefer emotional connection, prefer the "devotional path". These three paths overlap, with different relative emphasis.  
Discussions on Karma yoga are also found in chapter 33 of Narada Purana. 
Later, new movements within Hinduism added raja yoga as the fourth spiritual path, but this is not universally accepted as distinct to other three.  
According to Constance Jones and James Ryan, karma yoga is "yoga of action" [ dubious – discuss ] while kriya yoga is "yoga of ritual action". Kriya yoga is found in tantric texts, and believed by its practitioners to activate chakra and energy centers in the body. In that sense, kriya yoga is a subset of karma yoga. 
6. A White Person Who Ignores Oppression Is Leading the Practice
Avoiding cultural appropriation isn’t about getting white people to stop participating in yoga or leading yoga sessions. But when the only option for studying yoga is to learn from a white person who ignores the complexities of oppression, that’s a problem.
And that’s happening in yoga spaces where white teachers don’t acknowledge or address how white supremacy can show up and marginalize people of color.
For instance, there are lots of opportunities for people who fit the mainstream image of the industry – thin, white, middle class women – to get funding, space, and respect as leaders deemed experts.
As a result, for a South Asian or Black person trying to access yoga teachings from South Asia or Africa, it takes a lot of work to find an authentic connection with a teacher who is carrying on the traditions – not just leading a diluted form of them.
On the other hand, people who are working to create more inclusive spaces , like nisha, face barriers in getting support from a white-centered industry.
That doesn’t mean it’s wrong for you to support a white yoga facilitator. But you can recognize how the industry marginalizes those who don’t fit the mainstream image of “modern” Western yoga.
All kinds of folks are being excluded. Not only teachers, but also practitioners who are poor , people of color , disabled , transgender and non-binary , fat , and more.
To be more inclusive of people who don’t fit the dominant norm, white leaders need to recognize why marginalized people don’t feel welcome and commit to do something about it.
If your teacher is a white person who fetishizes the practices without acknowledging where they’re from, there’s a good chance that they’re not committed to recognizing their privilege and minimizing their harm in the world.
Some teachers present themselves as experts on South Asianness or yoga – and it’s a problematic trend of white supremacy to center them as the experts, rather than trusting and elevating the knowledge of people who are actually part of these cultures.
As a consumer of this industry, you can show your support for respectful engagement with yoga practices by seeking out facilitators who are respectful in their practice.
The history of modern yoga began with the Parliament of Religions held in Chicago in 1893. Modern yoga arrived in the United States during the late 1800's. It was at this congress that Swami Vivekananda, a disciple of saint Ramakrishna, made a lasting impression on the American public. He addressed the gathering as, 'Brothers and Sisters of America ". Through these words he captured millions of hearts in the United States and attracted many students to yoga and Vedanta.
After Swami Vivekananda, the next popular teacher in the west was Paramahansa Yogananda, who arrived in Boston in 1920. He established the self-realization fellowship in Los Angeles. He left his mortal frame in 1952 but continues to have a worldwide following. He wrote the famous "Autobiography of a Yogi". His teachings are called the yogoda teachings.
Paul Brunton, a former journalist-editor and author of the famous book, "A Search in Secret India', introduced Ramana Maharishi to western seekers.
Since the early 1930's and till his death in 1986, Jiddu Krishnamurthy attracted western minds with his philosophical thoughts. He expounded the wisdom of Jnana yoga and drew large gatherings. He has followers all over the world.
In the mid_1960's, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi introduced Transcendental Meditation to the west. He was associated with the Beatles.
In 1965, Shrila Prabhupada came to the United States and founded the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKON). He spread a movement based on Bhakthi Yoga (yoga of devotion).
One of the most prominent yoga gurus was the Himalayan master, Swami Sivananda. He served as a doctor in Malaysia and opened yoga centers in Europe and America. He wrote more than 200 books on yoga and philosophy. His famous disciple was Swami Vishnudevananda, who wrote the book, "Complete Illustrated Book of Yoga".
Other masters are Swami Satchitanandaa, Swami Sivananda Radha, Swami Satyananda and Swami Chidananda.
Bhagawan Rajneesh, also known as Osho, was a widely popular guru in the 1970's and 1980's.
The great Sri Krishnamacharya taught the Viniyoga Hatha Yoga. His son, Desikar and Desikar's brother-in-law, B.K.S.Iyengar continue the tradition.
Sathya Sai Baba, whom millions of people all over the world throng to see, is the living yoga master of today he is called the 'man of miracles'.
History of Yoga – Exploring Its Origins and the 6 Major Periods That Define It
Most of us have gone to at least one yoga class as a way to do more physical exercise.
And many of us practice yoga on a regular basis now.
In fact, according to the United Nations, about 2 billion people worldwide practice yoga today. (1)
And you’ll find more than 20 million yogis in the United States alone. (2)
Is yoga practice just about yoga poses?
Here’s how this ancient timeless practice evolved into what it is today…
Yoga: A Definition
Yoga is the journey of the self,
through the self,
to the self.
– Bhagavad Gita
The word ‘yoga’ comes from the Sanskrit root ‘yuj’ which literally means “to unite.”
The general meaning of yoga is union.
Yoga is also a mental, physical, and spiritual discipline stemming from ancient India.
But despite its Indian roots, the benefits and gifts of this practice have now spread throughout the world.
As a spiritual discipline, it’s primarily intended to help create a union of our mind, emotions, body, and energy.
Yogic practices can include mindful body movement, meditation, contemplation, breathwork, and sensory withdrawal.
Yoga: A Brief History of the Major Periods
Few people realize that the tree of Yoga has grown in the rich soil of three great cultural complexes or traditions—Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism.
These are not merely religions, as often thought, but entire and largely self-contained cultures which all have their cradle in India.
– Georg Feuerstein, Ph.D., Yogic philosophy scholar & historian
Think of the “Big Picture” of Yoga as a giant tree with many branches.
This huge tree was planted in fertile soil that contains elements and echoes of not just Hinduism as is commonly thought, but also Buddhist influence as well.
Yoga’s long rich history can be divided into six main periods: Pre-Vedic, Vedic, Pre-Classical Yoga, Classical Yoga, Post-Classical Yoga, and Modern Yoga.
Let’s discuss each one briefly.
1. Pre-Vedic Period:The Pashupati seal was discovered during the excavation of the Mohenjodaro archaeological site in the Indus Valley. It’s drawn attention as a possible representation of a “yogi” figure. (source: Wikimedia)
Despite more than a century of research, we still don’t know much about the earliest beginnings of Yoga.
We do know, though, that it originated in India 5,000 or more years ago.
– Georg Feuerstein, Ph.D., Yogic philosophy scholar & historian
The exact history of Yoga is unknown.
The initial development of yoga can be traced to over 5,000 years ago, thanks to evidence of yoga poses found on stone drawings.
Archaeological findings from the Indus Valley Civilization revealed a portrait of a Yogi meditating in what looks like an asana. This is known as the Pashupati seal.
The Indus Valley Civilization has also been attributed to indirectly give rise to Buddhism and Jainism as well.
2. Vedic Period:Rig Veda Manuscript (source: Wikimedia)
The Vedas are the most ancient Hindu scriptures and are a group of hymns and rituals.
The Sanskrit word ‘Veda’ means “knowledge”.
The Vedas contain the oldest known Yogic teachings (Vedic Yoga) and are centered around transcending the visible material world and the limitations of the mind.
During this time, the Vedic people relied on rishis (prophets) to teach them how to live in divine harmony and understanding of the world.
Later, texts known as the Brahmanas were written as commentaries explaining the hymns of the Vedas.
The actual word “Yoga” was first mentioned in the Rigveda.
The Rigveda is a collection of hymns describing the practice and discipline of meditation dating back to approximately 1,500 Before the Common Era (B.C.E).
3. Pre-Classical Yoga Period:
From ignorance, lead me to truth.
From darkness, lead me to light.
From death, lead me to immortality.
– Upanishads chant
The Pre-Classical Yoga period covers an extensive period of approximately 2,000 years.
The creation of the Upanishads marks the beginning of this period.
The Upanishads contain over 200 scriptures which describes the idea of karma, the cycle of birth and death and explain three subjects:
1) The ultimate reality (Brahman)
2) The transcendental self (Atman)
3) The relationship between the two
The self is a friend for him who masters himself by the Self
but for him who is not self mastered, the self is the cruelest foe.
– Bhagavad-Gita 6:6
Around 500 B.C.E. (Before the Common Era), the Bhagavad-Gita was created.
It’s a beautiful story of a conversation between the God-man Krishna and the soldier Prince Arjuna.
In the Bhagavad-Gita (or simply “Gita” as it’s often referred to as), three aspects must be brought mutually in our existence:
The Gita unifies the Yogic traditions of Bhakti Yoga, Jnana Yoga, and Karma Yoga through a common thread:
Sacrificing the ego through self-knowledge, humility, and reverence leads to higher states of consciousness and self-realization.
During this time Yoga found its way into Buddhism too.
The Buddha saw that suffering is caused by desire, greed, and delusion.
This is also the case in Yogic Philosophy.
4. Classical Yoga Period:
The stilling of the ripples of the mind is Yoga.
– Sutra 1.2, Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras
The classical Yoga period is defined by the Yoga Sutras, composed by sage Patanjali.
In Patanjali’s Sutras Yoga is presented in a standardized and approachable way.
The word ‘sutra’ comes from the word ‘a thread’ and so the 195 Yoga Sutras are known as threads of wisdom.
Patanjali believed that every individual can achieve the “stilling of the ripples of the mind” and so composed the Sutras based on an 8-step system for mental and emotional purification and self-transcendence.
This 8-step system and 8-fold yogic path are also known as Raja Yoga:
1- Yamas – Self-regulating behaviors
2- Niyamas – Personal observances
Ishvara Pranidhana – Surrender
3- Asana – Mindful body movement & meditational postures
4- Pranayama – Regulation of one’s vital energy through breathwork and nutrition.
5- Pratyahara – Withdrawing the senses from the outer world and directing them to the internal world.
6- Dharana – One-pointed focus and sustained concentration
7- Dhyana – Meditation
8- Samadhi – A state of calm balance, the transcendence of the lower self, and the union with the higher self.
5. Post-Classical Yoga Period:
When the breath wanders the mind is also unsteady.
But when the breath is calmed the mind too will be still and the yogi achieves long life.
– Yogi Svatmarama, The Hatha Yoga Pradipika
Because of the Yoga Sutras’ focus on the mind, yogis of the past hadn’t paid as much attention to the physical body as they were focused on meditation and contemplation.
A few centuries after Patanjali, Yoga took a turn.
The new generation of yoga masters began to probe the hidden powers of the human body and developed a system where different exercises, in conjunction with deep breathing and meditation, would help to rejuvenate the physical body, prolong life and achieve transcendence.
The human body was regarded as the temple of the immortal soul.
The body is your temple.
Keep it pure and clean for your soul to reside in.
– B.K.S. Iyengar, Yoga teacher & author of “Light on Yoga”
The Post-Classical Yoga period brought with it big changes to the Yoga scene.
It was during this period that Tantra Yoga and Hatha Yoga were developed.
The Hatha Yoga Pradipika is a Sanskrit manual considered to be the most influential surviving text on Hatha Yoga.
It was written in the 15th century.
6. Modern Yoga (Western Yoga):Indra Devi opened one of the first yoga studios in Hollywood, CA. in the 1950s (source: Earl Leaf/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
Yoga is a way to freedom. By its constant practice, we can free ourselves from fear, anguish, and loneliness.
– Indra Devi, Yoga teacher who helped bring yogic practices & yoga tradition to the U.S. by way of her yoga studio in Hollywood, CA.
Yoga arrived in the West during the late 19th century.
The history of the modern yoga era is said to begin with the 1893 Parliament of Religions in Chicago.
It was here that Swami Vivekananda left a lasting impression on the American people.
Vivekananda was prompted by his teacher Ramakrishna to travel to America to share the message of Yoga.
Without knowing anyone in the U.S. he began to attract students who were eager to learn from him.
There were other Yogic teachers before Vivekananda who left India for Europe but their influence hadn’t taken off as much as his.
Paramahansa Yogananda (source: Wikimedia)
Paramahansa Yogananda came to the U.S. after Vivekananda, in the early 20th century (1920.)
Yogananda’s influence on the West was most notable, and five years after his arrival he established the Self-Realization Leadership in Los Angeles, CA where it still remains today.
His teachings mainly centered around Kriya Yoga, which we will discuss a bit further ahead.
In 1946 he published his famous book “Autobiography of a Yogi.”
The book has impacted countless people around the world but perhaps most notably the late Apple CEO Steve Jobs.
So much so that when Jobs planned every detail of his own funeral he made sure that each attendee received a copy of the book as his last message and gift. (3)
Other important Modern Yogis include:
Sri Tirumalai Krishnamacharya:(source: Book cover of “Krishnamacharya: His Life and Teachings” by A.G. Mohan, Wikimedia)
Also known as the “Father of Modern Yoga.”
He’s widely regarded as one of the most influential figures in the Modern Yoga period of the 20th century.
He’s also attributed to helping develop the practice of Vinyasa Yoga – combining breath with movement.
He called this style of Yoga Viniyoga/ Vinyasa Krama Yoga.
Krishnamacharya’s main teaching principle was this: “Teach what is appropriate for the individual.”
He taught many students who then moved on to become influential teachers themselves: Indra Devi, K. Pattabhi Jois (founder of modern Ashtanga yoga), B.K.S. Iyengar (founder of Iyengar Yoga and his own brother-in-law), and his son T.K.V. Desikachar.
Swami Sivananda Saraswati:(source: Nobody60, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported, Wikimedia)
This physician turned Yoga master taught many students who then carried the torch of Yogic knowledge to the West. He founded the Divine Life Society in Rishikesh, India where he taught the Five Points of Yoga:
- Proper Relaxation (Savasana)
- Proper Exercise (Asanas)
- Proper Breathing (Pranayama)
- Proper Nutrition
- Proper Thinking and Meditation (Dhyana)
Founder of the Himalayan Institute.
He is best known for his incredible bodily command.
When he came to the U.S. he became a research test subject and it was documented that he voluntarily stopped his heart from pumping the blood for 17 seconds by increasing its speed to about 300 beats per minute. (4)
In another experiment, he was found to create a temperature difference of ten degrees between the two sides of his palm. (4)
These amazing results led to there being an increased interest in his teachings.
Yoga practice is like an obstacle race many obstructions are purposefully put on the way for us to pass through.
They are there to make us understand and express our own capacities.
We all have that strength but we don’t seem to know it.
We seem to need to be challenged and tested in order to understand our own capacities.
– Swami Satchidananda
Founder of Integral Yoga and the author and translator of one of the most-read versions of The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.
Maharishi Mahesh Yogi:
Popularized Transcendental Meditation and mantra chanting in the 1960s.
Brought his version of Kundalini Yoga to the West in the late 1960s. He founded the 3HO (Happy Healthy Holy Organization), and is also the founder of the popular tea brand Yogi Tea. His appearance at Woodstock Festival in 1969 helped his teachings spread throughout the hippie era in the U.S.
His Holiness the Dalai Lama:
Although you many not initially consider the Dalai Lama a yoga teacher, his teachings and message are indeed Yoga in practice. This great yogi from Tibet who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and has inspired many westerners to learn more about Buddhism and the Yogic Path.
What are the different types of Yoga?
Yoga is an internal practice. The rest is just a circus.
– Pattabhi Jois, Ashtanga yoga teacher
There are 4 commonly accepted Pillars of Yoga:
Raja Yoga (the Yoga of the mind and emotions)
Bhakti Yoga (the Yoga of love and devotion)
Karma Yoga (the Yoga of inspired action and service)
Jnana Yoga (the Yoga of inner wisdom and knowledge)
Of course, there is also Hatha Yoga, which has become the most widely known form of yoga practice in the West today.
Hatha Yoga’s focus is on the body and mainly on the physical postures or asanas.
The word “hatha” can be translated as “willful” or “forceful,” but also as “sun” (ha) and “moon” (tha) creating internal physical balance.
Other styles of asana-based yoga include:
Yin yoga is peculiar in that it’s a modern multi-layered practice based on ancient traditions.
Yin yoga is influenced by Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), Buddhist mindfulness practice, and Hindu Hatha Yoga.
Unlike most other physical styles of Yoga, in Yin Yoga poses are held in stillness for a prolonged period of time.
Also unlike other physical styles, Yin Yoga focuses on connective tissues such as ligaments and tendons and not on activating muscles.
Tantra Yoga arose as a response to the denial of the body and a denial of the feminine in yogic practice long, long ago.
This type of yogic practice honors the feminine (shakti) and masculine (shiva) energies within us all and aims to unite them once more through the tools such as pranayama (breathwork), mantra (sounds or syllables of vibrational power), mudra (symbolic hand gestures), yantra (geometrical visual mantras used in meditation).
Kriya yoga was made popular by Paramahansa Yogananda.
As per the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, Kriya means action.
Kriya Yoga is also known as the Yoga of Action.
It’s practiced by observing three out of the five of the Niyamas (remember this is the 2nd limb of yoga, Personal Observances):
- Tapas – Acceptance of pain as a means of purification & self-discipline
- Svadhyaya – Self-study, introspection, mindfulness, & self-observation
- Ishvara Pranidhana – Surrender and devotion to a higher power and a higher cause
What’s the difference between Raja Yoga and Hatha Yoga?
Raja Yoga is known as the Yoga of the Mind and Emotions. Its focus is on introspection and contemplation more so than the physical aspect of asanas (poses).
The main text of Raja Yoga are the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali which outlines the 8-limbed Yogic Path.
Raja Yoga has been around longer, so think of it as the grandparent of Hatha Yoga.
Hatha Yoga is the Yoga of the Body. Its focus is on creating balance in the body and all its bio-energetic parts.
The main text of Hatha Yoga is the Hatha Yoga Pradipika.
Asana (poses) practice is the main focal point here.
Hatha Yoga is an integral part of the Raja Yoga because asana is the third limb in Patanjali’s 8-fold path.