How did yoga make its way to America? And how did this somewhat minor aspect of Hinduism expand to something millions of us adore?
I found the answers to these questions and more in journalist Stefanie Syman’s 400-page book, The Subtle Body: The Story of Yoga in America. Since not everyone has the time or inclination to dive into these weighty tomes, I’ve created my own “Spark Notes” highlights below.
I’d always known that Swami Satchidananda, head of the yoga institute where I took classes, had led the opening chanting to the festival at Woodstock. And somewhere along the way, I’d picked up the fact that Swami Vivekananda had introduced Indian practices to the West as part of a world religious forum in the nineteenth century. But despite years of a personal ongoing yoga practice, my certification to teach, and even writing a novel where yoga has a starring role, that was pretty much the extent of my knowledge before I cracked open Syman’s book.
I had no idea how much I’d been missing. Here are five of the facts about yoga’s American history that I found to be most enlightening.
1. Thoreau was America’s first practicing yogi.
Ralph Waldo Emerson and other New England intellectuals were fascinated by “Hindoo” religious ideas, having read works of contemporary British missionaries and colonial administrators who had learned the teachings while performing their jobs. But it was Henry David Thoreau, who had plenty of time during his seclusion at Walden Pond in 1847, who was probably the first to actually practice. Thoreau adopted an ascetic diet and spent hours, from sunrise till noon, “rapt in revery…in undisturbed solitude and stillness,” as he put it. He didn’t do yoga poses, but his embrace of meditation, which would have been very odd in his day, is impressive.
2. Vivekananda hadn’t intended to spread yoga to the West.
Swami Vivekananda knew that the impoverished masses in India needed help—but he resented the hundreds of missionaries who thought that aid should come in the form of Christianity. Figuring he’d raise money in America, then bring those funds back to India, he decided that the World Parliament of Religion in 1893 was a good starting place—even though he hadn’t been invited to attend. Although the parliament’s organizers had intended the event to demonstrate Christianity’s superiority over Asian religions (three-quarters of the 200 presented papers were from Christians), the young swami’s dozen speeches stole the show. Soon after he became a sought-after guru to Americans eager to learn about the yama and niyamas, pranayama and Kundalini. (He, too, ignored the asanas.)
3. The swami explosion of the 1960s was a fluke of immigration law.
In 1917, in an effort to stop low-wage Asian immigrants from flooding the employment market, West Coast union leaders got Congress to pass a bill keeping Indians and those from other Asian countries from settling in the U.S. These Asian quotas weren’t ended until 1965, when President Johnson signed the Immigration and Nationalization Act. This change allowed Swami Satchidananda (who came in 1966), Swami Rama (1969), Swami Muktananda (1970), Yogi Bhajan (1969) and the other Indian gurus who had such a major impact on America’s yoga scene to stay for extended periods—teaching, lecturing and spreading the seeds of yoga across the nation.
4. Guru sex scandals have a long tradition.
Yoga devotees were stunned in the 1980s when a string of esteemed swamis fell victim to allegations of sexually seducing their female disciples. But, according to Syman, they weren’t the first. In 1910, an American-born guru named Pierre Bernard was accused of similar shenanigans. Bernard, who’d changed his name from Perry Baker to sound more exotic, spent several months in jail after being accused by two women he’d had a ménage a trios with (apparently promising to marry each) of leading them into Tantric ceremonial sex rites—at a time when premarital sex was a serious scourge to a woman’s reputation.
5. It was Los Angeles—where else?—where yoga was first linked to health and beauty.
A petite German actress named Indra Devi opened a yoga studio in West Hollywood in 1947, after learning the asanas while a diplomat’s wife in Bombay. (The practice was so novel to Angelinos that, during one of Devi’s first lectures, an audience-member thought she was discussing yogurt!) Devi promised that her poses, dietary advice and mental relaxation would defend against aging and illness. Soon, Gloria Swanson and other top stars, not to mention American housewives, flocked to her studio and her books. It’s a promise that still calls many of us to unfurl our yoga mats and get moving.
Meryl Davids Landau is the author of the novel, Downward Dog, Upward Fog, which was the featured December read in the Twitter Yoga Book Club. The novel has been recommended by Yoga Journal, Everything Yoga and YogaDork blogs. Meryl also writes for national publications such as O: the Oprah Magazine, Whole Living and Huffington Post. More information on her novel can be found here. You can also connect with Meryl on Facebook.
This article was prepared by Assistant Yoga Editor, Lauren Foster.