Yoga's Recent History
The modern yoga time period began with the Parliament of Religions in Chicago during 1893, where Swami (meaning “master”) Vivekenanda inspired the American people. After this event, he traveled all over and wrote several books, drawing many students to yoga. Vivekenanda's widespread influence stimulated tremendous interest in Eastern philosophies, which continues to this day.
Paramahansa Yogananada, author of Autobiography of a Yogi, was another popular Yoga teacher. He came to the United States in 1920, and established the Self-Realization Fellowship, which has a worldwide following.
From the early 1930s until he died in 1986, Jiddu Krishnamurti inspired thousands of Westerners, who were seeking knowledge, spirituality, and truth, through his writings and talks. Greta Garbo, Charlie Chaplin, and Aldous Huxley were among his close friends, and Bernard Shaw described Krishnamurti as “the most beautiful human being he ever saw.”
Hatha Yoga was introduced into America by Russian-born Indra Devi, the “first lady of yoga,” who opened her first yoga studio in 1947. Indra was the first non-Indian and first woman to learn the yogic teachings and bring them to the West. She taught many celebrities at her studio and trained hundreds of teachers. Indra lived and opened studios in several other countries and presently resides and teaches in Argentina.
In 1947, Theos Bernard, who studied yoga in India, published Hatha Yoga: The Report of a Personal Experience. This account became a reference book for yoga throughout the 1950s.
Selvarajan Yesudian was a well-known yoga teacher in the 1950s whose book Sport and Yoga sold 50,000 copies and was translated into fourteen or more languages. Today, many professional athletes continue to use yoga to help prevent injuries, focus their minds, and improve their athletic performance.
Richard Hittelman hosted yoga on television in 1961. This pioneering effort, as well as the best-selling book he wrote called The Twenty-Eight-Day Yoga Plan, which sold millions of copies, greatly influenced American thoughts about yoga. Although he was spiritually based in yoga, Richard taught a type of yoga that emphasized health benefits.
In the mid-1960s, the Beatles became involved, briefly, with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and his form of Transcendental Meditation (TM). Their relationship with the Maharishi sparked tremendous interest in yoga. Thousands of people all over the world practiced TM and many more were introduced to meditation as a result. Medical research involving meditation began at this time.
In 1966, Amrit Desai founded Kripalu Yoga and the Yoga Society of Pennsylvania and later the Kripalu Yoga Center in Lenox, Massachusetts. In 1967, B.K.S. Iyengar wrote the classic yoga text for serious yoga students, Light on Yoga. In 1973, he was invited to teach in Ann Arbor, Michigan, by Mary Palmer (mother of senior Iyengar teacher Mary Dunn). B.K.S. Iyengar's emphasis on anatomical precision and correct alignment in postures, as well as the use of props for therapeutic and restorative purposes and for obtaining the best pose possible, impacted the way yoga was taught all over the world.
In the 1960s and 1970s, disciples of the Himalayan master, Swami Sivananada, opened schools in Europe and America. The disciples are:
Swami Vishnudevananda, author of the popular book The Complete Illustrated Book of Yoga.
Swami Satchitananada, who introduced chanting and yoga at Woodstock.
Swami Sivananda Radha, a female swami who studied the connection between yoga and psychology.
Swami Satyananda and Swami Chidananda, of the Sivananda Ashram in Rishkesh, India.
One of Swami Chidananda's most famous students, the popular Lilias Folan, taught a yoga class on PBS for many years during the 1960s and 1970s. In 1969, a Sikh named Yogi Bhajan began teaching Kundalini Yoga to Westerners. Currently there are over 200 of his centers, called Health, Happy Organization, all over the world. Other important Indian Yoga masters of this time include:
Sri Aurobindo, the founder of Integral Yoga
Ramana Maharshi, master of Jnana-Yoga
Papa Ramdas, of Mantra-Yoga
Swami Nityananda, of Siddha-Yoga
Swami Mutkananda, a student of Swami Nityananda, who familiarized Westerners with Siddha Yoga
The great Hatha Yoga master, Sri Krishnamacharya was a scholar of yoga, Sanskrit, Ayurveda, and the healing arts. He utilized yoga as therapy, describing it as “healing without surgery.” There is no Hatha Yoga that hasn't been influenced by Krishnamacharya, through the lineage of teachers he trained. Krishnamacharya was descended from a revered ninth-century yogi named Nathamuni. His father began teaching him the Yoga Sutras at the tender age of five. When Krishnamacharya was sixteen, he made a pilgrimage to the shrine of Nathamuni. There Krishnamacharya had a vision of Nathamuni, who taught him verses from the Yogarahasya (The Essence of Yoga), which Krishnamacharya memorized and later transcribed. This ancient text provided the basis of Krishnamacharya's teachings.
Following this experience, Krishnamacharya continued his education, receiving degrees in philology, logic, divinity, and music. He continued his study of yoga on his own, but yearned for guidance and instruction. A teacher suggested that he seek out a yoga master by the name of Sri Ramamohan Brahmachari. (At this time, there were very few Hatha Yoga masters alive). Krishnamacharya lived with Brahmachari and his family for seven years, memorizing the Yoga Sutra, learning asanas, pranayama, and the therapeutics of yoga. His teacher never asked Krishnamacharya for payment. Instead, Brahmacharya instructed Krishnamacharya to return to the world, marry, and teach yoga.
Krishnamacharya began teaching and married by arrangement. For many years, he and his wife lived in poverty, because teaching yoga was not profitable. When he wasn't teaching, Krishnamacharya would travel and give demonstrations and lectures to help popularize yoga. He would demonstrate supra-normal abilities, such as stopping his pulse, stopping cars with his bare hands, and lifting heavy things with his bare teeth. Finally, he was well compensated and could teach yoga full time. The Maharaja of Mysore helped Krishnamacharya publicize yoga for the next twenty years. After this time, Krishnamacharya was offered the use of the palace's gymnastics hall as his yoga school.
After much persistence, Indra Devi became Krishnamacharya's first Western female student. He taught her yoga instruction, diet, and pranayama. At this time in his life, Krishnamacharya was teaching a gentler type of yoga, focusing on sequencing of postures. Indra set up yoga schools throughout the world and is still teaching at 103 years of age.
B.K.S. Iyengar received instruction from Krishnamacharya for only a short period of time. However, he was deeply influenced by Krishnamacharya. Indeed, both greatly emphasized the therapeutic benefits of yoga. Afterwards, Iyengar would practice and explore the poses using his own body. He utilized a wide variety of natural props, such as steam rollers for back bends and heavy cobble stones to force his legs into Baddha Konasana (bound angle pose). His wife, Ramamani, worked with him in his experimentation with the asanas. Iyengar is known worldwide as both a teacher and a healer.
Iyengar developed a style of yoga that was intensely introspective and focused on detailed anatomical articulation of the asanas, the development of specific therapeutic yoga sequences, and his rigorous, many-leveled teacher training system. His Hatha Yoga style has deeply affected every type of Hatha Yoga. He certainly has had an amazing impact upon the West's fascination with and practice of yoga.
Krishnamacharya's last major student and disciple was his own son. T.K.V. Desikachar, trained as an engineer, originally felt no urge to teach yoga, and when he did, his father tried to dissuade him. Thus began twenty-eight years of study, with Krishnamacharya tutoring his son. During this time, Krishnamacharya was refining his approach, now called Viniyoga. This style emphasized an individualized focus, tailoring practice to the therapeutic needs of the student. Practice was now divided into three life stages: youth, middle, and old age. As students progressed, the spiritual aspect of practice was stressed, while respecting an individual's cultural background.
Krishnamacharya's legacy is that he was able to respect the past teachings of yoga and adapt them to meet modern needs. Through this willingness to experiment and refine, he and his teachers have brought yoga to millions around the world. Today his son Desikachar, carries on his legacy, teaching at the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram, in Chennai, India, and teaching Viniyoga to teachers and students all over the world.
Yoga in America has grown immensely in popularity during the 1990s and early twenty-first century. The seeds that were planted in 1893 have pollinated and cross-pollinated.