You might be surprised to find out that yoga has been a part of the U.S. fitness efforts for a long time. For many in this country, the concept of yoga is connected to the 1960s when the ideas of spiritualism and inner peace were promoted by the counterculture.
But it may surprise some people to learn that yoga in the U.S. has a history that dates back to the late 1800s.
In 1883, the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago welcomed Swami Vivekananda, who received a standing ovation when he greeted his “sisters and brothers in America” in the audience. 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.
A year later, Paramahansa Yogananda, of one the most well-known yogis in the U.S., settled in Boston and brought kriya yoga to the United States. In 1925, he created the Self-Realization Fellowship (its headquarters are now in Los Angeles). In addition, Yogananda wrote the international best seller “Autobiography of a Yogi”, which continues to be a source of inspiration for many yoga 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 talks earned him the admiration of a number of celebrities of the time, such as writers Aldous Huxley and George Bernard Shaw and actors Charlie Chaplin and Greta Garbo.
Due to a 1924 U.S. restriction on the number of Indians that were allowed to immigrate to the country, students in the West sought the teaching of yogis had to travel to India. One such student, Theos Bernard, traveled to India and returned in 1947 to write the influential book, “Hatha Yoga: The Report of a Personal Experience”, which is still read 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. Richard Hittleman, who studied in India for a number of years and returned to the States in 1950 to become a yoga instructor in New York, introduced a non-spiritual-based yoga to the United States and forever changed the way yoga was thought of and taught in America. It was Hittleman who placed emphasis on the physical side of yoga, letting a Western audience focus on the bodily aspects of yoga and not just the mind. It was Hittleman’s hope that American students would eventually embrace the spiritual and meditative side of yoga (which many have).
While Hittleman was expanding the influence of yoga on the East Coast, Walt and Magana Baptiste were building yoga’s reputation as a viable study on the West Coast with their San Francisco studio established in the mid 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 influence is being continued by their daughter and son, Sherri and Baron.
Elsewhere in San Francisco, Swami Vishu-devananda immigrated from India in 1958 and created “The Complete Illustrated Book of Yoga” with famed artist and designer Peter Max. 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 Transcendental 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”. The book continues to be source of inspiration for many people in their quest for spirituality through yoga.
In the 1970s, yoga continued to grow as studios began popping up all over the nation. Mount Madonna, founded by Baba Hari Dass, brought residential yoga instruction to Santa Cruz, California. Shrila Prabhubada began the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, which led to the international spiritual study 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. At Woodstock, Swami Satchitananda was probably the most popular non-musician to appear there. 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.