how yoga came to america

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For decades before Vivekananda’s arrival here, the yoga teachings of India had been percolating in the minds of many influential Western writers and spiritual figures. Their first contact with India’s scriptures came through the Upanishads and the Bhagavad-Gita, considered by historians the world’s oldest surviving holy books. Around 1815, a friend and fellow scholar gave the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer translations of these two sacred texts. Schopenhauer was intrigued. He incorporated his understanding of these yoga teachings into his groundbreaking philosophical treatise, The World as Will and Idea. In the preface, he wrote, “’I believe that the influence of the Sanskrit literature will penetrate not less deeply than did the revival of Greek literature in the fifteenth century.” He made the startling prediction that the scriptures of India “… are destined sooner or later to become the faith of the people.” The influence of Schopenhauer among Western intellectuals was vast. Through him, philosophers, writers, and composers such as Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, Tolstoy, Mann, Wagner, and Jung were introduced to Indian philosophy.

Among the first Americans to embrace Indian philosophy with its “supreme task of transformation” were Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, the co-founders of American Transcendentalism. In 1836, Emerson wrote an essay that probably included the first reference to the Bhagavad-Gita in a book published in America. In 1854, Thoreau, in Walden, one of the most beloved of all American essays, wrote, “In the morning I bathe my intellect in the stupendous and cosmogonal philosophy of the Gita, in comparison with which our modern world and its literature seem puny and trivial.” Through the efforts of Emerson, Thoreau and others, the fertile ground of American soil had been well tilled and fertilized in preparation for the arrival of the first yogis in the West. Among this group was Swami Rama Tirtha, a student of Vivekananda’s, who, following the advice of his teacher, was the next yogi to land in America. He arrived in San Francisco in 1902-1903, and lived and lectured there for about 18 months before returning to India.

During this time, Rama Tirtha gained a sizeable local following and started several yoga societies. Not until 1919, when Yogendra Mastanami arrived in New York, did another sage of India come to America. Mastanami stayed for three years, and taught his system of yoga postures to Benedict Lust, the founder of naturopathy. Lust, in turn, was among the first to champion this early version of hatha yoga as an alternative healing technique, rather than a purely spiritual science, as it was originally conceived by the rishis, or ancient yoga masters of India. The visits to American shores by Vivekananda, Rama Tirtha, and Mastanami were true historic events; yet they stayed here for only brief periods. None expressed that their primary mission was to live and teach in the West. That remained the destiny of one who is arguably the most honored and influential of all Yoga masters to arrive here before or since.

In 1920, a young yoga master born at the foot of the Himalayas received an invitation from the American Unitarian Association to serve as India’s delegate to the International Congress of Religious Liberals meeting that year in Boston. A disciple of the legendary Sri Yukteswar, and ordained in the 1,200-year-old swami order founded by Shankara himself in the ninth century, he was given the name Paramhansa Yogananda. In Sanskrit param is defined as “highest,” and hansa as “swan.” The sacred white swan is a symbol of spiritual discrimination. Yogananda means literally, “One who achieves bliss (ananda) through the practice of yoga.” Yogananda arrived in Boston, in August of 1920, and on the sixth of October, presented his first speech in America as planned. He later told of an intense inward vision “which contained a vast panorama of Western faces,” and wrote: “I am going forth to discover America, like Columbus. He thought he had discovered India – surely there must be a karmic link between our two lands.”

Excerpt From Ananda Los Angeles Website, How Yoga Science Came To America

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