Tag Archives: History of Yoga

the great oom

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Yoga, that mystical art that’s become a regimen for 15 million Americans, came to this country from the East.

Eastern Nebraska, to be precise.

That’s where, back in 1889, a 13-year-old named Perry Baker met his first yogi, and American-style yoga was born.

The Iowa-born teenager soon remade himself with a new name — Pierre Bernard — and his exploits, and yoga’s sometimes-rocky journey to respectability, are chronicled in the new book The Great Oom: The Improbable Birth of Yoga in America.

Author Robert Love tells NPR’s Guy Raz how Bernard weathered early rumors of rampant sex and drug use, and later an arrest, to lay the foundation for an empire.

“He was so far ahead of his time that it is no wonder that he was lost to history,” Love says. “People didn’t know what to do with him. We want our gurus and our holy men to be soft-spoken aesthetics — here is a true American rough-and-tumble original who happened to be a mystic as well.”

“I think he is a missing link in the great story of how yoga moved from East to West. And Bernard was merely laughed off as a kind of a footnote. I hope my book at least puts the record straight and sets up an argument for him as a real pioneer in bringing yoga to America.”

Excerpts from NPR Article and Interview with Robert Love, Author of ‘The Great Oom’: Yoga’s Wild Ride To Respectability’


awake: the life of yogananda


yoga philosophy

mythpatanjali

The tradition of Patañjali in the oral and textual tradition of the Yoga Sūtras is accepted by traditional Vedic schools as the authoritative source on Yoga, and it retains this status in Hindu circles into the present day. In contrast to its modern Western transplanted forms, Yoga essentially consists of meditative practices culminating in attaining a state of consciousness free from all modes of active or discursive thought, and of eventually attaining a state where consciousness is unaware of any object external to itself, that is, is only aware of its own nature as consciousness unmixed with any other object. This state is not only desirable in its own right, but its attainment guarantees the practitioner freedom from every kind of material pain or suffering, and, indeed, is the primary classical means of attaining liberation from the cycle of birth and death in the Indic soteriological traditions, that is, in the theological study of salvation in India. The Yoga Sūtras were thus seen by all schools, not only as the orthodox manual for guidance in the techniques and practices of meditation, but also for the classical Indian position on the nature and function of mind and consciousness, for the mechanisms of action in the world and consequent rebirth, and for the metaphysical underpinnings and description of the attainment of mystical powers.

Excerpt fron Article The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali from Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy


yoga in practice

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“I realized that there are a lot of other ways to read these yoga texts and combine them. And there’s not a right and wrong. It’s a chaos of traditions. There’s just no way to make them all fit together nicely, because they never did.” (David Gordon White)

Built out of the vitality of yoga’s fractured, hybrid history, Yoga in Practice gathers a diverse collection of texts from India, greater Asia and the West into a jumbling whole. And in the process of reading its chapters, you’re reminded just how fluid yoga’s history is, shapeshifting with colossal dexterity over the yugas. With solid contributions from twenty-six yoga scholars, and sources that span four major religious traditions (Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Jainism)…

In his own words, David Gordon White’s loyalty is to history. But calling him an historian, and thereby anchoring him to history alone, somehow overlooks the enormous scope of his work with mythology and folklore. What’s behind the love of a story and are its moorings the same as historical narrative? What allows an historian to grapple with yoga’s fragmented, discontinuous story without the “normative” paralysis of the researcher/observer?

And to that end, David Gordon White has made endless contributions to the history of yoga, revealing the inaccuracies that are inevitably woven into the fabric of contemporary practice…making it clear that our yoga practice contains preferences. And if he seems occasionally worried, maybe he’s got good reason.

Occasional preferences are benign enough, but sustained historical preferences are hard to locate and treat. And left unchecked…well, they can turn ugly. You all know this. Surely, you’ve strained or pulled a muscle somewhere somehow. Ultimately, it’s not the strain you treat, it’s the habit that got you there. Neutralizing yoga’s history seems at least as difficult as getting one’s body into a state of balance.

And as for David’s question about why it is that we settle with a hodge-podge of philosophies? Or more particularly, why we insist on the Yoga Sutras as a primary text of sorts?…

Still, it seems wonderful and amazing that our yoga practice made of inaccurate, ill-conceived historical fragments and shambles can have such ritual power. It would seem then that an inaccurate practice is not an entirely ineffectual one…

I suppose I’d like to have another chat with David…maybe when the next book comes out. In the meantime I’m curious to see what would happen if people like David White (who like swimming more than yoga), were to design a new yoga. Would it gently bend to either historical or physical preference? Perhaps in David White’s masterful hands, the ubiquitous “downward dog” would become the liminal “downward dog-man”, a new canine shape with an ancient folkloric history?? I’d not mind that. Wouldn’t you like to see scholarship in the flesh…where the plot is messy and mutable?

Yoga in Practice: In and Out of the Labyrinth with Historian David Gordon White, Phd  Excerpts from Article and Intereview By Priya Thomas


yoga: the art of transformation

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Around 1600, a dramatic shift took place in Mughal art. The Mughal emperors of India were the most powerful monarchs of their day—at the beginning of the seventeenth century, they ruled over a hundred million subjects, five times the number administered by their only rivals, the Ottomans. Much of the painting that took place in the ateliers of the first Mughal emperors was effectively dynastic propaganda, and gloried in the Mughals’ pomp and prestige. Illustrated copies were produced of the diaries of Babur, the conqueror who first brought the Muslim dynasty of the Mughal emperors to India in 1526, as well as exquisite paintings illustrating every significant episode in the biography of his grandson, Akbar.

Then, quite suddenly, at this moment of imperial climax, a young Hindu khanazad (or “palace-born”) prodigy named Govardhan began painting images of a sort that had never been seen before in Mughal art. They were not pictures of battles or court receptions. Instead they were closely observed portraits of holy men performing yogic asanas or exercises that aimed to focus the mind and achieve spiritual liberation and transcendence. The results of Govardhan’s experiments in painting—along with a superbly curated selection of several hundred other images from the history of yoga—were recently on view in “Yoga: The Art of Transformation,”a remarkable exhibition at the Freer and Sackler galleries in Washington, D.C., which will travel next to San Francisco and Cleveland.

Excerpt from The New York Review of Books article Under the Spell of Yoga by William Dalrymple


short history of women in yoga in the west

yogawoman

Before the modern period, there are stories of great yoginis and female Tantric gurus but with modernity the strangest of candidates wins the prize for first Western yogini. Queen Victoria, the “Empress of India,” a very Christian, and, of course, a very “Victorian” woman, had 18 lessons from the long-lived yogi Shivapuri Baba, who she entertained at court sometime after 1870.

A deeper story of women in yoga begins with another woman of nobility, the Russian, Helena Petrovna Blavatsky—one of the most independent thinkers who ever lived. Leaving her husband, she travelled the world exploring divergent religions and occult societies from the late 1840s to the early ‘70s. In this period, she became familiar with yoga. She later introduced it to the world through her popular books. Blavatsky founded the Theosophical Society, which fostered East-West dialog. It took the lead in translating and publishing yoga texts. Blavatsky’s successors in the Society, Kathleen Tingley and Annie Besant also promoted yoga (But like Helena, they were disparaging of it, too—it’s complicated!). Besant’s commentaries on the Bhagavad Gita and Yoga Sutras are genius works that remain compelling, and Tingley opened what was arguably America’s first ashram with a “Raja Yoga Academy” in Point Loma, California in 1897. Like many women who followed on the path, Tingley was globally active in helping others and building world peace through teaching, protests, and work in NGOs.

The Bostonians, Sara Bull and Sarah Farmer became good friends during international travel and were among the first true yoga practitioners in the West. They hatched a plan to host the great Swami Vivekananda (who had brought yoga to America in 1893) giving him a platform at their Green Acre conferences.

Wealthy women hosted many Indian Gurus after Vivekananda and there was something of a scare in America about their influence, for no small number of U.S. women gave up normal lives for their gurus. Chief among these was Margaret Noble, who took the name Sister Nivedita, who committed herself to Vivekananda in 1898 to become the first woman to join an Indian monk’s order. She lived the rest of her life in India, becoming a champion of national independence and the nobility of Indian life.

Ruled by the United Kingdom, many women Britons toured India. Mollie Stack came in 1912, learning yoga from a local pandit. After her husband died, she modified what she learned and devised posture sequencing called the “Stretch and Swing” system. Hence, she created flowing posture workouts almost a decade before the “Ashtanga” system, worked out by Pattabhi Jois and Krishnamacarya in Mysore.

In Mysore, Krishnamacharya applied yoga to pregnancy and taught the practice to the women of his family as well Indra Devi (see below). His contemporary, Sri Yogendra, who founded the Yoga Institute outside Bombay in 1924, taught his wife. Sita Devi. She subsequently became the first woman to publish a book on yoga for women, Yoga Simplified for Women of ‘34.

Before Vivekananda came West, Pierre Bernard was trained by a Syrian Tantric in Nebraska beginning in 1888. Bernard later taught his wife yoga. Blanche Devries began to teach some time after 1913 and is the first influential female yoga teacher in America. In 1938, she opened up the first female-owned yoga studio (in New York City). She taught until 1982 and influenced movie star clients and a host of teachers who would influence the practice in later years.

One of these was Rebekah Harkness, though her fame—like Bull and Farmer’s—came from being a great host, rather than a great yogi. She invited B. K. S. Iyengar to America in 1956, and so he made his first visit. Not pleased (he said Americans cared just for three W’s: “Wealth, wine and women”), he did not come again for 17 years, but the precedent had been set. When Mary Palmer hosted B. K. S. in Ann Arbor in ’73, a new crop of powerful female teachers burst onto the scene. Among them was Palmer’s daughter Mary Dunn, plus Patricia Walden, Patricia Sullivan, Rama Jyoti Vernon, and Judith Hanson Lasater.

Iyengar’s yoga was workmanlike, not glamorous, and outside this stream of teachers devoted to Iyengar’s modest style, Indra Devi taught great women of film beginning in 1947. Following DeVries lead, she opened a studio on America’s opposite coast, in Hollywood, where yoga’s promise to “end gray hair and allow neither old age or wrinkles to arise” attracted the backlot’s beauties: Gloria Swanson, Ruth St. Denis and Greta Garbo among others. The Livonian-born Devi showed a communal spirit in her work and toured the world with her skills, landing in Russia, China and South America—where she was much beloved.

One who came to learn from her was already a skilled yogi. Magana Baptiste, a dancer in movies, Miss USA runner-up in 1951, and mother to the great teachers Sherri and Baron Baptiste, opened a gym devoted to bodybuilding and yoga in San Francisco with her husband, Walt, in 1956. Walt, a Mr. America in 1948, taught her the yoga he’d learned from the Paramahansa Yogananda lineage. Magana supplemented this by lessons from Devi in Hollywood and San Francisco—where she hosted her teacher.

Like Sister Nivedita, Devi had been the first Western woman to devote herself to her specific guru (Krishnamacarya), and the Canadian, Swami Sivananda Radha had the same role with her teacher, Swami Sivananda. She saw him in a vision in 1955 and traveled to India to be his chela (student). After taking monastic vows, the Swami routed her back to Canada in ‘56, where she established one of the first Canadian Ashrams, Yasodhara. Significantly, she eschewed any cult of personality by forbidding likenesses of her guru or herself on the estate. Like her mentor, she wrote as easily as she breathed. She founded Ascent Magazine and published close to 30 books in her lifetime.

The explosion of international dialog in yoga was strongly stimulated by Devi (in addition to travel, she wrote books too), but dialog was restrained by immigration law. When the America’s Asian Exclusion Act was rescinded in ‘65, a flood of Eastern teachers came to serve the divine curiosity of the Baby Boomers.

Iyengar yoga came then, too, in the form of his Light on Yoga (in 1966). His practice appealed more to women than Pattabhi Jois’ more athletic Ashtanga form—which arrived in 1975. Ashtanga conscripted mainly male teachers. But when Tim Miller created freestyle vinyasa in the mid-1980s, a door was opened to the spirit of dance. Women then took hold of the flow practice as they had in Mollie Stack’s time.

Excerpt from Article A Short History of Women in Yoga in the West by Dr. Eric Shaw Posted at yogawoman.tv


yoga’s trip to america

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Vivekananda in Pasadena, California, in 1900

“In America is the place, the people, the opportunity for everything new,” wrote Swami Vivekananda before he left India in 1893. Vivekananda had learned from his guru, Sri Ramakrishna, that the world’s religions “are but various phases of one eternal religion” and that spiritual essence could be transmitted from one person to another. He set about to bring that transmission to our shores. His first speech was at the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago. “Sisters and brothers of America,” he began, and the audience was on its feet, giving him a standing ovation. Our love affair with the East was born, and so began a steady stream of Eastern ideas flowing west.

Introduction to Yoga Journal Article Yoga’s Trip to America By Holly Hammond