Tag Archives: Yoga in the West

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’


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


how yoga became a $27 billion industry — and reinvented american spirituality

In 1971, Sat Jivan Singh Khalsa moved to New York to open a yoga studio. A lawyer moonlighting as a Kundalini yoga teacher, he set up shop in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn, opening a school to share the teachings of the spiritual leader Yogi Bhajan. At that time, there were only two other yoga studios in the city.

In the more than 40 years since Khalsa opened his school, he has watched as yoga in America has evolved from a niche activity of devout New Agers to part of the cultural mainstream. Dozens of yoga variations can be found within a 1-mile radius of his studio in Manhattan’s Flatiron District, from Equinox power yoga to yogalates to “zen bootcamp.” Across America, students, stressed-out young professionals, CEOs and retirees are among those who have embraced yoga, fueling a $27 billion industry with more than 20 million practitioners — 83 percent of them women. As Khalsa says, “The love of yoga is out there and the time is right for yoga.”

Perhaps inevitably, yoga’s journey from ancient spiritual practice to big business and premium lifestyle — complete with designer yogawear, mats, towels, luxury retreats and $100-a-day juice cleanses — has some devotees worrying that something has been lost along the way. The growing perception of yoga as a leisure activity catering to a high-end clientele doesn’t help. “The number of practitioners and the amount they spend has increased dramatically in the last four years,” Bill Harper, vice president of Active Interest Media’s Healthy Living Group, told Yoga Journal.
Of course, much of yoga’s appeal is the fact that it can be traced back roughly 5,000 years — in a world of exercise trends and diet fads, it’s a tradition that has stood the test of time.

Traditionally, Yoga (Sanskrit for “divine union”) has one single aim: stilling the thoughts of the mind in order to experience one’s true self, and ultimately, to achieve liberation (moksha) from the cycle of birth and death (samsara), or enlightenment.

Others are more optimistic about the evolution of yoga in America, welcoming the conversations and occasional yoga-world infighting that have accompanied its rise.

“If you value yoga and the traditions it comes from, it’s a good problem to have,” Philip Goldberg, a spiritual teacher and author of American Veda, tells The Huffington Post. “Ever since the ideas of yoga came here in book form and then the gurus started to arrive, it’s all been a question of how do you adapt these ancient teachings and practices, modernize them and bring them to a new culture, without distorting or corrupting them, or diluting their effect? That’s really the key issue here.”

Of course, much of yoga’s appeal is the fact that it can be traced back roughly 5,000 years — in a world of exercise trends and diet fads, it’s a tradition that has stood the test of time. Traditionally, Yoga (Sanskrit for “divine union”) has one single aim: stilling the thoughts of the mind in order to experience one’s true self, and ultimately, to achieve liberation (moksha) from the cycle of birth and death (samsara), or enlightenment.The Westernized, modernized form of the ancient practice expresses just one component of what was originally considered yoga. The physical practice of postures, or asana, is one of eight traditional limbs of yoga, as outlined in the foundational text of yoga philosophy, The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, thought to be over 2,000 years old. These limbs present a sort of eightfold path to enlightenment, which includes turning inward, meditation, concentration and mindful breathing. The Sutras make no mention of any specific postures, but the original 15 yoga poses were later outlined in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, dated to the 15th century CE, making it one of the oldest surviving texts of hatha yoga, the yoga of physical exercises.

Balancing the old and the new is the “number-one challenge” for the Yoga Alliance(YA), the largest nonprofit association representing yoga teachers, schools and studios, according to CEO Richard Karpel.

“[When] the Yoga Alliance created standards for teacher training programs back in 1999, one of the primary focuses was on respecting diversity … nobody wanted an organization to tell people how to practice or teach yoga,” Karpel told The Huffington Post. “By [2011], the balance had shifted … where the concern was more about rigor.”

The rise of “spiritual but not religious” has supported this return to yoga’s traditional teachings. More than 1 in 3 Americans describe themselves as spiritual but not religious, according to a 2012 Pew Forum survey.

Goldberg explains that this inward-facing spirituality — in which individuals, whether or not they ever set foot on a yoga mat, turn inward to develop a connection with something larger than themselves — is fundamentally a yogic one, and that in fact, we are becoming a “nation of yogis.”

“People are taking charge of their spiritual lives in a very yogic way,” he says. “That’s changing the face of spirituality in the West.”

Excerpts from Huffington Post Article How Yoga Became A $27 Billion Industry — And Reinvented American Spirituality by Carolyn Gregoire