It might surprise many people to learn that yoga has a long history in the United States. For a lot of Americans, their knowledge of yoga may only date back to the 1960s, when the concepts of spiritualism and meditation were embraced by the countrys counterculture.
But it might surprise you to learn that yoga has a far longer history in the U.S., dating 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.
Swami Vivekananda was followed by Yogendra Mastamani, also from India, who arrived in the U.S. and settled on Long Island, N.Y. in 1919 and established the American version of Kaivalyadhama, an Indian organization that made major strides in the scientific exploration of yoga. 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. He created the Self-Realization Fellowship, which now has its headquarters in Los Angeles. Yogananda also wrote the world-famous best seller, “Autobiography of a Yogi”, a book that is still an inspirational resource for many yoga instructors and students.
In the 1930s, Jiddu Krishnamurti brought the yogi to new level of awareness in the U.S. thanks to this popular, eloquent speeches on Jnana-Yoga yoga, which is the yoga of discernment. His enlightening talks brought him attention from a number of celebrities, including actors Charlie Chaplin and Greta Garbo and writers Aldous Huxley and George Bernard Shaw.
In 1924, the U.S. imposed a restriction on the number of Indians it would allow to move to the U.S., meaning students who sought the teachings of yogis had to travel to India. One of these students was Theos Bernard, who traveled to India and came back in 1947 to write the book “Hatha Yoga: The Report of a Personal Experience”, an influential book which is still widely today.
The same year that Bernard penned his examination of Hatha Yoga, Russian-born yogi Indra Devi opened one of the first Hatha Yoga studios in Hollywood and earned the title First Lady of Yoga. In addition to housewives across the nation, Devi counted among her fans Hollywood stars Gloria Swanson, Robert Ryan and Jennifer Jones. Devi passed away in her Buenos Ares home in 2002.
But the man who is generally credited with introducing yoga to middle America is not even 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. Hittleman’s goal was to teach American students to gradually embrace the spiritual side of yoga, which many people have.
While Hittleman was expanding the influence of yoga on the East Coast, Walt and Magana Baptiste were building yogas 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.
Also in San Francisco, Swami Vishnu-devananda, arrived from India in 1958 and, with sponsorship from famed artist Peter Max, created the landmark book, The Complete Illustrated Book of Yoga. 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. It implanted the idea of taking a spiritual quest as a dream of many young people.
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. In the mid-70s, Pattabhi Jois came to the U.S. and brought Ashtanga-vinyasa Yoga to the masses At Woodstock, Swami Satchitananda was probably the most popular non-musician to appear there. Swami Sivananda Radha is the female yogi credited with first investigating the link between the spirituality and psychology of yoga. And the teachings of Swamii Chidananda, who himself was a student of yoga master Swami Sivananda, were delivered to the world by one of his former students, instructor Liliias Folan through her landmark PBS television series “Lilias, Yoga and You” which aired on the network from 1970 to 1979 and made yoga available in every home in the U.S.
Yoga has continued its influence across America with classes and studios in cities all over, from the smallest town to the major metro areas. In addition, the advent of digital media, including CDs, DVDs and streaming Internet video, yoga can go anywhere, further giving it a foothold in the United States.