In December of last year, a former student of mine reached out, knowing I had recently completed a year-long training in senior adult yoga, asking if I would teach her mother-in-law. I enthusiastically said yes, and it’s one of the best things to have happened to me, in so many ways. Ten months later, we still meet weekly and share yoga practices, stories and laughter. It’s healing and enriching for both of us.
During one of our first meetings, she lent me a book of hers written in 1965, that she has owned since around the same time, called Yoga, Youth, and Reincarnation (side note: if you want to be a healthy individual at the age of 80, begin practicing yoga at the age of 30). That book completely opened my eyes to a deeper understanding of yoga as we know it. Here’s why: Ralph Waldo Emerson practiced yoga. Henry David Thoereau studied the Bhagavad Gita. These men, in Concord, Massachusetts, were a part of the yoga movement here in North America, and I had no idea. This little fact sent me down a whole lotta research and a whole lotta understanding of yoga as we know it, and some of that, I’ll bring to you here today.
It takes someone who people respect in order to create change. A lot of people practiced yoga back then, although not nearly as many as today. But these two men, with their influences in modern society, I’m certain they helped the growth of yoga in North America. They had to.
I dove back into my studies of BKS Iyengar and Yogananda and Swami Vivekanda and TKV Desikachar and Osho and then I learned more about the latter and got really, really upset. Upset that he was so un-enlightening and upset that he was (and is) treated like such a guru, and then upset because teacher after teacher after teacher that I spoke to about this had never even heard of him.
So this is two-sided. I still think the dude is a creep. But come on, yoga teachers, we need to know the history behind this practice. We can’t just name Kathryn Budig or whoever is currently on the cover of Yoga Journal as our role models (and I dig her, too). We must know the history of what we’re teaching. We can’t just name shapes and not know the why behind those shapes or memorize a sequence or (worse) memorize the correct order of words needed to call a sequence and consider us teachers. We have to go deeper. The purpose of yoga is to go deeper.
So this all led me to this post, today. Below is a brief overview of the History of Yoga in North America. I say brief as it’s almost impossible to include all of the game changers, and I’m sure I’m getting some things wrong, so please, don’t reference this as the only truth. My hope is that it’ll give you the opportunity or encouragement to dig deeper and see who is who and how this practice got here and why.
Giving credit where credit is due: much of this came from the above-mentioned book by Jess Stearn, and much of it came from my 200-hour training, led by Surya Barrow, inspired by her recommendation of reading the book Autobiography of a Yogi by Yogananda. These two books spun me down the path of reading many other books, and researching articles, and googling, and learning as much as I possibly can about who: who brought this practice here? If we understand who, maybe we can learn why.
History of Yoga in North America
“In the morning I bathe my intellect in the stupendous and cosmogonal philosophy of the Bhagvat Geeta, since whose composition years of the gods have elapsed, and in comparison with which our modern world and its literature seem puny and trivial; and I doubt if that philosophy is not to be referred to a previous state of existence, so remote is its sublimity from our conceptions. I lay down the book and go to my well for water, and lo! there I meet the servant of the Bramin, priest of Brahma and Vishnu and Indra, who still sits in his temple on the Ganges reading the Vedas, or dwells at the root of a tree with his crust and water jug. I meet his servant come to draw water for his master, and our buckets as it were grate together in the same well. The pure Walden water is mingled with the sacred water of the Ganges.”
~ Henry David Thoreau, Walden, written in 1854
1854: So this is where it begins, in my mind. In 1854, we have Henry David Thoreau writing an absolutely beautiful essay about his time spent alone in nature. In this piece, he references the Bhagavad Gita. I believe this is what did it – this is what helped the awareness of yoga begin in North America. I am not aware of Thoreau, or his good friend Ralph Waldo Emerson, practicing yoga as we know it today, but from what I can tell, yoga was not as we know it today. Yoga was meditation, I believe. The asanas were created by Indian gurus once they came here, to America. My belief, from reading after reading, is that Americans couldn’t handle stillness or meditation, so asanas were created in order to keep us moving, and to hope that the stillness in the poses affected our lives in a similar way as meditation did for them. Boy, did that ever work.
“Arise, awake, and stop not till the goal is reached.”
~ Swami Vivekananda
1893: Indian mystic Swami Vivekananada spoke at the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago. Vivekanada apparently chose to come to America because we were a materialistic group and needed some deeper values in our life. Not much has changed. His speech created an awakening of raja yoga (mostly meditation) on the eastern and western coasts of the U.S., and introduced Hinduism to America. Side note: 100 year-old yoga teacher Tao Porchon-Lynch‘s uncle was a student of his. Pretty cool, yea?
“The season of failure is the best time for sowing the seeds of success.”
~ Paramahansa Yogananda
1920: Indian mystic Paramahansa Yogananda spoke at the International Congress of Religious Liberals in Boston. I expect that Yogananda was a student of Vivekananda’s, however, he only mentions him once in his book Autobiography of a Yogi. Five years later, Yogananda started the Self-Realization Fellowship (still in existence), dedicated to spreading his word and his practice of kriya yoga, focusing on meditation and pranayama – much less on the asanas. Yogananda is significant in that I think he was the main Indian guru who stayed here the longest: he didn’t just visit the U.S. for a year or two, he was here for at least 20 years. Yogananda’s little brother Bishnu Charan Ghosh followed him to the U.S. about 20 years after Yogananda’s arrival; his focus was on the physical aspects of yoga and bodybuilding. The student of Ghosh whose influence we know as a house-hold name in North America is Bikram Choudhury. Still today, there are yoga studios dedicated to Bikram’s practices all over this country, and despite his reputation, I expect many of them to always be in existence.
“Teach what is inside you, not as it applies to you, to yourself, but as it applies to the other”
~ Sri T. Krishnamacharya
1947: Sri Krishnamacharya student Indra Devi visited America and opened a yoga studio in California. Indra was the first of Krishnamacharya’s students to come here, and she to this day is often called the Mother of Western Yoga, or the First Lady of Yoga. Indra was the first female student that Krishnamacharya allowed into his school, in 1937. She was probably the first of any female who was entered into any yoga school. This is a big deal: women were not allowed to practice yoga, from what I understand, until Indra came on the scene. It appears that she was the only female student of Krishnamacharya’s. In 1948, Indra opened up what I believe to be the first yoga studio in North America, the Indra Devi Yoga Studio.
1954: Yogi Gupta (Sri Swami Kailashananda), ayurvedic doctor and yoga guru came to America and founded Yogi Gupta Ashram, the first Hatha yoga studio in the U.S.
1955: Walt and Magana Baptiste, students of Yogananda (parents of Baron Baptiste), started Baptiste Yoga in California.
“Health is wealth; peace of mind is happiness; yoga shows the way.”
~ Swami Vishnnudevananda
1957: Swami Vishnudevananda, student of Swami Sivananda Saraswati, visited America. From what I can tell, it was these two men who started the whole yoga retreat game, establishing centers all over western California dedicated to mediation, yoga, healthy meals, workshops, and more.
“My beloved brothers and sisters, I am overwhelmed with joy to see the entire youth of America gathered here in the name of music. In fact, through music we can work wonders. Music is the celestial sound and it is sound that controls the whole universe, not atomic vibrations. Sound energy, sound power, is much, much greater than any other power in this world.”
“One thing I very much wish you all to remember – with sound we can make, and at the same time break. So let all our actions and all our arts express Yoga. Through the sacred art of music let us find peace that will pervade all over the globe. The future of the whole world is in your hands. You can make it or break it. The entire world is going to be watching. The entire world is going to know what the American youth can do for humanity.”
~ Swami Satchidananda, opening speech at Woodstock, 1969
1969: Swami Satchidananda was the opening speaker at Woodstock, calling on our nation’s youth to help change the world (sounds like current day, yes?). He later founded Yogaville, a retreat and conference center in rural Virginia. Many credit Satchidananda as the guru who awakened yoga in North America. He’s also responsible for creating Integral Yoga, a science-based practice combining the physical, spiritual and intellectual aspects of asana.
“The heart surrenders everything to the moment. The mind judges and holds back.”
― Ram Dass
1971: Spiritual teacher Ram Dass wrote Be Here Now, one of the premiere spiritual and yoga-related books of its time.
“Yoga teaches us to cure what need not be endured and endure what cannot be cured.”
~ B.K.S. Iyengar
1973: BKS Iyengar, also a student of Sri Krishnamacharya, came to the US, at the age of 55. Krishnamacharya‘s other well-known students visited a few years later: Pattabhi Jois (founder of Ashtanga yoga) and his son TKV Desikachar (a fascinating engineer-turned yoga teacher whose emphasis was on adapting yoga postures for each individual body). Krishnamacharya‘s life was spent studying Sanskrit, ayurveda, philosophy, and yoga as a movement matched to breath (vinyasa). He is often referred to as the Father of Modern Yoga. Iyengar is more of a house-hold name in the U.S., but all 4 of these men greatly influenced the yoga that I know and practice. Interestingly, it was Rama Jyoti Vernon, co-founder of Yoga Journal Magazine, who helped get the word out about BKS Iyengar. In addition to creating Yoga Journal (with Judith Lasater, also a student of BKS Iyengar‘s), she created the Iyengar Yoga Institute in 1974, still in existence today.
1973: Bikram Choudhury opened his first yoga studio in the U.S., in San Francisco.
1975: Dharma Mittra, student of Yogi Gupta, opened Dharma Yoga in New York
1978: Donald Moyer, long-time student of BKS Iyengar, teacher and author, founded The Yoga Room in Berkeley.
1979: The Yoga Teacher’s Association (a yoga school and resource center) was founded by Tao Porchon-Lynch, student of Pattabi Jois and BKS Iyengar.
“Life begins where fear ends.”
1981: Osho (known as Rajeesh at the time) opened up shop in Oregon, completely overtaking a town and spreading his ashram filled with various meditation practices, sex practices, and I assume some asanas as well. Osho was the heart of my first yoga training, so I dove into his teachings almost more than any other Indian guru. Osho is a captivating speaker and his words have most definitely sparked the deepening of various yoga and meditation practices around the world.
1981: Tim Miller, the first western student to be certified by Patthabi Jois, took over the management of Ashtanga Yoga Nilayam in Carlsbad.
1984: Sharon Ganon and David Life, students of Patthabi Jois, founded Jivamukti Yoga in New York.
1984: This was the year of the first First International Iyengar Yoga Convention which was chaired by Manouso Manos. Manuoso is one of the most experience Iyengar teachers in the U.S. (apparently only 2 people in the world have an advanced certificate from BKS Iyengar, and Manuoso is one of them).
Mid-1980s: Patricia Walden, long-time student of BKS Iyengar (she has studied with him and his daughter annually for over 40 years) opened the BKS Iyengar Center of Cambridge, now I believe called Down Under Yoga.
1987: Maty Ezraty, a student of Patthabi Jois, along with Alan Finger (whose dad was a student of Yogananda and Swami Sivanada) and Chuck Miller (also a student of Patthabi Jois) founded Yoga Works in California. Side note: Rod Stryker‘s lineage come from Alan Finger and Alan’s dad Kavi Yogiraj Mani Finger.
1987: Richard Freeman (one of the first students certified by Pattabhi Jois) opened the Yoga Workshop in Boulder.
1996: Alison West, student of BKS Iyengar and Pattabhi Jois, opened Yoga Union and the Yoga Union Back Care and Scoliosis Center in New York.
1998-ish: Tias Little, student of BKS Iyengar and Pattabhi Jois, opened Prajna Yoga with his wife Surya Little, also a student of Pattabhi Jois, in Santa Fe.
1999: Gary Kraftsow, longtime student of Desikachar, opened the American Viniyoga Institute in California.
2006: Tim Feldmann and Kino MacGregor, both students of Pattabhi Jois, founded Miami Life Center.
2013: He doesn’t own a studio so this doesn’t totally fit on this list (and now I’m realizing I need to not just put modern studio owners here) but Erich Schifmman needs to be mentioned – this is the year that his beautiful book Yoga: The Spirit and Practice of Moving into Stillness came out. Erich was a student of both Iyengar and Desikachar.
Since we’re not including studio owners now: Seane Corne, Noah Maze, Bryan Kest, Kia Miller – all students of Patthabi Jois. And then there’s all the students that come from all of these yogis, indirectly taught by the Indian gurus: Kathryn Budig, Rodney Yee, Amy Ippolliti, Jason Crandell, Cyndi Lee, Elena Brower, Annie Carpenter, etc., etc., etc.
This list can go on and on, and even then, I’ll leave off someone. My intention of this was to show (as far as I know) who came here from India to share their knowledge of what yoga is – and then to show what these students have done with it in order to carry on the wisdom.
Finally, I spent a lot of time looking up many of the current day teachers, and several don’t reference their lineage. What gives? And also, there’s a huge part of me that says, does that even matter? Doesn’t yoga come from within, anyway? Do we need these teachers or these accolades? It’s a point worth making, and maybe that alone will be another blog post, way down the road. For now, I hope you enjoyed what I intended to be a brief history of yoga. I hope you can see how your current teachers learned from some of the first to come here. My question now is, who gave Henry David Thoreau the Bhagavad Gita?? 🙂
With love, to all of you, but especially to Myrna, who got me down this path of how and why and what yoga is. This pecan pie is her favorite dessert and I made it especially for her: with less sugar than a normal recipe, as she asked. I hope you enjoy.