The Fascinating Story of American Yoga

Yoga History USA

You might be surprised to learn that yoga has an extensive tradition in the United States. Most would point back to the 1960s as the dawn of the yoga scene, a time when the ideas of meditation and spiritualism were adopted by the counterculture of the country. Yet it was as early as the 1800s that the fascinating story began.

Way back in 1883, when foundations were being formed for the statue of Liberty and the Brooklyn Bridge was finally opened to horse and carts, a Hindu man by the name of Swami Vivekananda made a historic speech at the World Parliament of Religion in Chicago. In this speech he introduced Indian practices to the West, discussing the concept of body, spirit and mind to a receptive audience.

Swami Vivekananda hadn’t intended to spread yoga to the West. He knew that the impoverished masses in India needed help but was against the views of hundreds of missionaries who believed that aid should come in the form of Christianity. Even though he hadn’t been invited to attend, he decided the World Parliament of Religion was a good place to start to raise funds to bring back to India. He stole the show, a show intended to strengthen the movement of Christianity, and soon after became a sought-after guru to Americans eager to learn about the yama and niyamas, pranayama and Kundalini.

Following in the footsteps of the young Swami, Yogendra Mastamani set up a branch in New York in 1919 to promote the principles of yoga. And starting in the 1930s, Jiddu Krishnamurti began conducting eloquent seminars to an audience including celebrities such as Greta Garbo and Charlie Chaplin.

However, efforts were slowed in 1917, when West Coast union leaders got Congress to pass a bill keeping Indians and those from other Asian countries from settling in the U.S. This bill was intended to stop low-wage Asian immigrants from flooding the employment market. These quotas weren’t ended until 1965, when President Johnson signed the Immigration and Nationalization Act.

This change allowed Swami Satchidananda (who came in 1966), Swami Rama (1969), Swami Muktananda (1970), Yogi Bhajan (1969) and the other Indian gurus who had such a major impact on America’s yoga scene to stay for extended periods to teach and spread the seeds of yoga across the nation.

One of the first yoga studios was opened in West Hollywood in 1947 by a petite German actress named Indra Devi, who many consider to be “The First Lady of Yoga”. Devi had learnt the asanas while a diplomat’s wife in Bombay. The practice only started to gain popularity among those with a growing interest in alternative and Eastern practices in the 1960s. As noted in our previous blog post, an avid client was a certain Marilyn Monroe. 

But there is one notable person who deserves credit for bringing yoga to mainstream America - Richard Hittleman. After studying yoga in India for several years he developed upon his return to the US the non-spiritual asana based yoga practice. This practice has become the catalyst of the widespread practice of yoga in Western cultures and a mainstay in the American lifestyle!

Ref: Stefanie Syman: The Subtle Body: The Story of Yoga in America. 

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