A Brief History Of Yoga And Its Arrival In The West

Three Aspects of the Absolute; Folio 1 from the Nath Charit;  Bulaki; India, Rajasthan, Jodhpur, 1823 (Samvat 1880); Opaque watercolor, gold, and tin alloy on paper; Merhangarh Museum Trust
Three Aspects of the Absolute; Folio 1 from the Nath Charit; Bulaki; India, Rajasthan, Jodhpur, 1823 (Samvat 1880); Opaque watercolor, gold, and tin alloy on paper; Merhangarh Museum Trust

Along with the increasing popularity of yoga, new studios are popping up one after another in just about every metropolis of countries across the globe. Of the numerous modern permutations of yoga that are being taught today doesn’t it make you wonder how this ancient culture originated from India around 3rd century BCE has survived and morphed into such a mainstream exercise phenomenon?

After more than 15 years of doing yoga, my own practice has guided me to the discipline of mind and control of physical body. Most important of all, it has taught me to view aspects of my life with as much objectivity as humanly possible. This has been immensely helpful when facing stubborn problems that seemingly refuse to be resolved. Thus far, I have only learned the elementary yogic lessons and at the beginning of my yogic exploration.

This is time to venture further, so to understand yoga not only from its modern reiterations but also its history.  Therefore, I began researching and reading essays written by scholars of art history, philology, religion and sociology to understand its complex and rich history and how it has been passed on over centuries and millenniums.

Vishnu edited reduced
Vishnu Visharupa India, Rajasthan, Jaipur, ca. 1800-1820; Opaque watercolor and gold on paper; Victoria and Albert Museum, London, Given by Mrs. Gerald Clark

The earliest treatises and artifacts show that yoga appeared in India as early as the 3rd century BCE. From studying objects and images foregrounding yoga, scholars found that ancient practitioners used yoga as a means to harmonize mind-body and to be freed from suffering. At its core, the message of yoga is not entirely different from other religious beliefs such as Christianity and Buddhism that, it is to have compassion and learn to come to terms with life’s difficulties. This universal idea has played a vital role in yoga’s survival since the pre-modern time until now.

Mughals Visit an Encampment of “Sadhus,” from the St. Petersburg Album; Attributed to Mir Sayyid Ali; India, Mughal dynasty, ca. 1635; St. Petersburg Institute of Oriental Manuscript, folio 47r
Mughals Visit an Encampment of “Sadhus,” from the St. Petersburg Album; Attributed to Mir Sayyid Ali; India, Mughal dynasty, ca. 1635; St. Petersburg Institute of Oriental Manuscript, folio 47r

Since the very beginning there had been a variety of yogic traditions- from the eight-fold ashtanga to the six-fold shadanga, later, hatha (11-13th C.) and based on the previous came Tantric yoga (13-15th). All of which had one component in common. that is meditation.

According to the 5th century BCE Yoga Sutra of Patanjali, meditation is a means to transcend the suffering of existence. To do so, it requires calming the mind’s fluctuation to achieve a pure consciousness and higher awareness.

The practice of meditation (dharana) along with other techniques are still present in modern permutations. For example, breath control (pranayama), withdrawing the senses (pratyahara) and fixing the mind (dhyana). With time and patience, the ultimate is perfect contemplation (samadhi), the realization that the seer and the seen are one.

Ascetics Performing Tapas 230 edited
Ascetics Performing Tapas; South India, ca 1820; Opaque watercolor on paper; The Trustees of the British Museum, Bequeathed through Francis Henry Egerton

If early yoga focused mainly on the metaphysical, what about the physical practice? To answer this, parts of it lead us to the beginning of yoga as a global phenomenon in the 19th century West. Despite popular belief, yoga was never a religious practice of one religion strictly speaking. In early Hatha works on yoga, it rarely referenced deities, until centuries later it became wholly oriented toward Hindu god Shiva. Therefore, the yogic belief can be perceived as one that is applicable universally rather than purely esoteric.

The introduction of yoga to the West involved more than one key figures. In 1828, Rammohan Roy (1174-1833) founded Brahmo Samaj (The Bengali Cultural Associate) that repositioned Hinduism as a rational faith that could synthesize ancient Indian religious culture with the insights of contemporary science and philosophy. Rammohan was one of the influential figures spreading Hindu ideas to the United States.

In 1893, Swami Vivekananda (born Narendranath Datta, 1863-1902) visited the Parliament of the World’s Religion in Chicago. His introduction of Neo-Hinduism bridging Western esoteric and American transcendentalism, along with his new way of thinking of yoga became an instant success. Later he went on to publish a number of books on the subject and became the first yoga teacher in the West.

Satcakranirupanacitram; Swami Hamsasvarupa; Tirkutvila Press, Muzaffarpur, Bihar, India, 1903; Wellcome Library, London, Asian Collections; P. B. Sanskrit 391
Satcakranirupanacitram; Swami Hamsasvarupa; Tirkutvila Press, Muzaffarpur, Bihar, India, 1903; Wellcome Library, London, Asian Collections; P. B. Sanskrit 391

By late 19th century, in the context of yoga as physical exercise for health and wellbeing the invention of postural yoga began. Taking ideas from the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali, Vivekananda taught yoga with practical techniques. By the 1920s-30s, these practical techniques then became incorporated into areas of body-building, gymnastics, modern medicine and health science.

More than a decade later, Indra Devi (1899-2002) brought yoga to Hollywood and took on a number of famous actresses as her students. Among them were Greta Garbo, Gloria Swanson and Marilyn Monroe, all had credited yoga as the secret to their youthful appearances and gorgeous physiques.

A students of Indra Devi leaves the Indra Devi Yoga Studio in Hollywood,California, ca. 1952. (Earl Leaf/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
A students of Indra Devi leaves the Indra Devi Yoga Studio in Hollywood,California, ca. 1952. (Earl Leaf/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images); from Timeline
Yoga poses (Marilyn Monroe), 1948; Hollywood actress doing yoga;
Yoga poses (Marilyn Monroe), 1948

The advent of 1960s counterculture and 1970s hippies attracted more people to yoga as a form of subculture. By late 1980s and 90s, both the arrival of New Age and with more people seeking alternative medicine, yoga gradually gained wider acceptance until it is fully integrated into the mainstream.

Before long, gurus and teachers from India saw the opportunity to turn the new phenomenon of yoga into commercial enterprises. Although embracing the core values and ideas passed down from their ancestors, inevitably the yoga being taught and what that we practice today are still yet very different from what had been.

The Beatles and the Maharishi, Rishikesh; Dehradun, India, March 1, 1968; yoga pilgrimage;
The Beatles and the Maharishi, Rishikesh; Dehradun, India, March 1, 1968

The enduring culture and heritage of yoga lies in its widely applicable ideas and loose interpretations. All of which has made the ancient practice malleable for integrating into our lives. Despite the passage of centuries and the fast-paced modern life, through yoga we continue to seek freedom of the mind and body, and to transcend beyond the material.

Betsey Johnson fashion; models dong yoga; purple and blonde wigs; Champagne; red yoga mats; golden boots; lace-up boots; yoga fashion;
Betsey Johnson once put on a fashion show with models doing yoga twists; Image courtesy Racked Image: Racked

*Sources:
Iyengar, B. K. S., John J. Evans and Douglas Abram. Light On Life: The Yoga Journey to Wholeness, Inner Peace, and Ultimate Freedom. New York: Rodale, 2005.

Satchidananda, Swami trans. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. Satchidananda Ashram Yogaville: Integral Yoga Publications, 1978.

Yoga: The Art of Transformation. Edited by Debra Diamond. Washington: the Freer Gallery of Art and the Arthur M. Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, 2013. Published in conjunction with the exhibition of the same name, shown at Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, and Cleveland Museum of Art in Ohio.

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