The Strange History Of Yoga In The West

by JR Thorpe

February 22, in case it wasn't mentioned while you did downward dog today, is World Yoga Day, which means it's time for a trip into the more bizarre moments by which the practice entered the Western consciousness. Whether you got your first taste of it from the Beatles and their famous visit to an ashram or from the '90s influx of yoga studios across the nation, yoga is now a firm part of American fitness, but it hasn't always been that way.

In fact, while it's had devotees from Thoreau through to Paltrow, the modern history of yoga's arrival in the West has had some very strange twists and turns, from confidence tricksters to Vanderbilts to obscure texts found in palace libraries.

While these days it's completely acceptable, even a bit boring compared to new kick-boxing pilates mash-ups, yoga had an odd road to the forefront of the American fitness industry, from peculiar spiritual practice to disreputable cult to treat of the rich and famous. The fundamentals of yoga to health are pretty well-established, but you can be pleased, as you do your salute to the sun, that you're also delving into a practice that's had a hilarious and sometimes rather bonkers history as it tried to make a foothold in the West.

Many Of Today's Yoga Poses Only Date Back To The 19th Century

The notion of the "traditional," when it comes to yoga, is often thrown around loosely; there's a perception that poses from modern yoga studies can be dated directly back to practitioners of the art 5,000 years ago in India. This, as it happens, is a misconception. While there are several rumored destroyed texts that once held depictions of yoga poses, including one that was reportedly written on palm leaves, the first actual description we have of poses that are recognizable to today's practitioners dates from the 1800s. Yep, as late as that.

They come from a book discovered in the 1980s and called the Sritattvanidhi, which was found in the library of the palace of Mysore in India and was likely written by one of the royal princes who resided there. He was likely a relative of Krishnamacharya, the hugely influential yoga teacher who spread the practice outward from India in the 20th century. Prior to this, texts referring to poses related to yoga mostly focus on meditation or different kinds of sitting; the Srittvanidhi was the first to feature, complete with illustrations, the kinds of moves we'd recognize today, and the text itself stresses physical aspects rather than the spiritual side of the practice.

Performing Yogis Appeared In 1800s England

In the late 1800s, there was a phenomenon that started to gradually overtake the "sideshows" and public entertainment of England and places on the Continent: contortionist yogis. It was an odd situation. Mark Singleton, in Yoga Body: The Origins Of Modern Posture Practice, points out that many of them were forced into showing their poses in public by poverty, and that rather than demonstrating an art or a spiritual practice, they were seen as a kind of extension of freakshow contortionists, people who earned money through their ability to tie their bodies into knots. He also explains that yogis were seen as faintly disreputable; they were seen to practice ascetic lifestyles, but also performed their "tricks" for money and used that as their income. Pretty far from Gwyneth.

It Was Brought To America Via Hollywood

Michelle Goldberg is the author of the fascinating The Goddess Pose: The Audacious Life of Indra Devi, the Woman Who Helped Bring Yoga to the West, about Devi's journey from India (where she learned yoga from Krishnamacharya, who at first refused because she was a Western woman) to Hollywood. Goldberg told NPR that it was Devi's studio, which was frequented by film stars of the early silent film period, that really seems to have cemented yoga as a practice in America.

Devi, who was Russian and had fled the Revolution in her home country as a child, would become the glamorous figurehead of yoga's entrance into Hollywood high society in the 1920s. She taught everybody from Gloria Swanson to Greta Garbo, was firm friends with cosmetics maven Elizabeth Arden, and was referred to as the "Mother Of Western Yoga" until her death in 2002 at the age of 102.

The 1910s Saw It Become A Kind Of Moral Panic

Devi might have made yoga popular among the Hollywood elite of the 1920s, but racist attitudes in the press — and the usual tabloid tendency to make up salacious stories — meant that it had a rough ride in America in its first few decades. One of its main advocates, Swami Yogananda, a handsome Indian who wrote the bestselling Autobiography Of A Yogi, was frequently pilloried in the press as the head of a "love cult," and it was alleged that he was run out of town by "indignant citizens" (ie husbands of wives he'd seduced). But reporters of the time were intensely interested in, and suspicious of, yoga and yoginis, as exemplified by an absolutely bonkers piece published in 1911 by the Los Angeles Times about how yoga "lures women to destruction." Yoga was inherently suspect, fueled by racist suspicions of "foreign" men.

Its Most Famous Advocate In The Early 20th Century Was A Handsome Rogue

The racy reputation of yoga continued into the 1920s and '30s, partially fueled by the hilarious exploits of a pair of handsome Americans. Pierre Bernard was christened the Great Oom by the press, who lapped up salacious details of an odd case in 1910 in which he was accused of kidnapping by two young disciples. The Great Oom was beloved by Fifth Avenue heiresses, bankrolled by the Vanderbilts, and set up the first ashram in America on the Hudson River. His nephew, Theos Bernard, was no less intriguing: known as the "White Lama," he explored both hatha and tantric yoga, wrote bestselling books on the subject, married a wealthy opera singer who was the inspiration for a character in Citizen Kane, and on the strength of her riches opened a 37-acre ranch called Tibetland (she'd rename it Lotusland after their divorce in 1946). In 1947, Theos traveled to the Himalayas to try and find a text that was reported to show that Jesus had lived in India and studied Buddhism; he never returned, but whether he was murdered or met some other misadventure is unclear.

After the Bernards, yoga gradually became a much more acceptable part of the American landscape; it was the 1960s, with its rise in the amount of yogis in America, that really brought it into focus, but it became cemented as a fitness fad in the '80s and '90s. Now, of course, you can't throw a yoga mat in New York or suburban Seattle without hitting somebody coming from a yoga session.