Yoga has a Rich History in the U.S.

You might be surprised to find out that yoga has been a part of the U.S. fitness efforts for a long time.  For many in this country, the concept of yoga is connected to the 1960s when the ideas of spiritualism and inner peace were promoted by the 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.

Shortly after the arrival of Swami Vivekananda, Yogendra Mastamani also traveled to the U.S. from India and set up a base in Long Island, N.Y. in 1919 and created the American branch of Kaivalyadhama, which is an India-based group that was a leader in the exploration of yoga from a scientific perspective. 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.

Beginning in the 1930s, Jiddu Krishnamurti achieved a new level of notoriety for a yogi when he began giving well-received, eloquent seminars on Jnana-Yoga, or 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.

Due to a 1924 U.S. restriction on the number of Indians that were allowed to immigrate to the country, students in the West sought the teaching of yogis had to travel to India. One such student, Theos Bernard, traveled to India and returned in 1947 to write the influential book, “Hatha Yoga: The Report of a Personal Experience”, which is still read 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 there is one man who is credited with bringing yoga into the mainstream of America and, ironically, he is not 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.  Hittleman emphasized the physical aspects of yoga to a Western audience used to focusing on the body rather than the mind.   It was Hittleman’s hope that American students would eventually embrace the spiritual and meditative side of yoga (which many have).

As Hittleman worked to expand yoga on the East, Walt and Magana Baptiste were working to increase yoga's scope on the West Coast when they open a studio in San Francisco in the 1950s.  Walt and Magana were both students of Yogananda and Walt’s father was greatly influenced by Vivekananda, creating a unique 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.

When the counterculture began to take hold in the 1960s, the idea of yoga and its emotional effects caught the interest of many people, and one of the most famous groups to explore the meditative possibilities of yoga were The Beatles, whose relationship with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi was famous around the world.  The Maharashi created the Transcendental Meditation yoga school that has more than 4 million followers and 40,000 instructors around the world.

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. The Mount Madonna yoga school, founded by Baba Hari Dass, gave residential yoga to the inhabitants of Santa Cruz, California.  The International Society for Krishna Consciousness, begun by Shrila Prabhubada, created the international spiritual practice of Bhakti Yoga. Ashtanga-vinyasa Yoga was brought to the U.S. by Pattabhi Jois in the mid '70s and made yoga popular with new groups of people.  Swami Satchitananda was probably the most famous non-musician to appear at Woodstock.  Female yogi Swami Sivananda Radha is credited with probing the link between the psychology and spirituality 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.

Check out Kamloops Yoga Classes for more yoga info.

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