Yoga might have had originated in India, but its transfiguration and growth into the form we’re more familiar with took place in the West.
The West first took notice of yoga thanks to Swami Vivekananda’s famous speech in Chicago on September 11, 1893. His book Raja Yoga, written in 1896 and delineating methods of concentration, ways to liberate the soul from the body will become hugely influential in the West. Modern yoga began spreading its roots from America and Europe to the rest of the world. And it was three individuals—Indra Devi, BKS Iyengar and Bikram Choudhury—who popularised yoga in America.
Russian-born Devi was perhaps the first to give yoga a foothold in American popular culture. Born Eugenie Peterson to a Russian mother and Swedish father, Devi’s fascination with India is said to have begun after read a book by Rabindranath Tagore at 15. In 1927, she left for India and at a time when yoga in India was male-dominated, she was one of the first women to be taught by Sri Tirumalai Krishnamacharya. But that wasn’t easy.
A New York Times article published after her death spoke of how she was quite a star in Indian films in 1930 and was married to Jan Strakaty, a commercial attaché to the Czechoslovak Consulate in Bombay. She met the Maharaja and Maharini of Mysore through him and the couple had a yoga school at their palace where Krishnamacharya taught. When Devi sought lessons, she was rebuffed because she was a woman and wasn’t Indian. But the royal couple convinced him to overlook these concerns.
After her husband’s death, Devi travelled to America and became its best-known yoga teacher. Her students included movie stars like Greta Garbo and Jennifer Jones among others. What Devi did was take the basics of yoga from India and mould it for people there. The asanas became more gentle in her teachings and her books were considered a repository of knowledge on yoga. Known as Mataji by her disciples, by the time Devi passed away in 2002 she had conducted a class in Shanghai, perhaps the first yoga class held in modern China.
Iyengar is another student of Krishnamacharya who contributed in taking yoga to the world. The founder of ‘Iyengar Yoga’ and author of Light on Yoga in 1966 is considered a seminal work on the subject. Mary Palmer, the mother of yoga instructor Mary Dunn, is credited with orchestrating his visit to the US, and Dunn would later go on to teach thousands of students ‘Iyengar yoga’.
In the early 1970s, a new form of yoga known as hot yoga was introduced in the US, It consisted of 26 yoga postures done in a hot environment of 40 degrees Celsius and was introduced by a practitioner named Bikram Choudhury. While sniffed at by traditional practitioners of yoga, Choudhury was a major cultural force and his students included celebrities like Jennifer Aniston and Madonna. However, the yoga empire he presided over crumbled after he was accused in multiple cases of sexual assault and his company filed for bankruptcy in 2017.
Mark Singleton, a senior researcher of the Modern History of Yoga, SOAS, University of London made some interesting observations in a piece in The Conversation about the growth in the popularity of yoga in the 19th and 20th century in the West.
He wrote that asanas, which are “yoga’s most visible and popular component” and include “downward dog, triangle pose and the tree – along with a whole other number of stretching and balancing positions” are not in Indian ancient texts. Incidentally, he said “similar postures can also be noticed in Swedish and Danish gymnastic drills.”
The reason for this, he wrote, was two-fold. At the turn of the early 19th and 20th century, a wave of physical exercise had spread across the globe. A strong body was considered synonymous with a strong country. Around the same time, the growth of photography enabled the seemingly complicated yoga postures from India to be transported to the world.
“Inside and outside India, books, manuals and magazines began to showcase asanas. In Europe and America people initially gawped at and ridiculed these poses as exotic or backwards. But the postures later gained popularity as remodelled Indian regimes of health and fitness,” Singleton wrote.