When I first began practicing yoga in the mid-1970s, it was considered an exotic practice from India, associated with Eastern religions and the ’60s counter-culture. It was just starting to find its way into mainstream Western cultures, with not a lot of places to learn it. There were a few popular yoga books and television shows: Richard Hittleman published Yoga for Health in 1961, and Lilias Folan’s Yoga and You was a hit show in the 1970s.
Now, in 2018, yoga is part of popular culture and big business! What yoga has become has a lot to do with how it was promoted and integrated into Western cultures. More than a one-way transmission from East to West, the export of these ancient practices also revived and changed yoga in India. Yoga has become a transcultural phenomenon.
The current popular view of yoga does not reflect what it was historically. Yoga is one of six branches of philosophy and practice originating from the Vedas, a group of ancient scriptures and traditions, the oldest of which is the Rigveda, dating back to 3000-1900 BC. Vedas means “knowledge of wisdom” and was considered a kind of science. These scriptures form the foundations of Indian Hindu culture, more accurately called Sanatana Dharma (“the eternal way”). The essence of the Vedas cumulated in the philosophy of Vedanta.
Classical yoga, the basis of modern yoga, originated from what is known as the “eight-fold path (steps)” called Ashtanga. Yogi-scholar Patanjali synthesized and codified various sources which was set forth in the Yoga Sutras (200 BC-200 AD). Yoga was not only a body practice, but a way of living.
For much of its history, yoga was not a uniform system throughout India. Since yoga was traditionally passed down orally from teacher to student, variations styles and teachings developed over time.
The word yoga itself means “union,” “to bind” or “to yoke” and is etymologically similar to religion, which also means “to bind.” The separate self, which experiences bondage and suffering, is out of touch with Reality, until it is liberated from its illusions (maya). Liberation is called moksha and is the ultimate goal of life and yoga. Yoga is a technology of transformation for “Self-Realization”. Yoga includes ethical, physical and mental practices for realizing this unique liberated state of consciousness called Samadhi, which means “putting together,” or binding, the self and Reality. Buddhism calls this “enlightenment”—realizing your original natural state. Yoga was not meant to perfect the body but to control it, and the senses, in order to isolate the real self from what is not self and not real. The benefits popularly associated with yoga today—flexibility, strength, health and stress reduction—were not originally the goal but only a secondary byproduct!
The first, most prominent emissary of yoga and the wisdom of India to the West was Swami Vivekananda, a disciple of the Indian saint Ramakrishna. Vivekananda spoke at the Parliament of World Religions in Chicago in 1893 and received a lot of press and notoriety. One of Vivekananda’s greatest achievements was to bring order to the diverse array of yoga systems and philosophies. He framed yoga in terms of science, which spoke to the Western mentality and ideals. He distilled yoga into five categories: Raja (moral, physical and mental disciplines and meditation), Hatha (physical and energetic practices which are also related to Kundalini yoga), Jnana (the path of knowledge), Karma (the path of service) and Bhakti (the path of devotion and love). Raja, called the “royal path,” encompasses the full spectrum of practices including those of Hatha, postures (asanas) and breathing (pranayama). Today, Hatha is the most commonly practiced form of yoga and is easily accessible, requiring no belief system or religious orientation. It fits well with the ethos of Western cultures.
Vivekananda was followed by Paramashansa Yogananda, author of the 1920 bestseller Autobiography of a Yogi, and by Swami Sivananda. Sivananda founded the Divine Light Society, which created a worldwide network of yoga schools.
Sri Krishnamacharya (1888–1989) is consider the “father of modern Ashtanga-Hatha yoga.” He was the principal teacher of many well-known figures in yoga history: B.K.S. Iyengar (author of the 1966 book Light on Yoga, master of precision asana and anatomy), K. Pattabhi Jois (developer of Vinyasa-Ashtanga yoga) and his son T.K.V. Desikachar (founder of Viniyoga style). Indra Devi, a well-known woman yogi and student of Krishnamacharya, opened the first yoga studio in Hollywood in 1948 and wrote numerous popular books. Vishnudevananda, a famous student of Sivananda, established the first yoga school in Paris in 1977. Yoga spread via these popular teachers; now Iyengar, Power and Vinyasa yoga have become well-known styles and form the basis of many contemporary variations and Western trends.