Category Archives: History

Yoga in America: 10 Things You Should Know

Photo from the book “Yoga for Americans” by Indra Devi, 1959.

By Emily Vallerga, Spring 2013 intern

Yoga has a long and involved history in America. Some aspects of it are better known than others. It started as an unpopular tradition, evolved into a time-consuming practice for the wealthy, morphed into a fitness regimen, later became known for its spirituality and is now available in many forms, from workouts to spiritual philosophies, for just about anyone.

Here are ten things you should know about yoga in America:

1. The word ‘yoga’ is derived from Sanskrit yoga meaning “union.” Scriptures on the philosophy of yoga say its purpose is to create a union of the individual Self with the supreme Self.

2. Henry David Thoreau practiced meditative yoga in his Walden home from 1845-1849. He described the experience as allowing him to see the world more clearly and more beautifully.

3. In 1893, Swami Vivekananda brought meditative yoga to the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago. He taught the practice of Raja yoga -royal yoga- which focuses on meditation to unite the individual Self with the supreme Self, and pranayama – breathing exercises. Many of Vivekananda’s followers were wealthy, female Americans who had time and money to participate in his guided meditation and yoga classes.

Indra Devi on the cover of her book “Yoga for Americans”, 1959

4. Pierre Bernard founded an intensive and expensive yoga school in Nyacks, New York called the Clarkston Country Club in 1919 that taught Hatha yoga, which is the practice of postures, breath control, and mediation to strengthen the body in order to promote union with the Supreme Self. He taught simple to complex postures as well as the philosophies of transcendence.

5. In the 1930s, yoga became a part of the American obsession with adventure stories. In a time of depression, adventure stories helped Americans ‘escape’ from the hardships of hunger and deprivation. The film Lost Horizon, told a similar story to that of Theos Bernard and his adventures in India learning yoga postures and philosophy.

6. 1938 Margaret Woodrow Wilson, daughter of President Woodrow Wilson, joined Aurobindo’s Ashram in India, the only place where she truly felt at peace. Aurobindo developed Integral yoga, where he taught his students that humans would eventually evolve into supreme beings, and that yoga was just a way to speed up the process of evolution.

7. Indra Devi brought Hatha yoga, the most common yoga in America today, to Los Angeles in 1947. Her yoga was an exercise routine that focused on asana, or postures, to promote youth, health, and physically fit bodies. She did not include the religious philosophy of yoga in her teaching.

8. Marilyn Monroe practiced Hatha yoga asanas, and was photographed doing certain yoga asanas to advertise her health regimen.

9. During the counter culture movement of the 1960s, yoga became a part of the psychedelic experience. It was a way to get “turned on” and remain turned on. Many who had psychedelic experiences claimed that the philosophies of yoga best described their experience; they felt as though they had united with the Universe, were in the never ending present, and could sense all the vibrations of the world.

10. As of July 2012, the number of Americans practicing yoga is reported to be 15 million. 72.2% are female and 27.8% are male.

Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images from the Examiner article “New York Yoga offers something for everyone and more”

Emily Vallerga, a recent graduate of the University of California at Santa Cruz, is an intern with the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center’s Indian American Heritage Project.


Reflections on 9/11

Sikh Americans in Chicago after 9/11

Sikh Americans in Chicago after 9/11. Photo from

by Pawan Dhingra

It is impossible to tell “The Story” of 9/11 for the nation or even for a single community. Yet, given HomeSpun’s role as helping tell the stories of Indian Americans, it is important to give voice to some part of this experience, so here I share part of my own. I was living in Pennsylvania then, a few hours from New York City, Washington DC, and Shanksville, PA. Some of my closest connections – my brother, sister-in-law, and future wife – were in Manhattan at that time. They all lived and worked away from the World Trade Center and I was able to make contact with them quickly. A friend from New York City was on a bus to visit me, and his whereabouts were clear. I was lucky – no threats to my personal world. My major task was to walk into my college classrooms and figure out how to teach students the course material while incorporating the unfolding events. The students made that easy on me with their earnest and inquisitive outlook on the tragedies surrounding us.

Others, obviously, were not so lucky. New York City was immersed in the need to make sure no one was forgotten. On my visit to Manhattan a few days after 9/11, I witnessed the spontaneous outdoor vigils in Washington Heights, in Washington Square Park, and elsewhere throughout the city. The sharing of hugs, of poetry, and of food and drink affirmed a beauty that may only be possible after tragedy.

But other types of tragedies continued after 9/11. We learned of an increase in violent hate crimes against Muslim Americans and those mistaken for Muslims. Deportations rose. Mosques were attacked. Others reported more minor incidents of harassment, undue attention, and a general sense of fear. Entire communities felt under surveillance. In the years since 9/11 not all of those concerns have disappeared. At the same time, many individuals have stepped up to assert their faith in the nation and its efforts to safeguard the population and build stronger international ties.

More broadly the past 10 years have been a story of how we as public citizens understand the multiple layers of difference that divide not only people in diverse parts of the world but also neighbors from each other. The political, economic, cultural, religious, and other dimensions that seem to only separate us also connect us, although not always in harmonious ways. There is much that joins groups living across borders, that joins immigrants to the nation, and that joins those who have lived side by side for generations. Yet, trying to create unity when our histories and futures do not align is our greatest challenge. I hope that HomeSpun can play its role in this endeavor, of recognizing a community and its various places in this country. As the curator I hope to facilitate the telling of multiple stories, all with the goal of furthering the respect and appreciation we have of one another. The 10th anniversary of 9/11 is as good a day as any to recommit myself to that cause.

Pawan Dhingra is a staff member at the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Program and Curator for HomeSpun. He is also an associate professor of sociology and comparative American studies at Oberlin College.

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Posted by on September 9, 2011 in Current Events, History


“Sim Sim Salabim!” Insight into Indian Mysticism

by Ted Young (Summer 2011 intern)

If I relied on nothing else other than popular culture to inform me about Indians and Indian Americans I would think that they all have mystical powers somehow related to their religious beliefs… Oh yeah, also they love to dance. Until this summer, when I started doing research for HomeSpun, I never really questioned where these images came from. I am a little ashamed to admit it, but as critical as I am as a Chinese American of the representation of my own ethnic group in the media, I really did not question the ones I saw of Indian Americans. I just accepted that all Indians and Indian Americans had some form of superpower.

Interning here at the Smithsonian APA Program and doing research for the HomeSpun project has opened my eyes to just how ingrained these mystic Indian ideas were in my mind. While researching a range of topics for HomeSpun, from the history of the American circus to the Microsoft Cricket Club, I have been completely fascinated by how India has captured the American imagination.

Indians have long been associated with a certain level of mysticism and magic. Apparently, Indians were considered naturally mystical because 19th century American magicians could not figure out the “Indian Rope Trick” where you can watch here. Though accounts of this trick vary, the basic trick is when the magician makes a rope go up vertically and has a boy climb it. The more outrageous versions of the story have the magician climbing the rope after the boy, cutting him up, and then putting him back together. Despite the numerous published accounts of this trick, audiences have traveled to India to observe it themselves, and huge monetary offers made to learn the secret, American magicians could not figure out how the trick was done. Some tried to explain it as hypnotism while others went as far to claim the trick did not even exist! While the part about the boy disappearing or being cut up and put together is clearly a stretch, to put it mildly, the basic trick of making the rope stand up straight is not. While American magicians could not figure out how this trick was done, they still brushed the trick off as amateur. However, this never stopped them from pursuing ways of imitating it in the United States. The elusiveness of the trick’s secret just increased the trick’s mysticism and the sense of magic and mystery of India.

The mystery and magic associated with India is as embedded in America as deeply as apple pie. From Johnny Quest to Johnny Carson, American cultural icons have been able to tap into the realm of magic by associating with Indians. Jonny Quest had his Hadji, Carson had his Carnac, and even today Homer Simpson has his Apu. The relation between Indians and mysticism transcends generations. Apparently, secrets remain in India that they just won’t share with the rest of us. It allows them to make rope grow into the air, grants them psychic powers, and as any devote Simpsons fan will tell you, allows them to succeed in the realms of small business.

Hadji from Jonny Quest, Johnny Carson as "Carnic", and Apu from The Simpsons.

Hadji from Jonny Quest, Johnny Carson as "Carnic", and Apu from The Simpsons.

The frustration of not being able to figure out one magic trick is just a small glimpse of the legacy of Indian mysticism in American culture. Personally, I do not even think that the trick is all that impressive, but that could be because I have grown up in an age of computer generated special effects. Seeing a rope stand up by itself does not hold a candle to giant transforming robots fighting each other or Robert Downey Jr. flying around and blowing stuff up or even my smart phone for that matter. Still, the impact of this one trick on American popular culture is astounding. Besides, I still cannot figure out how it’s done.

“Sim Sim Salabim” is what Hadji would say to do magic on the Jonny Quest television show. It has no real meaning or ties to any language.

Ted Young is an African American Studies Major and Sociology Minor at Oberlin College.


Preserving the Past in India and the United States

by Priya Chhaya

My day job (when I’m not thinking about blog posts for HomeSpun) is working as an employee for the National Trust for Historic Preservation (NTHP). We’re a non-profit organization that works to preserve and protect the places that matter to all Americans—through advocacy work, education, and community development. Most recently we released our annual list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places list which spotlights places across America that are threatened by neglect, insufficient funds, inappropriate development, or insensitive public policy. This year’s list included Prentice Women’s Hospital in Chicago, the John Coltrane Home in New York, and China Alley in San Francisco, California.

While most of our work is focused on saving places within the United States, we are also a member of the International National Trusts Organisation (INTO), an international network of National Trusts and similar non-governmental organizations that are committed to conserving and sustaining our shared heritage. One of the other members is The Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH), and about a month ago I attended a week long training program and got to spend some time with an employee of INTACH, Suresh Sethuraman—who for nine months is working in Washington, DC at NTHP.

Screenshot of the INTACH website.

The Indian National Trust For Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) is a non-profit organization set up in 1984 to involve its members in protecting and conserving India’s vast natural, built and cultural heritage. For more information visit


Interview with Suresh Sethuraman, Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH)

Priya: Tell me a little bit about your background, and what brings you to the United States?
Suresh: I am basically an archaeologist with a Ph.D in Classical Archaeology. I am here as a Fulbright Senior Research Fellow affiliated to the NTHP and the School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation of the University of Maryland. Under this Fulbright fellowship, I am working on the American system—laws, policies and problems—of the preservation of heritage buildings and sites and comparing it with the system in India.

Priya: Tell me about INTACH and how it works.
Suresh: INTACH is the NTHP’s counterpart in India. It is, of course, much smaller and younger than NTHP. It was started in 1984. It is modeled more on the English National Trust than on the NTHP. It is supplementing the role of the Government of India in the arena of heritage preservation. It has small offices in almost every part of India. I am the Tamil Nadu State Convener for the Tamil Nadu (South India) Regional office.

Priya: Can you give me an example of the educational and recruitment programs of INTACH, and how they try to pull in young people?
Suresh: INTACH, since its inception in 1984, was, for many years, a small group of volunteers interested in heritage preservation. Slowly, it has now expanded to be a major voluntary organization, in fact, the largest cultural voluntary organization in South Asia. The headquarters of INTACH is located in New Delhi. They have initiated a major program for the restoration of old buildings and historical artifacts not protected by the government. They have also started a special program aimed at school students with a view to inculcate the ideas of heritage preservation in them. Through children’s books, group discussions and competitions, the students learn more of our heritage and the need to preserve it. Presently, this is one of the major activities of INTACH.

Priya: As the Tamil Nadu State Convener are there any specific projects that you’ve worked on that might be of interest to the readers?
Suresh: INTACH has small offices or chapters in different parts of India. The Tamil Nadu State office in South India is one of the oldest regional offices started a few months after INTACH was inaugurated. It is also one of the most active chapters of INTACH. We do many activities in schools and colleges. We have helped establish Heritage Clubs in over 50 schools in South India. These Clubs are manned by the students, with academic and technical guidance by INTACH. They do a variety of activities including tours to historical places.

Priya: What differences do you see in the way American’s think about preserving their cultural heritage, and the way Indians approach the same issues?
Suresh: India is very rich in cultural heritage. But the sensitivity to preserve it is not as much as one observes in U.K. or U.S. INTACH, through its educational and awareness programs, aims to create this sensitivity amongst students and others in rural and urban areas. It is a slow process. But the trend is catching on. People today are more particular to save old buildings than they were twenty years ago. But we have a long way to go. We can learn a lot from the NTHP experiences—their Main Street Program and other programs.

And vice versa. One of the things I find fascinating about INTACH is their commitment to preserving the intangible heritage of India—including dying languages, traditional knowledge and cultural practices (such as dance). Their work with Heritage Clubs also demonstrates how important it is to start at the student level—investing time and effort in educating the younger generation about their heritage, in order to create a greater number of stewards as they grow older.

For more information on INTACH visit them on the web at For more information about the National Trust for Historic Preservation visit

Priya Chhaya is a public historian that works with the National Trust for Historic Preservation. She sees history wherever she goes and believes that it is an important part of the American (and Indian American) identity.


Posted by on July 25, 2011 in Culture, History


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Witnessing the Dream, Searching for Stories

by Priya Chhaya

With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope.

–Martin Luther King, Jr.

MLK MemorialEarlier this month I attended a sneak peek of the new memorial to Martin Luther King, Jr. located in Washington, D.C. next to the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial. The quotation at the top of the blog frames the memorial—we walk through a split granite boulder (symbolizing the mountains of despair) before reaching the 30 foot granite sculpture-a solid figure who symbolized hope for many. Situated between Jefferson and Lincoln along the Tidal Basin, the memorial represents not just MLK’s work during the Civil Rights movement, but also his broader struggle for worldwide human rights. One of the members of the internationally composed jury for this new memorial was Charles Correa known for his work on the Mahatma Gandhi memorial in Ahmadabad and the design for Navi Mumbai—a new section of Mumbai that is best described as a planned city. Gandhi influences Martin Luther King, and so it is fitting that one of the judges for a monument—one that is meant to be international in scope—is someone with an understanding of Gandhi.

As a high school student I looked to the Civil Rights movement as a moment to question my own gumption. Would I be able to stand up and protest injustice? Could I practice civil disobedience or the Indian counterpart satyagraha (the peaceful demonstrations inspired by the words and actions of Gandhi) if needed?

I also wondered about that first wave of South Asian immigrants in the 1950s. Those that came amidst this intense transformation of American identity. How did they feel? What did they think? What stories can they tell about becoming Americans?

So—this is my charge for the readers of HomeSpun. I would like to interview someone who emigrated from South Asia in the 1950s, or their descendant, that can speak to life during the Civil Rights movement. The interview(s) will be incorporated in a blog post later this summer. Please let us know if you are interested in the comments below.

Seeing the MLK memorial reminded me once again that history does have something to teach us—and that gaining equality is a constant struggle, something to be fought for and affirmed—so that the dream continues to be realized.

Note: The dedication of the Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial will be on August 28, 2011.

Priya Chhaya is a public historian that works with the National Trust for Historic Preservation. She sees history wherever she goes and believes that it is an important part of the American (and Indian American) identity.


Posted by on June 15, 2011 in Diversity, History, Social Issues


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The rise of the Indian American Politician

by Nina Sudhakar

“Politics as usual” in the United States has frequently been stereotyped as the exclusive domain of old, white males. However, the past several years (and particularly the most recent election) have indicated that serious inroads are being made regarding minority participation in politics.

A recent trend to note is an increase in Indian American Congressional candidates who, according to a recent article by Hill publication Roll Call (full article here), wield some serious fund-raising power.

Manan Trivedi, running for a Congressional seat next year, estimates that about 20-25% of his fund-raising came about as a direct result of his network of Indian “uncles and aunties.”

Young Indian American candidates may be soliciting their parents’ generation for cash because that wave of immigrants has now achieved a degree of economic success that makes them more willing to part with their money. The local Indian American community may also be heartened by the presence of visible politicians such as Bobby Jindal (Republican Governor of Louisiana), and may recognize not only the need for an Indian voice in American politics, but that these leadership positions are an achievable goal.

However, making a withdrawal out of the “Bank of Uncle and Aunty” is definitely not as easy as going to the ATM. Fund-raising has always involved the cultivation of relationships, and it is no different in the close-knit Indian American community. Maryland House Majority Leader Kumar Barve notes “[Y]ou have to have another person ask on your behalf in order to be successful. Because Indians don’t want to give their money to anybody. We’re cheap.” Instead of picking up the phone, some candidates opt to send a trusted delegate directly into a potential donor’s home.

The idea of hitting up someone you know for cash is probably as old as the concept of money. But the phenomenon of Indian Americans reaching into their pockets for Indian American candidates is an exciting political development. While Indian American funds cannot alone guarantee success at the polls for Indian American candidates, these donations certainly indicate the encouraging trend of greater political participation and engagement among the Indian American community than ever before.