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.
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.
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.