A Short History of Yoga in America

Although yoga sounds like a very new trend in America, it’s not. It dates to almost 150 years. The very first time it was introduced to the American populous was in 1893. This happened during a speech at the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago. It was a speech presented by Swami Vivekananda.

Vivekananda had learned yoga from a guru by the name of Sri Ramakrishna. In his speech, he talked about the relationship of the body, mind, and spirit. It was his salutation however, that received the greatest applause from the religious leaders present at the event. After that initial introduction, yoga found a new mainstay in America.

In 1920, another pioneer, Paramahansa Yogananda, came to the US as an emissary of his Guru, Babaji. His goal was to teach the Westerners about yoga. He accomplished this in his 1946 book titled, Autobiography of Yoga that has been a classic of yoga ever since.

Many events happened that cemented the place of yoga in the United States. First, the American government passed a law limiting the entry of Indians into the US. This created the necessity for those already hooked to yoga to go to India instead to learn about it. One of the first people to do so was Theos Bernard. On his return to America in 1947 he published the book, Hatha Yoga: The Report of a Personal Experience

In that same year, a yogi by the name of Indra Devi opened a yoga studio in Hollywood. She too studied yoga in Indian, bringing her knowledge to the West. In 1950, another Westerner by the name of Richard Hittleman came to teach yoga in New York after taking studies in India. He is responsible for spreading yoga in the United States. His approach has made teaching much easier than the rest thus far.

Although he was a spiritual yogi like the rest who had come from India, he did not present it as such. His teaching majored on the physical benefits of yoga instead. His hope was that by doing this, those who received the training would later desire to learn the spiritual path as well. Millions of copies of his book were bought across America and his television program became quite popular in the states.

Vivekananda’s influence also spread to San Francisco, where Walt and Magana Baptiste opened a studio in the mid-50s. They learned their skills from Walt’s father, who also learned from Vivekananda. To date, their influence is still felt in America.

Another influencer of yoga in the 50s was Swami Vishnu-devananda. He was born in India and learned yoga from Swami Sivananda Saraswati. He too taught yoga in San Francisco. However, it was his book, The Complete Illustrated Book of Yoga, published in 1960 that influenced most people. Most modern practitioners have learned their yoga skills from this book.

Thanks to Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Centers, an organization that he established, yoga practice spread tremendously. It is still one the largest networks of yoga schools in the world today. Since then, many other large and small organizations have sprung up and started teaching several types of yoga in the United States.


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