What does India want?
The government is trying to get yoga recognized throughout the world as India’s cultural property. Since his election last year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a Hindu nationalist and devout yoga practitioner, has persuaded the U.N. to announce an International Day of Yoga and has even appointed a minister of yoga in his cabinet. “There is little doubt about yoga being an Indian art form,” says the new minister, Shripad Yesso Naik. “We’re trying to establish to the world that it’s ours.” He and Modi would like India to be granted a “geographical indication” over yoga, in the same way France has claimed the term “champagne” only for sparkling wine made in a specific geographic location. But India’s quest isn’t likely to succeed for many reasons — including the fact that there are more than 100 types of yoga now practiced in the West. Yoga practice waned significantly in India during the British colonial period, when it was seen as backward. Spiritual leader Baba Ramdev has led a revival in India over the past two decades, founding institutes and popular yoga camps. Yet still, compared with the U.S., India has far fewer yoga teachers per capita.
How did yoga spread to the U.S.?
Hindu monk Swami Vivekananda first introduced Americans to yoga in 1893, teaching in New York City and eventually starting an ashram in Los Angeles. On the East Coast, an early populizer was Pierre Bernard, known as “The Great Oom,” who taught yoga to society women. When it emerged that he had seduced several of them, he was dismissed as a charlatan. The next yoga wave began when Indra Devi — a disciple of India’s most famous guru, Sri Tirumalai Krishnamacharya — opened a Hollywood studio in 1947. Devi taught Greta Garbo and Marilyn Monroe and sparked a fad for yoga among Hollywood stars that continues to this day. But yoga didn’t really take off in the U.S. until the 1960s.
What happened in the 1960s?
Hippie culture was looking toward Eastern philosophy just as U.S. immigration laws changed, allowing many more Indians — including yoga teachers — to come to America. By 1974, PBS was running a popular yoga show featuring Lilias Folan, whom Time called “the Julia Child of yoga.” Yoga was still seen as flaky and suspiciously foreign, though, until the 1990s, when fitness studios across the country began offering courses and pop stars like Sting and Madonna embraced the practice. Now yoga is as American as aerobics — although much of the yoga on offer here differs dramatically from ancient Indian practices.
How is it different?
Yoga actually refers to a body of philosophy and spiritual practice of which the physical movements, the asanas or poses, are only a small part. The goal is to “yoke” or join the body, mind, and spirit, and achieve enlightened awareness — not to sculpt sexy legs or firm buns. The Yoga Sutras, believed to have been written around 200 B.C., are the founding text for the system today, but they focus on sitting meditation. Ancient texts depict poses, but not the smooth flow of doing poses and breathing together. Vinyasa yoga, the most popular and best-known kind today, introduced the idea of breathing in sync with smooth, flowing movements — but it was founded at the beginning of the 20th century, by Indian guru Krishnamacharya. Many other schools of yoga were created in the U.S. by blending tradition and modern concepts, including “power yoga,” and Bikram or “hot yoga,” whose sequence of 26 poses founder Bikram Choudhury — an Indian immigrant — tried and failed to copyright. Prashant Iyengar, son of famed Indian yoga teacher B.K.S. Iyengar, has dismissed commercially driven yoga as illegitimate. “What has spread all over the world is not yoga,” Iyengar said. “It is not even non-yoga; it is un-yoga.” Continue reading >>