How Yoga Became So Popular in the United States

From ancient Indian civilizations to the yoga studio at the corner of your street. If you’ve ever wondered how yoga came to be the global sensation in the West it is today, here’s all you need to know!

Group class for yoga in downward dog position

According to the American College of Sports Medicine report, yoga is predited to be one of the hottest fitness trends for 2019. In fact, it’s been enjoying a place among the highest ranked fitness activities for a while now.

Whether you’re looking to lose weight, build muscle, increase flexibility or mindfulness – yoga seems to be an almost magical blanket solution to reach your goals. Regular practice is linked to health benefits that go beyond physical fitness. Yoga has been shown to reduce blood pressure and blood sugar, as well as help mental health issues such as anxiety and depression.

The global popularity of the practice has resulted in yoga evolving from the traditional asanas to an amalgamation of different workouts and formats. You have the common forms of power yoga, hot yoga, and prenatal/postnatal yoga. But then there are oddities such as nude yoga, beer yoga, cannabis yoga, and even such a thing as yoga raves.

So how did an ancient Indian practice devoted to finding divine enlightenment by harmonizing the heart and soul end up in the United States? Well, the journey of how yoga became popular in America is a long one. But we break it down for you and give you all the information that you need to know in this article.

USA flag in the wind

Most people credit Swami Vivekananda with being America’s introduction to yoga with his address at that World Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893. However, it is known by few that the interest in eastern philosophy and practice arrived almost fifty years before that.

The Infatuation BeginsWoman in two piece swimsuit doing yoga

In 1841, sacred Indian texts found their way to Concord, Massachusetts. Here, they began to spark the interested of the educated western public along with other topics of Indian philosophy. The fascination continued to grow and was disseminated through intellectually circles across America.

The rising fascination gave birth to a number of groups and societies which encouraged the understanding of philosophy and practices of other cultures, specifically the East. The Concord Circle and the Theosophical Society were two such examples.

Some of the books to be published during this time included N.C. Paul’s Treatise on Yoga Philosophy (1851), Edwin Arnold’s The Light in Asia (1878), Helene Blavatsky’s Isis Unveiled (1877), and The Secret Teachings (1888).

These books slowly made their ways into the hands of the American public, which caused the interest in yoga to become more than just infatuation. It became a real point of interest.

The Shift from Literature to PracticeBlack and white picture of a man practicing yoga on a mat

While the intellectual fascination was a great starting point, it wasn’t quite enough to merit a countrywide yogic revolution. It seemed that the physical presence of a teacher was necessary to shift the American people from theory to practice.

This teacher took the shape of Swami Vivekananda, a monk of 30, who traveled to America to give a speech at the World Parliament of Religions in 1893. There are two things you should know about this famous speech;

1. It was a roaring success.

Vivekananda’s opening line alone garnered a two-minute standing ovation, and throughout his speech, he was forced to pause to incorporate a round of applause.

2. He never meant to spread yoga to the West.

Despite how accounts of his life and time in the US make it seem, Vivekananda had gone to America to collect funds for the impoverished in India. However, the success of his speech at the Parliament catapulted him to fame and made him one of the most sought after gurus.

Despite Vivekananda’s initial intentions, his popularity after the parliament made him India’s ambassador in America. For the next two years, he traveled across the states lecturing and teaching yoga to eager students before he returned to India.

During this time, in 1896 and 1897, before Vivekananda was to return, two more influential figures came to America – Swami Sardananda and Swami Abhedananda. The first, Swami Sardananda delivered a lecture at Harvard University and was offered a faculty position, which he declined.

In 1899, Vivekananda returned to America and founded the New York Vedanta Society which is still open today. And his influence prompted the opening of ashrams in Los Angeles named Shanti in 1902 and Ananda in 1923. America’s first ever Hindu Vedanta temple was also opened in San Francisco in 1906.

Yogic Teachings ExpandSilhouette of woman in urdhva mukha shvanasana pose

In 1919, Yogendra Mastamani came to India, bringing with him the teachings of hatha yoga. He was the creator of the Kaivalyadhama group which was at the frontline of exploring yoga from a scientific point of view. This forced American’s to look at yoga through a lens other than simply spiritual.

The popularity continued to grow throughout the 1900s. Different gurus and teachers traveled from India to America bringing with them various forms of yoga including kriya yoga popularized by Paramahansa Yoganada, and jnana-yoga conducted by Jiddu Krishnamurti.

It was around the 1930s that yoga started becoming more widespread. This was due to the rise in notable figures such as celebrities and writers who were taking and showing interest in the practice. Among these were the likes of Charlie Chaplin, George Bernard Shaw, and Aldous Huxley.

Yoga, it seemed, was here to stay.

Immigration Laws Tighten, But Yoga PrevailsAmerican passport and immigration documents

In 1924, the United States immigration service imposed a quota on Indian immigration. This made it impossible for people living in the East to travel to America. Only 200 Indian immigrants were permitted to enter the US per year. The move came as part of the government’s attempt to filter low-wage Indians from settling on American soil.

As a result of this, the influx of authentic Indian gurus and monks who were spreading yogic teachings froze. Those who wanted to learn the ancient practice had to travel to India themselves. But while this may have seemed like a dreary situation at the time, it did have its benefits.

Americans Begin Travelling to IndiaSunset at the Taj Mahal seen through the water

During this period, three influential figures traveled to India and were incredibly important in promoting yoga in mainstream America. The first was Indra Devi, a Russian born enthusiast who later became known as ‘The First Lady of Yoga in America’. She went to India in 1927 to learn about yoga and following her time there, proceeded to teach it globally.

She opened schools in China, taught yoga in the Kremlin, Bulgaria, Argentina and Mexico until she returned to America in the 1950s. She opened a yoga studio in Hollywood in 1957, and that is perhaps the most significant event that catapulted the glamorous image of yoga.

Devi promised that practicing yoga would defend against aging and illness. Naturally, Los Angeles is the perfect place to link yoga to beauty. In no time, it started garnering the attention of American housewives and top stars including Gloria Swanson.

The second influential figure to go to India after the immigration restrictions was Theos Bernard. He was the nephew of the famous Pierre Bernard who was well known for teaching tantric and hatha yoga to the “rich and famous” of Long Island. Theos Bernard went to India in the 1930s to study with Yogendra. He returned some years later and enrolled at Columbia University to get a masters degree in Eastern studies.

In 1947, he published Hatha Yoga: The Report of a Personal Experience. It described yoga’s eightfold path and explained different asanas in detail. This would go on to become one of the most important sourcebooks for hatha yoga in the years to come.

The third person to influence yoga’s popularity was Richard Hittleman. He too, went to India to study yoga and returned in the 1950’s, ready to share his knowledge with the people of New York. He wrote a number of books, all of which were incredibly successful and was also the one to pioneer yoga on television in 1961.

The reason he is often credited with pushing mainstream yoga to take off is because of the nonreligious, non-spiritual version of yoga that he presented to the public. Despite being a student of the sage Ramana Maharshi and a “spiritual” yogi himself, he chose not to alter the face of what he’d learned before he put it forward. By emphasizing the physical benefits of the practice, he hoped students would be motivated to learn yoga philosophy and meditation.

The Second Yoga Booma Vintage shot of New York City

Arguably, the first yoga boom was the result of Vivekananda’s speech and the intrigue and fascination that followed. The second boom came later, once yoga had been fairly established for a while. The 1960s saw a rise in the meditative side of yoga.

For one, the quota on Indian immigration was removed, which meant teachers could once again travel to the united states. For another, thanks to the number of people who had traveled to India during the ban period, there were more and more teachers available who were bringing back what they learned and teaching it far and wide.

Maharishi Mahesh who began the trend of transcendental meditation spread across America now has an empire that has 40,000 teachers, more than 4 million practitioners and 1,200 centers in 108 countries.

This second yoga boom was also the time when there was an increased focus on how yoga affected the body in terms of purely physical benefits. B.K.S Iyengar’s Light on Yoga (1966) was considered almost like a Bible when it came to asana practice and anatomical precision.

Similarly, Swami Rama showed how the practice of yoga could ultimately help control and impact nervous system functions such as heartbeat, pulse, and skin temperature. His student, Dean Ornish later in the 1980’s preached the benefits of yoga in connection to heart health and promoted it as a form of exercise rather than a practice, which really served to catapult its image as a healthy habit.

Yoga and its teachings were everywhere. The more teachers and students of yoga that gathered together, the more vast the practice became. Places like Mount Madonna began offering residential programs under the sage Baba Hari Dass. Viniyoga and Ashtanga-vinyasa yoga was popularized by students who had been to India and back. There was a growing hunger for anything that related to the practice and wherever you looked, there were people contributing to the wealth of information.

You had schools such as Kripalu Yoga Ashram, the Yoga Society of Pennsylvania, and Integral Yoga Institute among a plethora of others. You had books being published left and right from Ram Dass’s Be Here Now that established the spiritual quest of yoga as a lifestyle for the new generation to the publication of Yoga Journal’s first issue in 1975 – during this boom, content was being created which would last for generations.

Take the journal for example. There was no way for the founders to know that their then modest publication would later catapult into one of the biggest magazines of recording yoga practices in the West.

From Then, to NowYoung man doing yoga with a bottle of beer

As of 2018, there were 6,000 yoga studios in the US with about 30 million American’s practicing yoga and spending $16 billion on yoga classes, clothing, equipment, and accessories each year. The popularity of yoga has only grown in the 21st century with more and more people jumping on the bandwagon.

The reasons for this popularity are similar to why yoga became popular in the first place – the incredibly varied health benefits for the mind and body are appealing to anyone. But yoga’s meditative ability to calm your mind is becoming ever more relevant in this digital age where stress seems to follow you wherever you go.

Schools are encouraging yoga as a means of teaching children how to ground themselves and how to deal with traumatic incidents outside of the classroom. And its popularity as ‘natural therapy’ is one of the many ways to show how yoga goes beyond just a physical practice.

In addition to the widely available yoga classes and teachers, there are now also a number of apps that can help you learn yoga in the comfort of your own home, in your own time. The ability to access and learn information is no longer as difficult as it was in the 1800s when you had to travel far and wide to understand the practice. Easy access is one of the primary reasons yoga is predicted to grow as a major trend in this year and the years to come.

This may be why so many different options are available. Apart from having their own benefits and reasons – classes like beer yoga and cannabis yoga may exist just to make the practice seem more ‘fun’ and relevant to the new generation which has an increasing amount of options to choose from now. From a business point of view, yoga has become a goldmine. So the more you are able to set yourself apart from the crowd, the more beneficial it’s going to be.

But regardless of whether you practice yoga in an ashram in India, in a yoga studio at the corner of your street, or in the comfort of your own bedroom with an app or YouTube video playing in the background, the truth is that nothing can be popular for this long without having some proven benefits. Yoga isn’t just a trend or a fad. It’s here to stay – indefinitely.





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