A (tiny!) glimpse into yoga’s timeline

We recently reviewed Stefanie Syman’s book, The Subtle Body: The Story of Yoga in America. Some of the highlights may surprise you!

Do you assume that the poses and transitions you have been practicing are an ancient mystical system passed down through thousands of years of gurus? Chances are likely that you have as many Americans to thank for your current yoga practice as you do Indians. Here is a short outline of some of the highlights from The Subtle Body. (A fab-u-lous read! Amazon link here!) Find our complete Yoga Timeline on our website: TrainMovePlay.com.

Yoga Timeline

1785: Sir Charles Wilkins translates the Bhagavad-Gita into English.

1843: Emerson reads Wilkins’s translation of the Gita.

1845: Henry David Thoreau moves to his cabin on Walden Pond on July 4 to “live deliberately,” for two years. He is called the First American Yogi.

1893: Swami Vivekanada speaks at the World Parliament on Religions, held in Chicago in conjunction with the World’s Fair.

1930’s: Sri Krishnamacharya develops a modern form of Hatha yoga and school at the palace in Mysore, India and teaches BKS Iyengar, TKS Desikachar, Pattabi Jois, and Indra Devi. He blends native asanas, gymnastics, Indian wrestling, and possibly British military training exercises with deep, rhythmic breathing.

1946: Autobiography of a Yogi, by Pramahansa Yogananda is published.

1947: Indra Devi comes to Hollywood. She teaches a Hatha yoga that combines asana, pranayama, relaxation. She changes yoga from spiritual realisation into a health tonic and makes it digestible for Americans and posh for movie stars. Gloria Swanson is one of her most vocal advocates. Yoga starts to become associated with the young and beautiful and also marketed to housewives.

1961: The nation’s first yoga TV program, “Yoga for You,” with Virginia Denison airs in LA.

1966: Light on Yoga, by BKS Iyengar is published.

1968: Beatles learn Transcendental Meditation from Mahesh in Rishikesh, India. Yoga and hippie culture are forever linked.

1968: Richard Alpert returns from a trip to India with a new name, Ram Das, and a new way of getting high, Ashtanga Yoga.

1969: Yogi Bhajan, a Sikh from Pakistan, brings his own blend of Sikhism and Tantra, which he calls Kundalini Yoga, to the States. Followers wear all white, chant, sing, and perform dynamic, repetitive exercises to raise Kundalini energy. He established the 3HO: the “Healthy, Happy, Holy Organization.”

1970’s: Cho Chat Ling moves from Hong Kong to California and begins teaching Paulie Zink Tai Shing Men (Monkey Kung-fu.) Paulie combines Cho’s teachings with long held yoga poses for mobility, flexibility, and energetic beneifts, and Yin yoga is born. Paul Grilley and Sarah Powers further the practice and establish teacher training programs in Yin yoga.

1971: Bikrum Choudhury arrives and begins teaching in LA. His class is always the same: 90 mins, 26 poses, done twice, and two breathing exercises. The studio is 105 degrees F, humid, carpeted with mirrored walls and fluorescent lighting. The instructor guides the practice but practitioners are expected to use the mirrors and watch the most experienced students for feedback. There is no personal attention given. He becomes rich from yoga retail and by charging high prices for group classes. The first real yoga entrepreneur. He started yoga at 4 years old and studied under Pramahansa Yogananda’s younger brother, Bishnu Chandra Ghosh in India before coming to the States. Bikrum moves his studio to Beverly Hills in 1974.

1975: Sri K. Pattabhi Jois arrives in the US. He is a devotee of Krishnamacharya. He teaches a vinyasa (flowing) style he calls Ashtanga yoga: 6 series of progressively more challenging poses that use the bandhas and Ujjayi breath continuously, resembling something like a slow gymnastics routine. He teaches Mysore-style: one-on-one instruction given directly to each student within a group setting. His purpose in practicing is three-fold: internal cleansing, self-knowledge, and fixing the mind in the true Self so as to realise our true nature as supreme peace and bliss.

1975: Yoga Journal first edition circulates 300 copies, founded by Judith Lasater, Ike Lasater, Rama Vernon, William Golden, and three others. With major influencers like BKS Iyengar and Indra Devi, they take yoga back from the gurus and out of religios context in a very contemporary, mass media way. Their message is that Hatha yoga, the poses and concentration of performing them, is enough to cure most ills and also to provide the mental focus and spirit of dedication without adhering yourself to a guru or his life-consuming requirements. By 1990, YJ is circulating around 55,000 copies.

1999: Yoga Mala, written by Sri K. Pattabi Jois in 1959, is finally translated into English.

This is, of course, not a complete account of yoga

…and is obviously centered around the experience of yoga in America and the conversation of yoga between America and India. We hope find time and resources for further research and to renovate this article to reflect a more global account of yoga history, including the story of yoga on all of the continents, and especially of the practices that make up yoga in and around the Indian subcontinent. Someday….

If you have a resource or guide that we should read, watch, listen to, or know about, please contact us! We love learning more about this important practice and its evolving place in our world.

If you are interested in studying more about yoga, acroyoga, and other movement forms, check out our website: TrainMovePlay.com. We have lots of great info on the About pages and FAQS on acroyoga, yoga, pilates, movement, and thai bodywork.

Information collected from, among other sources, The Subtle Body:The Story of Yoga in America, by Stefanie Syman, Heart of Yoga by TKS Desikachar, and The Complete Guide to Yin Yoga, by Bernie Clark, all fabulous reads on the history and evolution of modern yoga practices.

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