An Indian college student poses for a picture with a different yoga pose painted on her face in Chennai, June 20, on the eve of International Yoga Day. (Arun Sankar/AFP/Getty Images)
For the last several years, yoga and meditation are becoming more acceptable in America. Yoga has surged in popularity and its impact is everywhere: in movies, television, advertising, and schools. Americans have witnessed an increase in yoga studios, meditation centers and vegetarian restaurants, all of which have roots in India. Meditation was originally a huge part of yoga. Now, yoga is marketed as a series of asanas (postures) that makes one fit and helps in weight loss. Many Americans have incorporated yoga routines as an essential part of their work out regime. The number of US yoga practitioners has increased exponentially to more than 36 million, up from 20.4 million in 2012, as per a 2016 study conducted by Yoga Journal and Yoga Alliance, writes Inder Singh.
In 2014, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution proclaiming June 21 as ‘International Day of Yoga’. The resolution introduced by India’s ambassador to the UN was a follow up of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s call during his address to the UN General Assembly on September 27, 2014, asking world leaders to adopt an international Yoga day, as “Yoga embodies unity of mind and body; thought and action; restraint and fulfillment; harmony between man and nature; a holistic approach to health and well-being.”
The first International Day of Yoga was observed all over the world on June 21, 2015. In New Delhi, Prime Minister Modi, a large number of dignitaries from 84 nations, and a record number of 35,985 people performed 21 yoga asanas (postures) on Rajpath for 35 minutes. At the UN Headquarters, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and India’s External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj spoke at the inaugural function which also featured a yoga demonstration. The UN General Assembly President Sam Kutesa attended the event along with more than one hundred people, including diplomats and UN staff. The event was webcast to thousands who took part in an all-day yoga event at Times Square.
The Indian Embassy in Washington D.C. organized many curtain-raiser yoga events featuring Sri Sri Ravi Shankar and Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev, among others, during the months of May-June 2015. Indian ambassador Arun K. Singh attended the event on June 21, along with several dignitaries. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii delivered a congressional resolution commemorating the day. The Indian Embassy organized a celebration of the 4th International Day of Yoga on June 16. All Indian consulates in the U.S. also organized similar events and invited members of the Indian community to participate.
Swami Vivekananda introduced yoga to Americans. He came to the USA in 1893 to address the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago. During his stay of about four years in America, he lectured at major universities and retreats. He started the Vedantic center in New York in 1896 and taught Raja Yoga classes. In 1920, Paramahansa Yogananda came as India’s delegate to the International Congress of Religious Leaders in Boston, Mass. He established The Self-Realization Fellowship in Los Angeles. Today, there are seven SRF centers in California where Yogananda’s meditation and Kriya yoga techniques are taught on regular basis. Maharishi Mahesh Yogi introduced Transcendental Meditation (TM ) to Americans in 1959. The TM technique involves the use of mantra and regular practice offers reduction of stress and fatigue. Yoga continued to proliferate in a limited way as the focus has been on the religious aspect of yoga, which dealt with how to use meditation to come closer to God.
Indra Devi was the first to teach and propagate nonreligious yoga for the American mainstream, with an emphasis on its physical benefits. She opened a yoga studio in Hollywood in 1947 with emphasis on the physical benefits of yoga. She was born Eugenie Peterson in Latvia on May 12, 1899 and went to India in 1927 for three months. She was not happy coming back and returned to India where she became a rising star as a dancer and actress in Indian films. In 1930, she married Jan Strakaty, the commercial attaché to the Czechoslovak Consulate in Bombay. She started learning yoga in 1937 from Sri Tirumalai Krishnamacharya. She became the first Western woman and the first woman chela (pupil) of an Indian yoga teacher. In 1938, her husband was transferred to China. At the urging of her teacher Krishnamacharya, Indra opened a yoga school in Shanghai in 1939. Many Americans and Russians joined the school to learn yoga. There, she became known as Mata Ji, which means mother. She wrote her first book “Yoga, the Art of Reaching Health and Happiness.” It was believed to be the first book on yoga written by a Westerner to be published in India. In 1947, a year after her husband passed away, she moved to California. In an effort to publicize and spread yoga for health and wellness, she cultivated movie stars like Gloria Swanson and other famous people like Yehudi Menuhin to come to her Hollywood yoga studio. She promoted yoga to Americans as a system of physical exercise, consisting of a series of poses, postures and positions. She reached thousands of people through her books on yoga, two, “Forever Young, Forever Healthy” and “Renew Your Life by Practicing Yoga” were the best sellers.
B.K.S. Iyengar, considered one of the foremost yoga teachers in the world, was the founder of “Iyengar Yoga”. He learnt yoga from Sri Tirumalai Krishnamacharya, the same teacher who taught Indra Devi. In 1954, Yehudi Menuhin invited Iyengar to Switzerland. From then on, Iyengar visited the west regularly to teach his system of yoga. He made his first visit to the United States in 1956 and gave several lecture-demonstrations. He published his first book, Light on Yoga, which became known as “the bible of yoga” and has been the source book for yoga students. He was the author of many books on yoga practice and was often referred to as “the father of modern yoga.” Iyengar started hundreds of yoga centers, teaching Iyengar yoga which focuses on the correct alignment of the body within each yoga pose, making use of straps, wooden blocks, and other objects as aids in achieving the correct postures. He was awarded the Padma Shri in 1991, the Padma Bhushan in 2002 and the Padma Vibhushan in 2014.
Yogi Bhajan started teaching “Kundalini Yoga, the Yoga of Awareness” in 1968. His version of Kundalini Yoga has continued to grow in influence and popularity largely in the Americas, Europe, South Africa, Togo, Australia, and East Asia. He was an inspiring teacher and trained thousands of teachers. Many of his followers opened their yoga studios in various parts of the world, popularizing yoga for health and fitness.
Bikram Choudhary emigrated to the United States in the 1970s and founded yoga studios in California and Hawaii. He earned fame and fortune by teaching yoga to Americans by opening heated yoga studios. His style of yoga is practiced in a room that has been preheated to a temperature of 105°F. Bikram Yoga is the 26 postures sequence selected and developed from Hatha Yoga. In the 1990s, Bikram began offering nine-week teacher certification courses and trained thousands of certified instructors who opened Bikram Yoga studios all over the world. For the last several years, Bikram has been involved in lawsuits due to his sexual transgressions.
Sri Sri Ravi Shankar established the International Art of Living Foundation in 1981, which is operating in 154 countries. He has been promoting the Sudarshan Kriya, a rhythmic breathing yoga exercise that incorporates specific natural rhythms of the breath, harmonizing the body, mind and emotions. It is claimed that regular practice of Sudarshan Kriya “eliminates stress, fatigue and negative emotions.” In 1986, Sri Sri came to California to conduct the first course to be held in North America. Since then, he has been frequenting America to spread his brand of yoga.
Swami Ramdev is the most celebrated yoga teacher and has a following which runs into millions. He has revolutionized people’s thinking about yoga exercises. In 2003, India-based Aastha TV began featuring him in its morning yoga slot. Within a few years, he attained immense popularity and developed a huge following. His yoga camps are attended by a large number of people in India and abroad. His Pranayam exercises – a set of breathing exercises – are promoted to bring about balance between the body and mind. Regular practitioners claim numerous benefits. Zee TV in USA gives a one hour program daily featuring Ramdev’s yoga asanas. Ramdev has attained commercial success of his physical fitness yoga, with no parallel in India or the western world.
America is now dotted with yoga gyms and studios providing easy access to everyone, including business executives and Hollywood celebrities. There are also many yoga professionals and teachers who have gained prominence in this growing industry and are available for expert guidance. Several studies have shown that yoga reduces blood pressure, back pain, relieves stress and improves overall health. Several doctors recommend yoga to their cancer patients during and after treatment. Many Americans are drawn to yoga for physical fitness, others are attracted as yoga provides relief from stress while many others practice yoga for weight management.
Several entrepreneurs are flourishing in this $30 billion industry. They publish yoga magazines, yoga books, produce TV shows, make DVDs, video games and apps, manufacture yoga clothes, yoga artifacts, yoga furniture and furnishings, yoga foods, yoga tea, yoga energy bars, and hundreds of products and services. The proliferation of yoga products, DVDs, and internet has made yoga accessible by one and all. Hundreds of yoga websites have all kind of information about yoga, from health and wellness to spiritual and show simple to complex poses. Several New Age gurus, who travel across the globe, have contributed to yoga popularity. In the United States, best-selling author Deepak Chopra has significantly contributed to Indian meditation philosophy and yoga going mainstream.
Yoga has gone through several ups and downs during the last sixty years but now has earned well deserved respect and recognition. At its core, yoga is both a physical and spiritual practice. But for most Americans, yoga is a workout system that consists of a series of stretches, poses, and postures to tone and shape one’s body.