Indian masters who got West hooked on Yoga

 | Updated: Jun 23, 2017, 10:45 AM IST
In 1893, Swami Vivekananda introduced Hinduism to the West but the true essence of Yoga was first taught by Swami Paramahansa Yogananda who travelled to US in 1920

The yoga travels: From East to West

That's yoga guru BKS Iyengar with Yehudi Menuhin, one of the greatest violinists of the 20th century. And they are practising Simhasana or the Lion Pose.

In lay parlance, yoga has become associated with physical exercises, however, it goes beyond. An 'asana' means posture. Out of all the postures a body can assume, 84 have been identified as yogasanas. Yogasanas are not exercises, but very subtle processes to manipulate one?s energy in a particular direction.

Yoga is now more than a fad, it's a lifestyle for many, from the studios in Los Angeles to the Yogshalas of Rishikesh, India, that attract enthusiasts from across the world. While you may have heard of 'hot yoga' and Bikram yoga, the original masters who took the science to Europe and the United States are not that well-known.

Explaining Hinduism to the world -- Swami Vivekananda, 1893

In 1893, at the Parliament of World's Religions in Chicago, United States, Swami Vivekananda introduced the assembled audience to Hinduism and its message.

The Swami was then 30-years-old and won the hearts of every religious scholar present with his six speeches at the Parliament.

He presented the wisdom of the Vedas to the world, however, yoga was to be carried overseas in its essence by another Indian master a couple of decades later.

Paramahansa Yogananda -- The Yogi heads West

The concept of yoga was introduced to the world beyond India by Paramahansa Yogananda.

He arrived in Boston, US, in September 1920. His first speech, made to the International Congress of Religious Liberals, was on 'The Science of Religion', and was enthusiastically received.

That same year he founded Self-Realisation Fellowship to disseminate worldwide his teachings on the science and philosophy of Yoga and its time-honoured tradition of meditation.

In Los Angeles, he established the international headquarters for Self-Realization Fellowship atop Mount Washington, which became the spiritual and administrative heart of his growing work in early 1925.

Yogananda emphasised the underlying unity of the world?s great religions and presented the non-sectarian face of yoga.

From Mukunda to Paramahansa

At the age of 17, Swami Mukunda Lal Ghosh met and became a disciple of Swami Sri Yukteswar Giri. It was Sri Yukteswar's vision that his disciple should travel to America, and share the spiritual wisdom of the east, which in turn would imbibe the scientific temper and discipline of the West.

In the hermitage of this great master of yoga, Mukunda spent the better part of the next 10 years, receiving Sri Yukteswar?s spiritual tutelage and training in Kriya Yoga, at the end of which emerged Paramhansa Yogananda.

He studied at Kolkata's Scottish Church College and later graduated from Serampore College since his Guru envisaged: "You will go to the West. Its people will lend ears more receptive to India's ancient wisdom if the strange Hindu teacher has a university degree."

Autobiography of a Yogi - 1946

Yogananda's life story, 'Autobiography of a Yogi', was published in 1946 and since then it has drawn millions across the world to Kriya Yoga and meditation. It is one of the top 10 spiritual classics of the 20th century.

The book has inspired many greats across cultures and countries.

At the memorial service for Apple's Steve Jobs (for which Jobs had planned every detail beforehand), every attendee got a brown box which contained a copy of 'Autobiography of a Yogi' by Paramahansa Yogananda.

It was a message by Steve Jobs to everyone to actualise themselves.

Soon after surpassing legendary batsman Don Bradman and Rahul Dravid's record by scoring double centuries in four consecutive matches, India's cricket captain Virat Kohli made an unexpected declaration. He posted a photo on social media of him holding a copy of 'Autobiography of a Yogi' and said he loved the book. He called it a must-read for those who are "brave enough to let their thoughts and ideologies be challenged".

1936 - A Search in Secret India

In 1936, 'A Search in Secret India' was written and published by Paul Brunton. The book detailed his Indian experiences and introduced American readers to Ramana Maharshi.

Ramana Maharshi

Ramana Maharshi?s work with scores of Western spiritual authors, such as Brunton, paved the way for his teaching style to reach readers from US and other western countries.

Swami Krishnamacharya

Swami Krishnamacharya is often referred to as the 'Father of Modern Yoga'.

Although he never travelled to the West himself, that Yoga has reached people worldwide, is due to him in great measures. His students ? including B K S Iyengar, K Pattabhi Jois, T K V Desikachar, and Indra Devi ? dramatically popularised yoga in the West.

1952 - BKS Iyengar

BKS Iyengar was the brother-in-law of Swami Krishnamacharya.


Yehudi Menuhin, the violinist, and BKS Iyengar

Iyengar was introduced to American classical violinist Yehudi Menuhin in 1952 when Menuhin was on a concert tour in India. He is one of his most renowned students.

Menuhin touted the improvement in his violin playing that he said had come about after he began practising yoga. When Menuhin returned to India in 1954, he suggested that Iyengar return to the West with him and give yoga lessons in Europe and the United States to which Iyengar obliged.

In 1956, Iyengar visited the United States. American interest in yoga was growing.

Light on Yoga - 1966

BKS Iyengar wrote 'Light on Yoga' in 1966. Decades later, 'Light on Yoga' is considered the pre-eminent yoga text in the field, it is often referred to as the bible of yoga.

'Yoga for Americans' by Indra Devi - 1959

Indra Devi?s Yoga for Americans was published in 1959, which passed on the teachings she absorbed after gaining notoriety as the first Western woman accepted into an Indian ashram (run by Swami Tirumalai Krishnamacharya).

Beginning in the 1930s and up until her death in 2002, the Latvian-raised Devi shared with students in the United States, China, India, and Mexico the fruits of her studies at Tirumalai Krishnamacharya?s ashram, then based in Mysore.

K. Pattabhi Jois

K Pattabhi Jois established the Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute in Chennai In 1948 with a view towards experimenting with the curative aspects of yoga.

Many local officials, from police chiefs to constables and doctors, practised with him. Local physicians even sent their patients to him to help with the treatment of diabetes, heart and blood pressure problems and a variety of other ailments.

In 1973, Jois's Ashtanga reached overseas community as well, when he was invited to Sao Paulo, Brazil. The following year he went to Encinitas, California, the first of many teaching trips abroad, including France, Switzerland, Finland, Norway, England and Australia.

Over the next twenty years, word of Pattabhi Jois and Ashtanga yoga slowly spread across the globe.