Tracing the trails of yoga around the world
Yoga is everywhere today. The wide spectrum of benefits that yoga has to offer is rapidly becoming common knowledge. From the swanky lanes of Hollywood to the quaint cities of Europe, people of various faiths and ethnicities practise the art form with varied goals in mind. Some do it for fitness, while others pursue it as a means to spiritual awakening. And intrigued seekers gravitate towards the many fitness centres, institutes and ashrams across the world that offer courses, programmes and retreats.
Even as yoga has made its way to every nook and cranny of the world, thousands of foreigners travel all the way to India to study under celebrated gurus. After all, the ancient art form is said to have originated in this country as early as the fourth century AD. The Yoga Sutras of Saint Patanjali, written in 400 CE, is believed to have been among the earliest texts expounding the practice. Today, the text is translated in over 40 languages and is commonly referred to by practitioners across the world.
The history of yoga in India is believed to have been turbulent. Under the British rule, the art form was heavily discouraged, as the government thought of it as black magic. Somewhere between the 18th and 19th centuries, the largely-forgotten tradition was revived by monarchs, gurus and practitioners. Eventually, yoga spread its wings and soared across the world, bringing peace, health and spirituality to countless people. In this feature, Soulveda finds out how yoga travelled ashore to benefit the rest of the world.
The journey of yoga to foreign lands is said to have begun when Swami Vivekananda addressed the Parliament of World Religions in Chicago in 1893. A disciple of mystic Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, Vivekananda swept the audience off their feet as he spoke of the universal ideals of the Hindu religion, its philosophy and practices. So impressed were the international representatives in the audience that they invited the “Orange monk” to deliver talks in their own countries.
In 1894, Vivekananda founded the Vedanta Society in New York—which later spread to different parts of the Western world—and began conducting yoga classes. He wrote the book Raja Yoga and set up yoga retreats in the hills and along the coasts of California, attracting thousands of people to the practice. Among his followers were famous philosophers, psychologists, lawyers and even legendary scientists like Nikola Tesla and Lord Kelvin.
Swami Vivekananda’s work laid the foundation on which the yoga gurus of the coming years established their brands in the west.
In the east, the 20th century saw the revival of yoga in south India. Thirumalai Krishnamacharya, considered to be the father of modern yoga, was encouraged by the Maharaja of Mysore to open schools and train more and more people in the art form. Among the yogi’s star pupils were Pattabhi Jois, B K S Iyengar and T K V Desikachar who later came up with their own styles of yoga namely Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga, Iyengar Yoga, and Viniyoga, and popularised them both in India and around the world.
B K S Iyengar is believed to have been one of the pioneers in taking yoga to the west. The yogi is said to have taught and transformed a long list of important people, from philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti to American violinist Yehudi Menuhin to Queen Elisabeth of Belgium. Even though the yogi passed away in 2014, his style of yoga and his insights on the tradition—as presented in the book Light on Life—are immensely popular among yogis across the world to this day.
According to A Biography of BKS Iyengar, written by Kofi Busia, an Oxford-educated yogi and teacher, Iyengar did not have the flexibility for yoga as a student. Apparently, he was often shunned as a ‘lost cause’ by his teacher Krishnamacharya. But with dedication and years of practice, he gradually mastered the art form and even experimented with it. Says Dr P N Ganesh Kumar of Mysore Vivekananda Yoga Education & Research Institute, “Iyengar came up with the idea of using props such as benches, chairs and pillows to make certain yoga asanas easier to perform. This is what made his style of yoga a hit among foreigners, who found some of the asanas too daunting.”
Another big draw for foreigners was the Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga, which is a form of hatha yoga. This tradition, coded by Pattabhi Jois, involved a ‘flow’ or a sequence of asanas performed along with specific breathing patterns called Ujjayi breathing. “This form of yoga worked well for people who lived in very cold countries,” adds Dr Kumar. Pop stars Sting and Madonna are practitioners of this yoga, and their influence drew more people to learn the tradition.
Krishnamacharya’s son, T K V Desikachar, was the third of the yogi’s pupils to head west. He taught Viniyoga, a form of yoga devised by his father that is customised to suit each practitioner’s body and needs. “Like everything, yoga must be presented intelligently. It should be spoken of carefully and offered according to the aspiration, requirement and the culture of the individual,” Desikachar is believed to have said. Indeed, the yogi taught the world the importance of listening to our bodies and adopting practices that agree with our composition.
While Iyengar, Jois and Desikachar were among the first to teach yoga in the west, they were followed by countless others who drew fitness enthusiasts and spiritual seekers from various parts of the world. Add to this the seekers who came to India to learn yoga and returned home to teach it to others. With yoga academies cropping up in every city of the world every other day, the tradition has truly become international. With more and more people exploring the myriad benefits of yoga every day, we might have found a powerful way evolve as spiritual beings. Perhaps, this collective evolution is what the gurus had in mind.