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.