Tag Archives: BKS Iyengar

International Yoga Day a Culmination of a Surge in Yoga Culture

The number of US yoga practitioners has increased exponentially to more than 36 million in 2016, up from 20.4 million in 2012, as per a study conducted by Yoga Journal and Yoga Alliance. 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 workout regimen.

International Day of Yoga

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. Now, the Indian Embassy in D.C. is organizing a celebration of the 4th International Day of Yoga on June 16, 2018. All Indian consulates in USA are also organizing similar events and inviting members of the Indian community to participate.    

Yoga Comes to America – Yoga Luminaries

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 centre 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. He established The Self-Realization Fellowship (SRF) in Los Angeles. Today, there are seven SRF centers in California where Yogananda’s meditation and Kriya yoga techniques are taught.  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

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 Technique of Health and Happiness (1948). 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 (1953) and Renew Your Life by Practicing Yoga (1977) were best sellers.

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.  

B. K. S. Iyengar, considered one of the foremost yoga teachers in the world, was the founder of  “Iyengar Yoga”. He learned 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 (1966), 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.

B. K. S. Iyengar


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 degree 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.

Embracing Yoga

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 websites has made yoga accessible by one and all. These yoga websites have all kind of information about yoga, from health and wellness to spirituality and show simple to complex poses. Several New Age gurus, who travel across the globe, have contributed to yoga’s 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.

Inder Singh regularly writes on Indian Diaspora. He is the author of The Gadar Heroics – life sketches of over 50 Gadar heroes. He is Executive Trustee of Global Organization of People of Indian Origin (GOPIO) Foundation. He was chairman of GOPIO from 2009-2016, president from 2004-2009, president of National Federation of Indian American Associations (NFIA) from 1988-92 and chairman from 1992-96. He was founding president of Federation of Indian Associations in Southern California. He can be reached at indersingh-usa@hotmail.com


Whitewashing yoga

American Counter-Culture and Yoga Jones

Much before yoga could be accepted as a wholesome and family-friendly practice available at a yoga studio next to a Starbucks cafe at the local strip mall, many yogis would work assiduously to strip away yoga’s sinister overtones and would guide in its re-emergence as a secular and peaceful practice. The dreadlocks had to go, and the ash-smeared hashish-smoking yogi was replaced by a yogi of pleasing hair-length and body hygiene.

A wholesale shedding of the hirsute and unkempt image of the yogi, as well as a generous application of spit and polish was undertaken before a shiny and sanitized version of the modern yogi emerged, suitable for Western consumption.

Yogis Through the Colonial Lens
Early interactions between yoga practitioners and Westerners during the British Raj were illuminating. Presumably, colonial yogis severely tested prevailing puritanical Victorian sensibilities by their more freewheeling native ways. A recent exhibition by the Smithsonian, “Yoga: the Art of Transformation,” dubbed as the first exhibition on yoga, devoted a full section on how the colonialists of the British Raj remained uncomprehending and just a bit uneasy at the fakirs on their beds of nails and with a proclivity to levitate.

Many yogis were not integrated into mainstream society even in colonial India, and had been the perennial outsiders, spurning family life, living in communes and frequently smoking consciousness-altering substances. Much like American hippies of the 70s who would come much later, these early yogis tolerated ridicule and derogatory appellations. While Western counterculture hippies have been called beatniks or freaks, the British, upon encountering yogis and at a loss as to how to frame the mendicants, called them fakirs, even though the latter were of Muslim lineage, such as sufi dervishes.

An Orientalist lens is evident in the film Hindoo Fakir made by Thomas Edison in 1902, and described as a “remarkable and mystifying” picture. A fakir, with referents more Islamic than Hindu, is seen creating cinematic “trick” spectacles such as a flower that turns into a girl with wings, who flies around the stage. In 1931, Churchill’s infamous reference to Gandhi in 1931 as a “half-naked fakir” cemented the status of the word as a colonial slur. Clearly, the powers of yogis, such as levitation and visions induced both fascination and fear in the West, mixed with a healthy does of disdain.

Sinister yogis continued to populate popular culture, including a poison-dart spewing fakir referred to only as “the eyes” in the 1950s Tintin series, The Cigars of the Pharaoh and The Blue Lotus. The fakir uses blow-darts dipped with rajaijah juice to drive his victims such as the Maharaja of Gaipajama insane. Hypnosis, the Indian rope trick, and escapology are additional skills in this drug-smuggling, criminal fakir’s sinister repertoire.

The Transformation Begins
Aware of yoga’s image problem, Swami Vivekananda, in his 1896 book Raja Yoga, decried the contortionists and conjurers who were giving yoga a bad rap in the West. Swami Vivekananda taught and lectured extensively on Hinduism and yoga in America during his first visit from 1893-1896 and, during his second visit, from 1899-1900.

Another important yoga teacher, T. Krishnamachari, was hired in the 1920s by the Raja of Oudh and trained many influential students in India who helped spread his teachings overseas.

B.K.S. Iyengar, with his well-groomed mane of hair was lauded by celebrity violinist Yehudi Menuhin, who wrote the foreword for Iyengar’s 1966 book, Light on Yoga. Menuhin’s endorsement of Iyengar as “his best violin teacher,” a nod to the benefits of yoga, helped provide cultural legitimacy to the practice of yoga in the West.

The attractive sari-wearing Indra Devi originally born Eugenie V. Peterson, brought yoga to Hollywood in the fifties and contributed to the trend of making yoga acceptable. Marilyn Monroe was one of her famous disciples who adopted the practice of yoga in her wellness routine. The Beatles traveled to India in 1968 to learn transcendental meditation at the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi ashram in Rishikesh, and their well-publicized trip was another opportunity to enhance yoga’s image.

These first interactions of yoga teachers with famous celebrities captured through photographs and articles in print magazines hastened the acceptance of yoga in other parts of society. But it was the 1970s hippies who provided yoga with the warmest embrace. The hippie movement was a counter-cultural social movement that drew upon Eastern mysticism for a pagan, back-to-nature spiritual life to challenge the mainstream orthodoxy of competitive consumer capitalism and Christian family values.

This circuitous trajectory of how yoga shed its sketchy image and arrived into the American mainstream is a fascinating journey; a journey that has ended at a strip mall near you. This transformation can be examined through the lens of popular cultural representations. In contemporary television shows such as Orange is the New Black, Eastern spiritual traditions are depicted with characters such as Yoga Jones, Guru Mack and Norma embodying the history of the 70s counter-culture hippie movement in America. These images, far less sinister than earlier colonialist and neo-colonialist images, add to yoga’s continuing salience in contemporary cultural consciousness.

The Counter-culture and Eastern Mysticism in Current Culture
From representations of sinister yogis where “otherness” was indeed the guiding principle, we move to the present where the Netflix show, Orange is the New Black has references to Amma the hugging saint, and depicts Sanskrit chants and discussions of astral planes.

A character, Norma, develops a cult following among prison inmates due to her shoulder squeeze that miraculously heals. As a younger, painfully shy woman, Norma, in bell-bottoms and flower garlands, had become enamored with Guru Mack, a hippie. Norma becomes one of Guru Mack’s multiple wives and sticks with him through the bitter end (which she precipitates, and thus receives the prison term). Before his death he is shown broke and disheartened in a dilapidated Volkswagen Beetle van, the hippie vehicle of choice. Through these characters, the show provides a perspective on the  counter-cultural social movement of the 60s that drew upon Eastern mysticism  that challenged the mainstream.

The Fakir Gets a Makeover: Enter Yoga Jones
We see a fairly sympathetic view of yogis in Yoga Jones, an inmate at Litchfield Penitentiary in the same show. Yoga Jones is a white yogi, a nod to the present-day acceptance of yoga culture and its tropes in contemporary American society. She displays many characteristics emblematic of “hippie culture.”

Yoga Jones radiates a serene high-mindedness that one might associate with yoga even when there is a Darwinian struggle for survival around her. She, on the other hand, is like the proverbial lotus in the mud, full of helpful advice to new inmates, active in the prison garden where she grows kale, and apt to spout poetry by Rumi.

Yoga Jones provides a new perspective to the newly arrived protagonist Piper Chapman, stressing the impermanence of every moment. Incarceration, however scary and dehumanizing an experience, could be borne if it was not to be forever.

Yoga Jones: Do you know what a mandala is?

Piper Chapman: Um, those are those round Buddhist art things.

Yoga Jones: The Tibetan monks make them out of sand laid out into big beautiful designs. And when they’re done, after days or weeks of work, they wipe it all away.

Piper Chapman: Wow, that’s, that’s a lot.

Yoga Jones: Try to look at your experience here as a mandala, Chapman. Work hard to make something as meaningful and beautiful as you can. And when you’re done, pack it in and know it was all temporary.”

This gem of Buddhist philosophy serves to soften Piper’s prison landing in prison. Strategies such as yoga to overcome suffering can take on special significance in prison, where inmates face horrific stresses in an institutional environment that robs them of agency and human dignity.

In one episode, when prison instructor Yoga Jones hears that Piper has ended her relationship with Alex, she exudes Zen calmness and quotes Rumi, saying that lovers don’t ever meet, that they are in each other all along. In response to this poetic sentiment, Alex responds that their relationship was something like that, but with the extra elements of backstabbing and drugs. We return from the rarefied verse of Rumi to the moral relativism and undeniable grit of a woman’s prison.

Yoga in American prisons does have a real-life version. Prison yoga founder James Fox for instance, teaches yoga to inmates as part of The Prison Project.

Yoga’s Other Baggage
Along with this projection of yoga as a way to deal with the stresses of being in prison, we also see some other less desirable strands of thinking displayed in television portrayals.

Norma’s elevated status among her acolytes can be seen as an examination of the curious nature of faith in different societies. When a toast seems to bear the likeness of Norma, her followers are overcome with devotion. The storyline is a clear sendup of the seemingly irresistible draw of charismatic, occasionally scandalous, spiritual gurus from real life

The most recent real-life yoga celebrity who has been dogged by sex scandals is Bikram Chowdhury of the franchise Bikram Yoga. Bikram Chowdhury has not been good for yoga’s reputation and the scandal feeds into the suspicion that yoga and loose morals somehow go together.

Another enduring strand of thought—yogic eroticism has an entire chapter in William Broad’s The Science of Yoga. A raised eyebrow regarding downward dog (adhomukh shvanasana) is expressed in a 2016 episode of the sitcom Modern Family where Gloria takes Claire to a yoga studio where the teacher is adjusting Claire in a bold manner. The yoga teacher exudes not serenity, but a rakish come-hither-ness. Western Internet yogi celebrity Kino McGregor routinely performs yoga in a bikini; a puzzling sartorial decision till one realizes that audience size is the currency of the Internet. These interactions draw attention to another strand of thinking that colors Western perception of yoga, which is yoga’s reputation as an alleged aphrodisiac

A sex scandal involving a yoga guru, whose followers place such trust in him, is a particularly troubling breach of trust. By contrast, B.K.S. Iyengar’s book Light on Yoga makes references to the virtues of brahmacharya or celibacy.

Yoga has become so ubiquitous as to even appear in fictional television shows as yoga’s stress-busting promise of inner harmony and a mind-body connection continues to attract practitioners  — the United Nations even declared an International Day of Yoga in 2015.

The Subversive Act of Relaxing
In its “avatar” outside of India, most current depictions of yoga are of calming “Om” breaths, where resorts boast of resident yoga teachers to help rejuvenate and de-stress visitors, and of salons and studios where one can nip in to get a quick relaxation fix.

The history of how yoga got this salubrious veneer highlights how ironic it is that yogis critical of mainstream materialism are called upon to dissipate work stress, a product of consumer culture and work schedules It also speaks to the subversive act of relaxing in a world which is accelerating in its velocity and break-neck information assault. While it can be argued that the mainstream adoption of yoga culture constitutes an escape from the stresses of oppressive 24/7 work cultures in a globalized corporate landscape, a yoga mat, just like a tattoo, is indeed open to interpretation.
Is it a sign of conformity to a fad? Or a rebellious political statement? Or is it just an act of personal expression? This meaning is open to interpretation.

Thomas Friedman, in his recent book Thank You for Being Late talks of the radical act of taking back one’s ownership of time from the deluge of information overload. Mindfulness is the new mantra, an antidote to the accelerated velocity of everyday life and stresses of the win-at-all-costs work culture. One can argue that even the act of a ten-minute yoga nap during savasana is subversive in the fiercely competitive world of nonstop productivity.

Ironically, the same counter-cultural movements that were considered anti-work, now provide an antidote to stress, preventing burnout and facilitating continued productivity. Corporate yoga is on the rise. Once again, consumer capitalism coopts what challenges it and absorbs it within its fold.

Today’s corporate yoga chains such as Core Power and Yoga Works, full of lululemon-clad svelte practitioners are hardly recognizable as counter-cultural in any way. Yoga Journal, a glossy ad-filled magazine devoted to wellness and self-care, feels more square and establishment by the day.

As part of modern yoga’s journey, it distanced itself from the 70s hippies who had let their hair down and experimented with psychedelic drugs. It was to appeal to sensibilities of Western mainstream practitioners that the yoga community offered a sanitized, uniquely American, secular, asana-based athletic yoga.  We can see this hybridization as the emergence of a new form of yoga on American shores.

Geetika Pathania Jain, Ph.D. is a frequent contributor to India Currents. She is a certified yoga teacher and finds that standing on her head often gives her a new perspective. She sometimes finds herself wondering if doing yoga would make Donald Trump a better president.