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Ideal Worship: Yoga an American way of life

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India’s biggest cultural export to the West has become an American way of enlightened life
The first time I tried yoga, I was in college at the University of Michigan, partly because of a growing interest in Eastern religions, partly because it was an easy physical education credit, but mostly because it was a bonding activity with my roommate. Every Tuesday evening, we would walk to the campus gym together, blunder through our Oms and Namastes, and stare agog at one another (more serious students stood on their heads and balanced their bodies on bent elbows). Afterward, we would cook an enormous plate of fried rice and feel virtuous. No one else we knew did yoga.

Now, it seems that everyone does—at least here in the United States. My mother, a feisty Cubana who lives in a suburb of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, does it. My brother-in-law, a graphic designer and horror film aficionado, does it. Even my husband’s best friend—a brawny, macho, Neal Cassady type—has dabbled in a class or two. In Brooklyn, where I live, there are more than 60 yoga studios, not counting private instructors, offering a dizzying range of classes, from ‘Hangover Yoga’ (which ‘relieves headaches, nausea and fatigue’ and, somewhat contradictorily, serves up complimentary mimosas and Bloody Marys) to ‘Yoga Pole’ (yoga performed astride a stripper pole) to, my personal favourite, ‘Power Yoga’, in which students flow through a series of challenging poses in an infernally heated room (it’s invigorating).

In some ways, the first International Day of Yoga, which will take place on 21 June, can be seen as Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s attempt to reclaim yoga—India’s biggest cultural export—from the West. “There is little doubt about yoga being an Indian art form,” Modi’s Minister of Yoga, Shripad Yesso Naik, has said. “We’re trying to establish to the world that it is ours.”

Modi and Naik have their work cut out for them. A 2012 study by the National Institutes of Health in the United States found that approximately 21 million adults and 1.7 million children practise yoga in the US— far more than in India. In addition, the Yoga Journal estimates that Americans spend $10.3 billion a year on yoga classes and products like clothing, equipmen and vacations, compared with $5.7 billion just four years before.

“It’s more than just a physical practice,” says Michelle Goldberg, author of the new book The Goddess Pose: The Audacious Life of Indra Devi, the Woman Who Helped Bring Yoga to the West. “It is an entire lifestyle.”


Americans have been experimenting with yoga and Eastern religion since the mid-19th century. New England poet and transcendentalist philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson, author of that most American of essays, Self-Reliance, was greatly influenced by Hinduism, while his friend and protégé Henry David Thoreau practised some form of yoga and meditation during his solitary stay at Walden Pond. Indeed, though Thoreau did often have trouble clearing his mind entirely, he did consider himself a practitioner: ‘Rude and careless as I am, I would fain practice yoga faithfully,’ he wrote in a letter. ‘To some extent, and at rare intervals, even I am a yogin.’

It was, however, a yogi named Swami Vivekananda who officially brought the practice to America. He arrived in the US in 1893, in an attempt to raise funds for the Indian masses, who were under British rule at the time and, he felt, forced to abandon many of their traditions. Vivekananda did not like the way that Christian missionaries treated Indians as heathens, so he soon began lecturing on Hindu philosophy throughout the States and offering yoga classes—which mostly consisted of breathing exercises (challenging enough for his corseted, heavily clothed female students) and meditation—to New England intellectuals, many of whom were already drawn to Eastern philosophy through transcendentalism.

While Vivekananda’s yoga stressed the spiritual over the physical—indeed, of yoga’s eight ‘limbs,’ or arms, only one deals with physical exercise—by the 1920s a more bodily kind of yoga emerged, thanks to a Midwestern-born yogi, occultist and businessman who called himself Dr Pierre Bernard. Bernard, known in the tabloids as ‘The Great Oom’, was a quasi-charlatan, a notorious philanderer and a tantric guru who was forever evading the police, yet he actually did know quite a bit about yoga and Eastern religion—and he packaged both brilliantly for (elite) Western consumption. The Vanderbilts attended his Gilded Age pleasure-ashram— which, according to Bernard’s biographer Robert Love, included a zoo, a yacht, aeroplanes and a dozen mansions scattered throughout its 200 acres—as did conductor Leopold Stokowski, Wall Street barons, war spies and many former chorus girls (who often taught his demanding classes).

Though Bernard transformed yoga into something uniquely American—a capitalist enterprise, a big business, a vehicle for self-reinvention—he did little to demystify it to the vast American public. Indeed, his sex- related scandals did little to assuage Americans’ fear of yoga, and Hinduism in general, as a threat to Christian values, and many saw it as a tool used by lecherous men to lure unsuspecting women into lurid rituals.

It makes sense, then, that the person who would eventually bring yoga out of the fringes and into the mainstream in the West was a woman.


Indra Devi, the daughter of Russian nobility who lived approximately a thousand lives (as a Berlin cabaret dancer, a Bollywood actress and a yogi), studied Vinyasa Yoga in India—a fast-paced, flowing style filled with jump backs and half push-ups originally developed for young boys. This style, incidentally, was very different from the traditional yoga developed in India thousands of years ago, and a sign that yoga has long been a melli- fluous, shifting, adaptive discipline. After stints of teaching yoga in Beijing and the Soviet Union (where she taught the Kremlin how to downward-dog), Devi arrived in the US in the 1940s, ready for her greatest reinvention. She opened up a studio in Hollywood, where she hooked up with writer Aldous Huxley, makeup maven Elizabeth Arden and movie stars like Greta Garbo, Jennifer Jones and Gloria Swanson to become a guru, businesswoman and reproductive-rights crusader.

Devi—with her Jolie Laide looks and famous friends— injected yoga with an approachable glamour, quite different from Vivekananda’s high-minded spiritualism or Bernard’s louche exoticism. But more importantly, she merged it with other fashionable trends at the time, such as the health food movement and natural childbirth.

“That was the really interesting thing about Devi,” says Goldberg. “She was a pioneer in creating this whole lifestyle around yoga. She made it something which modern, cosmopolitan women did, well before the hippies and counterculture picked it up in the 1960s.”

Yet, if Yoga has long appealed to American ideals of self-discipline, self-reliance and self-invention, why has it taken so long to explode the way it has in the past few years? After a big countercultural push in the 1960s, yoga did fade a bit, replaced by disco, aerobics, and a glossier kind of glamour and beauty. Yet, in the 1990s, it began to rise again, first as a reaction against aerobics culture, then as fashion designers and musicians began to look once more to the East for inspiration. (Jean Paul Gaultier’s Indian-inspired fantasias, or the American pop-punk chanteuse Gwen Stefani, with her bindis). And it steadily grew in popularity through the aughts. But there is something particularly intoxicating about yoga—about letting go—that has really struck a nerve lately here in the US, which explains its meteoric rise in the past decade.

“I think part of its appeal is that the level of stress in our society is so high,” says M Mala Cunningham, a psychologist and founder of Cardiac Medical Yoga. She cites feeling tethered to our phones and to technology, the rising demands of our jobs, and the economic hardships the US—and much of the world—as causes for our collective anxiety. “People are looking for ways to de-stress the body and mind,” she adds. “There have been so many findings that yoga has an impact on our mood state, reduces anxiety, and helps us cope with difficulties. Plus, it’s good for our physical body,” she adds.

And, at a time when many of the world’s religions have suffered from scandal and an inability to progress with the times, yoga provides some much-needed spiritual nourishment, without the strict confines of organised religion. “There’s been a steady decline in organised religion here in the US,” says Goldberg, “and even if you’re not a believer, you can still crave that ritual, the routine, the community. Yoga helps fill that void. I go to a Sunday morning class, and it’s an uplifting beginning to the week.”

However, a large part of its appeal is that no matter how many companies can get away with peddling $90 yoga pants, and no matter how many faddish permutations come out of it (Broga —yoga for ‘bros’, or guy’s guys, anyone?), yoga does manage to retain some authenticity, some level of spiritual well-being and mindfulness that you just can’t find in a spin class, or, for that matter, an aerobics class or weight-training session. And that while its roots and its soul remain Indian, every person, every culture, can find a different way to adopt it.

“When I found out how new some of these poses are, I was surprised,” says Goldberg of her research. “The Sunrise Salutations—there’s no real record of them beyond 150 years ago. Once you learn that, that there’s no ‘correct’, ‘original’ way to do yoga, it’s very freeing.”

And, while Modi and company may want to lay claim to yoga, there is an acceptance of its cultural fluidity, and that this fluidity works as a powerful diplomacy tool and image enhancer. As India’s minister for external affairs Sushma Swaraj once said, “Be it Californians doing yoga or Britishers eating Indian curry, they all are contributing to the image of a new India.”

No matter where you live—and whether you practise yoga suspended from the ceiling (yes, I’ve done it), with a big group of friends in a gym, or alone outdoors —there’s one overriding thing, says Goldberg: “It just works.”

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