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The History Of Yoga In America: Part 4

by Ben HoshourMarch 9, 2013

Continued from part 1, part 2, & part 3

The History Of Yoga In America: Part 4In short, the vogue for postural yoga since the 1990s was not, despite its multiple antecedents, the inevitable culmination of linear growth. No one, Syman included, has fully explained its phenomenal resurgence. In her well-regarded book A History of Modern Yoga, Elizabeth De Michelis characterizes posture practice as “secularized healing ritual” perfectly suited for “largely secularized and developed multicultural, multifaith societies.” In the United States, the consolidation of yoga coincided with the coming of age of the Boomers, a cohort that religious studies scholars have described as spiritually adventuresome. The yoga boom also tracks with the growth of “unchurched America” as discussed in Robert Fuller’s Spiritual, But Not Religious (2001); the normalization of alternative medicine as analyzed in Mary Ruggie’s Marginal to Mainstream (2004); and the flowering of media-based spiritual therapeutics for women examined in works such as Kathryn Lofton’s Oprah (2011). Women’s magazines and daytime TV have done much to promote yoga by profiling latter-day equivalents of Gloria Swanson (e.g., Ali MacGraw, Jane onda, Christy Turlington, Jennifer Anniston, Gwenyth Paltrow, Madonna) who have embraced Hatha for health, stress relief, spirituality, toned abs, postnatal slimming, or some combination of the above.

By 2000, yoga had become a fad, especially in urban neighborhoods with high concentrations of well-educated stay-at-home post-feminist mothers. By the estimate of survey takers, the population of yoga practitioners in America in the Bush Years was 85 percent white, 72 percent female, 71 percent college educated, and 27 percent postgraduate educated. Even as Americans as a whole grew dramatically more obese, this sub-population grew leaner and more flexible. Yoga is decidedly more Type A and white-collar than “New Age” movements like Neo-Paganism and Shamanism. Yoginis accord with the “bourgeois bohemians” described in David Brooks’ Bobos in Paradise (2000) and with the demographic labeled by marketers as LOHAS (“lifestyles of health and sustainability”). The geographic distribution of yoga studios offers support for Bill Bishop’s The Big Sort (2008), which argues that contemporary Americans have self-segregated into neighborhood-level Red State/Blue State enclaves based on lifestyle preferences. Claire Dederer’s recent yoga memoir Poser (2010) profiles one such neighborhood, North Seattle, and its population of wealthy, well-adjusted white mothers who restively seek perfection in yogic repose.

As posture practice gained popularity, capitalists responded by creating and exploiting niche markets. Nike added a yoga line; Adidas began a “Play Yoga” campaign; Liz Claiborne acquired prAna; and the Healthy Living division of Active Interest Media bought out Yoga Journal. In 2008 American yogis spent $5.7 billion on classes, retreats, equipment, apparel, and media. At the annual industry conference sponsored by Yoga Journal, vendors fill the convention hall with swag. Unlike prior metaphysical fads like Theosophy, mesmerism, and Swedenborgianism, physical yoga can be fully commodified. You can even take yoga cruises or groove out to jam bands at yoga festivals.

The History Of Yoga In America: Part 4

In free-market fashion, America offers a Hatha practice for every personality. If you want masochistic exertion mixed with sexualized sweatiness, you can go to the sauna-like heat of a Bikram studio, the franchise of Bikram Choudhury. For a challenging self-directed vinyasa regimen with a dose of Patañjali, you might take on the Ashtanga system developed by K. Pattabhi Jois. (Syman rightly credits Bikram and Ashtanga—two pedagogies that require mastery of undeviating series’ of asanas—for attracting more American men to yoga.) For an inspirational cardio workout, you can try any of the varieties of Power Yoga. For Sanskrit chanting, themed readings, and music with your sun salutations, there’s Jivamukti. If you prefer something playful and accessible that combines non-sexual tantrism and American-style positive thinking, Anusara might be your thing. For an explicitly spiritual posture practice that can become a community and a way of life, you could seek out White Lotus Yoga, Sivananda Yoga, or Kundalini Yoga. For a corporate-style wellness program, you could train in Kripalu Yoga. If you need psychic and emotional healing in addition to strength training, you might investigate Forrest Yoga. For slow-paced, anatomically precise physical therapy, you could try Iyengar, Yin Yoga, or Viniyoga.

In addition to these established schools, each of which offers teacher certification programs, there are countless iterations, including AIDS yoga, yoga for fertility, pre- and postnatal yoga, yoga for kids, yoga with dogs, aqua yoga, disco yoga, naked yoga, and laughter yoga, as well as trademarked niche brands like Slim Calm Sexy, Goddess Yoga, Yoga Booty Ballet, Anti-Gravity Yoga, AcroYoga, Revita-Yoga (to resist wrinkles), Yoga for Golfers, and Taxi Yoga (for people who spend their days driving). Some Christians practice Holy Yoga, Praise-Moves, Yoga Prayer, or Hail Mary and Rhythmic Breathing—despite condemnations from Cardinal Ratzinger (before he was Pope) and Southern Baptist clergymen. Reformed Jews are less exclusionary. Some synagogues even offer Shabbat Yoga. All in all, the late twentieth century rivaled the early twentieth century as a period of yogic reinvention, with America replacing India as the center of creativity. The virtues of posture practice became so widely accepted that the U.S. Army added yoga to the PTSD rehabilitation program at Walter Reed in 2006 and incorporated Hatha elements into the basic physical training requirements in 2011.

The History Of Yoga In America: Part 4Is there a distinctively American approach to yoga? Catherine Albanese’s A Republic of Mind and Spirit argues that American metaphysicals created a “new and American yogic product”: a Hatha praxis that treated the corporeal body as a spiritual vessel; a yoga philosophy that celebrated the body itself as the miracle of miracles. “Worship the body,” instructed Pierre Bernard often. The American “enlightened body-self” was, Albanese says, different than the subtle body of Tantra, the mechanical body of the natural hygiene movement, or the manly body of physical culture. American yogis have consistently emphasized “the physical as a route to the transcendent.” In yoga studios, American teachers constantly exhort students to “listen to” and “honor” their individual bodies. For Bernard, body-centric yoga included nauli (abdominal isolation) and self-enemas. Today, however, American body worship tends to exclude bodily functions; and yogis here shun some of the most common Indian yogic exercises—techniques like manually cleaning one’s sinuses with wax cord catheters and cleansing the nasal passages with a jal a neti pot. Stefanie Syman detects a strong streak of Protestantism in contemporary American yoga, with its emphasis on working the body. This effortful yoga is, she says, paradoxical, both “an indulgence and a penance” (p. 291).

Compared to yoga in India, yoga in America—excluding outlying sectarian meditation groups—functions without formal gurus. Instead, a rotating lineup of novel yet interchangeable Hatha “rock stars” (disproportionately male in relation to the population of practitioners) competes for audience share. Compared to Britain, with its British Wheel of Yoga—a ruling body officially sanctioned by UK Sport—American yoga is decentralized, entrepreneurial, and non-hierarchical. Yoga schools offer teacher training but resist state-level attempts to regulate them as vocational schools with attendant paperwork, fees, and inspections.

In addition to commercialism and narcissism, perhaps the most characteristic feature of American yoga is its syncretism with other forms of popular therapeutics like massage, chiropractic, aromatherapy, and music therapy. As shown in Eva Moskowitz’ In Therapy We Trust (2001), the United States has a deep popular tradition of the “therapeutic gospel.” If you drew a Venn diagram, American postural yoga would fit into the overlapped space of at least five spheres: alternative spirituality, alternative medicine, physical therapy, physical fitness, and humanistic psychology.

In truth, the “American” in American yoga is regional and metropolitan. From the “Great Oom” to the present, the leading figures of American Hatha have gravitated to New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, and, more recently, to college towns and hubs of outdoor recreation or alternative spirituality like Santa Fe and Boulder. Crossroads of theater, film, television, and fashion—with their resident beautiful people who pose for a living and who, like medieval yogins, desire immortality—double as yoga centers. For roughly the last century, the regional culture of coastal California has venerated bodily beauty and fitness; an enterprising historian could no doubt find direct links between Muscle Beach at Santa Monica Pier and YogaWorks in Santa Monica.

The History Of Yoga In America: Part 4

But the California influence runs more than skin-deep. As shown by Erik Davis’ The Visionary State (2006) and Jeffrey Kripal’s Esalen (2007), spiritual seekers in the great Pacific state have consistently been on the forefront of experimentation with Asian traditions. For example, in Santa Cruz County, 15 percent of adults in 2000 identified as having “Eastern religious adherence,” while less than 4 percent identified as Asian.

When one considers the history of yoga from the 1890s to the present, general trends become apparent: peripheral to central; local to global; male to (predominantly) female; spiritual to (mostly) secular; sectarian to universal; mendicant to consumerist; meditational to postural; intellectual to experiential; esoteric to accessible; from oral to hands-on teaching; from textual to photographic representations of poses; from contorted social pariahs to lithe social winners. Yoga has never been a stable entity; it can mean almost anything to almost anybody. Supremely adaptable, posture practice warrants use of an overused word: meme. Yoga now belongs to what Srinivas Aravamudan in Guru English (2006) calls the “global popular”—a postcolonial realm of religious cosmopolitanism.

Recently, the Hindu American Foundation announced a campaign to “Take Back Yoga” from the secular realm of fitness. In complementary fashion, India’s National Institute of Science Communication and Information Resources has cataloged hundreds of asanas in its Traditional Knowledge Digital Library in an attempt to deter intellectual property thieves like Calcutta-born, Beverly Hills–based Bikram Choudhury, who controversially copyrighted a sequence of twenty-six yoga poses with the U.S. Patent Office. Choudhury, who, like Pierre Bernard, hobnobs with celebrities and collects classic cars, sponsors the Yoga Asana Championship and hopes that Hatha will someday earn recognition as an Olympic sport. A macho, polarizing figure, Choudhury has earned the scorn of sincere Anglo-American Hatha yogis who claim to be teaching the unadulterated “Classical Yoga” of Pantañjali. However, if Mark Singleton is right, Choudhury, a former Indian weightlifting champion who leads his classes like boot camps, may be closer to the spirit of the original—that is to say, late imperial—Mysore practice than anyone else in America.

Author: Ben Hoshour at


Farmer, Jared. Reviews in American History, Volume 40, Number 1, March 2012

Mark Singleton. Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Stefanie Syman. The Subtle Body: The Story of Yoga in America. New York: Farrar,
Straus, and Giroux, 2010.

Robert Love. The Great Oom: The Improbable Birth of Yoga in America. New York:
Viking, 2010.

Ben Hoshour
Ben Hoshour
Ben Hoshour has been a spiritual seeker and a religious philosopher for over 15 years. He is a student-practitioner-teacher of Saiva Tantra and is currently under the tutelage of Christopher (Hareesh) Wallis at the Mattamuraya Institute, Christopher Tompkins at Shaiva Yoga, and Paul Muller-Ortega at Blue Throat Yoga. He lectures and teaches in San Diego, CA and is the process of finishing his first book on the history and development of the Tantric tradition. He also specialized in the Tantric roots of Hatha Yoga and the history and origina of Modern Postural Yoga.
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