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Origins of Modern Yoga

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In A History of Modern Yoga: Patanjali and Western Esotericism, Elizabeth De Michelis, Research Fellow at the Center for Advanced Religious and Theological Studies, University of Cambridge, has carefully researched ‘What is the history of Modern Yoga? Who made it as it’s practiced today?’. She traces Modern Yoga to its ideological roots within esoteric circles in late eighteenth-century Bengal India, and follows its four founding fathers and developments to date.

I’ve studied Modern Yoga’s history and its founders beyond the conventional narratives, without hagiography. That is, I did not rely on stories told by spiritual teachers nor on accounts by yoga practitioners who idealize the subject. Instead, I consulted with leading scholars, like De Michelis.

Here’s the key historical milestones and founders.

Origins of Modern Yoga timeline

Modern Yoga, according to De Michelis, refers to yoga that evolved mainly through the interaction of Western individuals interested in Indian religions and through four Westernized Indians during the last 150 years. Most of the yoga practiced and taught in the West today, as well as contemporary Indian yoga, is Modern Yoga1.

Silhouette_yogaModern Postural and Meditational Yoga is a reinterpretation of “Classical Yoga”– The Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali, 196 Indian sūtras (aphorisms) compiled in the 5th century CE. The Sūtras have been elevated to its present iconic status–and translated into more than forty languages–only during the last forty years2, says David Gordon White, Professor of Comparative Religion at the University of California, Santa Barbara and author of The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali: A Biography (2014), and other academic books including Yoga in Practice (2011), and Sinister Yogis (2009). 

The Yoga Sūtras were virtually forgotten in India for centuries and were maligned in the West during the 1800s when they were first discovered by a British scholar of Oriental studies. The Theosophical Society, presided over by American occultist Helena Blavatsky, was first to claim the Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali were the highest authority on yoga3. During 1893-97, the Westernized Indian, Swami Vivekananda, lectured throughout the the US and England. He popularized yoga in Western esoteric circles and spread Blavatsky’s idea of a science of yoga as the “supreme contemplative path to self-realization”.

“I strongly believe”, writes De Michelis in her Introduction to A History of Modern Yoga: Patanjali and Western Esotericism, “that if more people were to study the history, roots, and beliefs of Modern Yoga more carefully (that is, among other things, by trying to exercise more intellectual discrimination), this could be of great benefit not only to practitioners of Modern Yoga, but also to academics and intellectuals in general. Serious intellectual endeavors are often denigrated in the world of Modern Yoga (which puts, great emphasis on an experiential epistemology), and if this trend is not redressed the discipline as a whole will remain lopsided”.

Question for readers: Any corrections, additions, or thoughts on the origins of Modern Yoga? 

Notes

  1. See De Michelis’ Introduction to A History of Modern Yoga: Patanjali and Western Esotericism, Continuum NY:NY 2004. Print.
  2. David Gordon White, The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali: A Biography. Princeton University Press. 2014
  3. wikipedia, ‘Yoga Sutras of Patanjali’  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yoga_Sutras_of_Patanjali#Western_interest

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  1. T. Krishnamacharya was the teacher of Pattabhi Jois and B.K.S Iyengar who are credited for influencing a lot of what we see in modern yoga. Unfortunately yoga is becoming highly commercialized in the West and people are only practicing asana. It is debatable if it should even be called asana.

  2. Excellent points, yogibattle. These Modern Yoga teachers are indeed well-connected to the same East-West esoteric movement from 1800s and to the same “reinterpretation” of Classical Yoga.

    Tirumalai Krishnamacharya (1888 – 1989)

    * T. Krishnamacharya ran the yogasala (“yoga hall”) at the Palace of the Wodeyar family, the Maharajas of Mysore, from 1933 to 1950.

    * The Maharajas of Mysore, (dynasty 1399 – present) had ongoing interest in, and support of, the East-West esoteric dialogue. Apart from running the Mysore yogasala and liaising with other Modern Yoga institutions in the subcontinent, the Maharaja family also encouraged and sponsored influential figures such as Vivekananda (Williams 1974: 55-7), the writer of esoteric bestsellers Paul Brunton (Godwin et al. 1990: 14-15), and Swami Yogananda of Autobiography of a Yogi fame (Yogananda 1950), whom lyengar met at the Mysore Palace (ILW: 14). – Michelis, E. A History of Modern Yoga, p196

    * T. Krishnamacharya “reinterpreted” the Classical Yoga of Patanjali in the East-West esoteric fashion as stated above.

    * Iyengar lived from 1934-37 with T. Krishnamacharya (his brother in-law, by marriage with Iyengar’s older sister) who taught Iyengar his yoga ideology.

    * These men’s Yoga ideologies are “reinterpretations” of Classical Yoga and the East-West esoterica of the four Bengali “fathers of Modern Yoga” (1800s).

    I recommend you get a copy of the book by Michelis, E. A History of Modern Yoga, who dedicates 2-3 chapters on the contributions of Iyengar and his body of work to Modern Yoga.

    Thanks for your thoughts and comments.

  3. You’re forgetting:

    1941: Swami Brahmananda Saraswati becomes first Shankaracharya of Jyotirmath iin 165 years. Builds ashram in the foothills of the Himalayas next to the location where Shankara originally taught (according to some sources).

    1957: Brahmacharyi Mahesh, student of SBS, proposes that SBS’s teachings should be made available to the world and starts a 50 year journey to teach _dhyan_ to the world, claiming that it was the basis of all things called Yoga. Claims that the tradition interpretation of “Steps of Yoga” is crazy: _Samadhi_ is the last step according to modern interpretations, but should be the first thing embraced.

  4. @saijanai: Your suggestions are from 1940s and 50s. My post is limited to pre-history of modern yoga, primarily the 19th century, when the roots of modern yoga took hold into 20th century to today.

    Modern Yoga is that particular reinterpreted, Westernized form of classical/Patajali Sutras. It sounds like you are referring to the same arguments I made in my Origins post– reinterpretation includes the “Steps of Yoga” from the Sutras Patanjail. I’m not trying to say what’s right or wrong with interpretations. My goal is identifying the roots, when the reinterpretations occurred, and present the arguments that suggest Modern Yoga interpretations to root in 19th century, first in Bengal India and spread from there.

    I’m writing some more posts on the roots of Modern Yoga, based on scholarly books I’ve got on the topic. I look forward to your comments when those posts go live. thanks

    I highly recommend reading A History of Mondern Yoga: Patajali and Western Esotericism by Elizabeth De Michelis. Author is a scholar, so she’s not idealizing the gurus. It’s a history and socio-religious studies supporting her thesis.

  5. Your timeline includes 1970. I gave you two significant (to me at least) events that occurred between 1900 and 1970: the reopening of one of the four major spiritual centers of India, and the decision to promulgate world-wide the teachings of the first person to hold that office in 165 years.

    I realize you don’t like to think of anything involving TM or Maharishi as significant, but that’s your problem, not mine.

  6. @saijanai:
    TM and Maharishi, I think, have and still do, make significant contributions to Modern Yoga. My post Origins of Modern Yoga is not intended to cover every possible school of Yoga. I had to limit scope to the origins of Modern Yoga that were rooted in events and persons of 19th Century Bengal India.

    I’m not as familiar with TM and Maharishi as you are. I’ve noted your suggestions and appreciate your insights.

  7. This was a great book and helped orient me very well how Hindu and yoga thought intermixed with the standard interpretation of history here in the West. It is nice to see you give this book the publicity it deserves.

    Best wishes,
    Don

  8. Thanks Don for your comment. I’m surprised too that this book does not get more attention. As a decades long yoga meditator and former ordained monk with Hindu yoga master, Pararmahansa Yogananda, this History book altered my preconceived notions about yoga history and its Western orgins. cheers

  9. Yes, it helped me to realize how important the British invasion of India was for ultimately allowing Hindu ideas in general, and yoga specifically, to filter into the West. When I was younger, I studied Theosophy. This book helped me see how Theosophy was just a small piece of the interactions of the vast British Empire with the vast subcontinent of India. I think over time, her book will be considered a classic as more and more people start to ask the questions this book answers.

    Thank you, Sir.

    Best wishes -Don

  10. @dondeg: Agree. I found the “Bengali Renaissance” and Brahmo Samaj influences fascinating. I wrote several blog posts about these. I wanted to look deeper into the tenets of Theosophy but haven’t researched that yet. I have a general knowledge of its basic philosophy and history. Thanks for your comments