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