Today’s New York Times published a review of the influence of Sri Vivekananda on Western writers, philosophers and celebrities after his lecture at the Parliament of World Religions as part of the Chicago World Fair on Sept. 11, 1893. It is wonderful to have such meaningful reviews on yoga that remind us of the influence of Indian thought on late 19th and early 20th century thought. You can view the brief article here:
The article is entitled “How Yoga Won the West”. There is no doubt that Vivekananda’s influence was vast. And yet, for me this title seems to negate the very profound influence of ,for example, the translation of the Bhagavad Gita in about 1850 on beloved American writers like Thoreau and the Boston Transcendentalist. For this is when yogic thought began to percolate in the American consciousness in that century. Of course, Indian philosophy has always been a part of Western thought since the Sermon on the Mount, since the time of Buddha. But this is another post…
The writer draws a link between Vivekananda coming to America to teach Vedanta philosophy and contemplative practice with the now popular asana classes, as if it were a pre-cursor to the incredible popularity of Hatha Yoga in the West. I disagree with this perspective, especially in that Vivekananda was not a practitioner or promoter of asana and certainly not as a primary aspect of yoga as a whole. Vedantist tend to see excessive focus on the body and mental identity as a barrier to recognizing the Supreme oneness of all things.
Rather, I believe that pieces of yoga were brought over and popularized separately by different teachers from diverse lineages of practice. This is fairly natural given the incredible diversity in the yoga tradition. As such, yoga continues to be quite fragmented today. There have been holistic or integral yoga traditions and schools, but it seems that the separated parts also took off as such. Just as Vivekananda spoke primarily about advaita vedanta, there have been teachers of asana, those who inspired chanting, those who focussed on teaching meditation, ayurveda, and of course many holistic schools that have taught the diverse toolkit of yogic practices and contemplations.
But most astounding to me has been the incredibly informative recent book, The Great Oom, about an American, Dr. Bernard, and his Indian guru, who taught very diverse aspects of yogic cleansing, meditation, asana and philosophy starting in the 1890s through the 1920s when they had yoga studios in Manhattan, through the 20s and 30s at a Yoga Country Club in Nayak, NY, that had long term residents in the Vanderbilt family, and visitors like teenage Pete Seeger. It is an amazing story of a teacher who captivated many, and whose students were the earliest teachers of Hatha Yoga across America. The book came out last year and was also reviewed in the New York Times, but I have not heard much comment about it in the yoga community. And yet, it is such an American tale of a young, un-formally-educated boy, meeting a mystical teacher and dedicating his life to learning from him and teaching, reinventing himself and his credentials for the high society of a number of cities from coast to coast. Why do we not seem as interested or nearly as informed about such very early 20th century teachers? Why do we not more often make the connection between Thoreau and the Boston Transcendentalists and the yoga tradition?