Yoga is firmly rooted in American culture. Over 60 million posts on Instagram per day are yoga-related — and at the end of 2020, there were nearly 41 million yoga studio businesses in the United States, according to market research company, IBISWorld.
It is clear that yoga is not a foreign term or idea to Americans. It is now a part of our way of life — whether as a way to de-stress or as a form of physical exercise. How did this ancient South Asian tradition seep into the American culture?
Yoga’s ancient roots
Yoga’s ancient roots are found in the ancient Hindu text, the Rig Veda, said to be more than 3,000 years old. The word yoga in Sanskrit means “to join.”
“Literally, according to the Sanskrit, yoga means to unite. Most of us think of it as a union of our nose to our knees or our fingers to our toes. Whereas, it is actually a union of the small, physical self in us with the infinite, the source of all creation,” explained Saddvi Bhagwati Saraswati, president of the Divine Shakti Foundation and director of the World-Famous International Yoga Festival.
Born and raised in a Jewish family in Los Angeles, Saraswati became a monk after a visit to Rishikesh, a holy Hindu city in India, deeply affected her, calling it “an incredible experience of awakening.”
According to the Yoga Sutra, considered to be the first systematized presentation of yoga in text, the practice is characterized as “the cessation of the mind’s fluctuations.”
Yoga traditionally takes three forms: bhakti, the yoga of devotion and love, jnana, the yoga of knowledge, and karma, the yoga of selfless action.
“People tend to see them as three separate paths but actually they are interlinked and interlocked. They are one,” Saraswati explained. “For me, yoga really is about how I can live my life where every minute and moment is an expression, an awareness of oneness. And sometimes that may take the form of love, or action or wisdom. But you have to recognize that in each one of those all three exist.”
“Literally, according to the Sanskrit, yoga means to unite. Most of us think of it as a union of our nose to our knees or our fingers to our toes. Whereas, it is actually a union of the small, physical self in us with the infinite, the source of all creation,”
Yoga, as described by the Yoga Sutras, is characterized as having eight main limbs:
- Yama: Behavior and one's ethical standards.
- Niyama: Self-discipline and spiritual practices.
- Asana: Physical postures practiced in yoga.
- Pranayama: Mastery of breath control and breathing techniques.
- Pratyaharama: Withdrawal from the senses.
- Dharana: Concentration.
- Dhyana: Meditation or contemplation.
- Samadhi: Immersion into calmness, or state of ecstasy.
Yoga’s journey to America
Beyond scholarly analysis, yoga saw its initial popularity and practice in the United States rise when it was brought to the country by yogis and monks. Swami Vivekananda is credited as the first to bring yoga and its philosophy to the U.S. when he spoke at the Parliament of World Religions in 1893. According to Yoga Journal, he gave lectures throughout the nation promoting the philosophy of yoga and Hindu thought. His book, "Raja Yoga", explained how yogic meditation can help people reach higher stages of spirituality and awareness.
After Vivekananda established centers of learning in the U.S., many other yogis and monks came to the country, bringing different forms of yoga with them.
In the 1920s, Paramahansa Yogananda, a yogi, introduced a form of yoga coined kriya yoga, which focused on life energy and breath control. During that time, he wrote the bestselling autobiography titled, “The Autobiography of a Yogi.”
In that same time period in India, yoga teacher and healer Tirumalai Krishnamacharya popularized and taught hatha yoga, or physical yoga practices and techniques. Hatha yoga focuses on the asana, or postural exercise techniques, breathing techniques, and the control of energy or force within the body.
Most modern yoga practices in the United States and around the world use the asana practices promoted within hatha yoga. A a result, Krishnamacharya is often referred to as the “father of modern yoga,.”
Krishnamacharya’s physical postures and techniques were brought to the U.S. by his students B.K.S Iyengar and T.K.V Desikachar. Iyengar established multiple schools and yoga studios through the country , ultimately creating the Iyengar yoga style, while Pattabhi Jois, another student, established vinyasa yoga, a movement-heavy form of hatha yoga.
“Krishnamacharya’s influence into modern postural yoga is huge,” explained Edwin Bryant, Ph.D., a professor of Hindu religion and philosophy at Rutgers University and the author of "The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali," a detailed commentary on the ancient yoga scripture. “This was the period when the British were propagating gymnastics and British bodybuilding in India. The British were invigorating the perfect British body. But the nationalist presence in India was looking for an indigenous form of physical fitness to show the culture that was distinctly Indian. The poses of yoga become rediscovered as a counterpart to Western gymnastics.”
Swami Sivananda Saraswati also established yoga ashrams and centers throughout the U.S., emphasizing both the meditative and spiritual aspects of yoga and its postures.
Yoga in the United States today
In the last 100 years or so, yoga has seen many forms and innovations — from hot yoga to restorative yoga to goat yoga and posture- and exercise-heavy forms of yoga — with yogis and teachers bringing their own flavor and approach to hatha yoga in the United States.
The average American is willing to spend $90 per month on yoga classes. 94% of yoga students attribute taking yoga classes to wellness-related reasons — and 44% of Americans who do yoga attend classes two to three times a week, according to an Eventbrite survey.
According the Mayo Clinic, multiple studies point to the potential health benefits of yoga — from the reduction in stress and anxiety to an increased sense of wellbeing.
Despite the positive influence, not all practitioners are happy to see the way yoga has evolved in American culture.
“Yoga is not a science of physical exercises. It’s a science of spiritual awakening. Most Americans don’t understand that.”
“It’s good people are adopting yoga more and more, but at the same time there’s become an overcommercialization of yoga,” Neeti Bhatia, the director of the Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Center of New York, explained. “That defeats the purpose of yoga in the first place. For me yoga is a lifestyle, but now there are many forms of yoga in America. And now there is too much emphasis, not only on the postures, but mainly the physicality of it. This is even more shallow and unfortunate part. As a result, yoga only works at the physical level. Yoga needs to work at the mental and spiritual levels.”
“I was raised into understanding that yoga was a lifestyle and a constant practice of self-refinement."
Saddvi Bhagwati Saraswati agreed, “Yoga is not a science of physical exercises. It’s a science of spiritual awakening. Most Americans don’t understand that ... Sure, enjoy the exercise. But this is a system for life.”
For some Asian-American practitioners, yoga is more than just a physical practice.
“I was raised into understanding that yoga was a lifestyle and a constant practice of self-refinement,” said Raaghav Pandya, a yoga practitioner who has learned the philosophy from Swadhyay Parivar, an international spiritual organization that focuses on self-study and selfless devotion. “By looking within to improve your connection with your inner self and learning to build selfless relationships, I believe you are doing yoga.”
On a positive side, yoga teachers see more students interested in the philosophy, depth and history of yoga.
“I have seen a huge increase in interest in the study and philosophy of the yoga text,” said Bryant, who has been teaching yoga for the last 25 years. “I see people entering into a real yogic lifestyle and way of thinking, which is trying to fix the mind to feel peace and opens up the possibility of a greater experience.”