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Swami Vivekananda to Thoreau, How Yoga Became a Phenomenon in the West

File photo of Swami Vivekananda | Yoga photo (representational) : PTI.

File photo of Swami Vivekananda | Yoga photo (representational) : PTI.

In an interview with News18.com, Christopher Chapple, a Doshi Professor of Indic and Comparative Theology traces the trajectory of Yoga's popularization in the West.

One of the most paradoxical things about Yoga is that despite being a 5000-year-old practice with its roots in Asian countries, including India, it has gained far more popularity in the West. As a result, European countries and the United States have been able to modernize this ancient discipline and incorporate it as a lifestyle that is grounded in empathy and self-care.

In an interview with News18.com, Christopher Chapple, a Doshi Professor of Indic and Comparative Theology and founding Director of the Master of Arts in Yoga Studies at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, traces the trajectory of Yoga’s popularization in the West.

The professor, who is an expert on Indian religions and has published more than twenty books like the Living Landscapes: Meditations on the Elements in Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain Yogas (SUNY Press), explains how the seed of Yoga came with the transcendentalism movement, during which writers like Thoreau were drawn to Yoga, Hinduism, and the ‘meditative life’ which he perceived as an alternative to the progressive capitalism of the time.

Chapple also serves as an advisor to multiple organizations, including the Forum on Religion and Ecology (Yale), the Dharma Academy of North America (Berkeley), the Jain Studies Centre (SOAS, London), and the South Asian Studies Association, and International School for Jain Studies (New Delhi).


Here are a few excerpts from his interview:

How did Yoga become popular in the West?

Yoga has a long history in America, beginning in the mid-eighteenth century with the Transcendentalism of Emerson and Thoreau, followed with the popularity of Swami Vivekananda, who spoke at the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago in 1893 and who wrote his class Yoga text, Raja Yoga, while living in Pasadena, California. Paramahamsa Yogananda, the author of Autobiography of a Yogi, lived and taught in California for over 30 years, building a culture of understanding and acceptance of Yoga traditions and practices. Despite the Asian Exclusion Act of 1924-1965, interest in Yoga persisted.

With the lifting of immigration restrictions, teachers of Yoga from India began to arrive in the 1960s, including Swami Rama, Swami Satchidananda, Amrit Desai, and Gurani Anjali Inti. In the 1990s, another shift happened; Americans began to take up residential training in India with disciples of Krishnamacharya, including Patabi Jois, BKS Iyengar, and Deshikachar. As they returned to the US, they implemented the modern Yoga studio, developing a successful business model based on the pre-existing fitness and gym “industry" that had gained popularity in the 1970s. The “Yoga Entrepreneurs" also started guilds such as the Yoga Alliance and the International Association of Yoga Therapy.

The business of Yoga has given birth to a billion-dollar industry now. But, historically, how and when was Yoga monetized?

The early 20th century organizations such as the Vedanta Society and the Self Realization Fellowship incorporated as religious and educational non-profit organizations with boards of directors dedicated to fulfilling the mission as required by law. Many of the Yog organizations that arose in the 60s and 70s followed a similar pattern, as did the many Hindu temples that began incorporating Yoga in the 80s. Fitness based Yoga gained steam in the 1990s, following a corporate, for-profit model.

Can Yoga be learned without understanding its philosophy?

Yoga can be performed as a physical practice by anyone and receive its benefits, which are grounded in an overall philosophy of relief from pain. The experience of this sense of relief, even of a temporary nature, has brought some individuals to investigate the historical and cultural origins of Yoga.

How can Yoga evolve beyond an exercise form in India and Abroad, especially in popular perception?

Yoga students who develop a profound interest in the benefits of Yoga can pursue studies of Yoga history, philosophical traditions, and terminology in Sanskrit, Hindi, Punjabi, and other languages. Many Yoga teachers continue to travel regularly to India. In addition, many Yoga studios and centres sponsor study programs through which students learn the Yoga Sutras, the Bhagavad Gita, and other texts.

How has the role of Yoga evolved during the pandemic?

Yoga, like so many other undertakings, has moved mainly to an online, at-home format. Due to the pandemic, most Yoga studios are also closed. Many people, understandably, have turned to Yoga and meditation as a source of solace during this period.

How are mindfulness and Yoga historically connected?

The foundations for mindfulness can be found in an early Buddhist text, the Satipatthana. Like the practices of Hatha Yoga, mindfulness requires attention to body and breath. In the early history of India, these practices intersected with one another, as seen in the Buddhist Sutras of the Pali Canon and the Upanisads.

There have been many studies that show Yoga is beneficial for those struggling with mental health issues. But, can yoga alone cure all kinds of mental health problems. If not, when should a person seek professional help?

Yoga cannot cure all problems. A well-educated Yoga teacher will know how and when to suggest a mental health referral. In many instances, people with mental health issues need to consult a qualified psychotherapist or physician. Fortunately, some Yoga and meditation teachers are also trained in the mental health field.

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