The Transformation of Yoga in America
Today, yoga seems as much a part of U.S. culture and fitness as aerobics and spin class. For the next generation, it will feel as if yoga has always been here, as our children grow up watching and imitating our attempts at half moon pose and downward facing dog.
The beauty of yoga lies in its multi-faceted benefits, capable of meeting the spiritual, medical and fitness needs of its practitioners. Because of this, yoga will continue to attract a wide variety of faithful followers.
So when did yoga migrate to the West? And how has it transformed since it got here? These questions were the focus of a fascinating new study conducted by researchers at Chapman University in California.
Sources trace a boom in Western awareness of yoga just after the first World Parliament of Religions event in Chicago in 1893, when Hindu monk Swami Vivekananda gave his famous speech of religious acceptance and tolerance.
“Sectarianism, bigotry, and its horrible descendant, fanaticism, have long possessed this beautiful earth,” said Vivekananda into the microphone. “They have filled the earth with violence, drenched it often and often with human blood, destroyed civilization and sent whole nations to despair. Had it not been for these horrible demons, human society would be far more advanced than it is now.”
The Chicago event marked a pivotal moment in history, as several different religions and spiritual communities from the east and west united around a common commitment to justice and peace.
Soon after, the Eastern practice of yoga began to gently bloom in spots around America. During this grassroots period, and throughout the first half of the 20th century, there was a stronger emphasis on yoga’s spiritual, philosophical and mystical roots. Practitioners tended to focus on Raja yoga (the mental science) rather than Hatha yoga (physical yoga).
As the 1960s rolled around, awareness was growing of yoga’s physical health benefits as well, and the practice was slowly becoming ‘demystified.’ By the 1970’s, yoga was getting backed by science, and it was becoming a key player in the arena of mind-body medicine, particularly as a treatment for young people gripped by the current drug culture.
Today, the practice of yoga is in full force and continues to grow and adapt to a variety of needs. The Chapman researchers categorize yoga into three basic approaches: spiritual, medical, and fitness.
The spiritual approach is structured around the goal of enlightenment, with gurus as leaders. This is practiced and reached through meditation, chanting and the readings of religious texts aimed at raising self-awareness.
The medical approach, rooted in scientific study, focuses on the health benefits of yoga. Instructors are considered healers who guide patients in how to manage pain, recover from injuries and prevent health problems. This approach became institutionalized with the founding of the government’s Complementary and Alternative Medicine agency in 1998. at this time, health practitioners and insurance companies began to recognize yoga as a type of therapy.
The fitness approach, rooted in kinesiology, is structured around the physical benefits of yoga. Many practice this type of yoga as a way to condition and tone their bodies and to help improve their performance in other types of sports. This branch is extremely popular today as fitness centers offer yoga along with other types of physical training methods. By 2002, yoga was the third most popular class at fitness centers, following personal and group strength training.
Whether you lean toward the spiritual or physical benefits of yoga, you will most likely benefit from the other as well. As B.K.S. Iyengar, founder of Iyenger yoga, said:
“Yoga, an ancient but perfect science, deals with the evolution of humanity. This evolution includes all aspects of one's being, from bodily health to self realization. Yoga means union - the union of body with consciousness and consciousness with the soul. Yoga cultivates the ways of maintaining a balanced attitude in day to day life and endows skill in the performance of one's actions.”