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How Yoga Conquered America

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July 2010
How Yoga Conquered America Should the Bhagavad Gita be seen as the first yoga guide? It should, according to Stefanie Syman, whose article (“The First Book of Yoga”) appeared in Yoga Journal.

Syman’s debut book, The Subtle Body (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), released in June, takes a comprehensive look at how yoga came to America and, over time, attracted such a huge following that it’s now a multibillion dollar industry. Syman, who has been featured in two documentary films on yoga, co-launched three websites, one of which focuses on healthy and sustainable lifestyles. She has practiced Ashtanga yoga for fifteen years.

For those who think America’s love affair with yoga dates back to the countercultural years, Syman’s book sets the record straight. It’s true that some celebrities and Indian gurus—Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and Pattabhi Jois being two examples—brought yoga to these shores in the ‘60s and ‘70s. But the roots of this craze can be traced to an earlier period. Transcendentalists like Thoreau, through their interest in Hindu philosophy, were first drawn to yoga in the 19th century. This early interest was followed by a period of rejection in an insular nation, where such Eastern practices were considered too esoteric.

That changed somewhat when Pierre Bernard, a colorful Iowan, became a leading proponent of yoga. He even opened a yoga-themed resort for upscale clientele in the 1920s. Peter Love tells his story in The Great Oom (Viking Adult), also published recently. Other yoga enthusiasts from those decades included Margaret Wilson (the president’s daughter), writers Aldous Huxley and Christopher Isherwood, and actress Gloria Swanson. Although the eccentric Bernard got caught up in scandals, he does get credit for popularizing yoga and laying the ground for the guru-influenced invasion that followed. An entrepreneur-cum-bohemian rather than a philosopher, Bernard focused on the benefits of Hatha yoga, becoming one of the earliest fitness gurus in the 20th century.

Syman notes that it’s not just early practitioners of yoga who saw the Gita as a user’s guide. “Many contemporary yoga teachers, including Mas Vidal, the spiritual director of Dancing Shiva Yoga and Ayurveda in Los Angeles, turn to the Bhagavad Gita to balance the overemphasis on the asana practice in the West,” she writes in the article. “Like Ram Dass, Vidal sees the Gita as a practical guide for ‘raising consciousness.’”

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