Pro-yoga marketers, various Hindu sects, and yoga’s Christian despisers all aggressively promote the idea that yoga is an ancient Hindu practice. In fact, this is not true at all, as I will explain below. For further information, read Mark Singleton, Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice, Elizabeth De Michelis, A History of Modern Yoga: Patanjali and Western Esotericism, and N. E. Sjoman, The Yoga Tradition of the Mysore Palace.
What you get in a yoga class at your local fitness club is not an ancient Hindu practice at all. That is a myth, created in the early 20th century by Indian nationalists and anti-colonialists. In order to understand how the myth grew so popular, we have to grasp a little of what it’s like to live in a colonized nation. When the British colonized India, they brought vastly superior technology — railroads, steam engines, telegraph, better ships, firearms, and so on. India developed a desperate desire to “catch up” with the Western powers, to modernize. Indians began to dress and talk like Westerners, go to college, learn engineering and other technical disciplines, and so on. All that was Western became synonymous with progress, and all that was Indian became synonymous with backwardness. Now that’ll give you a serious inferiority complex, and people can’t live like that for an extended period of time. Eventually the undiscriminating worship of all things Western provoked a backlash, and there was a great desire to point out the ways in which Indian culture was superior and had something to offer to the West.
Part of what the West had brought to India was the physical culture movement, very popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Observers from both cultures noticed that in general, Indians were physically weak by comparison with their Western counterparts. Indian reformers set out to change that through physical exercise. They were aided in the effort by the YMCA, which had branches throughout India and taught a variety of physical disciplines like Pilates, Swedish Vital Gymnastics and other physical culture regimens popular at that time in the West.
At that time, “yoga” was understood to be one of the six orthodox paths to enlightenment in Hinduism, and usually had little if anything to do with physical posture. “Yoga” literally means “yoking” and referred to yoking one’s own consciousness to the divine. There were numerous yoga practices — the yoga of good deeds (karma yoga), the yoga of devotion (bhakti yoga), the yoga of knowledge (jnana yoga), etc. Some of the meditation traditions included instructions to take a certain posture for meditation to achieve certain ends — one text, the Geranda Samhita, has 30 or so postures which are alleged to help attain certain benefits. On the other hand, other forms of yoga taught nothing to do with postures. Popular yogi and lecturer Vivekananda, for example, denounced teachers of postures as hucksters and carnival performers.
In short, modern postural yoga — what happens in a Bally’s yoga class, where you might move through dozens of postures over the course of an hour-long session — does not seem to have much documentable precedent as a religious exercise in classical Hinduism. It was created, and recently — mostly by Krishnamacharya in Mysore. While he never traveled to the U.S. and few people have heard of him, his students K. Pattabhi Jois (Ashtanga Vinyasa), B. K. S. Iyengar (Iyengar Yoga), Indra Devi and T. K. V. Desikachar (Viniyoga) are almost entirely responsible for the popularity of what we now call “yoga” in the West. Even the relatively few yoga lineages that do not begin with Krishnamacharya are certainly influenced by his legacy.
While modern postural yoga has little precedent in classical Hinduism, it does have some precursors in indigenous Indian practices. To find the precursors, we have to leave Hindu meditation behind and look to India’s wrestling tradition. India has a long tradition of producing superb wrestlers, and in texts that describe their training we see some indigenous exercises along that line, including the danda exercises — sophisticated pushup variations — that Krishnamacharya brought into his yoga program as the now-ubiquitous “sun salutation.” Similar exercises are preserved in Kalaripayyat, the indigenous martial art of Kerala in southern India. Swedish Vital Gymnastics and the other regimens of the western physical culture movement are also ancestors of modern postural yoga.
Of course, this sort of exercise is actually pretty common through world culture. From the wresting conditioning of the Persian Zurkaneh to the whip and saber exercises of the Cossacks to the neigong exercises of the Chinese to the djurus, lankas and kembaggan of the Indonesian Pentjak-Silat players, exercise sequences that work the whole body evenly and promote coordination, whole-body looseness and balance are found around the world. The routines look somewhat different from culture to culture, but they’re all designed to do the same thing: cultivate a relaxed, supple body that moves gracefully, freely and strongly through its whole range of motion. (As a Christian, that’s a goal I can get behind. I believe God made the body to do exactly that.)
But back to yoga. What happened to produce the yoga class down at Bally’s? In early 20th-century India, the anticolonial backlash was well under way. Reformers were seeking ways to bring India up to par with the Western nations, and at the same time proclaim the benefits of things that were uniquely Indian. Working as just such a reformer, Krishnamacharya gathered up various exercises from European physical culture movements, combined them with British army exercises, classical Indian wrestling exercises and meditation postures from old texts, and dubbed the result “yoga.” A few others did the same.
By calling their practices “yoga” and linking them to a liberal helping of Hindu religion and philosophy, they were seeking to market their physical culture programs as uniquely Indian and suitably ancient. Because they could point at a few old texts that teach some sort of posture practice — the Geranda Samhita, the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, and so on — they had enough historical cover to give their efforts a patina of respectability, and they were working in an environment where everybody wanted to believe that it was true. The result of this melange of European exercises, physical culture ethos, meditation postures and Hindu philosophy is what contemporary academics call Modern Postural Yoga. It was spread through the YMCAs and other channels, and became fairly popular in India.
Meanwhile in the West, the physical culture movement all but died. (Classical Pilates — originally known as Controlology — is virtually the only modern-day survivor of the Western physical culture movement.) What remained of the physical culture movement transformed into the fitness industry, and great emphasis was placed on simplicity and isolated movements. Exercises requiring careful attention and complex coordination fell by the wayside in favor of simple exercises like bicep curls, leg extensions and lat pulls.
Yoga (especially in its philosophical, non-physical forms) had been slowly trickling into the West, but the physical exercise that we mean when we say “yoga” today didn’t really begin to be popular here until the 1960s. (Indra Devi was promoting yoga here long before that, and taught such luminaries as Greta Garbo and Marylin Monroe, but teachers were rare in those days, and yoga was still virtually unknown.) By the 60s, modern yoga had been incubating in India for decades, and we had long since forgotten our own roots in the physical culture movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In keeping with the way modern postural yoga had been marketed in India, the yoga gurus of the 60s and 70s marketed yoga here as an ancient Hindu practice of health and spirituality, and Americans bought it.
Over time, Americans who had no interest in Hinduism saw the physical benefits of this kind of gymnastic exercise, requiring careful attention and complex coordination. It improved balance, mental focus, coordination and concentration, helped people relax, improved posture, and much more. These folks recognized that there was a market for this kind of exercise, quite apart from the Hinduism, and began to promote it simply as good exercise. Which it is. This is where the yoga class at your local fitness club comes from.
Now a Christian comes along, looks at that class at Bally’s, and says, “We had Christian aerobics back in the 80s. Why can’t we have Christian yoga now?” Good question.