Some Major Yogis in the West

Article ID: JAY001-2 | By: Elliot Miller

The character of yoga in the West has largely been shaped by the men who exported it here from the East. Their personalities, the personalities of their own gurus who sent them here, the general character of their religious traditions, and the manner in which they adapted and packaged those traditions for consumption in the West all have contributed greatly to the yoga culture that is now thriving in the United States, the European Union states, Canada, Australia, and other non-Eastern industrialized countries. Space constraints will permit only a brief survey of some of the major players and the distinctive yoga styles they introduced.

Dead Swamis Society

There was a mere trickle of gurus emigrating to the West through much of the twentieth century, but after President Lyndon Johnson signed the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, the trickle became a flood. This was just in time for gurus to capitalize on an awakening interest in Eastern spirituality especially among baby boomers. Many of the most important gurus are no longer on the scene, but the movements they established live on.

The person most responsible for introducing yoga to the West was Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902), a personal disciple of the revered Hindu saint, Sri Ramakrishna. In 1893 Vivekananda won over many liberal religionists who had gathered at the Chicago World’s Fair for the first World’s Parliament of Religions, and he subsequently expanded that following by lecturing on raja yoga (the classical form of yoga) across the country. Many of his followers began to practice yoga, and out of that the Vedanta Societies, the first Hindu fellowships to be established in the West, were born.

Paramahansa Yogananda (1893-1952) was the second major emissary of Hinduism and yoga to the West. Yogananda followed in the trail blazed by Vivekananda: first dazzling attendees and attracting disciples at the 1920 International Congress of Religious Liberals in Boston, then building on that following by lecturing from city to city, and finally establishing a base of operation for his own Hindu tradition on American soil: the Self-Realization Fellowship, headquartered in Los Angeles.2 Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi has served as a primer on yoga and Eastern philosophy for millions of Westerners. Yogananda taught kriya yoga, an esoteric form of raja yoga known as the “yoga of ritual action.” It is said to accelerate spiritual growth and to produce ecstatic experiences because of its manipulation of prana (vital force), which it accomplishes chiefly through pranayama (breath control-see part one) and the use of the mind to direct prana around the spinal cord.

Swami Muktananda (1908-1982) initiated the siddha yoga movement, which teaches kundalini yoga. He was famous for the shaktipat, or touch of power, in which the kundalini energy is believed to be transmitted from guru to disciple through physical contact, with overwhelming spiritual, psychological, and physical effects. Muktananda’s teaching is summed up as “Honor your Self, Worship your Self, Meditate on your Self, God dwells within you as you.”3 He was immersed in major scandals toward the end of his life because of alleged sexual exploitation of his female disciples.4

Swami Satchidananda (1914-2002), founder of the Integral Yoga Institute and the Yogaville ashram in central Virginia, first gained renown for his opening address at the 1969 Woodstock rock festival. His integral yoga approach calls for the integration of yoga philosophy into every area of life and culture. He was a promoter of the unity of all faiths and was highly revered and influential in the yoga and New Age worlds, but he too was entangled in scandal because of allegations of sexually exploiting some of his female disciples.5

B. K. S. Iyengar/Iyengar Yoga

Arguably the most respected and influential teacher of hatha yoga, B. K. S. Iyengar (b. 1918) continues to astonish people with his supple demonstrations of difficult yoga poses. Iyengar has systematized over two hundred classic asanas (postures-see part one) and fourteen types of pranayama and has developed props to make the postures accessible even to people who lack the strength or agility to achieve them on their own. The intention is for such students to develop such strength eventually, as Iyengar did when he overcame his childhood afflictions of malaria, typhoid, and tuberculosis through yoga practice. Iyengar yoga emphasizes both proper alignment and length of time in holding a pose. There are 180 Iyengar Institutes around the world administered by certified trainers who first must complete anywhere from two to more than ten years of rigorous training.

Superstar yoga instructor Rodney Yee of Oakland, California (known for his numerous instructional videos, headliner status at yoga conferences, and strong promotion by Oprah Winfrey6) started as an Iyengar yoga teacher. He now combines the Iyengar style with one of his own creation.

Sri K. Pattabhi Jois/Ashtanga or Power Yoga

Like Iyengar, Sri K. Pattabhi Jois (b. 1915) was a disciple of S. T. Krishnamacharya in Mysore, India. He continues to teach yoga at his Ashtanga Yoga Research Center in Mysore. A quarter of a century ago Jois brought ashtanga yoga to America and it has become extremely popular and influential. Ashtanga yoga has been promoted heavily by such celebrities as Gwyneth Paltrow, Sting, and Madonna.

Ashtanga (which literally refers to Patanjali’s eight limbs of yoga and is used both as a general term for raja yoga and as a term for this particular style) is a systematic and regimented style of yoga that employs vinyasa (a synchronization of movement and breathing) in such a way as to create a flowing pattern from one asana to the next; during this process, blood temperature rises and the body’s perspiration releases impurities.

Ashtanga yoga is sometimes called power yoga, although the term power yoga is also associated with a distinct derivative of ashtanga:

Power yoga is a general term used in the West to describe a vigorous, fitness-based approach to vinyasa-style yoga. Most power yoga is closely modeled on the Ashtanga style of practice. The term “power yoga” came into common usage in the mid 1990s, when several yoga teachers were looking for a way to make Ashtanga yoga more accessible to western students. Unlike Ashtanga, power yoga does not follow a set series of poses. Therefore, any power yoga class can vary widely from the next. What they have in common is an emphasis on strength and flexibility. The advent of power yoga heralded yoga’s current popularity, as people began to see yoga as a way to work out. Power yoga brought yoga into the gyms of America.7

The most famous teacher of power yoga is Baron Baptiste, whose yoga studios in Massachusetts are the largest in the country. Baptiste is well known through his books, instructional videos, and numerous television appearances, including the Transform Your Life with Baron Baptiste program that public television stations air during pledge drives.

Bikram Choudhury/Bikram or Hot Yoga

Based in Los Angeles, former weightlifter Bikram Choudhury (b. 1946) calls himself the “Guru of the Stars.”8 (Shirley MacLaine, Raquel Welsh, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and John McEnroe have been among his students.) Choudhury, who originally was sent to America to teach yoga by his guru, Bishnu Ghosh (the brother of Paramahansa Yogananda), opened his first studio in Beverly Hills in 1973. Today there are well over four hundred independently owned and operated Bikram Yoga studios worldwide and three thousand teachers, who were certified by Bikram’s Yoga College of India, which is based in Los Angeles.

Bikram yoga is also known as hot yoga because of its ninety-minute workouts involving twenty-six postures and two breathing exercises performed in a room that’s heated to 105 degrees or more. He calls it a “torture chamber,” and perhaps because it is so physically punishing it is more attractive to men than any other yoga style (about forty percent of hot yoga practitioners are male). Just as with power yoga, there are yoga teachers advertising “hot yoga” who are not affiliated with Choudhury and not teaching his specific pose sequence, but are teaching yoga under sweltering conditions.

Choudhury has been a lightning rod for controversy for numerous reasons, including the following: (1)his hot yoga has been criticized as unsafe for people in poor physical condition;9 (2)he has franchised his yoga schools and copyrighted his yoga posture sequence and other “brand” distinctives and threatened legal action against those who use them without certification;10 (3)he lives in Beverly Hills, wears Rolex watches, owns dozens of classic cars, including Rolls Royces, and in other respects does not fit the ascetic profile of an Indian yogi; (4)he is an outrageous braggadocio (e.g., “I’m beyond Superman”11); and (5)he’s been involved in sexual scandals with some of his female pupils. “‘What happens when they say they will commit suicide unless you sleep with them?’ he says. ‘What am I supposed to do? Sometimes having an affair is the only way to save someone’s life.'”12