September 2020: Yoga Comes West


This month is dedicated to some of the most notable teachers who brought yoga to the U.S. I would like to preface by saying that though these teachers created a deep yogic footprint here, some were not as noble as they appeared to be. There’s been a large discussion in the yoga community about our tendency to worship spiritual teachers as if they were Gods, bringing up the question of whether or not we can separate the teacher from the teachings after abuse or misconduct occurs. Misconduct arises in many spaces and yoga does not have immunity to these unfortunate occurrences. My only advice to anyone new to yoga or to this discussion in general is to never hold anyone in human form up on a pedestal. As one of my teachers says, we are all Divine beings in a human experience, and the word human cannot be stressed enough. Allow your teachers to earn your trust and treat them as you would any other human being.

Swami Vivekananda

Swami Vivekananda is credited as being the first person to bring the teachings of yoga from India to the U.S. His first visit to Chicago in 1893 was also where he first spoke at the Parliament of the World’s Religions, and his speech captivated the hearts of America so much he was invited to tour the country. “His speech, which began with, ‘Sisters and brothers of America’, got him a standing ovation at the summit. In his speech, Vivekananda touched upon the fact that though people may follow different religions, yet all paths eventually lead to god” (Hindustan Times, 2017).

Vivekananda loved his country of India and was on a mission to found a monastery, which first prompted his visits. Unfortunately, he didn’t raise as much money as he had hoped for, but saw a need for his teachings in the West, writing, “I find I have a mission in this country, too” (Swami Yogeshananda, Vedanta Atlanta). Vivekananda went on to build the Belur Math/monastery in 1899, established monasteries in the U.S., and toured the country to teach the four branches of yoga (as discussed last month within the Gita).

Video and audio technology was still in its infancy at the time of Vivekananda’s prime, and it was difficult to find any (free) footage of him speaking. There are a few videos around allegedly displaying audio of his 1893 speech, but from the looks of the comments, these appear to be fake. There are a few free documentaries on YouTube about his life that you can find here and here. Full disclosure: I haven’t watched either of them, so please send any others my way if you’d like me to add them here.

See the Resources and References section below for a more detailed outline of the life and teachings of Swami Vivekananda.

Paramahansa Yogananda

Paramahansa Yogananda was another influential teacher in the early days of Western yoga. Upon the request of his lineage, Yogananda first came to the U.S. in 1920, “as India’s delegate to the International Congress of Religious Liberals held in Boston,” and addressed congress with his speech, The Science of Religion (New World Encyclopedia). During this time, Yogananda decided to make America his home. He established the Self-Realization Fellowship (SRF) headquarters in Los Angeles (establishing the SRF prior to his visit to the U.S.) and set off on his journey to share Hindu teachings, including Kriya Yoga, with the intention of unifying religions.

Yogananda is well known for his book, Autobiography of a Yogi, which includes the awe-some details of his life’s journey: “he relates numerous stories of saints, scientists, and miracle workers that he visited as a youth, including the renowned scientist Jagdish Chandra Bose, his personal tutor Mahendranath Gupta (biographer of Ramakrishna), the Nobel Prize winning Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore, the ‘Tiger Swami,’ the ‘Perfume Saint,’ the ‘Saint with Two Bodies,’ the ‘Levitating Saint,’ and others” (New World Encyclopedia). I have been making my way through his 500+ page book, myself, and can say with certainty that his life was magical. Yogananda’s dharma shined through within every moment of his existence, and even beyond, after his death.

I highly recommend renting the documentary, Awake, which is a beautiful movie about his life and teachings.

Accounts of Vivekenanda and Yogananda’s passing were quite interesting and almost fitting to their life’s work. Vivekananda died of a ruptured blood vessel while meditating in 1902 and Yogananda died of a heart attack in 1952, immediately after reading a poem he had written called, My India and days after hinting at his death to his disciples. Followers of both Vivekananda and Yogananda say they left their body during Samadhi. So beautiful. I have chills even writing this.

Here’s a quick video about Yogananda’s death story from the documentary, Awake:

Reflection: Choose one of these influential teachers and research their teachings a bit more in depth. What do you connect to? What comes up for you as you read the core of their teachings?

Resources and References:

Swami Vivekananda and America by Swami Yogeshananda

Swami Vivekananda, a ‘youngster from India won over the world’

Paramahansa Yogananda from the New World Encyclopedia


Śrī Tirumalai Krishnamacharya is considered the ‘Father of Modern Yoga’ for his exemplary work as a yoga teacher, Ayurvedic healer, and scholar. His mastery of various studies gave depth to his teachings and provided a framework that has carried on long after his physical life has ended.

Born in the late 1800’s, Krishnamacharya began studying yoga under his father at the age of 6. After his father’s death, he studied with many other revered teachers, eventually leading him to the Himalayas to study under Sjt Rammohan Brahmacari Guru Maharaj (Centre for Yoga Studies). One of my teachers explained that this particular guru initially did not want to teach Krishnamacharya, but accepted him as a student after Krishnamacharya proved his dedication to study. It was under the guidance of this guru that Krishnamacharya mastered asanas, studied the Sutras, and learned about therapeutic aspects of yoga (Yoga Journal, 2017).

As a request from his guru, Krishnamacharya returned to South India to share the teachings of yoga. He established a yoga school in the palace of the Maharajah of Mysore. It was there that Krishnamacharya met Indra Devi, who wished to learn under his guidance. Krishnamacharya initially refused to teach yoga to a Western woman, but much like he did with his guru, Indra proved her dedication and eventually began to study. 

Krishnamacharya went on to teach some of the most notable names in Western yoga today, including (but not limited to) B.K.S. Iyengar (his brother-in-law), Shri K. Pattabhi Jois, T.K.V. Desikachar (Krishnamacharya’s son), and Srivatsa Ramaswami. 

Krishnamacharya’s teaching style developed over the years and he was known to teach a little bit differently from student to student. He mastered classical Hatha postures under the guidance of his Guru in the Himalayas, which included “many vinyasas” (think: linking movement with breath). This led him to Vinyasa Krama, where practitioners move through sequential asanas that are linked with breath, in preparation for meditation. I am still unsure if Krishnamacharya invented the style of “Vinyasa Krama,” and would love insight and resources if any readers have any.

I’ll end with a few videos. The first is a short documentary on his life and the other contains some older footage.

Reflection: Krishnamacharya demonstrated many abilities, including stopping his pulse, through his mastery of yoga. Use the resources below or do your own research to learn of some of his other abilities. 

Resources and References:

Śrī T Krishnamacharya – The Source (1888 to 1989)
Krishnamacharya’s Legacy: Modern Yoga’s Inventor
14 Interesting Facts about Tirumalai Krishnamacharya – Founder of Modern Yoga

Week 3

Krishnamacharya’s teachings led the success of many modern day practitioners and teachers. As with many teachers, his teaching methodology developed over time. His earlier teachings were said to be a bit more assertive; according to accounts, Iyengar strained a muscle after being asserted to master a split, which caused Iyengar to step away from his studentship with Krishnamacharya for a time. By the time Krishnamacharya took Ramaswami on as a student, his approach became much more therapeutic. This week, I’ll provide a brief description of some of Krishnamacharya’s students and their respective styles of yoga, along with videos and links to additional resources.

B.K.S. Iyengar (1918-2014)

Iyengar Yoga is a slow, yet powerful practice that focuses on alignment and gradual progression. Iyengar teachers go through vigorous training and learn specific sequences that reach many different levels of practitioners. Iyengar was a big advocate for props, especially blocks, for opening into various postures (as well as making asanas and vinyasa more difficult). Several years later, props have become a normal part of many styles of yoga and are welcomed as assists to the practice.

Similar to Ashtanga Vinyasa (mentioned below), the Iyengar method stresses the importance of following the eight limbs as described in the Yoga Sutras, and strives to balance the koshas in a way that is sustainable over ones’ lifetime.

Sri K. Pattabhi Jois (1915-2009)

Jois is responsible for popularizing and bringing Ashtanga Vinyasa to the West. Within this particular style, practitioners progress through six series of vigorous sequences that link breath to movement while incorporating other tools such as chanting, drishtis (gaze points) and bandhas (body locks). Practitioners master one series at a time and practice at their own pace; the role of the teacher is to spend class adjusting and assisting each practitioner individually, instead of leading an entire class altogether.

The name, Ashtanga Vinyasa, comes from Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras and style of movement: practitioners are encouraged to utilize the 8 Limb (“Ashtanga”) Path on their journey and “Vinyasa” refers to the linking of breath to dynamic movement. Similarly to Hatha Yoga, Jois believed yoga should start with asana.

It’s important to be transparent about this particular teacher, especially if his history is new to you. Over the past several years, there have been many allegations made towards Jois for alleged sexual abuse, which you can easily find with a little bit of internet research. Despite these allegations and for the sake of historic education, the popularity of Ashtanga Vinyasa and the many lives the practice has changed makes its mention as equally important as the others.

T.K.V. Desikachar (1938-2016)

As Krishnamacharya’s son, Desikachar held his father’s teachings very close to his heart and was a product of Krishnamacharya’s more therapeutic teachings. Desikachar most notably created Viniyoga, a style of yoga that includes “āsana, prāṇāyāma, bandha, sound, chanting, meditation, personal ritual and study of texts. Viniyoga (prefixes vi and ni plus yoga) is an ancient Sanskrit term that implies differentiation, adaptation, and appropriate application” (American Viniyoga Institute). Viniyoga meets the practitioner where they are, and provides an individualized approach to yoga, moving us away from the idea that yoga is a “one-size-fits-all.”

Srivatsa Ramaswami (1939 – )

Ramaswami studied under Krishnamacharya for 33 years, and continues to teach, train, and run workshops on Vinyasa Krama Yoga (mentioned in Week 2) worldwide today. One of his most notable books, The Complete Book of Vinyasa Krama, provides an in-depth look at the teachings. Ramaswami also has several YouTube videos that contain content such as sutra chanting and short practices. I’ve heard his book is amazing, and it’s definitely on the top of my reading list.

I’ll relink a video of his below from the first month of Off the Mat that includes a lecture given by Ramaswami on the meaning of yoga. He summarizes the most key elements of yoga and answers a variety of questions pertaining to the practice in under 90 minutes. I believe there are four or five parts, and it is definitely a “must watch.”

Reflection: Choose a style of yoga from above and find a corresponding YouTube video to practice with. Note your experience. If you’d like to continue on, find a video on each of these styles and journal your experience. Which did you enjoy the most? 

Resources and References:

Ashtanga Yoga from Yogapedia
What is Iyengar Yoga?
Iyengar Yoga Explained
What is Viniyoga?
What is the Meaning and Concept of Viniyoga?

Week 4

It’s a bonus week!

I know we’re all busy and these months are packed with resources, but I wanted to be sure to slide in with a little information regarding a topic that has been missing from this month.

What about Vinyasa/Vinyasa Flow?

This is a question I have been asking for several years. There are many styles of yoga that are easily traced back to a particular individual or lineage, but Vinyasa, or rather the Vinyasa Flow we see all around the U.S., is almost untraceable (to me).

I’ve heard from several teachers that Vinyasa sort of just “happened,” but I don’t believe that. Someone, somewhere had to make a decision to take poses and link them creatively, instead of strictly moving through a primary series or Iyengar method or any other lineage that had been passed down at the time. I’ve scoured the internet, asked in different yoga teacher groups, and I have come up (almost) empty handed.

The closest I have come to answering this question came from an interview with J. Brown and (I believe) Max Strom on J’s podcast. They were casually talking about the yoga scene in the 80/90s and Max mentioned that some fellow teachers were the first ones to move into this new style of practicing and teaching yoga. Many of them were Ashtanga Vinyasa practitioners and had suffered injuries from repetitive movement, unbalanced sequencing, and uncomfortable postures. Max mentioned that he, and a few other teachers, including Shiva Rea and Steve Ross, decided to simply remove the postures that caused them discomfort and injury and move the way they wanted to. Max also mentioned that Steve was the first to put funky music behind his yoga classes. You can read a little more about Steve Ross in this article, where they also mention this. Shiva Rea went on to create her own style of yoga, Prana Vinyasa, which is widely known and practiced today. You can read a short bio on Shiva here that includes a statement regarding her as “innovator in the evolution of Vinyasa yoga.”

My most recent teacher describes modern day Vinyasa as a style that incorporates a variety of lineages (Iyengar Method, Hatha, Ashtanga Vinyasa, Vinyasa Krama, Viniyoga) as a way to meet each practitioner where they are. She uses the example of Virabhadrasana II (Warrior II), where traditionally, practitioners are instructed to turn their back foot in at an angle. If this doesn’t work for a particular individual, they can try moving the foot to parallel with the back of that mat. In this example, we start with a traditional posture and then accommodate to fit the individual’s anatomy and felt sensation.

And there it is. From AUM to 2020, we’ve taken quite the journey. Now that we’ve zoomed out to view yoga through a wide lens, it’s time to bring it in a bit. It’s time to dig in.

There are no reflection prompts or videos for this week. Simply soak in this month for the next few weeks and meet me back here in October. If you or anyone you know has more to add to this Vinyasa mystery, please be sure to reach out. It might be a mystery to me, but I’m sure the more precise answers are out there and not far.

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