Long before yoga became mainstream in America, yoga-related phrases and images appeared in our popular culture. In the early 20th century, the most commonly held ideas about swamis and yogis were that they were magical, wonder-working figures who could levitate and bestow fortune were represented on everything from movies and comic books to toys and household products. Even if the vast majority of Americans did not count themselves as yoga practitioners or sympathizers at the time, they were familiar enough with the words and ideas about yoga (however confused and exoticized) that manufacturers felt little hesitation using a yogi or swami for a logo or as part of a product name. Popular culture also helps us to understand the backdrop against which yoga teachers operated. If the public was familiar with yoga and yogis as magical, mysterious, otherworldly, and exotic, it makes sense that they were regularly described to audiences in the United States as scientific, rational, practical, and relatable. Out of the many ways that yoga has made an appearance in popular culture, here are a few items that help to tell part of the early history of yoga in the United States.
1. Yoga Mascot (1912)
In the fall of 1912, newspapers in Seattle ran ads that breathlessly (and ungrammatically) told readers to “Buy a Yoga!” The “Yoga” was the Yoga Mascot, a small, robed, and turban-clad figurine sitting cross-legged and pointing to a book held in his left hand. Emblazoned on its front were the words: “Now you hold me in your hand—Do now wish, but make Demand!” The Yoga Mascot was the creation of Lucille Bentz, a clerk and stenographer from the Pacific Northwest, who marketed it as a good luck charm that as a “Mystic Symbol of Oriental Philosophy” could give its holder power and success. The most likely source of inspiration for the Yoga Mascot was the Billiken doll, a squat, pointy-eared figure who allegedly gave its purchaser and owner good luck that enjoyed a brief period of intense popularity a few years earlier.
The yogi as a symbol of good luck had a history and staying power well beyond the Yoga Mascot. A few decades later, a host of good luck coins or pocket pieces were manufactured that featured a turbaned swami head as a symbol of luck and fortune. When the boxer Jack Dempsey was recovering from surgery in 1939, a newspaper wire service reported that fans and well-wishers flooded the pugilist’s New York hospital room with letters, telegrams, herbs, horseshoes, and “Yogi good luck tokens.” And for about a decade after the Second World War, a bottling company in Syracuse, New York, sold a brand of soda called “Lucky Sam” with a turbaned swami gazing into a crystal ball as its logo.