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.
2. Swami Jewelry and Fabric (late 1920s)
After the First World War a modern style of art and design known as Art Deco emerged. The eclectic mix of bright colors, bold forms, and craftsmanship looked to Asia, the Middle East, and South America for inspiration in themes and motifs like the image of a turbaned head—alternately referred to as a swami, yogi, or sultan—used in rings, earrings, pins, cufflinks, and brooches during the late-1920s and early-1930s. There was also a clothing material, known as “Swami fabric,” that was popular at the time. The silky, knitted Rayon was most often used for nightgowns and bras. The term likely came from the vivid newspaper descriptions of the outfits worn by the visiting swamis and yogis from India who gave lectures in the United States. Swami Vivekananda was rendered in 1893 as wearing a “flowing orange robe (and) saffron turban,” and 30 years later Yogananda was described by a Brooklyn newspaper as donning a “flaming kimono” that was “of a roaring shade of liveliest orange taffeta.”
The jewelry and the larger vogue of Oriental themes in fashion and advertising highlights how confused and contradictory popular American interest in India was during this time. Not only were sultans from Baghdad and swamis from Delhi interchangeable to most people, but the popularizing of Indian motifs also came just after a series of laws and court decisions that barred South Asians from immigrating to the country or becoming citizens. There was a particular contradiction with the Swami fabric. One of the most consistent fears that the American public held about yoga teachers during this time was their influence—often imagined as dangerously sensual and seductive—over their admiring female students, and so it is a rich irony that descriptions of their attire would later end up as the name for the fabric of intimate womenswear.
3. The Yogi Bird (1953)
Before there was a Yogi Bear on American television, there was a Yogi Bird in living rooms and bars. In 1949, Fritz Wigal, an engineer who invented toys in his spare time, tried to make a facsimile of a friend’s parakeet and came up with a small plastic bird with an inner coil-driven wheel attached to five small rubber suction cups. Once wound, the toy could walk up a wall or across a ceiling. Wigal named it the “Yogi Bird” in honor of its ability to defy gravity and sent a prototype to Tigrett Enterprises, a toy manufacturer in Jackson, Tennessee. The connections in the public mind between India, yoga, levitation, and wonder-working were strong enough for the name to not need an explanation.
The Yogi Bird never became a cultural phenomenon like the Slinky or the Barbie doll, but its success was still staggering. About a year after Wigal signed the contract for his wall-walking bird, he had made the equivalent of $4.5 million dollars in today’s money. In August of 1953, the Yogi Bird was at the height of its popularity and was captivating enough—as both a children’s toy and an amusing novelty for adults—that Tigrett Enterprises was manufacturing tens of thousands of them a day and had licensing deals with companies in over eight countries around the world.
4. Swami Home Kloth (1954)
In the mid-1950s Americans faced with a dirty car had the option to “Swami” it in six minutes. The Swami Home Kloth was a polishing cloth treated with a type of “wonder-working” silicone oil that would allow it to clean a variety of surfaces without any added water, liquids, or cleaning agents. With an image of the namesake swami in a jeweled turban and behind a large, gleaming crystal ball, the packaging and marketing of the cloth played up its magic-like ability to polish and make things appear new. Within six years of its introduction over a million Swami Home Kloths had been sold.
One of the ways that yogis and magic became interchangeable in the minds of most Americans was through stage magicians, who by the time of the Swami Home Kloth had been using variations on Hindu personae for the better part of a century. A magical motif similar to the Swami Kloth was used by the Saint Louis-based Panda-Victory Paints that marketed a single-coat latex paint called “Magik” with a swami figure gazing into a large ball on the can. And a quarter-century before the Swami Home Kloth, the Flower City Specialty company in upstate New York sold its “Elcaro Mystic Cloth,” featuring a turbaned man with a penetrating gaze attesting to the product’s supernatural cleaning ability.
5. Swami Tellzall Fortune Teller (1968)
Made in 1968 by the California-based Eldon toy company, the Tellzall fortune teller was a variation on the more well-known Magic 8 Ball. Inside the plastic body of the Tellzall swami were three six-sided dice, and when the swami was shaken and set down, one of the die would fall into his windowed mouth and give a brief fortune—positive, neutral, or negative.
The yogi/swami fortune teller gazing into a crystal ball was perhaps the most popular and long-lasting image of yoga in American popular culture, one that was only strengthened by legions of fortune tellers adopting Indian personas from the late 19th century onward. Before the Tellzall toy, there were a wide array of yogi and swami-themed Ouija boards and fortune-telling devices. Bruce King, the man who popularized astrology in America through coin-operated machines in movie theaters and booklets sold in department stores, adopted the moniker “Zolar” and chose a fortune teller with a turban and thin mustache as his logo. Interestingly, one of the many ways in which this image endured was through sports. Starting in the 1930, sports writers would refer to themselves as “swamis” in their newspaper columns as they attempted to predict the results of upcoming games. Until recently, ESPN host Chris Berman made televised football predictions in a segment titled “Swami Sez.”
See also Yoga History 101
About Our Expert
Philip Deslippe is a doctoral student in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of California Santa Barbara. More at philipdeslippe.com
Items and images courtesy of the author