Histories of yoga in America usually start in earnest with the 1960s, when it is imagined that loosened immigration laws allowed swamis and gurus to come from India in large numbers and find a receptive audience with the seekers of the hippie counterculture. But yoga enjoyed a robust and vibrant presence in the United States as early as the late 19th century. In fact, dozens of teachers with remarkable backgrounds taught yoga in the early 20th century, and they upend much of what we would assume about yoga and early yoga teachers in America.
There was little consensus at the time about what “yoga” meant. Encompassing philosophy, psychology, fortune-telling, diet, physical exercise, and magic, practicing yoga could mean anything from breathing exercises and postures to visualization and the development of psychic powers. With few South Asians present and meager knowledge about India, many people, including a large number of Indian immigrants of various backgrounds who worked around the discriminatory laws and policies of the day, found it easy to reinvent themselves as Indian yogis and spiritual teachers in the U.S. For the most part they travelled across the country from one city to the next giving public lectures and smaller private courses of instruction to interested students. Often, these lectures and classes led to one-on-one sessions between teacher and student that took the form of everything from counseling and healing to fortune-telling and psychic readings.
As more attention is being given to the first chapters of American yoga’s history, biographies of several early teachers such as Pierre Bernard (AKA the Omnipotent Oom) and Indra Devi have been written in recent years. But there are many other remarkable teachers from this period worth knowing. Here are seven with stories you’ll want to read.
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