In the age of Instagram, yoga historian Philip Deslippe takes a look at how yoga has in fact embraced new forms of media and technology since its debut in the West. The question now: What will be next?
In the introduction to the 2014 book Gurus of Modern Yoga, editors Mark Singleton and Ellen Goldberg tell readers that throughout the history of yoga “teachings, and gurus, have always adapted to the times and circumstances in which they find themselves.” The use of new forms of media and technology are one of the most significant ways that yoga has adapted over the last 125 years in America. The current popularity of yoga is due as much to its charismatic and influential teachers as it is to the printed page, the television camera, and the DVD. It may seem strange to place PBS stations on par with B.K.S. Iyengar, but it is doubtful that yoga in America would be as popular and prominent as it is today without both.
For many who see direct, in-person instruction as the touchstone for valid yogic practice, teaching through various forms of media can seem inferior, or even invalid, but they have also been incredibly democratic and given millions of people access to yoga despite being separated from direct contact with a teacher because of geographical distance, circumstance, or cost. A close look at many of the teachers who have used the printed page or screen finds them to be both aware of the limitations of their mediums and actively trying to expand beyond those limits. What follows are a few of the forms of media that have helped to shape the practice of yoga in America over the course of its history.
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Mail-Order Lessons (Early 20th Century)
In America during the 19th and early 20th centuries, there were massive movements of democratic adult education and self-improvement outside of traditional schooling. In addition to lectures, night schools, and programs for vocational training, by the early 20th century and up until the Second World War, there was a host of correspondence courses that allowed students to receive instruction on various subjects via the postal service. Yoga in America had its own robust form of distance education through mail-order courses. William Walker Atkinson, a Baltimore-born lawyer turned New Thought author, was one of the first Americans to write on yoga and did so under the pseudonym “Yogi Ramacharaka.” While Yogi Ramacharaka is now associated with the dark blue hard-covered books of his publisher, his yogic writings were initially offered to the public in late 1903 as a series of monthly lessons through the mail, and were only later bound together in book form.
In 1910, Sakharam Ganesh Pandit, a South Asian yoga teacher who came to America through the Theosophical Society (and inversely ended up becoming an attorney), also offered weekly correspondence lessons in “Yoga and Metaphysics.” Other teachers such as Rishi Singh Gherwal, A.K. Mozumdar, and Yogananda offered instruction through the post as well. These lessons were much more personable and powerful than a typical mail-order course in shorthand or radio repair. Often they echoed a special guru-student relationship and contained instructions or warnings to keep the teachings secret and away from the eyes of others. Atkinson wrote his Yogi Ramacharaka lessons in a direct and affable style and addressed his readers as if they were an actual class of students. Not only did thousands of people receive those lessons when they were first printed, but over 60 years later, a commune of Hippies felt so connected to them that they made and flew a flag with the digits zero-four, a tribute to the opening lines of Ramacharaka’s first lesson, addressed to “our students of the Yogi class of 1904.”
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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