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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.
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.”
The Phonograph (1920s–1970s)
Perhaps the first yoga teacher to release a record in the United States was the Punjabi immigrant Wassan Singh who toured across the country as “Yogi Wassan.” In 1927 he produced a small number of copies of a “Healing Chant” through the small “Flexo” label in Kansas City. The short record begins with Yogi Wassan bellowing out the “seven holy chants” of his Soroda System of Yoga and then humming and improvising his way through the next two minutes to fill up the rest of the space. In the early-1940s the Self-Realization Fellowship released a series of 78 rpm records featuring the voice of Yogananda leading different chants and invocations, occasionally accompanied by a harmonium. The opening of many of these records—“I, Paramahansa Yogananda, am singing!”—speaks to both the original power of the medium to make a listening audience feel close to a performer, as well as Yogananda’s positioning of himself as a guru through it.
By the 1950s, the 78 rpm record was quickly being replaced by the more familiar 12-inch long-playing record or LP that could play for over 20 minutes on each side. The LP was used by many teachers over the next several decades including Indra Devi, Swami Vishnu Devananda, and Swami Satchidananda. This format was well suited for lectures, chants, and guided meditations. Sachin Majumdar of the Yoga Institute of New York released an LP in 1959, explaining yoga to his listening audience and leading them into a deep relaxation with his baritone voice. Teachers who tried to lead classes of hatha yoga on vinyl, as Katherine Da Silva did in her 1972 Hatha Yoga album, had to contend with the limits of the audio format and often had to include images within the LP’s packaging so their students could fully follow along.
See also A Beginner’s Guide to the History of Yoga
Television (1970s and 1980s)
Yoga taught on television faced fewer limitations than audio and allowed Americans to encounter yoga in the privacy of their own homes at a time when the practice was often seen as something foreign and bizarre. The immediacy and familiarity of regularly scheduled yoga on TV allowed many to build a rapport with teachers. Richard Hittleman was the first yoga teacher in America with a television program, Yoga for Health, which initially aired in Los Angeles in 1961 and then went national and continued for decades. One of the people inspired by Hittleman was Lilias Folan, who started her own show Yoga and You in 1970 through a local public television station in Cincinnati that eventually saw 500 episodes aired nationally on PBS stations for almost three decades. Folan described the process of filming her shows as one of connection and innovation, saying “because I could not see my students, their comfort and safety in poses was always a prime concern. Going slowly through the postures, pulling them apart, and being clear about details and alignment became a style of teaching.”
Kathleen Hitchcock-Warrick, a contemporary of Folan, hosted her own Hatha Yoga show through a Milwaukee-based PBS station in the 1970s and 1980s. Today, the most popular televised yoga teacher in America is Wai Lana, whose show has seen over 200 episodes and been on air for over 18 years. It is hard to measure the exact audience of these televised yoga teachers. It was commonly claimed that these programs “reached millions of people,” and the long runs of shows like Yoga for Health and Yoga and You certainly attest to a sizable and consistent viewing audience. Perhaps even more importantly, the visibility of these programs over the decades and their presentation of yoga to Americans as accessible and approachable certainly set the stage for the massive popularity of yoga that followed.
See also The Ancient & Modern Roots of Yoga
VHS Tapes and DVDs (1980s–Today)
The transition from televised yoga instruction to pre-recorded physical media such as VHS tapes, and later DVDs, may have been natural, but it was also a dramatic change in accessibility, style, and volume. In 2006, Yoga Journal’s media critic looked back on 15 years of reviews and described a flood of yoga videos that passed over his desk that accounted for hundreds of tapes and DVDs covering every major style of yoga. Without the demands of taping a large number of classes for syndication or the limits of a television studio, pre-recorded yoga classes allowed many teachers the ability to create beautifully produced and well thought-out classes. While a decent portion of these videos were amateur efforts or hasty attempts to profit from yoga’s growing popularity, they also fostered the careers of numerous famous yoga teachers, such as Rodney Yee who produced dozens of videos and sold millions of copies. (This video from a 1980s VHS tape with Alan Finger is a great example.)
VHS cassettes and DVDs have allowed people to not just practice in the privacy of their homes like television, but to do so at their own convenience and easily move from one style or teacher to another as it suits them. The format has also allowed for tailored instruction in small niches and for specific populations that might not have coalesced if teachers depended on classes with personal instruction instead of a much wider pool of video-buying consumers. Online and streaming formats have not necessarily meant the end of DVDs. The format is surprisingly resilient. Fitness DVDs, of which yoga is a major part, still make hundreds of millions of dollars in annual sales, and the fitness industry is aware that a large number of their older customers still want the physical product. VHS tapes and DVDs also normalized the teaching of yoga through video. Last year’s Yoga in America Study found that one half of yoga teachers and trainees made an instructional yoga video, with one third doing so professionally.
Digital Technology and Social Media (Today)
In 2017, it is difficult to find aspects of yoga that are not touched by the internet and digital technology. Many yoga practitioners openly wonder about the consequences of classes becoming as common online as in brick-and-mortar studios, or when the number of Instagram followers a teacher has became almost as important as their accreditation. It is easy to find historical precedents to many unsettling features of yoga in the world of smartphones and constant connectivity, though, such as unavoidable posing and yoga selfies, or the relentless marketing and branding of teachers. Photography was central to modern yoga even before Swami Kuvalayananda and his visually-dense Yoga Mīmāṃsā journal in 1924, and yoga teachers have crafted their public images through advertising, celebrity endorsements, and credentialing since the nineteenth-century. Yoga has both survived and thrived as it has adapted to the postal mail, the phonograph, television, and video, and yet, the speed and power of digital media today also feels without precedent.
Theodora Wildcroft, a graduate student at The Open University in Britain who is researching the impact of social media on yogic practice, sees the internet as offering mixed possibilities. Social media is allowing for an unparalleled exchange of knowledge and best practices among teachers across traditions and around the world. At the same time, the internet is enabling the rise to prominence of elite celebrity yoga practitioners and teachers who are creating a hyper-exaggerated ideal of both body and lifestyle through a barrage of stunning photographs or time-lapse videos of flawless sequences. Wildcroft wonders if the yoga of the future will be led by the most photogenic and media-savvy, and what the wider yoga world risks losing if that happens.
While it is fair to say that yoga in America has constantly embraced new forms of media and technology, those forms of media have also dramatically changed how yoga has been practiced. How yoga will be shaped by current forms of media and technology will depend on how they are understood and used, and those changes will themselves inevitably be changed by whatever what will come next.
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