The Invention of Modern Yoga
By Eric Vandenbroeck
A 2016 study by Yoga Journal and the Yoga Alliance reported it's a $16.8 billion industry. Statista concludes that yoga's 2015 revenue in the U.S. alone was $9.09 billion, and it's estimated to rise to $11.56 billion by 2020 and is increasing in popularity (with few people knowing its actual history).
Not unlike what I recently explained in the case of modern Ayurveda also modern yoga, as pointed out by such expert historians like Suzanne Newcombe of the University of Cambridge, in her 2004 A History of Modern Yoga, Karl Baier from the University of Vienna and Faculty of History at the University of Cambridge and detailed in a 2010 breakthrough book by Mark Singleton, evolved in a discursive milieu that incorporates such disparate strands as Hindu religion, occultism, new thought, and gymnastics.
Most recently pointed out by Borayin Larios and Mark Singleton, this time in the authoritative Handbook of Yoga and Meditation (2020), within the category of early scholar-practitioners of yoga, we must include scholars affiliated with spiritual and religious organizations producing translations and commentaries on yoga texts in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. "Probably the most significant of these organizations is the Theosophical Society, founded by H. P. Blavatsky and Henry Olcott in 1875, which published many early translations and commentaries on Patañjali’s Yogasūtras as well as some of the earliest translations of haṭhayoga texts."1
Theosophists stressed the need for initiation and ‘traditional’ knowledge, meaning that esoteric wisdom cannot simply be accessed and understood by a medium but requires a learned preparation in esoteric teachings and the means to decipher them. India came to be regarded as the treasure trove of ancient ‘Aryan’ wisdom that held that required key to occultism. Behind that idea stood the orientalist discovery of the relationship between Sanskrit and European languages, theories about the origins of religion and ‘myths,’ and received an increasingly biological connotation towards the end of the century. In this context, Yogic and meditational practices were at the core of Theosophical interest in that supposed traditional ‘Aryan’ wisdom. As a result, Theosophists gave yoga unprecedented global attention that formed the basis for later developments in the twentieth century and New Age culture.
A major factor here was the Theosophical concern for new editions and translations of Sanskrit and vernacular texts: readers will find that Theosophical publishing houses printed many contemporary editions and studies. In 1883, Rajendralal Mitra wrote in the translation of The Yoga Aphorisms of Patanjali that no pandit in Bengal had made yoga the special subject of his studies, demonstrating the relative lack of interest of western-educated Indians in yoga. Mirroring missionary and orientalist polemics, yoga was often regarded as superstitious, barbaric, and dangerous. Not least, thanks to the Theosophists, this attitude was beginning to change. One year before Mitra, the Indian Theosophist Tukaram Tatya (1836–1898) had published James R. Ballantyne’s translation of the first and second chapters of the Yogasūtra, combined with Govindaram Sastri’s translation of the third and fourth chapters that had been published in the journal Pandit. This book, called The Yoga Philosophy, was thus the first English edition of the whole of Patañjali’s text. Its introduction was written by Olcott, who explicitly identified yoga with the occultist technique of self-mesmerization. A second enhanced version was published in 1886, and a revised, more accessible version in 1889 by the leading US-American Theosophist and co-founder William Quan Judge (1851–1896).
How Yoga came to the West
The Theosophical occupation with yoga can be observed as early as the inception of the flagship journal, The Theosophist, in an article about ‘Yoga Vidya’ from October 1879 until January 1880. Therein, yoga is discussed in the light of Mesmerism and Spiritualism, with references to the Bhāgavata Purāṇa and the English translation of the Yogasūtra from Pandit. The year 1880 also marks the first engagement with tantra, which set the stage for a Theosophical reception of kuṇḍalinī, the chakras, and related yogic concepts that remain influential up to the present day. In what follows, this first encounter with tantra will be put in the context of the western esoteric reception of yoga and meditation, focusing on selecting key concepts and the role of Indian authors in their transmission into a western alternative religious culture.
Not only did the Theosophical Society produce texts, but its reading rooms and distribution houses provided a place for broad religious explorations; its speaking forums allowed specific Indian individuals to more easily promote their own teachings of yoga. And as De Michelis has argued in A History of Modern Yoga, for example, Swami Vivekananda’s invitation for Americans and Europeans to identify with Indian yoga was made in a Theosophically saturated milieu.
Theosophical author Barada Kanta Majumdar drew parallels between tantric-yogic practices, Mesmerism and Spiritualism. His remarkable identification of ‘western’ and ‘Tantrik Occultism’ is among others explained by Majumdar in his contribution to Tukaram Tatya’s (1836–1898) influential Guide to Theosophy from 1887. In ‘The Occult Sciences,’ Majumdar emphasized that western science was only rediscovering what Indian Tantric wisdom had already been practicing throughout the ages. While Theosophists and other esotericists had long claimed the superiority of their synthesis of science, religion, and philosophy over ‘materialistic’ mainstream science and scholarship, this declaration of Indian spiritual-scientific superiority was a key characteristic of the discourse about yoga, meditation, and tantra.
These assertions of authenticity and superiority played directly into the inner-esoteric identity struggles revolving around initiation into higher knowledge, and the ‘competent’ practice of magic. For this reason, the western esoteric reception of Indian concepts was strongly contested, chaotic, and often self-contradictory. What can be said with certainty is that western esotericism and Indian traditions became deeply intertwined in the process.
Although a footnote in the Theosophist from June 1883 was still cautious to distinguish between ‘black’ and ‘white’ tantra analogous to black and white magic, several Theosophists were now willing to recognize the value of ‘Tantrik Occultism’ as the highest form of Indian esotericism.
In 1887, Srish Chandra Vasu (1861–1918) published The Esoteric Science and Philosophy of the Tantras, a translation of the Śiva Saṃhitā. Vasu (also spelled Basu as is his brother's name) was a Bengali civil servant and Sanskritist who was closely involved in Theosophical circles. Notably, he edited Sabhapati Swami’s work and appeared to have introduced the notion of ‘Mesmerism’ into it. Vasu became a widely-read key actor for ‘Hindu revivalism’ in the early twentieth century and promoted the values of Indian culture based around the celebration of yogic texts, most notably the Śiva Saṃhitā and the Gheraṇḍa Saṃhitā, from an early point on. Apart from being hugely popular among esoteric actors, he was also cited by established academics such as Friedrich Max Müller in his Six Systems of Indian Philosophy (1899)2.
In modern translations and exegeses of “classical” hatha yoga texts, there was often a marked hostility toward the very practitioners of the doctrines under consideration. And not only Vasu but also exponents of 'practical' yoga in the West, Swami Vivekananda and Mme. H. P. Blavatsky (who early on worked with the Arya Samaj one of the spiritual and intellectual progenitors of the RSS and its offshoot the BJP), we're actually themselves pointedly antagonistic to Hatha yoga practices and purposefully avoided association with them in their respective formulations (even though such elements are not absent from their teachings).
However, Vasu’s translations of hatha yoga texts were one of the very few accessible sources for English speakers wishing to find out more on the topic. The only other widely available printed English translations of Hatha yoga texts were Ayangar’s Hatha Yoga Pradlpika (Theosophical Society 1893), Ayangar, and Iyer’s Occult Physiology. Notes on Mata Yoga (Theosophical Society 1893).
As some of the very earliest and most widely distributed English translations of hatha yoga texts, therefore, Vasu’s editions not only defined to a large extent the choice of texts that would henceforth be included within the Hatha yoga “canon” but were also instrumental in mediating Hatha yoga’s status both within modern anglophone yoga as a whole and within the new, “free-thinking” modern Hinduism identified by Vasu. For many decades, indeed, these works continued to be the source texts for anyone interested in discovering more about hatha yoga, and they are still republished and read today.3
What is being attempted in Vasu’s Sacred Books translation is a redefinition of the yogin, in which the grassroots practitioner of Hatha methods has no part. The modern yogin must be scientific, where the Hatha yogin is not.
Vasu’s introduction thus seems to flatly condemn the very practices of which his translation is a document. If these practices, and those who undertake them, are morally suspect, why bother representing them for an English-speaking audience at all? Why not simply omit them, as Indologist Max Müller had done? What is surprising is that Vasu’s original 1895 translation of his Gheranda Samhita opens with a dedication by the “humble sevaka” Vasu to the well-known guru, “whose practical illustrations and teachings convinced the translator of the reality, utility, and the immense advantages of Hatha Yoga.” In this earlier edition, therefore, Vasu presents himself as a “humble servant” (i.e., student and devotee) of a renowned Hatha yogin, an insider rather than a mere impartial critical commentator on hatha yoga. There is none of the doom-filled warnings of the 1915 edition but rather a marked emphasis on the benefits of the practices, as well as a long account of the miraculous, forty-day “burial” of his guru under “scientific” supervision.
Vasu’s intention in the 1915 volume is not simply to decry Hatha yogins but to fashion an idea of what a real practitioner of yoga should be, an ideal thoroughly informed by the scientific, rational, and “classical” values of the day. Yoga implores Vasu, must be looked upon as legitimate science.
S. C. Vasu’s brother and editor, Major Basu, was in fact one of the early, leading lights of yoga that would come to full flower in India during the 1920s and 1930s with Sri Yogendra (born Manibhai Desai, 1897–1989) and Swami Kuvalayananda(born Jagannatha Ganesa Gune, 30 August 1883 – 18 April 1966). As a brief review of the early orientations of Vasu and Basu shows, however, the dawn of Hatha yoga as promoted by Shri Yogendra and Swami Kuvalayananda. Arrived several decades earlier than has been supposed.
Basu associated the chakras with the nerve plexuses, a product of both Theosophical and traditional Indian concepts and an important step in the development of modern yoga systems. Early Mesmeric theories had already emphasized the importance of the ganglia for interactions between a subtle and a material body through ‘fine’ forces; this now became an integral point of reference for the explanation of the yogic base of the brain; that is below the sixth chakra instead of at the crown of the head. Basu associated the chakras with the nerve plexuses, a product of both Theosophical and traditional Indian concepts and an important step in the development of modern yoga systems. Early Mesmeric theories had already emphasized the importance of the ganglia for interactions between a subtle and a material body through ‘fine’ forces; this now became an integral point of reference for explaining yogic techniques. The association of the nervous system and the chakras is often traced to Vasant G. Rele’s Mysterious Kundalini from 1927, which appeared almost forty years after Basu’s article.4
Another important early moment in the reconciliation of tradition is A Treatise on the Yoga Philosophy by Dr. N. C. Paul (also known as Navma Candra Pala), originally published in 1850 but saved obscurity by the Theosophical Society reprint of 1888. Perhaps even more than Basu’s work, this study might be credited as the first attempt to marry Hatha yoga practice and theory with modern medical science. Paul considers Hatha yogic suspension of the breath and blood circulation in Western medical terms, once again (like Vasu) evoking the internment of the guru Haridas as the paradigm of yogic physiological control. As Blavatsky notes, the book’s appearance in 1850 “produced a sensation amongst the representatives of medicine in India, and a lively polemic between the Anglo-Indian and native journalists” 5.
Copies were even burned because the text was "offensive to the science of physiology and pathology 6. However, its republication by the Theosophical Society, in the same year as Basu’s seminal article in the Society’s journal, relaunched it as a key text in the early formulation of hatha yoga as science, and it was used as an authoritative source on hatha yoga by some European scholars.
The uniqueness of India's theosophical movement rested on the fact that theosophy initiated its own brand of modernity, thus creating a nexus between religion and politics in a much more pronounced way than the other neo-Hindu organizations did. Professor Gauri Vishwanathan tells us how the theosophists cite race theory to get Hindu converts. As shown earlier, the ‘Aryan myth’ found great popularity in 19th century Europe. German Idealism started viewing Indian upper castes as Aryans: though much degenerated than their European counterparts due to long intermarriages with Indian aborigines. Blavatsky and her followers saw Aryans as the fifth root-race on earth and the highest in contemporary times.
As seen above, the foremost exponents of practicing yoga in the West, Swami Vivekananda and Mme. H. P. Blavatsky, were actually themselves pointedly antagonistic to Hatha practices and purposefully avoided association with them in their respective formulations (even though such elements are not absent from their teachings).
Enter New Thought
Another crucial role for modern yogic and meditational practices was played by a heterogenous current called New Thought, which was largely stimulated by the writings of the US-based Mesmeric healer Phineas Quimby (1802–1866).
In this milieu, Vivekananda was especially popular during his activities in the United States since 1893.
Clearly influenced by New Thought was Yogi Ramacharaka (alias William Walker Atkinson (1862–1932), who wrote in a 1904 book subtitled The Yogi Philosophy of Physical Well-Being, which was written by a Baltimore native using the pen name Ramacharaka. “If we can but grasp the faintest idea of what this means, we will open ourselves up to such an influx of Life and vitality that our bodies will be practically made over and will manifest perfectly.”
In the 1930s, several South Asian yoga teachers in the United States presented the Yogi Ramacharaka exercises to US audiences as ancient Indian yogic practices. The US-born Atkinson, who never traveled to India, wound up influencing Indian understandings of yoga and beyond. Even if Ramacharaka’s teachings have little (if any) historical continuity with Indian forms of yoga, his ideas and practices have become central to the framing of many modern yoga traditions in cosmopolitan contexts and Indian ones.7
Enter present day Yoga
The first half of the twentieth century was a dynamic period during which what was understood as yoga, particularly yoga as a health-promoting activity, was rapidly changing. Soon important figures in this reframing were Bishnu Charan Ghosh ( 1903 – 1970), Tirumalai Krishnamacharya (1888–1989), who operated a yogaśāla in Mysore (1933–1950) and Chennai (Madras) from 1952.
The earliest reference to a sun salutation in yogic texts appears in Brahmananda’s nineteenth-century commentary on the Hatha Pradipika, which warns against “activities that cause physical stress like excessive Surya namaskars or carrying heavy loads.” Another way to translate this is “lifting weights,” which was also a popular training method by the 1930s. It is often unclear what came from where, but there are obvious overlaps between gymnastics and dynamic forms of yoga, such as those taught in Mysore by Krishnamacharya.8
Although, as seen above, the physical methods of haṭha were dismissed by Vivekananda (and the highly influential Theosophical Society) as inferior to the ‘mental’ rājayoga, by the 1920s and 1930s, haṭha was beginning to gain prominence in the hands of innovators like the above mentioned Swami Kuvalayananda, and Shri Yogendra published extensively in English, including their respective journals Yoga and Yoga-Mīmāṃsā.
Swami Kuvalayananda founded his Kaivalyadhama ashram in Lonavla (near Pune) in 1924. Shri Yogendra's Yoga Institute in Santa Cruz (now a suburb of Mumbai) was a pioneer in offering curative yoga therapy to middle-class patrons during the twentieth century.
Yogendra had been a keen athlete and wrestler in his youth and, shortly after establishing his Institute, spent four years in the United States. It is possible that he gave the first-ever demonstrations of asanas. Both Yogendra and Kuvalayananda focused primarily on yoga as a physical practice. Both were also concerned with investigating modern scientific justifications for yoga's perceived health benefits - they are often seen as pioneers of the modern discipline of yoga therapy.
They also had an interest in bringing yoga to a wider audience, which they did through several popular publications aimed at the ‘person in the street.’ In the teachings of Yogendra and Kuvalayananda, we perhaps first encounter standing postures such as triangle pose (trikondsana) or the warrior postures of contemporary yoga.
Autobiography of a Yogi
Bishnu Charan Ghosh was a younger brother of the yogi Paramahansa Yogananda, who became world-famous through his 1946 book Autobiography of a Yogi. This whereby the teacher of Paramahansa Yogananda (1893–1952) was Sri Yukteswar, an honorary member of the Theosophical Society, whose Kaivalya Darsanam: The Holy Science (1894) mentions Western astrology and fringe science speculations about electricity and magnetism using the concepts of occult sciences and the astral body. Paramahansa Yogananda, one of the most popular Yoga purveyors in the West, continued these lines of thought.
Paramahansa Yogananda taught a mixture of both in the United States in the 1920s, calling it Yogoda and describing it as “muscle recharging through will power.” His “Energization Exercises” promised well-being. “What is desirable in body culture is the harmonious development of power over the muscles' voluntary actions and the involuntary processes of heart, lungs, stomach, etc.,” says one of his pamphlets. “This is what gives health.”
The wellness culture
The wellness culture became the main goal for Indian teachers, who marketed cures for modern stress. “An ideal system of Physical Culture must make special provision for nerve-building,” explains an article on yoga from the 1920s by Kuvalayananda, who researched physical benefits at his Kaivalyadhama institute near Mumbai. Spiritual goals are less often mentioned. From Kuvalayananda’s perspective: “Yogic Therapeutics aims at restoring the internal secretions to their normality by securing the health of the endocrine organs.”
Despite all the talk about science, many yogic experiments seem inconclusive, even today. Although subjects report feeling better, the role of placebo effects is unclear, including the power of autosuggestion. The Integral Yoga taught by Aurobindo Ghose in the early twentieth century sounds like New Thought. Advocating “the service of a greater Reality than the ego,” Aurobindo says: “The whole being has to be trained so that it can respond and be transformed when that greater Light and Force can work in nature.”
Western approaches had similar ideas. According to Per Henrik Ling: “Gymnastic exercises are not only a means for the development of the body, but also for that of the mental and spiritual man.” By the 1930s, this was also true for women. With regular practice of the “Stretch-and-Swing System” of yoga-like postures, said their creator Mollie Bagot Stack, who had spent time in India, a woman “can bring herself into harmony with the great mysterious forces around her, and acquire an inner power which will carry her triumphantly through the rough places of life.”
A few decades later, the restorative essence of practice was captured by the title of a book by B.K.S. Iyengar: Yoga: The Path to Holistic Health.9
Postural yoga’s popularisation is explained in part because it more often provided quick and direct access to the perceived benefits of yoga, rather than indirect access through the intermediary role of a (far-removed) teacher or text. Postural yoga gurus’ marketing campaigns increasingly attempted to convince people to choose their particular renditions of yoga as one part of individual self-development programs. They worked within a market in which wares were most successful when they could be easily fit into individualized lifestyles.
Needless to say, many of these yoga advocates abandoned all or any of the alleged rules, such as those dealing with alms, celibacy, scriptural study, and retreat from society or social norms, which traditionally separated the yoga practitioner from society so that they could sell yoga as a form of fitness, self-care, and wellness.
In the early years of the twentieth century, outside of general ideas of being mental and magical, there was no singular or stable idea of ‘yoga’. These peripatetic instructors would freely borrow and modify ideas and practices from New Thought, Spiritualism, and occultism and present it to US audiences as ancient yogic wisdom from India.
While the counter-culture of the 1960s marked a distinct period in popularising a variety of ‘eastern’ religions and spiritualities in the global context, its influence has often been over-estimated. Occultists explored the ‘hippy trail,’ alternative religions, and mind-altering practices in the early twentieth century marked a ‘widening of the road’ rather than the paving of new ground. Likewise, the shifting foci towards consumerism and individualism at the end of the twentieth century did not mark the end of counter-cultural communities, camps, and festivals that use yoga and meditation as integral parts of their identity
In the 1960s, the Maharishi Maheshi Yogi and his Transcendental Meditation as scientific was hugely influential in creating scientific interest in the biological effects of meditation, and later yoga. The 1975 book The Relaxation Response by Herbert Benson and Miriam Klipper presented Transcendental Meditation to the public in an accessible and scientifically supported form and was cited in a 1986 survey reported in the New York Times as the most-recommended book by clinical psychologists to their patients.10
The prescriptions for self-care or personal liberation as is common today have little or nothing to do with societal transformation; instead, to speak of yoga as if it represents a static essence that can be seamlessly transmitted from one consumer-practitioner to another, the transmission is far messier. Usually, it does not take place between social equals.
Consumers appropriate cultural products because there is something evocative about them. Thus Middle- or upper-class white yoga consumers living in the globalized twenty-first century, for example, often imagine themselves as materially rich but spiritually poor and, in turn, see South Asians as materially poor but offering great spiritual wealth or wisdom. In these representations, it becomes clear how capitalism, colonialism, racism, nationalism, and orientalism engender and reify one another by discouraging reflection.
It follows an ideology that you need to work on yourself, rather than look to social resources to solve your problems or demand structural changes. Through an ethic of self-care, the yoga industry trains consumers not only to believe that their bodily and social conditions are under their control but to feel ashamed about those parts of their lives that do not comply with cultural ideals. The yoga industry fabricates this neoliberal-individual understanding of self-care and the ideal of the free entrepreneurial individual. Teachers and entrepreneurs use yoga to advocate for the promise that free markets and for-profits will bring healing and empowerment to those who make the right consumer choices.
In their view, these commodities function like a fetish that helps consumers feel as if they have escaped reality. In other words, they offer consumers an escape into an experience (of the present moment, of a romanticized or orientalized Other, or an idealized ancient past), which allows them to imagine themselves as separate from the busyness of everyday life, and by extension disconnected from the social and economic relations of global capitalism.
This form of yoga ultimately directs its address to the middle- and upper-middle classes, effectively erasing the vast majority of the population's problems from its view. And, since teachers’ and entrepreneurs’ aim is often bottom-line profit, they are usually uninterested in social justice, or mass mobilization or at least those are not prioritized. Furthermore, as much as individual consumers are not in control of their physical living conditions or places on the socio-economic hierarchy, shopping for yoga and its accouterments gives consumers a sense of control over their lives. A wide range of commodities, mats, apparel, books, classes, workshops, are celebrated as good consumer choices, products that lead to better living outcomes. Adherents of this type of yoga use the notion of consumer choice to convince themselves they are in control of their wellbeing, self-care, and happiness.
1. Borayin Larios and Mark Singleton, Routledge Handbook of Yoga and Meditation Studies 2020, p. 37
2. Mark Singleton, Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice, 2010, pp.44–53.
3. On this, see James Mallinson, The Gheranda Samhita. New York: YogaVidya.com, 2004, and James Mallinson and Mark Singleton, Roots of Yoga, 2017, 140–41.
4. Julian Strube in Routledge Handbook of Yoga and Meditation Studies, 2020, p. 130.
5. Personal Memoirs Of HP Blavatsky - Mary K Neff, 1937: 94-95.
6. Idem, 95
7. Suzanne Newcombe and Philip Deslippe in Routledge Handbook of Yoga and Meditation Studies,2020 p. 353.
8. Daniel Simpson, The Truth of Yoga: A Comprehensive Guide to Yoga's History, Texts, Philosophy, and Practices, 2021, p. 172.
9. Simpson, The Truth of Yoga, p. 174.
10. W. S. Hickey, Mind Cure: How Meditation Became Medicine. Oxford: Oxford University Press.