Friday, July 1, 2011

Yoga in the News! 100 Years Ago

Thought I'd share some fun and interesting historical images and news reports from my online files with you today. I LOVE this kind of stuff.

Swami Vivekananda
Here's Swami Vivekananda. He introduced the American public to Hinduism at the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893, where he was an unexpected sensation.

As someone who wishes that contemporary yoga were more socially conscious than it is, I'm very taken with the fact the Vivekananda was also an outspoken, radical social critic - both of India and the United States.

The 1893 Chicago Daily Tribune article, "Hindoo Criticizes Christianity," for example, reports on what was for the time really quite an amazing attack on the then-championed conceits of "White Man's Burden":

KA-BLAM! Take THAT, you intolerant self-righteous missionaries and colonizers!

( . . . and, perhaps, our wimpily apolitical notions of "ahimsa" today?)

On a lighter note, it's also true that the press loved to make fun of yoga back then just as they do today. Here's The Milwaukee Journal's take on Vivekananda's work teaching asana and meditation in New York City:

Then, as now, women were the main practitioners of yoga in America. Here's a nice pic of Vivekananda picnicking with the ladies:

Once the racist anti-immigrant backlash of the early 20th century got into full swing, however, yoga's popularity with women became Exhibit A of its depravity. Here's a typical report on that era's anti-yoga hysteria from The Washington Post (1911):

Yes, dark skinned Swamis were corrupting America's white women right and left, sending them straight to the insane asylum! Evilly preying on the weakness of our fairer sex! Clearly, it was time for the government to take action. Here's another report from The Washington Post (1912):

If you're interested in learning more about this weird period in American yoga history, Robert Love, author the The Great Oom: The Improbable Birth of Yoga in America, wrote an excellent (and very funny) article about it back in 2006 that you can access here.

In case you're not familiar with them, two other excellent recent books on the history of American yoga are Stephanie Syman's The Subtle Body: The Story of Yoga in America, and Philip Goldberg's American Veda: From Emerson and the Beatles to Yoga and Meditation, How Indian Spirituality Changed the West.

If any of you readers have any good American yoga history links, I'd love it if you could share them here! It's a fascinating story that we're still very much in the middle of writing . . .


  1. this is priceless; what a perspective it gives -

    "love" the many many links & photos, invaluable -

    thanks so much ;-)

  2. Totally awesome finds Carol. I love this stuff also. Best!

  3. Nice work here, Carol. This adds a few pieces to the puzzle as well as an interesting historical view of our relationship with yoga. It appears from Robert Love's post that there was a tiny window and convergence of circumstances that made yoga the peace and love movement that some of us believed was what yoga was meant to be. In actuality it seems that is a romantic misconception. Thanks for offering this easily digestible slice of reality. Wonderful.

  4. Have you read the Subtle Body: The Story of Yoga in America by Stephanie Syman? It gives a pretty in-depth history of yoga in America.

  5. I might add De Michelis' book, A Modern History of Yoga. I highly recommend it. She was Mark Singleton's supervisor, I believe. I think you will really appreciate it, Carol, if you have not come across it already. ;)