The History of Yoga in the US

Ever wonder how yoga made its way to America? Who were the Yoga pioneers in the US?

Yoga was believed to have been first introduced to America in the 1800s. In 1893, Swami Vivekananda, a key figure in the introduction of the Indian philosophies of Vedanta and Yoga to the US, made a presentation in Chicago at the World Parliament of Religions about the concept of body, spirit, and mind. His speech left an impression on the religious leaders in attendance and gained a huge round of applause.  

And in 1919, Swami Kuvalayananda  set up a branch in New York to promote a new perspective on yoga, he created “Kaivalyadhama.” According to Spirit Crossing, Kaivalyadhama is “a group which came from India and the frontline of yoga exploration from a scientific point of view.”  It is a spiritual, therapeutic, and research center with a specific aim to coordinate ancient yogic arts and tradition with modern science.  The US offices are located in Endicott,  NY.

In Boston the following year, Paramahansa Yogananda, who was chosen by his guru, Babaji, made another impactful presentation before religious liberals in an efforts to “spread the message of Kriya yoga to the West.”

In 1924, there was a restriction law in America that put a limit to the number of Indians permitted to migrate to the US. With decreasing insight into Yoga and a growing demand for it, many Americans headed to the East seeking to study it.

In the 1930s, Jiddu Krishnamurti conducted seminars on Yoga which was received by many people including celebrities like Charlie Chaplin and Greta Garbo. This brought Yoga to another level of popularity and even writers Aldous Huxley and George Bernard Shaw were in attendance of Krishnamurti’s seminars.

Theos Bernard was one of those Americans who left to seek more knowledge in Yoga and upon his return in 1947, he wrote and published Hatha Yoga: The Report of a Personal Experience. His book would become the major resource for Yoga in the 1950s.

Also in 1947, a Russian yogi by the name of Indra Devi would be recognized as the “First Lady of Yoga” after launching one of the first Hatha Yoga studios in Hollywood.

However, it is Richard Hittleman who is credited for bringing Yoga to mainstream America. Hittleman returned from India in 1950. According to Yoga Journal, he “presented a non religious yoga for the American mainstream, with an emphasis on its physical benefits. He hoped students would then be motivated to learn yoga philosophy and meditation.” Hittleman also “pioneered yoga on television in 1961” and was probably the catalyst for Yoga to spread across America.

Today, yoga has become a lifestyle for many Americans. In fact, it was reported in 2016 that 90% of Americans have heard of Yoga, and there are 36.7 million Americans who practice it!