The History Of Yoga In America As Refracted By The Press

The Columbia Journalism Review has recently archived an excellent article by Robert Love, Fear of Yoga —possibly the best cursory overview of the history of yoga in America published to date (at least until Stefanie Syman's eagerly anticipated book hits the streets.)

Greta Garbo in deep yogic concentration.

For better or worse, Love follows more than a century's worth of news media headlines. It's not merely his narrative device and cultural barometer, it's the stage for the emergence of yoga in today's world.

As a cultural historian, he remains steadfast in the phenomenon more than the practice itself. He follows yoga through several overplayed (but entertaining!) scandals where yogis are synonymous with thugs. He links the emergence of gossip columnists and their chatter about Hollywood's intrigue with yoga to a changing public attitude. He then follows the full-on fitness movement erupt into the whitewashed physical culture that popular yoga in America has become.

Here's a taste of his technique—

In the 1920s, when tabloids became part of the journalistic landscape, yoga became part of the tabs’ new “love cult” obsession... Hearst’s New York Journal gave the tabs a run for their money with double-truck takeouts like this: "Latest Black Magic Revelations About Nefarious American Love Cults," which included [Pierre ] Bernard, who had combined yoga with baseball, vaudeville, and circuses in Nyack, in the process convincing members of the Vanderbilt family to bankroll his efforts.

By then, America’s second most famous swami, a young Calcutta mystic who went by the name Yogananda, had arrived in the U.S. (His Autobiography of a Yogi, published in 1946, is still in print.) Yogananda quickly built an American following for his “Yogoda” brand of meditation-based yoga through relentless touring and speaking. “You Americans exercise your bodies and brains too much and your will power too little,” he admonished, throwing himself from lotus position to a handstand in one motion. His followers purchased a hilltop retreat for his ashram outside Los Angeles that later became the Self-Realization Fellowship. Yogananda bought himself a new Packard to tool around in and posed proudly next to it for a photo the Los Angeles Times captioned with a wink: "Swami Buys Swanky Automobile."

Robert Love in Fear of Yoga

My personal favorite nugget?

In 1966, Rudolf Hess, the lone surviving Nazi in Spandau Prison, who was serving a life sentence for crimes against humanity, told a reporter that “his chief occupation now is practicing yoga on his cell floor.”
Robert Love in Fear of Yoga

It just goes to show you that Germany was way ahead of the USA in its popular fascination with the Indo-Tibetan religious diaspora.

Yet while this is all well and good, it doesn't even touch the deeper issues surrounding the personal encounter of the yogic mindset with the individual in the west. What was it that attracted us despite all the bad press? What is it about these practices that are simultaneously so appealing, helpful, and potentially volatile?

An American Tantrik in the practice of his Yoga.

Lots of celebrity names are dropped: Cole Porter, Greta Garbo, Mae West, Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Woodrow Wilson, Marilyn Monroe, Mia Farrow, Mick Jagger, Marianne Faithful, Donovan.

In the end, as he zooms into our current era, who gets the lead quote?

"Mata Ezraty" [sic].


Image credits: (1) THE OMNIPOTENT OOM | Tantra and Its Impact on Modern Western Esotericism by Hugh B. Urban, Ohio State University. (2) Greta Garbo.

posted by
Spiros Antonopoulos

TAGS — America, history, journalism, media, yoga


5 total remarks for this post. Add your own remarks below.

Thu 25 Jan 2007 at 06:31PM

Mary Stuart

interesting and informative post. thanks, spiros.

Thu 25 Jan 2007 at 07:21PM


This is one the best pieces on Yoga in America. Funny for the old stories and headlines reagarding Yoga. You can make this stuff up.

Thu 25 Jan 2007 at 07:38PM

Spiros Antonopoulos

Yep. The history of yoga in America is quite colorful and robust!

Thu 25 Jan 2007 at 09:40PM


I don't know about Hess in particular, but the Nazis were very big on Indian culture--obviously the swastika was part of that, but there was much more: over the 100 years leading up to WWII, German philosophers and ethnographers built a complex and bizarre myth that linked the Indian Aryans who invaded the subcontinent in days of old, and the blond, Nordic types of Scandinavia, which is how "Aryan race" came to mean blond and blue eyed. According to this theory the Aryans brought culture to India, Greece, Rome, Egypt, and finally Northern Europe, all the while combating the de-civilizing influence of the Semitic tribes. Total hogwash of course, but it makes perfect sense that a group of German mystics in thrall of this theory would idolize some parts of Indian culture...

Thu 25 Jan 2007 at 10:11PM

Spiros Antonopoulos

The Indo-Tibetan diaspora had a huge affect on the culture, not just the crazy philosophers either...

But as far as the troubling but fascinating, check out:

It appears that she's at least partially responsible for Hindu fundamentalism back in India as well..

Add Remarks

Please be nice.

Your name is required.

An email address is required.


Remember this information

What You May Have Recently Missed

Fri 29 Jun

David Milch Says, "See God Kai!"

05:20 PM


It's not often that a popular television series attempts to grapple with trans-human, non-dual concepts. But David Milch's new series on HBO, John From Cincinnati, does just that. Let's just toy with the idea that we are all one...

Thu 28 Jun

Meditation, Memory Concentrate

01:51 PM


Who doesn't think meditation improves concentration and memory? I suppose it's akin to driving a car and learning about the roads. This week the meme sprouted on the interwebs— Meditate To Concentrate Brain scans show meditation changes minds, increases...

Wed 27 Jun

On Bhairava, Naths And Dunis (Oh My!)

03:50 PM


The Dhuni is not a simple camp fire. It was viewed by the Nath as a living deity, emblematic as the womb of the Earth Goddess from which all manifestation was generated, sustained, and destroyed. Although many cultures have...

Thu 21 Jun

Om Surya! Northern Solstice, Earth Bows To Sun

01:43 PM


Northern solstice happens today! Some 24,000 sun worshipers gather for ancient fest. Link. Summer Solstice: How and Why Seasons Change. Link. Wikipedia on Solstices. Link....

Tue 19 Jun

Sritattvanidhi Ganapati, Illuminated Manuscript

06:24 PM


" iconographic treatise written in the 19th century in Karnataka by the then Maharaja of Mysore, Krishnaraja Wodeyar III... The Maharaja was a great patron of art and learning and was himself a scholar and writer. There are around...

Tue 12 Jun

Out of Ourselves: Spiritual Music, David Byrne, Daniel Levitin

06:19 PM


Perched at the collision of yoga with popular culture, Souljerky has spent considerable time contemplating music and spirit and culture. So when David Byrne and neuroscientist Daniel Levitin (This Is Your Brain on Music) broached the topic, we had...

Fri 08 Jun

Subtle Revolution: Yoga, Authority, + the Conspiracy of 1

12:10 PM


I've got some revolutionary yoga vibrations careening through the mindscreen right now, my own private Operation Garden Plot. A work-in-progress, a theory & practice where there is no escape. We is I. You are them. They are us. Wherever...

Fri 01 Jun

India's Yoga Patent Showdown

11:49 AM


How can any Tom, Dick and Harry, who has no true knowledge of Yoga, can get patent of Yoga, the traditional knowledge of India?Swami Ramdev Fake Babas and others who regularly consume liquor or eat meat have mushroomed in large...

Tue 29 May

Palm Leaves To Bits - Google To Digitize Mysore Library

01:58 PM


Written in both papers and palm leaves, there are around 100,000 manuscripts in our library, some dating back to the eighth century. The effort is to restore and preserve this cultural heritage for effective dissemination of knowledge... J Shashidhara Prasad,...

Fri 25 May

Kah Ra Shin: Violent Path to Happiness Commence

05:24 PM


Kah Ra Shin: Violent Path to Happiness Commence With Loud Gutteral Scream Link....

Linked Title
Advertiser's Ad text here

random photo


First and foremost our gratitude goes out to Astanga Yoga New York & Sri Ganesha Temple, without which the Sri Ganesha Tea & Book Stall would never have incarnated. Secondly our deepest respect and praise goes to Sri K. Pattabhi Jois and the Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute. We are also indebted and inspired by the efforts of Namarupa Magazine. For further inspiration, check out our links. test


2012, A.G. Mohan, academic, Advaita Vedanta, advertising, Aghora, Aghori, ajna, Alan Watts, Alice Coltrane, Allen Ginsberg, Alzheimers, ambient, America, Ammachi, ancestors, anger, animation, animism, ants, anxiety, apocalypse, apple, archaic revival, archeology, Ardh Kumbh, army, art, asana, ashtanga yoga, Ashtanga Yoga, astronomy, astroturfing, atlantis, attention, audio, Aum, Avalokiteshwara, ayurveda, Ayurveda, B flat, B. Alan Wallace, babas, Barnaby Harris, baseball, BBC, Beatles, beauty, Bhairava, bhajan, bhakti, bhangra, Bhutan, Bikram Choudhury, BKS Iyengar,, blood, blue, Blue Buddha, Bollywood, books, Borges, Brahma, Brahma Sutras, brain, Bruce Sterling, Buddhism, Burning Man, business, caffeine, California, Cambodia, Canada, cancer, capitalism, Carl Gustav Jung, Carl Sagan, Carnatic music, celebrity, chai, chakras, Chi, Chicago, chillums, China, Chinese Medicine, Christian Science Monitor, Christianity, Christmas, citta, clay, clumps, coffee, color, combat, comics, communes, communication, commuting, compassion, concentration, conference, consciousness, conspiracy, consulting, contract, copyright, cosmology, cow, crazy wisdom, criticism, cults, culture, D.H. Lawrence, Dalai Lama, dance, Daniel Dennet, Daniel Pinchbeck, darshan, David Byrne, David Milch, daydreams, death, debunkers, Deleuze, delhi, demonstration, depression, Derek Ireland, Details, dharma, Dhuni, digestion, digital, DJ Rekha, DMT, documentary, Donnovan, dreadlocks, druids, DVD, Dzogchen, ear, Earth, economics, Eddie Stern, education, ego, egolessness, electricity, enlightenment, environment, Erik Davis, eternal, event, extraterrestrials, fabric, farming, festivals, fiction, film, fire, Flash, flicker, Flickr, food, fool, Fourth Way, Francesco Clemente, Frank Morales, free, Fuck Yoga, funeral, fungus, futurism, GABA, gallery, Ganapati, Ganesha, Ganga, Ganges, Gaza, gear, generosity, genetic engineering, geohistory, Georg Feuerstein, George Harrison, George Soros, glossolalia, glow, God, goji berries, Goldie Hawn, Google, gossip, Grady McMurtry, graffiti, Greece, Greek gods, Greek Orthodox, Gujarat, Gurdjieff, guru, Guru Nanak, gymnastics, Hanuman, happiness, HBO, health, heavy metal, high, Himalayan, Hinduism, hip hop, hippie, history, holiday, Hollywood, holy, home furnishings, homosexuality, Hong Kong, householder, Huffington Post, illuminated manuscript, India, Indiaspora, Indology, inspiration, intelligence, intent, IPO, Iron Maiden, irritation, ISKON, Islam, Italy, J. Krishnamurti, Jai Uttal, Jamaica, Janmaashtami, Japan, Jesus, Jewish, JG Ballard, jnana, John Coltrane, John Law, John Lennon, Jonas Meka, journalism, Jung, Kah Ra Shin, kaivalya, Kapal Nath, karma, Kazakhstan, Keith Dowman, Kerala, ketamine, KGB, kirtan, koan, Krishna, kundalini, kung-fu, LA Times, lan Watts, landlord, landscape, language, law, lecture, library, life, lifestyle, light, listening, LiveScience, LSD, Lululemon, machine, magical thinking, Magickal Childe, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, maps, Maragatham Ramaswamy, marijuana, marketing, martial arts, Master Ren Guang Yi, media, medicine, meditation, mela, memory, Merzbow, Metal Machine Music, MIA, Michael Pollan, milk, mind, Mind Hacks, mindfulness, miracles, mirror neurons, modernization, monad, money, monks, Mooshika, MP3, mp3, muppets, murti, music, Mysore, mythology, nada, nadis, Naga, Nagas, Nalanda, NASA, Naths, Nepal, nerves, nervous system, neuroscience, new age, New Scientist, New York City, Newar, NFL, Nick Madrid, noise, non-profit, nondual, noodle, Norway, NPR, nueroscience, NYC, NYT, observation, occult, Olympics, organic food, orientalism, outsourcing, oxygen, painting, Pankaj Mishra, paradox, paranormal, Passover, patent, peace, PETA, Peter Guttridge, pharmaceuticals, philosophy, photography, pilgrimage, pitcher, PJ O'Rourke, podcast, poetry, police, pollution, pornography, portrait, pot, potter, practice, prana, prayer, Preah Maha Ghosananda, prehistory, press, procrastination, prosperity, prostrations, psychedelia, puppets, puzzles, pyre, pyschogeography, quantum theory, quote, R. Buckminster Fuller, R. Sharath, radical, raga, Rastafarian, rats, RAW, reality, reality tunnels, red, reincarnation, religion, research, Rev Run, rice, Richard Gere, Rick Ross, Rick Rubin, rickshaws, Ricky Williams, rings, Rishikesh, Robert Anton Wilson, Robert Beer, Robert Svoboda, Robert Thurman, robzombie, Rodney Yee, Rudy Rucker, Russell Simmons, sacred, saddhus, saints, Salvador DalĂ­, Sanskrit, satan, satellite, Saturday, Saturn, scandal, schools, science, sculpture, seasons, seedmagazine, Segway, self, selfless, semiotics, sensationalism, Sepia Mutiny, Seva, sex, shamanism, Shambhala, Shani, Shankacharya, Shiva, SIdd Fynch, Siddhartha Shah, siddhis, Sikh, sin, Sinagpore, Slate, sleep, smashan, smell, snakes, solar, solstice, sound, soundtracks, South India, soy, space travel, spiritual, spirituality, sport, Sri K Pattabhi Jois, stain, Stefanie Syman, stereotypes, Stonehenge, street, Sufi, sugar, sun, Sun City Girls, surgery, Surya, swami, Swami Ramdev, swastika, symbolism, symphony, tabloid, Tai Chi, tantra, tattva, tea, teaching, teastall, technology, teen fiction, telephone centers, television, temple, temporal, Terence McKenna, the 60's, The Matrix, the street, The Wire, Thelema, Theosophy, thoughts, Tibet, tiffin, time, Times Square, Timothy Leary, TKDL, Toby Sifton, tourism, toxic, tradition, trailer, training, transgender, Transrealism, Treehugger, Trinidad, triphala, tshirts, Turmeric, UBUWEB, UG Krishnamurti, underground, uniform, unreal, urban culture, USDA, Utne, Varanasi, Vatican, Vedas, vegetarianism, vending, veterans, video, violence, visionquest, Vivekananda, vridian, VS Ramachandran, Vyaas Houston, war, Washington Post, water, Wavy Gravy, wealth, weddings, witchcraft, witches, woodstock, world, worldview, worship, Yama, yamas, yoga, Yoga Action Squad, yoga criminals, yoga gear, Yoga Inc., yoga mats, yoga mom, yoga products, Yoga Sutras, yoga teaching, yogi, youth, YouTube, Youtube, zen, zombies, Zulu


  • articles 69 posts
  • raga dvesha 223 posts

XML Feeds You Us

Subscribe to our RSS feed!


Foremost credit goes to my wife Erin for her tireless patience + support of this endeavor. Thanks to Barry Silver for the artwork in the above banner and for his friendship, to Robert Beer for the illustrations. Thanks to Eddie Stern for his ongoing support and for providing inspiration. Thanks to my fellow farmers at One Digital Farm for help growing this.

The Last Words