People have been debating yoga’s purpose, its scope, and how to practice it for centuries. So not surprisingly, the history of yoga in America is also convoluted and complicated. Stefanie Syman, in “The Subtle Body: The Story of Yoga in America” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010), makes a great effort to explain yoga’s place in America by focusing on some of the principal practitioners.
The title of the book refers to suksma-sarira (some of the letters in the Sanskrit words in this post should have accents, slashes and other marks that go with Sanskrit transliterations, but I can’t seem to find how to do them in HTML). In Hatha Yoga, the “subtle body” is a network of invisible, internal channels (called nadis) and vortices (called chakras). By manipulating the physical body, you manipulate the subtle body. The idea of the subtle body is somewhat esoteric, so for the sake of argument, let’s use the term at a placeholder for parts of yoga that influence the invisible and/or the unconscious. And I must admit that this esoteric philosophy is the kind of thing in the book that makes my head spin a little bit.
With a few exceptions, each chapter focuses on one or two people, using their story to provide a framework to which other elements and supporting characters can be attached as needed. The writing style is newspaper-like, with many short paragraphs, perhaps a result of Syman’s long experience as a journalist writing for many publications, including Yoga Journal.
Two Pillars of American Letters Look to India
Syman starts the story with a pillar of American Letters, Ralph Waldo Emerson, a literary giant whose writings are studied by most high school students in America. Emerson’s interest in Hinduism began with the Bhagavad Gita as early as 1845 (when his notebooks made mention of the Hindu epic) and culminated in his poem Brahma, which was published in the first issue of The Atlantic in 1857 (you can find the full text at Wikipedia). Most readers at the time, Syman writes, did not get the Eastern references in the poem.
The next character in the book was a colleague of Emerson, another pillar of American Letters: Henry David Thoreau. It was Emerson who was exposed Thoreau to Indian literature and sacred texts, but Thoreau took the knowledge a few steps further. Syman sees Thoreau as an authentic Yogi, because he “read these Indian books – and particularly a handful of Hindu ones – as instruction manuals,” lived an ascetic life at Walden Pond, and even had a meditation practice. Thoreau described his practice in Walden: “Sometimes, in a summer morning, having taken my accustomed bath, I sat in my sunny doorway from sunrise till noon, rapt in a revery, amidst the pines and hickories and sumachs, in undisturbed solitude and stillness ” (via Project Gutenberg)
Theo Bernard, the “White Lama”
Theos Bernard was the half nephew of the famous American yogi Pierre Bernard (who receives an entire chapter in the book) and found fame as an explorer. On numerous occasions, Bernard traveled in India and Tibet seeking yogis who could give him first-hand training in the fundamentals, and later wrote books about his travels. The exotic nature of his writing, and other factors brought him attention from the popular press in the late 1930s, including a few covers of Family Circle magazine . Bernard earned a Ph.D. from Columbia in 1943 with a dissertation was called “Hatha Yoga: The Report of a Personal Experience,” a document that contained some of the first published photos of an American in yoga postures (several years later, his dissertation was adapted into a book with the same title, and it might be available in a university library or from a used book web service).
|Kukkutasana, New York Herald, March 27, 1898|
In the 1940s and 1950s, Bernard operated studios in several places, gave lectures, and wrote more books about yoga. His intensity and devotion to yoga might have been his downfall, however, as he married a rich woman in part for her money, but then spent so much time on his practice and teachings that his marriage fell apart, leaving him financially destroyed and wrecking his studios. (Pierre Bernard’s downfall was also partially related to his overly intense devotion to his practice and search for enlightenment.)
Indra Devi Wows Hollywood
In January 1947, Indra Devi opened the first serious Hatha Yoga studio in the Los Angeles area, at 8806 Sunset Blvd. Born Eugenie Peterson in Latvia in 1899, Devi used persistence and a connection with a local leader to secure a position with Krishnamacharya in India (Krishnamacharya also taught T.K.V. Desikachar, B.K.S. Iyengar, and K. Pattabhi Jois). At her studio and in other settings, Devi taught movie stars like Gloria Swanson (“Sunset Boulevard”), Greta Garbo, and Jennifer Jones. While discussing yoga’s popularity in Hollywood, Syman throws in some fun trivia, like that Gary Cooper liked the shoulder stand (always striving to keep his legs pointed to “High Noon,” I suppose) and that Marilyn Monroe made a short movie about working out, and her routine included some yoga-like postures, such as halasana (A few photos of Monroe in yoga-like postures can be found on this tumblr page by Yogabeautiful).
As a student of Krishnamacharya in India, it’s certain that Devi was exposed to the deeper elements of yogic philosophy, but her first book published in the U.S. was all about the health benefits of yoga. It is likely that she knew what Americans in the conservative and materialistic 1950s wanted, and her later works would address philosophy along with physical work.
The sixties was a rich decade for yogic philosophy and practice. Leading thinkers from the counterculture, including Timothy Leary, Alan Watts, and Richard Alpert (later Ram Dass) were engaged in deep discussions and a wide range of experimentation that included meditation, physical asana practice and psychedelic drugs. The leaders of the movement, Syman writes, “stole yoga from the health seekers and weight-conscious and they put it back in the temple, where they believed it belonged.”
In other chapters, Syman writes about quite a few other prominent figures, including Swami Vivekananda (see this post on my blog for a summary of his contributions), Sarah Chapman Bull and Sarah Jane Farmer, Pierre Bernard (originally Perry Baker), the Vedanta society Hollywood (whose members included Aldous Huxley and Christopher Isherwood), and two recent luminaries, Bikram Choudhury and Sri K. Pattabhi Jois. B.K.S. Iyengar, however, receives little attention, despite his major role in making yoga accessible to all through inventive use of props and through his many teaching and demonstration tours of the United States.
Update, 12/27/18: More on Bikram: The 30 for 30 podcast series devoted an entire season to Bikram’s rise and fall. In this remarkable 5-part audio creation, Julia Lowrie Henderson looks at Bikram’s origins, the creation of an empire, his abuse of students and teachers, and the future of his system. Listen on the 30 for 30 website, or get it with your favorite podcast service.
|“Pachimasana,” New York Herald, March 27, 1898|
What is Yoga?
The question “What is yoga?” permeates the book, resulting in both a fascinating debate and a morass of confusing terminology. I was often baffled by the numerous prefixes – Raja, Tantrik, Hatha, etc. – and specialized terms, and so an appendix or glossary with summaries would have been helpful when I got lost. A tablet version or eBook would be greatly enhanced by instant access to definitions of the yogic paths, as well as definitions for unfamiliar (or quickly forgotten) terms.
If you see yoga strictly as a series of postures, strictly as exercises that improve your posture or stop your aching back or calm your mind, The Subtle Body is a excellent introductory survey of the broad expanse of yogic philosophy and practice as it has been practiced in America. Through the lives of the characters, you’ll get a sense of how controlled breathing, chanting, meditation, postures, mantras, and other yogic elements fit – or don’t fit, depending on the practitioner – into a path to enlightenment or a better life.
Yoga and America
To conclude, let’s go back to the introduction of Syman’s book:
In a country as vast and diverse as ours, yoga has had this going for it: it’s not a unified system, nor even a tree with many branches. It might be three or five trees of different species, each with many branches. Or it’s a city, it’s New York or Bombay, where the contrasts between neighborhoods are sharp, where you can get lost in its vastness, and which changes anyone who stays but not in the same way or for the same reasons.
Yoga is so massive and complicated, so contradictory and baroque, that American society has been able to assimilate any number of versions of it, more or less simultaneously.
The process hasn’t been smooth or continuous. It has got caught up around a number of issues, often the same ones, over and over, as several generations of Americans have tried to make sense of yoga and put it to use in their lives.
Image Credits: Book cover downloaded from the publisher, drawings of yoga asanas from New York Herald, March 27, 1898 (public domain).