The evening before Father’s Day, I attended a workshop focused on the history of yoga’s dissemination from India to the West. As students and teachers, each of us can trace the origins of our practice back to a handful of men who lived in India a century ago. These men were the founding fathers of the modern yoga movement.
Prior to the early 1900s, a guru’s teachings focused on meditation and philosophy. Asana, associated with Hatha Yoga, was often considered to be less important because of its emphasis on the physical body. In order to be near their guru, many students become sannyasins, giving up their lives as householders to stay in ashrams, where their daily routines might have encompassed seva (service), the shat karmas (cleanses), and devotional practices such as kirtan.
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In 1926, the maharaja of Mysore invited an accomplished scholar and healer named Tirumalai Krishnamacharya to teach his family at the palace. For many years, Krishnamacharya traveled widely to promote yoga, demonstrating difficult asanas to spark interest in what he considered to be India’s greatest gift to the world. After India gained independence, Krishnamacharya began lecturing and teaching at Vivekananda College. He wrote books and essays, adapting his teachings to individual students until his death at age 100. Though Krishnamacharya never left India, his teachings traveled far and wide, thanks to his best-known students: his son T.K.V. Desikachar, his brother-in-law B.K.S. Iyengar, and Pattabhi Jois (founder of Ashtanga Yoga).
At the same time Krishnamacharya was teaching at Mysore palace, Sivananda Saraswati (then a doctor and student of Vedanta philosophy) was serving the poor in Rishikesh. Sivananda became a wandering monk, studying with Ramana Maharshi, Sri Aurobindo, and others before founding the Divine Life Society in 1936. Until his death at age 75, he wrote nearly 300 books and trained dozens of students, among them Swami Satchidananda (founder of Integral Yoga), Swami Sivananda Saraswati (founder of Bihar Yoga), and Swami Radha (founder of Yasodhara Ashram).
The majority of us who practice yoga today can trace our yoga ancestry back to Krishnamacharya or Sivananda, though several other teachers also helped popularize yoga in the U.S. and Canada. During the mid-20th century, young Americans traveled to India to study, and many Eastern gurus or their disciples came here. Yogi Bhajan emigrated to the West and founded 3HO in 1969, introducing young Americans to the Kundalini and Sikh traditions. Bikram Choudhury, who began teaching in the U.S. in the 1970s, studied with Bishnu Ghosh, the brother of Paramahansa Yogananda. Amrit Desai, whose guru was Kripalvananda, developed Kripalu Yoga and established the Kripalu center in 1979.
Today, a large percentage of the 70,000-plus yoga teachers in the U.S. are third- or fourth-generation teachers, training without the benefit of master yogis or their direct disciples. For better or worse (depending on who you ask), various schools and styles have cross-pollinated with each other and with disciplines outside yoga, adding branches to yoga’s family tree. And yet every teacher and student continues on traditions established long ago—our shared yoga DNA.
How far back can you trace your yoga ancestry?