Yoga in the West

While many people in the West are only now discovering yoga, knowledge of yoga in the West is not new. In the late 18th century, interest in Sanskrit grew as scholars began to understand the importance and interconnectedness of the Indo-European family of languages. The Bhagavad Gita was the first Sanskrit text to be translated into English—in 1785 by the Englishman Charles Wilkins. American statesman Alexander Hamilton visited India, and even gave Sanskrit lessons in Paris, when he was detained there during wartime in 1802.3

The transcendentalist movement was influenced by Eastern thought. By the early 19th century, the teachings of the ancient Hindu texts that form the basis of yoga were becoming known to Westerners through the influential work of such intellectuals and writers as Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson. The work of American and European Romantic artists also resonated with the essence of yoga thought.

What seems to have done the most to bring yoga into popular awareness, however, has been a cross-fertilization of knowledge about India and its sacred traditions that began more recently when a number of master teachers, or gurus, came from India to the West with the professed aim of bringing the ancient teachings of India to Western nations. First among these was Swami Vivekananda (1863—1902), who gained prominence through his presence at the World's Parliament of Religions held in Chicago in 1893. One of the most influential of the Indian gurus was Parmahansa Yogananda (1893—1952), who was sent by his revered master to bring the teachings of yoga to the West in 1920, when he attended a congress of world religions in Boston. In that same year, Parmahansa Yogananda founded the Self-Realization Fellowship, an organization through which he initiated thousands of Westerners into yoga. His Autobiography of a Yogi remains one of the most widely read books on yoga throughout the world today. Since these two pioneers, a number of other influential teachers have brought their particular focus on yoga to the West, including, most notably, B.K.S. Iyengar (founder of Iyengar Yoga), Swami Rama (the Himalayan Institute), Swami Satchidananda (Integral Yoga), and Swami Vishnu-devananda (Sivananda Yoga).

The transmission of knowledge of yoga is a two-way avenue, however. Because knowledge about yoga has become more widely available in the West, increasingly large numbers of Americans and Europeans are traveling to India to seek instruction firsthand in the ancient practices of yoga. Ram Dass was one of the first and best-known Westerners to forgo the creature comforts of the West to sit at the feet of a guru in India. He distilled the essence of what he learned in the title of his groundbreaking book Be Here Now. Since Ram Dass's pilgrimage, countless other Americans have followed a similar path.

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