Yoga in the West

Article by yoga for man

While many people in the West are only now discovering yoga, knowledge of yoga inthe West is not new. In the late 18th century, interest in Sanskrit grew as scholars began tounderstand the importance and interconnectedness of the Indo-European family of languages.The Bhagavad Gita was the first Sanskrit text to be translated into English–in1785 by the Englishman Charles Wilkins. American statesman Alexander Hamilton visitedIndia, and even gave Sanskrit lessons in Paris, when he was detained there duringwartime in 1802.3The transcendentalist movement was influenced by Eastern thought. By the early 19thcentury, the teachings of the ancient Hindu texts that form the basis of yoga were becomingknown to Westerners through the influential work of such intellectuals and writers asHenry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson. The work of American and EuropeanRomantic artists also resonated with the essence of yoga thought.What seems to have done the most to bring yoga into popular awareness, however, hasbeen a cross-fertilization of knowledge about India and its sacred traditions that beganmore recently when a number of master teachers, or gurus, came from India to the Westwith the professed aim of bringing the ancient teachings of India to Western nations. Firstamong these was Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902), who gained prominence through hispresence at the World’s Parliament of Religions held in Chicago in 1893. One of the mostinfluential of the Indian gurus was Parmahansa Yogananda (1893-1952), who was sent byhis revered master to bring the teachings of yoga to the West in 1920, when he attended acongress of world religions in Boston. In that same year, Parmahansa Yogananda foundedthe Self-Realization Fellowship, an organization through which he initiated thousands ofWesterners into yoga. His Autobiography of a Yogi remains one of the most widely read bookson yoga throughout the world today. Since these two pioneers, a number of other influentialteachers have brought their particular focus on yoga to th e West, including, mostnotably, 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 knowledgeabout yoga has become more widely available in the West, increasingly large numbersof Americans and Europeans are traveling to India to seek instruction firsthand in theancient practices of yoga. Ram Dass was one of the first and best-known Westerners toforgo the creature comforts of the West to sit at the feet of a guru in India. He distilledthe essence of what he learned in the title of his groundbreaking book Be Here Now. SinceRam Dass’s pilgrimage, countless other Americans have followed a similar path.

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