Sunday, December 20, 2009

America's 1st "yogis"

The yoga tradition has an incredibly diverse and ancient history. Argued by some to be the oldest living religion in the world, yoga originated in India approximately 5,000 years ago. Just like any religion or tradition, yoga has changed over the centuries, adapting in response to the particular time and cultural context. It is in this sense, one of the oldest living traditions in the world. Yoga as it is practiced in America today, however, is only roughly 100 years old. It is the latest manifestation of an ancient living tradition.

Long before there was Iyengar, Asthanga, Anusara, and Vinyasa Flow, there was a yoga that existed on American soil. Looking back at mid-19th Century New England, we find can find its roots within the intellectual circle of the Transcendentalists; who began exploring the exotic philosophy of the East, and indirectly initiated the transmission of yoga in America. Ralph Waldo Emerson first met the Hinduism of India through its sacred texts; particularly the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita, “The Song of the Lord”. He found in ancient India the mystical expression of his vision of the transcendent Self. He discovered what he termed the “Oversoul”. In his infamous essay written in 1841 titled The Over-Soul, he writes,

“… Meantime within man is the soul of the whole; the wise silence; the universal beauty, to which every part and particle is equally related; the eternal ONE.”

Emerson’s words echo the Ultimate Reality or Brahmin affirmed by the Upanishads and other ancient texts of India. A younger student of Emerson’s, Henry David Thoreau, also took an influential interest in the East. He wrote from his cabin at Walden Pond,

“In the morning, I bathe my intellect in the stupendous and cosmogonal philosophy of the Bhagvat-Geeta…in comparison with which our modern world and its literature seem puny and trivial.“[2]

The renunciation of his stint at Walden Pond is reminiscent of the ascetism of the Indian yogis. And in this regard, Thoreau can perhaps be seen as one of the first American yogis, at least in an intellectual or literary sense. In a letter to a friend, he writes,

“… I would fain practice the yoga faithfully. To some extent, and at rare intervals, even I am a yogi.”[3]

Without analyzing the degree to which Thoreau or Emerson actually carried out yogic practices, it is an important moment in our history. The words of the Transcendentalists provided Westerners for the first time with the “idea” of yoga; an exotic discipline and practice that was just as near as the natural world. Their exploration set the stage for the arrival of yoga in America.

[1] "Ralph Waldo Emerson's The Over-Soul." The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Web. 10 Dec. 2009.

[2] Eck, Diana L. A New Religious America How a "Christian Country" Has Become the World's Most Religiously Diverse Nation. New York: HarperOne, 2002. p. 95 – from Henry David Thoreau’s Walden

[3] De Michelis, Elizabeth. A History of Modern Yoga: Patanjali and Western Esotericism. London: Continuum, 2008. pp. 2-3

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