Inside India #12: The handstand scorpion – how yoga became a global phenomenon

This article is one of a series of 50. Together they explore the history and culture of India from her most ancient civilisations to the nation’s ambitious space programme. All 50 articles will be collected into a digital book and published in due course. To receive a FREE copy of the book, simply register for my newsletter here

The handstand scorpion. The side plank. The tripod headstand with lotus legs. Just a few of the more difficult ‘asanas’ in the yoga canon. Aside from esoteric-sounding names, these demanding exercises require a combination of physical strength, balance and flexibility. Yet millions of adherents around the world are willing to put themselves through this daily ritual of contortionism in pursuit of better wellbeing. 

Why? And just how did yoga become such a global phenomenon?

Picture attribution: Yoga Class by Blaise Sewell

The word yoga first appears in the oldest Hindu texts, the Rig Veda. In essence, it means to join the intellect of the one practising yoga with the “universal soul”, the aim being to transcend the suffering that is part and parcel of the human condition. Yoga’s earliest forms were developed by the ancient Indus Valley civilization and then slowly refined by generations of Brahmins and Rishis (mystic seers) who took the ideas from the Vedas and began to teach the sacrifice of the ego through self-knowledge, action (karma yoga), and wisdom (jnana yoga).Later, the first systematic presentation of yoga was set out by Patanjali, a sage and author of many ancient Indian works, in the Yoga-Sûtras. Written in the second century, this text describes the path of Raja Yoga, outlining various stages towards enlightenment. 

A few centuries after Patanjali, yoga masters embraced the physical body as the means to achieve enlightenment. They created Tantra Yoga and explored connections between the physical and the spiritual which led to the development of Hatha Yoga – the form of yoga that now commands acolytes all over the world.

Yoga first came to the attention of the West in the late 1800s at a time when it was undergoing a major revival in India under the Hindu monk Swami Vivekananda. His growing fame led to yogis performing across Europe, primarily as circus entertainers, contortionists with the ability to tie their bodies into knots. In America, yoga arrived with Eugenie Peterson, a Latvian Russian who, fleeing the Revolution in her homeland, came across yoga while living in India and working in the film industry there. She subsequently opened a yoga studio in Hollywood, teaching stars such as Gloria Swanson and Greta Garbo. Christened ‘Indra Devi’, she is sometimes referred to as the “Mother of Western Yoga”. 

In spite of Indra Devi’s efforts, yoga remained a niche enterprise in the West. One of its principle advocates, Swami Yogananda, a handsome Indian who wrote the bestselling Autobiography of a Yogi, became notoriousin the American press as the head of a “love cult” – in 1911 the Los Angeles Times wrote a piece about how yoga“lures women to destruction”.In the 1920s and 1930s, Pierre Bernard, an American – christened the Great Oom by the press – set up the first ashram in America. His nephew, Theos Bernard, became known as the “White Lama” and explored both Hatha and Tantric yoga in bestselling books. (In 1947, he journeyed to the Himalayas to prove that Jesus had lived in India and studied Buddhism – he never returned.)

Later still, the Beatles’ journey to meet the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and live in an ashram in Rishikesh in north India drew world headlines. Soon the airwaves became flooded with both western and Indian yoga ‘pioneers’, popularizing Hatha yoga and gaining millions of followers.

Today yoga remains possibly India’s most widely known export, copied, evolved, and aggressively promoted by chat-show hosts. It has been entered onto UNESCO’S cultural heritage list and the UN has declared June 21st to be International Yoga Day. Few seem to care whether yoga actually works. Studies have shown that those who practise it regularly claim that it has benefited them in physical, emotional and spiritual terms. It isn’t quite a miracle path to enlightenment, but in the words of UNESCO, yoga is “designed to help individuals build self-realization, ease suffering and allow for a state of liberation”. 

So, the next time you find yourself staring at the floor whilst sweating in the downward dog and wondering why your legs have gone to sleep, spare a thought for those ancient yogis who had to go through all this without the benefit of yoga mats, lycra or heated exercise rooms. 

This article is one of a series of 50 that I will be publishing on my website. Together these pieces explore the history and culture of India from her most ancient civilisations to the nation’s ambitious space programme. You can read all 50 pieces here.

All 50 articles will be collected into a digital book and published in due course. To receive a FREE copy of the book, simply register for my newsletter here. The newsletter goes out every three months and contains updates on book releases, articles, competitions, giveaways, and lots of other interesting stuff. 

My latest novel, Midnight at Malabar House, is set in India, in the 1950s, and introduces us to India’s first female police detective, Persis Wadia, as she investigates the murder of a top British diplomat in Bombay. Available from bookshops big and small and online, including here.

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