Swami Vivekananda (1863–1902) was a nineteenth-century Hindu reformer, missionary to the United States, and Indian nationalist who constructed and disseminated a system of modern yoga, which he called raja yoga. Yoga insiders and certain scholars of the history of yoga have frequently identified him as the “creator” or “father” of modern yoga, but that is just not accurate.
Vivekananda’s first visit to the United States came in 1893 with his famous speech to the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago on his vision of the Hindu tradition. The speech was a hit and triggered a speaking tour that would take him all over the country.
Vivekananda, however, had a number of contemporaries whose work on yoga also stirred plenty of conversation. Consider Pierre Bernard (1876-1955), a turn-of-the-century American social radical, sexual deviant, and modern yoga advocate. As a boy, Bernard discovered yoga when he met an Indian by the name of Sylvais Hamati in Lincoln, Nebraska. Hamati became the boy’s guru. As a young man, Bernard spent years reveling in the public spectacle of his yogic trances. He later became a fashionable businessman and community leader, but always remained a teacher of yoga. At every stage of Bernard’s yoga career, mainstream Americans remained suspicious of his teachings. There were numerous attempts by law enforcement, the media, and the Christian clergy to force Bernard and his students to forfeit yoga. Although he received media attention from all over the country, he only attracted a small following of those who could afford, both financially and socially, to be eccentric.
Next consider the tragic case of Ida C. Craddock (1857-1902), another American social radical, sexual deviant (it turns out there are a lot of them in the history of yoga), and modern yoga advocate. Craddock, like Bernard, lived in a period characterized by various attempts to legally enforce fundamentalist interpretations of what it meant to be a “Christian nation.” Most notable of such attempts were those of US Postal Inspector and founder of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, Anthony Comstock, who used his position in the postal service to censor whatever he deemed a threat to the evangelical Protestant Christian morals he identified as American. Comstock sought to enforce legal standards that would qualify Craddock’s teachings as illegal. In 1902, after being convicted for charges of obscenity, Craddock spent three torturous months in prison and, with the threat of more prison time, eventually killed herself.
So modern yoga has not always received a friendly reception among mainstream populations, and Vivekananda was not the sole person responsible for changing that. Both Craddock and Bernard were Vivekananda’s contemporaries and even interacted with him, but they fought separate, unique battles to familiarize the world with modern conceptions of yoga.
To be clear, Vivekananda also took risks in this regard. His emphasis on self-control, meditation, and psychology appealed to many who sought to counter mainstream institutional forms of religion with new metaphysical movements. He encouraged his disciples to turn inward, toward the self, rather than outward, toward religious orthodoxies. Vivekananda responded to those interested in wedding metaphysics with modern ideas and values as well as the aim of self-realization. In all of these ways, he appealed to an audience made up of individuals with controversial and sometimes scandalous religious interests.
But Vivekananda also prescribed modern yoga in a form far less radical than those of more controversial figures. Craddock and Bernard’s renditions of yoga resulted in persecution because they were interested in the body practices believed to result in more pleasurable bodily experiences. Vivekananda censored yoga of most body practices (he was not a fan of yoga postures, for instance). He maintained that any version of yoga other than the narrowly conceived one he prescribed was a corruption of its true form. In many ways, Vivekananda’s vision of yoga was the antithesis of the body-centered practices that many associated with yoga at the time and was unlike images of yoga as fitness that dominate the popular imagination today.
Vivekananda certainly gained the attention of a substantive audience with his raja yoga, but he did not popularize yoga in any form, much less the postural yoga form popularized across the world today. The development of postural yoga, which would eventually become popularized in the late twentieth century, was made possible by twentieth-century encounters between North American and Western European physical culture and elite, Indian yoga advocates.
Although Vivekananda can be said to have contributed to a yoga renaissance through his wide distribution of his version of modern yoga within and beyond India, he cannot be said to be the “creator” of modern yoga. Instead, he created one idiosyncratic form of modern yoga and one very different from and, in fact, contrary to, the one that dominates the yoga industry today.
Featured image credit: Kirsten Greene (left) in the deepest forward bend of the Bikram Yoga postural sequence, sasanga asana (rabbit posture) and Sabine Hagen (right) in the deepest backward bend in the Bikram Yoga postural sequence, ustra asana (camel posture). Photographed by Michael Petrachenko. Courtesy of Kirsten Greene.