Saturday, May 05, 2007


new york's yoga history

a couple of days ago i was talking to some fellow yoga students here in nyc. one of them happened to remark that well, yoga overall sucks in nyc compared to california because yoga is still relatively new here.

au contraire! i cried. yoga in new york is more than 130 years old.

in fact for a time in the late 19th cent., yoga was quite common among the wealthy, in light of the fad for theosophy – you have to remember theosophy was founded here in new york in 1875.

but of course i was greeted with skeptical looks. so this afternoon i took a plunge into the ny times archives – which is difficult, as their search engine generally has more bad hits than even msn.

but the ancient .pdf articles in the times reveal that it was a popular past time for ladies to hear yoga lectures. these are listed sometimes under the heading of "amusements in the evening."

in those days yoga would have probably meant not asana, but popular introductions to advaita vedanta. the more substantial hits on yoga don't start coming until oct. 5, 1884.

long-time readers may recall that many times i have complained how poorly most sanskrit texts and indian ideas are translated, so that you basically need a degree in indology and a handy specialist reference book to read even the simplest works.

guess what? i'm not alone!

"very few books have been printed in english which are harder to follow than 'hindu philosophy popularly explained,'" laments a book reviewer on that day. an indian christian, ram chandra bose, wrote this work on vedanta in an aim to show its inferiority to christianity.

it was duly published by the venerable funk & wagnalls. despite these difficulties, new yorkers apparently kept their interest up.

another review of interest, published on may 27, 1889, dwells on the exoticism of fraudulent fakirs, suspicious and dangerous occultist yogis, and the injustices of indian life.

what particularly caught my attention was an april 15, 1889 book mention of what has to be a very early translation of patanjali's yoga sutras, by a theosophist, william q. judge, entitled the "yoga aphorisms of patanjali: an interpretation."

in fact, yoga continued to be such an interest of popular fascination in new york that lurid penny-dreadfuls were published on the topic. an example of this, from the march 22, 1891 edition is a potboiler called "atman: the documents of a strange case," by one howard williams.

in this fantastic gothic bit, a mysterious and evil artist wolff and a tender innocent named margaret fall into the clutches of the diabolical lambro john pedicaris, who is described as having "the secrets of the rig-veda and the upanishads at his fingers' ends. the mysterious om he pronounces without a shudder."

but apparently new york ladies could not be dissuaded from their interest in yoga. a serial dated oct. 15, 1893 features a young miss godkin entreating her society friends to join her in learning "a western yoga."

but in an antique version of sex & the city, they seem more interested in clothes and parties. miss godkin turns to a handsome fellow charlie to encourage him to join her in yoga exercises – this seems to be the first mention of asana i can find.

charlie demurs: "i will do anything in reason to please you," he says, "but would standing on one leg and looking at the tip of my nose be considered reasonable?"

nonetheless, miss godkin persuades them to try one yoga pose the next day. she returns and tries to teach them tree, standing with their backs against the wall.

"i feel the holy influence," intones miss godkin, "can you not sense the presence of karma in the room?" the session ends when other friends arrive and mock them for looking like "waxworks."

however by jan. 13, 1896 the tone of the times seem to change somewhat, with a fairly straight description of a lecture on vedanta and pranayama, given by an american named claude falls wright, another well-known theosophist.

it seems as if by this time theosophy's presentation of yoga and asana were unremarkable in nyc, as theosophy itself had become a normal topic of conversation among the social set. yoga's star seems tied to theosophy according to the archives.

yoga mentions start to fade away as theosophy falls out of fashion. but as we all know, yoga actually enjoyed several post-theosophical revivals later on!

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