America’s First Yoga

The Fad of 1898

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This picture is a time machine.

It describes the first teaching of yoga postures in America–by the famous Swami Vivekananda.

It also calls yoga a fad in New York–in 1898.

It’s from the New York Herald–a newspaper born in 1835, but absorbed by the New-York Tribune in 1924 to form the New York Herald-Tribune (a paper that survived only til 1966).

Its “Alice in Wonderland”-style illustrations show poses labeled “Viparitakarani,” “Gomukhasana,” and “Paschimasana.”

It’s the consequence of an 1895 summer, when Swami Vivekananda led the first yoga retreat in America (one of his gurus, Keshub Chandra Sen, had done this earlier in India) at Thousand Island Park on the St. Lawrence River–on New York’s border with Canada. (You can still see his cottage there.)

He wrote to his brother monks in India that he would try to “manufacture some yogis” at the event.

And he did.

Sort of.

Three westerners were ordained at Thousand Island Park: Dr. J. B. Street (Swami Yogananda), Marie Louise (Swami Abhyananda), and Leon Landsberg (Swami Kripananda).

But none of them proved sturdy. Each fell away from the path.

Landsberg–the New York Herald’s art critic–fell most spectacularly of all.

In this article, he says many things that would align pretty well with today’s nostrums about the practice. Yoga is “bliss-inspiring” and inspires “perfect happiness” among “New York’s Fashionables.”

But, he’s dismissive of yoga, too.

This (and his undiplomatic personality) poisoned his tie to Swami V.

It’s often repeated by scholars that Vivekananda did not teach asana (he was critical of the practice), but this article (and a second from the Billings Gazette) attest that he did.

Sometimes it takes the kiss of a Judas to spread divinity.

Lousy Leon Landsberg did this for asana–and for us.

If he hadn’t surrendered to his lesser desires to write this overly-critical Herald piece, we might never know the historical moment when asana first hit America’s shores.



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