Satchidananda, Iyengar, and Other Yogacharyas Take Americans to the Mat
Most of the yoga masters who became popular in the 60s and 70s taught what is often called classical yoga, giving proper attention to all eight limbs delineated in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, the ultimate purpose of which is to attain union with the divine. The physical postures that became virtually synonymous with yoga are merely one of the eight. The yogacharyas were simply expert instructors to casual students, but to their close followers were gurus in the classic sense. Because their classes set the template for today’s physically-oriented yoga, they are grouped together in chapter 10.
Swami Satchidananda. He came for a short visit in 1966, at the invitation of soon-to-be-famous artist Peter Max, and ended up making the U.S. his home until his death in 2002. His Integral Yoga Institute quickly became the locus for New York yoga, and his fame exploded when he was helicoptered upstate to open the Woodstock festival in 1969. A tireless advocate of yoga for all its many purposes, and an avid promoter of inter-religious understanding, his Yogaville ashram in Virginia has turned out thousands of yoga instructors.
Swami Vishnudevananda. Like Satchidananda, he was a direct disciple of the legendary Swami Sivananda, founder of the Divine Life Mission in Rishikesh, India. Famous for his skill in hatha yoga, he was sent to America by his guru in 1957 to teach his “yoga of synthesis.” He established the Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Centers, and may have created the first teacher training procedures for Westerners. He also became known as “the flying yogi” for his self-piloted flights over the world’s trouble spots.
Swami Rama. Best known for his series of experiments on the mental control of bodily functions at the Menninger Clinic (1970-71), he first arrived in 1969. His Himalayan Institute in Pennsylvania has been a mainstay of yoga instruction, retreats and teacher training since 1977. It has been run by Pandit Rajmani Tigunait since Swami Rama’s death in 1996.
Amrit Desai. A married householder, he emigrated to America in 1960 and worked as an artist in Philadelphia. At one point, he began teaching yoga in his home, naming his system Kripalu Yoga in honor of his teacher. Eventually, he and his followers created an ashram and teaching center in Western Massachusetts. When it was rocked by scandal in 1994, Desai was ousted (he now has an ashram in Florida) and Kripalu became a major retreat and education center.
The Postural Yogis. The current emphasis on the physical practices of yoga can be traced to the great Indian innovator and revivalist Tirumalai Krishnamacharya. His two chief disciples, B.K.S. Iyengar (left) and K. Patthabhi Jois (right), both of whom made their first visits to the U.S. in the mid-1970s. Their formulations of asana and pranayama, and their training of Western teachers, made possible the kudzu-like spread of yoga studios.
The chapter also has a brief mention of Yogi Bhajan, a Sikh householder who introduced a popular version of Kundalini Yoga through his 3HO Foundation. He and the many American yoga teachers who established their own forms, their own organizations and their own teacher training programs deserve more space than American Veda could give them. This website will be updated with more information about all of them.