The movement of yoga from East to West began in earnest with Swami Vivekananda in 1893. Vivekananda was invited to speak at the Parliament of Religions in Chicago that year. His message of tolerance and compassion to all living things was received with a standing ovation. He stayed in America much longer than he had intended, spreading his teachings informed by Advaita Vedanta.
From then on, the 20th century saw a continued movement of wisdom from India to the west. But the most influential yogi of all was Tirumalai Krishnamacharya. Krishnamacharya was a master of yoga, Ayurveda, Sanskrit and Logic. He was responsible for creating Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga, teaching Pattabhi Jois, who continued to teach this style throughout his life, as well as B.K.S. Iyengar, Indra devi and his own son Desikachar. Krishnamacharya himself never crossed an ocean, but his influence is responsible for the incredible spread of asana practice in the west. He was the first Brahmin to teach a woman yoga, and a western woman at that. He lived to be 100 years old, still vital and teaching even late in life.
The yoga we are familiar with in the west is largerly the asana practice-the physical practice of performing postures. The arrival of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga, with its intensity, heat and level of difficulty appealed and still appeals, to body-conscious practitioners. For many people, this practice in its entirety is impossible to performed based on bone structure limitations. For this reason, many teachers began to teach Power Yoga, or a flow-based derivative of Ashtanga Yoga based on the idea of “Vinyasa” – the linking of one posture to the next using breath and movement.
As Yoga continues to grow in popularity, it is also evolving. Teachers such as B.K.S. Iyengar have explored deeply the therapeutic benefits of the practice and its specific application to illness and injury. John Friend has researched modern blomechanics and applied his knowledge to an inclusive school of yoga called “Anusara,” which means “to be in the flow of Grace.” New authentic schools of yoga are emerging such as “Dru” and “Vijnana.” Yoga is also being “branded” as a marketing device.
As yoga moves from East to West, it is also losing its original cultural and religious context. Some see this as unfortunate. What needs to be considered is that any system of ideas needs to be relevant to the culture practicing it. Joseph Campbell reminds us that whatever symbols we are using – whether a crucifix or a dancing Shiva – are always meant to point us toward our own experience of divinity – not someone else’s. We are at a point in the evolution of this practice of yoga where we are able to apply the magnificent teachings of the past to our present situation. The yoga practice will adapt itself-it always has. But it is up to us to create meaning with in the practice that is appropriate to our present situation.