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The Misconduct of Meditators: The Roots of Western Yoga

I live in California, where yoga is a sacred pillar of the common culture. When I first arrived in California half a decade ago, I was approached by several disciples of yogis who attempted to indoctrinate me into their schools in West LA. I attended several classes. I was left underwhelmed and confused. Was this a stretching class? Or was it a static strength program? And why did it claim an unspoken spiritual basis, when nothing in the classes seemed spiritual to me?

Being a person that delights in curiosities, I set myself on a reading regimen to discover what yoga was and how it ended up on the shores of the Golden State. In the process, I discovered that despite the beliefs of the trendy yoga people I knew, the yoga of California was neither ancient nor spiritual, and it was developed and brought to the West by less than savory characters who were certainly not enlightened and often drawn to power and fame.

The Yogic School of Hinduism

Hinduism is a truly ancient, non-uniform spectrum of belief systems belonging to the intellectually and spiritually fertile Indian subcontinent of Asia. Its roots lie in a historic religion that developed among the Aryan settlers of India, beginning about 1500 years after their arrival into India from their origins in Eastern Europe. The period between 1500 BC and 500 BC is traditionally called the Vedic period, when North Indians practiced a historic religion described in the Vedic texts.

The formative period of Indian religion occurred post-Vedas, between 800 and 200 BC. During this period, the foundations of classical Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism developed, including the belief in reincarnation, which replaced the traditional Vedic belief in an afterlife. Hinduism developed six major schools of thought, namely the Nyaya, Vaisesika, Mimamsa, Vedanta, Samkhya, and the Yoga school. The Yoga school, closely tied to the atheistic Samkhya school, developed a theology that included a personal but inactive supreme being. Textually, it grew out of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, written in Sanskrit in the first centuries AD.

Hatha Yoga: Forceful Yoga’s Origins

In the Middle Ages, a meditative and postural practice of yoga developed with a focus on spiritual liberation and supernatural powers, such as levitation. Early texts included the Amratasiddhi, Dattatreyayogasatra, and Vivekamartanda. This later yoga, called hatha yoga, where hatha means ‘force,’ was particularly concerned with the increase and conservation of semen and menstrual fluid (bindu and rajas, respectively), which it regarded as a life force which was being lost due to bipedalism. The concern over walking upright is the reason many early postures had practitioners sitting almost upside down – they were meant to reverse the drain on semen, which was thought to originate from the head.

In the later Middle Ages, hatha yoga was mostly associated with the cult of the Hindu deity Shiva, found among the notorious Nath ascetics. It was finally divorced of its supernatural focus in the early 20th century, where it was turned into a form of faintly spiritual physical exercise by a man named Krishnamacharya.

Hatha Yoga Becomes Modern Yoga

Yoga was introduced to the West mostly through the students of Tirumalai Krishnamacharya (1888-1989). Krishnamacharya single-handedly divorced hatha yoga of its spiritual and supernatural origins and focused instead on expanding its physical postures into an exercise system. Krishnamacharya claimed to have learned his peculiar yoga on a seven and a half year stay in the Himalayas, studying under a Yogeshwara Ramamohana Brahmachari. Though it is impossible to verify whether Brahmachari existed, there is no evidence that he did, nor is there evidence that Krishnamacharya ever lived in the Himalayas[1].

Finding a Path to the Maharaja

Coming of age in early 20th century colonial India, Krishnamacharya was influenced by the growing Western concern with physical fitness that had led to the recent popularization of weightlifting. Seizing an opportunity, he modified the hatha yoga that was so concerned with the retention of semen to make it more physically vigorous, to appeal both to English colonialists of the Raj and to the martial Indian royalty, who were less concerned with spirituality. After developing his yoga and creating a fitting story for how he learned it, the enterprising young Krishnamacharya quickly found his way to the wealthy Maharaja of Mysore, upon whom he depended financially until the Maharaja expired decades later in 1940.

Nearly all the yoga that has been popularized in the West directly originates from or was inspired by Krishnamacharya. He taught Jois, Iyengar, Ramaswami, Moham, and even Indra Devi, formerly Eugenia Peterson, notable for spreading yoga to the elite of Hollywood, counting Eva Gabor and Greta Garbo as her students. But despite his claims to mystic wisdom, Krishnamacharya was by all accounts an angry, disrespectful, and belligerent man to his friends, family, and less wealthy students.

Krishnamacharya’s Unpleasant Students

Krishnamacharya tormented his student and brother-in-law, B.K.S. Iyengar (1918-2014), throughout their time together. After being invited to the West by the violinist Yehudi Menuhin, B.K.S. Iyengar popularized yoga, spreading Krishnamacharya’s 20th century hatha yoga under the brand ‘Iyengar Yoga’ and publishing best-selling accounts of his ancient wisdom that molded the Western view of yoga[2]. Though more compassionate than Krishnamacharya and by all accounts less drawn to wealth, Iyengar was known as ‘Bang, Kick, Slap’ for his physical aggressiveness with students[3] - a moniker one would not expect to find on an apparently enlightened yogi.

Krishnamacharya’s most famous student was K. Pattabhi Jois (1915-2009), who developed ‘Ashtanga Yoga’ and ‘Power Yoga,’ both derivations of Krishnamacharya’s teachings. In their unashamed calls to credibility and authority, Jois claimed to have been B.K.S. Iyengar’s teacher, under Krishnamacharya, while B.K.S. Iyengar in turn claimed that Jois was not even a regular student of Krishnamacharya[4]. In either case, in the process of gaining worldwide recognition for his delivery of ancient wisdom, Jois famously sexually fondled and abused dozens of students, irrespective of their gender. In an apparent effort to save the family business, in 2019 his grandson, R. Sharath Jois, director of the K. Pattabhi Jois Ashtanga Yoga Institute, publicly apologized for his grandfather’s behavior[5].

The Lineage Continues

The founder of modern yoga had dubious claims about where he learned his ancient wisdoms from. He was unpleasant, his brother-in-law and pupil was also unpleasant. His most prolific student was a sexual predator. For good measure, his grandson, Kausthub Desikachar, the leader of the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram and the Krishnamacharya Healing and Yoga Foundation, stepped down from his positions in 2012 amidst allegations of sexual misconduct made to the police in Austria[6].

The apparent lack of personal wisdom in Krishnamacharya’s yogic lineage is not uncommon among the mystics who brought Eastern wisdom to the West. In the next blog post in this series, we will take a tour of the most notable notorieties of the Indian traditions before we reach Tibet.

[1] Feuerstein, G. (2012). The yoga tradition: Its history, literature, philosophy and practice. SCB Distributors. [2] Iyengar, B. K. S. (2007). BKS Iyengar yoga: The path to holistic health. Penguin. [3] Goldberg, Elliott (2016). The Path of Modern Yoga :The History of an Embodied Spiritual Practice. Inner Traditions. [4] Singleton, Mark (2010). Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice. Oxford University Press. pp. 175–210. ISBN 978-0195395341. [5] Remski, Matthew. ‘Sharath's Statement on Pattabhi Jois's Assaults: Context, Links, Notes’. Retrieved March 3rd, 2020. [6]Kausthub Desikachar Faces Abuse Allegations’. Yoga Journal. 2012. Retrieved 21 March 2018.

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