With the exception of notable figures such as Swami Vivekananda, most assume that yoga arrived in the United States in earnest during the late 1960s, when the opening up of immigration laws to allow Asians into the country coincided with the flowering of a hippie counterculture that looked to India as a source of mystic wisdom. There was, however, a vibrant world of American yoga during the early 20th century, and it flourished because earlier immigration policy succeeded not in keeping Indian immigrants out of the United States as much as keeping them in.
Dozens of South Asians in the US reinvented themselves as yoga teachers and metaphysical lecturers in the wake of the 1923 Supreme Court case of United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind, which ruled that Asians were ineligible for citizenship. It left them underemployed and with few options, and, in some cases, denaturalised with no citizenship whatsoever.
Yoga in early-20th century America was not a simple matter of physical postures but was open to a wide variety of interpretations and understandings. It could just as refer to learned philosophy as practical psychology, magical powers, visualisation techniques or breathing exercises. This flexibility allowed newly-minted gurus to draw on their experiences and backgrounds and style themselves as spiritual teachers to the public.
Yoga teachers would typically begin their stay in a given city with a series of free public lectures designed to appeal to a broad cross-section of the population. Bhagwan Singh Gyanee, who turned to teaching yoga and spirituality after a stint in prison for his involvement with the Ghadar Party in the United States, spoke to the public in Ogden, Utah, in 1930 on topics as varied as Foods That Make or Break You, The Mysteries of the Subconscious Mind, Where The Dead Go, and The Art of Love.
They staged their lectures as elaborate performances, not just learned monologues. They often dressed flamboyantly in exotic robes and turbans and added attractions like musical performances, question-and-answer sessions, displays of magical power, and glass lantern slideshows. Many of these events were so filled with attractions that they were listed in the entertainment section of local newspapers alongside movie screenings and vaudeville shows.
Public lectures served as recruitment for a series of smaller, private classes where students paid fees to learn secret practices such as breathing exercises and visualisation techniques. For some of these students, private classes might lead to personal services in which yoga teachers would act as healers, counsellors, and fortune tellers for students.
This pattern of multi-level instruction from itinerant teachers was well known in the United States as well as in India. The magazine Swaraj described Yogananda in 1929 as following “the set plan of the usual lecturer of giving a few free lectures, subsequently enrolling members to a private class of instruction, at a charge of 25 dollars for the course”.
The territory covered by the multi-level teachings of yogis and swamis during this time was astonishing. With the exception of the South, they were an active presence across the country and especially where there was a significant number of people. In places like Utah, Texas, and upstate New York, aspiring yoga students would have the option to study with different yoga teachers as they passed through the area, often only weeks apart. Teachers would not only try to cover a large area in their travels, but they would regularly return to cities where they had dedicated students.
The field regularly got crowded with multiple yoga teachers in a single location at the same time. Rishi Singh Gherwal and Yogi Wassan both taught in Kansas City, Missouri, on the same nights in 1926, and then only a few blocks away from each other four years later in San Diego, California. This closeness not only made yoga teachers aware of one another, but also turned them into competitors and compatriots.
Yoga teachers constantly adjusted their image and credentials to appeal to American audiences, adding honorary degrees and titles to their names or shifting their origins from the Punjab to a more exotic Benares or Himalayas. Some went as far as to steal the materials and students of their rivals, while others who were connected by common backgrounds or friendships formed in America, cooperated, shared stages, and traded mailing lists with one another.
Perhaps the most important exchanges were not among South Asian yoga teachers themselves, but between them and movements within the American metaphysical tradition where they found the vast majority of their students. These yoga teachers in the United States were influenced by – and were themselves an influence upon – everything from the positive-thinking New Thought movement to Spiritualism and occultism.
While not immune to discrimination, yoga teachers occupied a unique position as South Asians in American society. Many of them made stable, even lucrative, careers out of their spiritual teachings and several counted some of the wealthiest and powerful Americans among their devoted students.
After the Second World War, the golden era of travelling yoga teachers began to wane. The yogis and swamis who were once exotic and mysterious had started to become familiar and worn. Yoga was increasingly viewed as something postural and physical, rather than mental and magical. Scientific evidence and practical benefit began to overtake exotic personae and sensational displays as the calling cards of yoga.
While mostly forgotten today, the yoga teachers who made a living on the road during the interwar decades of the 1920s and 1930s raised the profile of yoga in the United States in a significant way, and they served as an important bridge to the teachers in the 1950s and 1960s who would come after them and develop American yoga into the billion-dollar industry it is today.