Ten pioneering leaders in American yoga

When I took up yoga in the early 1970s, it was still pretty exotic. In fact, a fair question would ask if yoga was mostly happening in New York. That was my impression from the ads in the weekly Village Voice newspaper, which listed many visiting teachers from Asia, especially.

Not all of the teachers were exactly kosher, either.

The model of the maverick guru was Robert Crumb’s Mr. Natural cartoon, inspired by the Sufi and Zen Buddhist Samuel Lewis, but my own teacher, Swami Lakshmy Devi in the Pocono mountains of Pennsylvania, and Swami Rudrananda at Big Indian in New York’s Catskills, would also fit much of what I describe in my novel Yoga Bootcamp. All three were born in America.

Here are ten more teachers who advanced yoga’s popularity in that era:

  1. Richard Hittleman, New York, beginning in the 1950s. Hatha exercises.
  2. Walt and Magana Baptiste in San Francisco, early ’50s. Hatha exercises.
  3. Swami Vishnudevananda, arriving in 1958, San Francisco, a student of Swami Sivananda in the Himalayas. While emphasizing hatha, he also advanced other aspects of yoga, including meditation. My teacher was trained at Visnu’s Manhattan center. The network now headquartered in Montreal.
  4. Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and Transcendental Meditation in the early ’60s. With the Beatles and others as celebrity followers, his emphasis on teaching meditation rather than the physical exercises became trendy.
  5. Swami Satchidananda, arriving 1966, New York, also a student of Swami Sivananda. His invocation at the Woodstock festival made him celebrity material. With his big beard and smile, he looked the part.
  6. Swami Prabhupada, founder of what were best known as the Hare Krishnas, or the International Society for Krishna Consciousness. Arrived 1966, New York. Brought kirtan, or chanting, and the Bhagavad Gita scriptures to public awareness.
  7. Amrit Desai, arriving in 1968 in the Philadelphia area. His influential organization continues as the Kirpalu Center in the Berkshires in Massachusetts and is known for training and certifying yoga instructors.
  8. Yogi Bhajan presented his Kundalini yoga as hatha and chanting with a Sikh infusion. He founded his Happy, Healthy, Holy Organization in 1968.
  9. Ram Dass, formerly a prominent Harvard psychologist and psychedelic pioneer, published the seminal book Be Here Now in 1971 at the Lama Foundation in Taos, New Mexico. We all wanted to go there, wherever or whatever it was. Its focus was on the philosophy, rather than the exercises – a huge breakthrough, from my point of view.
  10. B.K.S. Iyengar, arrived in 1973 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. His focus on technical precision in the hatha exercises influenced many teachers.

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