When Yoga Went West...
The exact location where yoga originated has long been debated and refined by historians and scholars. But whether it was the foothills of India, the valleys of Southeast Asia, or the mountains of China, yoga did not remain a secret forever. Eventually, the oldest form of personal development made its way out of Asia and exploded into the global force it is today. With millions of practitioners around the world, yoga, like so many other pioneers through the ages, went west and revolutionized the meditative lifestyle.
Swami Vivekananda was the first Hindu teacher to share and promote the aspects of yoga to Europe and the United States in 1890. In addition to yoga, many other aspects of Hindu philosophy were introduced to the western public at that time. It was the beginning of a wellness revolution.
In the 1960s, western interest in Hindu spirituality and yoga (then considered the household term for Hatha Yoga and the asana, or poses, as a form of exercise) peaked. Several Neo-Hindu schools, that is, schools that advocated Hindu philosophy and yoga to western audiences, emerged across the US and Western Europe. The practitioners of yoga devoted much of their time to learning about samsara (the Hindu cycle of rebirth) and moksha (release from samsara and worldly suffering). For these early students, yoga was about more than asana and pranayama (breathing exercises). Many of them spent years studying under yoga masters, or yogi.
In the 1980s, there was a revival of yoga’s popularity when it was connected to heart health. This connection legitimized yoga as a physical system of exercise and removed the heavy religious connotation that it had in the 1960s. The average person felt that he or she was able to practice yoga without learning Sanskrit and Hindu philosophy. Many western fitness centers began to feature yoga for the health benefits, and soon, yoga studios were opening across Western Europe and the United States.
In the last 10 years, yoga has appeared in the medical field as a new, contemporary treatment to complement pharmaceuticals. Currently, yoga has been the subject of studies investigating new cancer treatments and has been proven to decrease depression, pain, insomnia, fatigue, as well as control anxiety in cancer patients.
Studies on the treatment of schizophrenia have shown that yoga improves cognitive functions and reduces stress. When paired with existing drugs and therapy, the introduction of yoga into the daily routine of schizophrenic adults has profound effects. Patients with schizophrenia saw an improvement in social and occupation functions in only four months as yoga practitioners!
Since heart disease is among the top killers of US and European citizens, yoga’s positive effects on its treatment have earned a lot of attention. Yoga reduces high blood pressure, improves the symptoms of heart failure, speeds up rehabilitation, and lowers the risk for future heart problems.
Now, yoga is moving into the competitive field with organizations like the International Yoga Sports Federation vying for a position in the 2016 Olympic Games. It has certainly come a long way from its pure form entrenched in Hindu philosophy. Having been adopted by the western world many times over, yoga is unpredictable in its development. But without a doubt, millions of western practitioners have enriched and balanced their lives when yoga went west.