Yoga is an ancient practice but since the mid-20th century, it has evolved considerably. Learn more about the history of yoga here.
In our previous blog about the history of yoga, we spoke about - the origin of yoga, its development through the classical era and yoga during the Indus Valley civilisation, Vedic, Brahmanic and epic ages. We discussed its spread through India in ancient times. In this post, we will discuss post-classical yoga and the modern age. This is how the practice of yoga seen in various studios across the globe came to be.
With the post-classical era, yoga saw the rise of various yoga schools in India. Each of these schools was founded by great thinkers, monks, and scholars of Indian philosophy and their individual schools of thought. This led to a widespread acceptance of yoga and allowed commoners to align themselves to a yogic school that was most suitable to their beliefs and needs. This era of growth was followed by the Modern Era where stalwarts like Swami Krishnamacharya, Swami Vivekananda, Swami Sivananda, Yogananda Saraswati, Yogananda Saraswati, and Neem Karoli Baba inspired young minds not only in India but across the globe to become the next generation pioneers of Yoga.
Swami Tirumalai Krishnamacharya, also known as the ‘Father of Modern Yoga’ was born in 1988 in an orthodox Iyengar family. He learned various Sanskrit scriptures and texts in great detail under the tutelage of his father who was a scholar and a renowned teacher of the Vedas. After the unfortunate demise of his father, Krishnamacharya traveled across India to enhance his knowledge. He also traveled to the Himalayas to learn yoga from Yogi Ramamohan Brahmachari.
His early education made his ideologies congruent with the Vedas, developing his unique school of Yoga practises which came to be known as Viniyoga. He would perform various Siddhis and postures to display his extraordinary control over his physical body and his strength. This soon caught the eye of the Maharaja of Mysore, Krishna Raja Wadiyar IV who became his patron. Under his patronage, Krishnamacharya opened Yoga schools and spread his knowledge in India.
The extent of his teaching is so prominent that you can see traces of it in every Yoga Studio. Even if you learned from a yogi who did not directly learn from Krishnamacharya, there’s a good chance your teacher trained either under B. K. S. Iyengar, Desikachar, Pattabhi Jois , and Indira Devi or their disciples. Rodney Yee, who appears in many popular videos, studied with Iyengar. Richard Hittleman, a well-known TV yogi of the 1970s, trained with Devi. Other renowned Yogis have been inspired by Krishnamacharya's teachings while developing their own unique schools. Sivananda Yoga and Bikram Yoga are some examples of that. Some of his notable disciples who carried forward his legacy are:
B. K. S. Iyengar
Bellur Krishnamachar Sundararaja Iyengar was born in 1918 and went through a lot of health issues and poverty in his early life. Swami Krishnamacharya asked the 15-year-old Iyengar to move to Mysore so that he could improve his health via yoga. Thus started his journey with Yoga. After years of strict yoga training under his brother-in-law, BKS Iyengar became healthy and an expert of Yoga who created his own unique style of Yoga - Iyengar Yoga which was mainly inspired by Hatha Yoga.
A meeting with the violinist Yehudi Menuhin can possibly be credited for the spread of BKS Iyengar’s reach on a global level. After gaining Menuhin's friendship in a short meeting, BKS Iyengar was invited to Switzerland in 1954 to see Menuhin perform. After this visit, he started traveling to the west very often and started teaching students all over Europe. His first visit to the United States was in 1956 where he gave several lectures and demonstrations in Michigan.
In the following years, he frequented the United States to spread his knowledge and teachings. In 1966, he penned his first book Light on Yoga which was a bestseller. This was followed by 13 more books on his Yoga practise and philosophy. He founded the Ramamani Iyengar Memorial Yoga Institute in Pune in 1975, in memory of his late wife. He continued to teach for almost a decade before retiring. His children Geeta and Prashant carried forward his legacy and kept spreading Yoga across the globe.
Rodnee Yee and Patricia Walden, students of BKS Iyengar have been influential in spreading Iyengar Yoga in America. Iyengar yoga continues to be one of the most popular styles of yoga supported through 1800 institutes and thousands of studios across the globe.
T. V. Desikachar
Tirumalai Krishnamacharya Venkata Desikachar, son of Swami Tirumalai Krishnamacharya was born in 1938. He studied to be an engineer but he was drawn to Yoga too. Thanks to his father's teaching he became an expert in Yoga and went on to teach in many parts of the world. He also penned the book The Heart of Yoga. He developed Viniyoga, a term first coined in the Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. This approach of Yoga is in line with Vini yoga: an individualistic approach integrated with teachings from the Yoga Sutras.
In 1976, Desikachar founded the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram (KYM) alongside A.G. Mohan. This is a yoga clinic and therapy center in Madras. With Desikachar’s guidance, KYM offers teacher training and individual instruction in asana, pranayama, meditation, yoga philosophy, and Vedic chanting. His efforts contributed to advanced research in the space of yoga therapy for illnesses like schizophrenia, diabetes, asthma, and depression.
Krishna Pattabhi Jois was born in 1915 in Hassan, Karnataka. He attended a demonstration done by Krishnamacharya in 1927 and was so moved by it that he became his student the very next day. He continued to learn with Krishnamacharya for 2 years. In these two years, Krishnamacharya taught Jois the methods from the book Yoga Korunta.
In 1930, he ran away from his home with 2 rupees for Mysore to learn Sanskrit. Here he crossed paths with Krishnamacharya again and studied with him from 1932 to 1953. During this time he kept working towards his career. He secured a position of teacher at the Sanskrit college from 1937 to 1973. In 1948, Jois established the Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute at his residence in Lakshmipuram. A Belgian named André Van Lysebeth spent two months with Jois learning the primary and intermediate series of the Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga system in 1964 which inspired him to write the book J'apprends le Yoga which mentioned Jois and included his address. This brought the people from the West to Mysore to study yoga.
He first traveled to the West in 1974, to South America, to deliver a lecture in Sanskrit at an international yoga conference. The following year he stayed in California for four months, sowing seeds that led to the spread of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga in America. His frequent travels and his rising popularity amongst the westerners lead to huge inbound of students to Mysore. To accommodate the increasing number of students, he opened a new school in Gokulam in 2002. Jois continued to teach at the Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute in Mysore, now in the neighbourhood of Gokulam, with his daughter Saraswathi Rangaswamy and his grandson Sharath for the rest of his life. He published the book Yoga Mālā in 1958 which was translated to English in 1999.
Indra Devi’s birth name was Eugenie Peterson and is also known as “The First Lady of Yoga”. She was born in 1899, in Russia where her early life was spent. However, her fascination for Indian culture started when she was 15 and continued to increase over the years. This fascination of hers drove her to India for the first time in 1927. She spent three months in India during her first visit which helped her realise that she wanted to move to India. Soon she wrapped up her belongings and came to Madras where she performed the Indian temple dance. Here she got a part in the film Sher-e-Arab coined her stage name - Indra Devi in 1930.
After using her networks in the Royal family at Mysore she was reluctantly admitted into Swami Krishnamacharya’s school, making her the first woman student and the first Western woman ever at an Indian ashram. Krishnamacharya closely supervised her Asana and Pranayama training for about a year and urged her to spread her wisdom with others and become a teacher. After she moved to China she started teaching Yoga there. She is suspected to be the first person ever to teach yoga in China. After some struggles in China, Indra Devi found her way to America where she continued to teach Yoga. Her work in America focused on stress relief in Hollywood. A lot of stars sought out training from her. This in turn helped popularise Yoga in America even further.
Born in Kolkata in 1863, Swami Vivekananda met his spiritual mentor Ramakrishna Paramahamsa in 1881, and there was no turning back after that. He popularised Yoga in the West more than 125 years ago, when he delivered the epochal "Sisters and Brothers of America" lecture at the Parliament of Religions in Chicago, Illinois, on September 11, 1893. Vivekananda's strong oration on the spiritual greatness of Indian religious traditions quickly garnered him American admiration.
In 1895, he founded the Vedanta Society in New York, which is still going strong today. Further, Vivekananda drew upon the neo-Vedantic form of Yoga to emphasise the fact that Yoga was not an ‘Indian’ tradition and not a ‘Hindu’ one. Moreover, the Western concept of humanitarianism that formed the basis of neo-Vedantic Yoga made it all the more appealing to the American followers.
The decades that followed Vivekananda’s mission in the West are often termed as India’s “Yoga renaissance.” His teachings were carried on ahead in the West later by others like his pupil Ramakrishna Maharshi.
Swami Sivananda was born Kuppuswamy at Tamil Nadu in 1887. His father was a revenue officer who also was a Shiva devotee and his mother too was very religious. In his school life he excelled in academics and gymnastics. Owing to his stellar academics he could go on to a Medical College in Tanjore to become a doctor. During his years studying at the Medical College, he also ran a journal called Ambrosia.
After graduating he started practising medicine in British Malaya as a doctor. In the 10 years of his practise there, he gained a favourable reputation for treating Sadhus, Sanyasis and the poor patients for free. However, he personally was unsatisfied with his practice. He believed that medicine helped to heal only on a superficial level. His devotion to the cause of helping others heal holistically brought him back to India in 1923 seeking spiritual guidance. He was initiated into the Sannyasa order at Rishikesh by his guru Vishvananda Saraswati in 1924.
In the following years, he settled in Rishikesh where he completely immersed himself in spiritual learning and Yogic practises while also treating patients medically. In 1927 he started running a charitable dispensary at Lakshman Jhula. In the following years, he travelled pan-India expanding his knowledge and also spreading it. He called his unique Yoga practice as the Yoga of Synthesis, combining the Four Yogas of Schools of - Karma Yoga, Jnana Yoga and Bhakti Yoga; for hand, head, and heart respectively.
In 1936, Sivananda founded the Divine Life Society to distribute spiritual literature for free where he taught his disciple Satyananda Saraswati, founder of Satyananda Yoga. He founded the Yoga-Vedanta Forest Academy in 1948 to give systematic spiritual training to the resident Sadhaks, and also to benefit the visiting seekers. In the following years, he travelled across India to further spread his knowledge and continued to seek this goal till his death in 1963.
Satyananda Saraswati was born in 1923 in Uttranchal. He was given classical education in his youth for which he studied Sanskrit, the Vedas and Upanishads in detail. It is possible that his traditional studying led him to have spiritual experiences at the young age of six. These experiences led him to find spiritual guidance. In 1943, at the age of 20, Satyananada met his guru Swami Sivananda and was initiated by him into the Dashnam Order of Sannyasa in 1947. He was also given the name Swami Satyananda Saraswati. He stayed with his guru at his ashram for almost a decade learning yoga and exploring his spirituality.
In 1956, Swami Sivananda asked him to travel and spread his knowledge further. Thus, Swami Satyananda set on his journey for the next 7 years. Swami Satyananda founded the International Yoga Fellowship Movement (IYFM) in Rajnandgaon in 1962. This inspired the establishment of various yoga centers and ashrams under his guidance. In 1964, he established the Bihar School of Yoga to help inspire and train generations of teachers. This school attracted students from all over the country and the world. Soon after this Swami Satyananda travelled to lecture and teach for the next twenty years, including a tour of Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Singapore, North America between April and October 1968. He continued teaching for the next two decades. In 1988, he handed over the Bihar Yoga School to his disciple and successor Niranjanananda Saraswati to continue his personal spiritual path.
In his life, Satyananda wrote over 80 books, including his popular 1969 manual Asana Pranayama Mudra Bandha. Satyananda's writings have been published by the Bihar School of Yoga and, since 2000, by the Yoga Publications Trust established by his disciple Swami Niranjanananda.
Paramahansa Yogananda, born in 1893 in Uttar Pradesh, was also known as Mukunda in his childhood. He is said to have had a superior spiritual awareness since a young age. Thus, he sought out spiritual guidance throughout his early years and was only truly satisfied when he met his Guru, Swami Sri Yukteswar Giri in 1910. He trained with Swami Yukteshwar for the next decade at his ashram in Serampore. He also focused on his formal education side by side. In 1914, Sri Yogananda graduated. In 1914, He graduated from college and also got his formal vows into the monastic Swami order a few weeks after graduation. Here he took on the name Swami Sri Yogananda.
In 1920 his spiritual guidance directed him towards the quest of spreading Kriya Yoga in America. He soon left for America only to spend the rest of his life fulfilling this quest. By the end of 1920, he founded the Self-Realisation Fellowship with the purpose of disseminating his teachings globally. In 1924, he went on a very well-received cross-continent tour where he gave speeches and lectures. On this tour, he inspired and touched the lives of countless people including some celebrities.
In the following year, he established an international center for the Self Realisation Fellowship in Los Angeles, California. He visited India from 1935-1936 to establish the Yogoda Satsanaga Society. During this visit, he initiated a lot of people into Kriya yoga including Mahatma Gandhi. It was in this visit that he was titled as Paramahansa which is the Sanskrit word for “supreme swan”. His Guru, Sri Yukteswar, passed away in 1936 and after having finished his last rights Paramahansa Yogananda started his voyage back to America where he stayed till his death in 1952. He spent the last few years of his life in seclusion writing various books and revising his previous writings.
Neem Karoli Baba
Neem or Neeb Karoli Baba or Maharaj-ji was born as Lakshman Narayan Sharma in 1900 in Uttar Pradesh. He was married off at the young age of 11, immediately after which he ran away from home to travel through Gujarat and other parts of the country. He gave up all worldly pleasures and continued to live as an acetic for 10-15 years.
In an unusual series of events, he landed up at Neem Karoli village where he stayed for several years and ended up getting his name from the locals there. He had failed to acquire any food for several days, so he boarded a train without a ticket or any money in hopes of getting to a city to ask for alms.
On this train, he was ill-treated by the Railway officials and deported off the train near the Neem Karoli village. However, after this, the train wouldn’t start back up. This led the passengers to urge the railway officials to call the sadhu back onto the train. Neem Karoli Baba agreed to board the train again only if the railway officials promised to build a railway station at the Neem Karoli village and if they promised to be more considerate to Sadhus and Sages in the future. The railway officials agreed and he came back onto the train. Soon after this the train mystically started back up and everyone was stunned. Soon after this, he got popular as the “mystical baba” throughout India.
Someone linked Neem Karoli baba and the runaway Lakshman Narayan Sharma and informed his family. His family urged him to come back home. This time, he complied and came home to fulfill his familial duties but he continued to maintain his simple lifestyle.
Throughout his life, he established various ashrams and temples across north and west India. The ashram established by him at Kainchi attracted tycoons like Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs. He also shared his wisdom of Bhakti Yoga with various disciples of his including Ram Das and Krishna Das. Several Disciples of his went on to establish ashrams and foundations for Bhakti Yoga across the globe to carry forward his legacy.
Born as Richard Alpert in 1931, was a psychologist from America who first took on his spiritual quest in 1967 when he came to India seeking spiritual guidance. Here he met Neem Karoli baba and quickly became his disciple and took the name Ram Das. In the following years, he formed the Charitable foundation - Seva Foundation and Hanuman Foundation.
He traveled extensively collecting charity for various causes and spreading his knowledge of Bhakti Yoga amongst people. After a few years of traveling, he went back to the United States as his health took a turn for the worse. He stayed in Htraveawaii and taught lessons, held retreats and webinars from there till he died. Throughout his life, Ram Das wrote various books on psychology, Spirituality and Bhakti Yoga.
Born as Jeffrey Kagel in 1947, Krishna Das only started his journey in the late 60’s. Krishna Das met spiritual seeker Ram Das with whom he traveled across America as his student. During this time he became fascinated by the encounters of Ram Das’ recent trip to India where he had met the mystical guru Neem Karoli Baba. In August 1970, Krishna Das left his rock band and made his way to meet Neem Karoli Baba.
In the next three years, Krishna Das stayed with his Guru and became a practitioner of Bhakti Yoga – the yoga of devotion. Soon he returned to America to use his knowledge to make spiritual music about the Bhagavad Gita, Bhakti Yoga and spirituality that would go on to inspire generations of people.
He has got several awards for his music and has been nominated for the Grammys. He is affectionately known as the ‘Rockstar of Yoga’. He also has written several books on spirituality and his time in India. In 2014, he helped found the Kirtan Wallah Foundation which is dedicated to spreading the teachings of Neem Karoli Baba and his knowledge on Bhakti Yoga across the globe.
Here we would like to conclude the list of yoga teachers that have changed the course of history by their knowledge, devotion, and compassion. Some notable mentions include Ramakrishna Paramhansa, Swami Vishnu-devananda, Swami Satyananda Saraswati, Mahesh Yogi and Swami Rama.
One can say that these gurus and their disciples initiated the styles of yoga that we practice in Yoga studios today. However, we have not covered all the teachers in this blog - write in the comment below if you would like to add to this list of modern yoga gurus that have contributed to yoga becoming a global phenomenon. If you are curious to know the ancient history of yoga, visit our blog on the history of yoga: part 1.