The Lost Teachings of Yoga
This article from the Yoga International archives was originally published in October 2002.
The “lost” teachings of yoga, the profound wisdom that has all but vanished in the West, are not, of course, really lost. But we are rapidly losing sight of them. Yoga cannot be effective, however, unless we apply it in our own lives, and to do that we must be able to draw on its traditional teachings.
The “lost” teachings of yoga, the profound wisdom that has all but vanished in the West, are not, of course, really lost.
The spiritual heritage of India reached our Western shores intact. The masters who crossed the ocean showed the greatest integrity in transmitting the yogic teachings faithfully to Westerners. Spiritual masters like the long-lived Shivapuri Baba (1826–1963), Swami Vivekananda (1863–1902), Baba Premananda Bharati (alias Surendranath Mukerji, died 1914), Swami Rama Tirtha (1873–1906), Ananda Acharya (1881–1945), Yogendra Mastanami (arrived in New York in 1919), and Paramahansa Yogananda (1893–1952) took great pains to share with us the finest teachings of this great tradition when they brought yoga to the West. They emphasized the moral disciplines (yama) of non-harming, truthfulness, non-stealing, chastity, and greedlessness. They taught meditation and inner stillness as the royal road to enlightenment. And, naturally, they praised the ideal of enlightenment, or liberation.
Shivapuri Baba (alias Swami Govindananda Bharati) appears to have been the first modern yoga master to transplant the wisdom of India to the West. He was blessed with a very long life, and after his awakening at the age of fifty, he dedicated it entirely to the spiritual welfare of others. He had no fewer than eighteen audiences with Queen Victoria, who considered him a friend.
Shivapuri Baba taught that as human beings we have three principal duties: First, physical duty—maintaining body and mind through proper livelihood, including the obligation to help one’s dependents to accomplish the same. Second, moral duty—remaining sensitive to the obligation to seek the truth twenty-four hours a day. Third, spiritual duty, by which he meant the worship of the Divine. He felt certain that if we attend carefully to the first two duties for a decade, we will be able to fulfill the third duty naturally. Physical discipline, he noted, brings pleasure. Moral discipline gives us serenity. Spiritual discipline yields deep peace and ultimate happiness.
This great sage was dismissive of conventional yogic paths because he saw in them potential distractions that might keep us from performing the three duties. On closer inspection, however, his sensible prescriptions are in fact a form of yoga. Only rare individuals can devote themselves directly to the pursuit of enlightenment. Most of us live householder lives and need to take care of the first two duties. They are preparation for the third. We can agree with Shivapuri Baba’s emphasis on the moral disciplines, because all authentic yoga regards morality as the foundation of the spiritual path. We can also agree with his insistence on becoming a fully functional member of society. All too often the spiritual quest is engaged in as a neurotic escape from conventional life, and this cannot possibly lead to inner freedom.
Only rare individuals can devote themselves directly to the pursuit of enlightenment.
Because of Queen Victoria’s interest in him, Shivapuri Baba and his message were well received in certain exclusive circles in Europe, but the time for yoga’s greater impact had not yet come. This was to be the destiny of Swami Vivekananda, the great disciple of the nineteenth-century saint Sri Ramakrishna (1836–1886).
In his famous speech at the 1893 Parliament of Religions, convened as part of the World’s Fair in Chicago, Swami Vivekananda electrified his audience of 7,000 by addressing everyone as “Brothers and Sisters of America.” After the spontaneous ovation had died down, he continued with an inspiring speech that opened the doors of many homes and hearts. “I will quote to you, brethren,” Swami Vivekananda said, “a few lines from a hymn which I remember to have repeated from my earliest boyhood, which is every day repeated by millions of human beings: ‘As the different streams having their sources in different places all mingle their water in the sea, sources in different tendencies, various though they appear, crooked or straight, all lead to Thee.’”
He gave his enthusiastic American audience a message of tolerance, pointing to the One beyond all forms and manifestations, as the ancient sages of the Vedas had done many millennia earlier. And in so doing, Swami Vivekananda delivered the quintessence of yoga.
In one of his many talks in the years following the Parliament, Swami Vivekananda observed: “Stand upon the Self, then only can we truly love the world. Take a very, very high stand; knowing our universal nature, we must look with perfect calmness upon all the panorama of the world. It is but baby’s play, and we know that, so cannot be disturbed by it.… The more our bliss is within, the more spiritual we are.” This is the very heart of yoga.
And in a letter to Manmatha Nath Bhattacharya, written in 1894, Swami Vivekananda describes a gathering of several hundred men and women at Greenacre in Eliot, Maine, where he stayed for two months. “Every day,” he wrote, “I would sit in our Hindu fashion under a tree, and my followers and disciples would sit on the grass all around me. Every morning I would instruct them, and how earnest they were!” Traditional yoga was being imparted faithfully.
Swami Rama Tirtha visited the United States in 1903 and stayed for about eighteen months. In a talk delivered on March 5, 1903, in San Francisco, he said: “So long as you regard yourself as a part only, a small, finite something like three cubits and a half long and 150 pounds heavy, so long as you consider yourself to be flesh and blood, so long as you are limited: you are impaired, you are cut, you are divided, you are not whole, you are simply a finite fraction and are not whole, not healthy, not strong.… If you separate a small particle of water from the sea, it will become putrid, it will become stagnant and filthy. Similarly the man, the sage or saint, or anybody who feels himself as a finite being, who feels himself a finite being limited by time or space, confined within a short area, is not healthy, is not whole and is not happy; he can lay no claim to happiness. The very moment your vision is not limited, the very moment you dispel your finite consciousness and feel that you are the all, that you are the whole world, that you are an Infinity; when you realize that, then you become whole and the bodily disease, trouble, anxiety is dispersed, dispelled, evaporated.”
Again, these words beautifully capture the spirit of yoga, the path taking us from illusion, delusion, and bondage to reality, truth, and perfect inner freedom. In his lively talks, Swami Rama Tirtha sought to instill in his audiences a sense of the unconditional, infinite One that is the true identity of all beings. Like Swami Vivekananda before him, he recommended the cultivation of clarity, work, morality, love, compassion, and, not least, self-discipline. He is regarded in India as a fully enlightened master, but today in the West he is barely even remembered.
Ananda Acharya arrived in England in 1911, and three years later he relocated to Norway, where he taught until the end of his life. He had only a few students and lived quietly in a hermitage they had constructed for him. He taught them Vedanta (jñana yoga) and told them that he saw “a new humanity, God-vestured, dazzling the sight like a fiery cloud of gold.”
In 1919, Yogendra Mastanami (then only twenty-two years old) introduced traditional hatha yoga to New Yorkers. He stayed for three years and established an American branch of his Yoga Institute near Bombay in Santa Cruz, India, which is still thriving today. As the result of a meeting between Shri Yogendra and Benedict Lust, the founder of naturopathy, hatha yoga was for a decade or more presented to the American people as one of the alternative healing modalities pioneered by naturopaths. Shri Yogendra was a disciple of Paramahamsa Madhavadasa, a 119-year-old yogi, who also trained Swami Kuvalayananda, the founder of Kaivalyadhama, another early yoga research organization. Again, the tradition was being transmitted accurately.
The yoga master who claimed the largest following during yoga’s early days in the West was Paramahansa Yogananda.
Shivapuri Baba, Swami Rama Tirtha, Yogendra Mastanami, and Ananda Acharya did not leave any significant following. Swami Vivekananda, on the other hand, founded the successful Ramakrishna Mission in 1897, which continues to be a vibrant source of social programs based on traditional spiritual values. But the yoga master who claimed the largest following during yoga’s early days in the West was Paramahansa Yogananda. He arrived in the United States in 1920 and founded his Self-Realization Fellowship the same year. In his widely read Autobiography of a Yogi he wrote: “Hundreds of thousands, not dozens merely, of Kriya Yogis are needed to bring into manifestation the world of peace and plenty that awaits men when they have made the proper effort to reestablish their status as sons of the Divine Father.”
Paramahansa Yogananda, who is said to have personally initiated 100,000 disciples into his Kriya Yoga, wrote the following prayer, which expresses his all-embracing orientation very well: “Let me be Christian, Jew, Hindu, Buddhist, or Moslem; I care not what my religion or race or nationality be, so long as I win my way to Thee!” But despite this commendable ecumenical attitude, his Kriya Yoga is strongly based on the traditional teachings of yoga.
To his British disciples, Paramahansa Yogananda admitted: “I have given many yoga lessons in India and America; but I must confess that, as a Hindu, I am unusually happy to be conducting a class for English students.” He admired the quality of tenacity in the British character. But he also spent many happy years with his American disciples. Toward the end of his life, he was asked by one of his students whether it all had been worth it. He replied: “Yes, a thousand times yes! It has been worthwhile, more than ever I dreamed, to see East and West brought closer in the only lasting bond, the spiritual.”
The (Hatha) Yoga Boom
Why do we hear so little about morality, meditation, and enlightenment in yogic circles today? What happened between then and now? Why have the teachings of these and other late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century masters been eclipsed and room made for a secularized yoga boom?
When traditional yoga reached our Western shores in the late nineteenth century, it was gradually stripped of its spiritual orientation and remodeled into fitness training. Swami Vivekananda and Paramahansa Yogananda still have a good following even today, yet most of the twenty or so million Americans who are said to be practicing yoga know nothing of them or their teachings. Most modern practitioners know nothing about the moral disciplines. They show little or no interest in meditation. The idea of a guru is foreign, even alien, to them, and they consider the concept of liberation outlandish, if they are even familiar with it.
The secularization of yoga in the West seems to have started with a mysterious writer who called himself Ramacharaka. It appears that this was the pseudonym of Chicago lawyer William Warren Atkinson (1862–1932), who might have studied in India with a certain Baba Bharata. His books were widely read for many decades, starting with The Science of Breath and Fourteen Lessons in Yogi Philosophy and Oriental Occultism (both in 1903).
Atkinson’s publications set the stage for “physical culture.” Starting in 1917 the Soviets instituted programs to promote physical health and fitness, which in the late 1930s assumed an extreme militaristic flavor. John D. Fair, in his book Muscletown USA, showed that Americans also became obsessed with physical culture, especially bodybuilding, in the 1930s. In Nazi Germany, too, body culture and gymnastics were pursued nationwide with the goal of producing a new type of “Aryan” German. Britain and other European countries, as well as China and Japan, witnessed similar developments.
Atkinson’s publications set the stage for “physical culture.”
Another important yogic figure in those early days was Selvarajan Yesudian (1916–1998), the son of an Indian physician. In his youth Yesudian suffered from all kinds of illnesses, and through dedicated hatha yoga practice he was able to overcome his frail constitution and develop a healthy body and impressive physique. He traveled to Hungary in 1936, where he became acquainted with Elisabeth Haich (1897–1994) and coauthored with her Sport and Yoga. The first edition sold 100,000 copies. Since then it is reputed to have sold two million copies. While Yesudian, who immigrated to the United States in 1948, took the spiritual dimension of yoga into account, the title of his book implies the physical orientation that marks its contents.
Then, in 1947, Indra Devi (1899–2002), who had been the first female student (in 1937) of the famous Tirumalai Krishnamacharya, came to the United States and quickly became a successful yoga teacher in Hollywood. By the time she left for Argentina in 1982, she was known as “the First Lady of Yoga.” Even though she was personally in tune with the spiritual values of yoga, her books emphasized its physical side.
In the mid-1950s Walt Baptiste (1917–2001) and his wife, Magana, promoted yoga—especially its physical aspects—in California. They were students of Paramahansa Yogananda and had imbibed the spiritual teachings of yoga, but were heavily involved with physical disciplines like bodybuilding and (in Magana’s case) dance.
In 1958 Swami Vishnu-devananda, the disciple of the famous Swami Sivananda of Rishikesh, arrived in San Francisco. Today his International Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Centers comprise seven ashrams and twenty centers. His book on hatha yoga includes 81 pages on subtle anatomy (chakras, nadis, kundalini, etc.), a whopping 319 pages on cleansing techniques, postures, and breath control, and, at the end, 11 pages on the philosophy of yoga. One wonders whether readers ever get to the back pages.
In the ’60s and ’70s Richard Hittleman, Lilias Folan, and Sir Paul Duke (a former chief of intelligence in Great Britain) were among the most influential Western popularizers of hatha yoga. All had their own immensely successful television programs. The ’80s consolidated what had been gained in the preceding decades, and continued to stress the physical aspects of yoga. About that time some far-sighted yoga teachers started to rally around the ideal of “unity in yoga,” but the yoga movement was and continues to be highly fractionated and non-cooperative.
In the ’90s hatha yoga postures received another boost through video presentations, such as those featuring Jane Fonda, Ali MacGraw, and Rodney Yee. A growing number of Hollywood personalities, including Sting, Madonna, Raquel Welch, Meg Ryan, and David Duchovny, as well as popular sports heroes like basketball star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, quarterback Dan Marino, and tennis legend John McEnroe turned to yoga partly to keep fit and partly to find deeper meaning. This led to increased media attention, which, in turn, stimulated public interest in yoga postures even more.
Since the 1930s the current of physical yoga has been running parallel to the spiritual current initiated by Shivapuri Baba, Swami Vivekananda, and other early teachers. And good teachers of the spiritual dimension of yoga have continued to travel from India to the West. Gopi Krishna (1903–1984), Swami Muktananda (1908–1982), Swami Satyananda Saraswati (1923–), Swami Rama (1925–1996), and Swami Shiv Mangal Tirth (1945–) are among them. The boundary between the physicalist and spiritual currents of transmission in the West has always been fluid. But since Westernized hatha yoga has gone mainstream its promulgators have downplayed, if not altogether dropped, its spiritual aspects, and this secularized yoga has produced millions of practitioners who, at least thus far, have shown little interest in the spiritual side of yoga.
I have no doubt that in the long run, as humanity matures, spiritual teachings like yoga will come to the fore.
As these followers of physical yoga (or posture practice) continue to develop in body and mind, however, there will come a time when they start to ask themselves the age-old existential questions “Who am I?” and “Why am I here?” And since our own culture is so bereft of deeper answers to these vital questions, they will, over time, become sensitive to yoga’s spiritual teachings. This is why I have no doubt that in the long run, as humanity matures, spiritual teachings like yoga will come to the fore. In the meantime, however, we are left with an uneasy divide between the physical culturists and the spiritually motivated practitioners.
Finding Freedom in Yoga
Since the late 1960s I have sought to vigorously promote traditional yoga through my writings. Over the years, I have become more and more focused on this objective because the popularization of yoga is potentially destructive to the yogic heritage. While I applaud the fact that yoga has become available to so many millions of people outside India, I cannot fail to notice the distortions that have come about as a result of its success on such a large scale.
If we want to ensure a healthy future for yoga (which has become a social movement, though its members do not yet see this with sufficient clarity), we must not only look ahead, we must also look back into the past. We must remember yoga’s traditional roots, for without a proper alignment with India’s profound spiritual heritage our contemporary yoga practice is bound to be watered down more and more until it is ineffective as a tool for personal transformation.
Let us recall that the purpose of all traditional yoga is to set us inwardly free. Whatever the form, branch, or school of yoga, it always revolves around this pivotal, if elusive, thing called “freedom.” Regardless of our external circumstances, traditional yoga tells us that we can enjoy inner freedom in any given moment. In fact, some survivors of concentration or prisoner-of-war camps have told stories of finding that inner freedom in the midst of the most atrocious circumstances.
Traditional yoga seeks to put us in touch with the dimension of spirit, which is inherently free. By contrast, as we have seen, most of contemporary yoga is not about inner freedom but about fitness and health. There is nothing wrong with fitness and health, they are simply not final objectives of traditional yoga, not even the now-so popular hatha yoga. Few followers of so-called contemporary hatha yoga, in fact, know that the system that they purport to practice originally aimed at a complete transmutation of the physical body into a “diamond body” (vajra-deha). This diamond body is a thoroughly transubstantiated body that is endowed with all kinds of paranormal capacities—the kind of body that Christians know as the “Body of Glory” and the Tibetan yogis as the “Rainbow Body.”
If we practice yoga merely for health reasons, we will be able to improve or maintain our health, fitness, and flexibility. The yoga postures and breathing indeed work wonders. But if we practice yoga as mind training or as a spiritual discipline, we can definitely grow toward the freedom that traditional yoga authorities hold up as the highest goal of human existence. Often I remind my students that even a perfectly fit body can be broken into pieces in a car accident. In that case, the only resort we have is our own inner strength and mental peace.
Figuratively speaking, that accident will happen to all of us at the moment of our exit from this life. At the hour of death, when the body is disintegrating, we have only our inner resources to fall back on. All of yoga is, in a way, preparation for our final hour on earth. It matters how we exit from life, because death is actually a doorway to another state of existence. The quality of that state depends on the quality of the life we live today—that is, the quality of our present state of mind.
All of yoga is, in a way, preparation for our final hour on earth.
This should answer the question, which people sometimes ask me, of whether it makes sense for contemporary people, especially Westerners, to approach yoga as a spiritual discipline. My answer is that we need yoga more than the ancients did because our civilization has lost its bearings and we are spiritually adrift.
Today we are part of a huge evolutionary experiment that, I hope and pray, will one day produce really great Western yoga masters who will breathe new life into our ailing civilization. It would be good to keep this larger picture in mind when we practice yoga to the best of our ability, day after day. The transformation of our society must begin with each one of us. To use Swami Sivananda’s beautiful metaphor, we all are like gardeners who are called to weed our individual mental gardens so they can flourish. The process of weeding consists in gradually replacing our unconscious patterns of thought and behavior with new, more benign patterns that are expressive of the higher powers and virtues of enlightenment.
The “lost” teachings of yoga, the authentic teachings as found in the traditional literature and imbued with life by living masters, can provide guidance and sustenance in this immensely challenging process of voluntary self-change. Without them we could never cut through all the veils of misconception, bias, and self-delusion that mark our present state of consciousness. We need the “lost” teachings of yoga to awaken in us our own native wisdom (buddhi), so that external inspiration becomes a continuous inner impulse toward ever deeper realization.
J. G. Bennett. Long Pilgrimage: The Life and Teaching of the Shivapuri Baba(Clearlake, Calif.: Dawn Horse Press, 1983).
The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, vols. 1 and 7 (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1991).
Swami Rama Tirtha. In Woods of God Realization, vol. 1 (Lucknow, India: Rama Tirtha Pratisthan, 1978).
Sri Ananda Acharya. Brahmadarsanam or Intuition of the Absolute (London: Macmillan, 1917).
Paramahansa Yogananda. Autobiography of a Yogi (Los Angeles: Self-Realization Fellowship, 11th ed., 1987).
Paramahansa Yogananda. Whispers from Eternity (Los Angeles: Self-Realization Fellowship, 1958).
David Hoffman. “Bodies of Knowledge: Physical Culture and the New Soviet Person” (June 20, 2000). The National Council for Eurasian and East European Research.
John D. Fair. Muscletown USA: Bob Hoffman and the Manly Culture of York Barbell (University Park: Penn State University Press, 1999).
Georg Feuerstein, Ph.D. (1947-2012), authored over forty-five books, including The Deeper Dimension of Yoga and The Yoga Tradition, and created distance-learning courses on Yoga philosophy and history through Traditional Yoga Studies.