Last week I received a service award from the Consul General of India in recognition of 28 years of work in promoting yoga in Texas. Being on stage with several colleagues who have also been at the forefront of Yoga for many decades I took time to reflect upon the evolution of yoga that I have witnesses and participated in.
Yoga has come a long way from when I first started taking classes in Oxford in 1971. When I was eleven we practiced yoga on carpet or on a hard floor with a blanket to sit on. Sticky mats were unheard of (Angela Farmer had just started practicing on carpet underlay).
In the 1960’s people came to yoga primarily for spiritual reasons and to learn Meditation. By the early 1970’s people were discovering the health benefits of yoga, and asana was gaining in ascendancy over meditation. By the 1980’s yoga was thought of as something to increase flexibility. In the 1990’s, as Ashtanga yoga gained popularity, people took up yoga to become stronger. With the growing popularity of Vinayasa Flow people began to turn from aerobics to yoga looking for stamina and fitness. With Dean Ornish’s work people turned to yoga to reverse heart disease (something that we unheard of until then).
From the very beginning, Yoga has always offered all of these benefits… strength, flexibility, stamina, along with control of the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual aspects of being human. It is the public perception of yoga that has been evolving. Increasingly, the public is coming to recognize that Yoga can be all things to all people, including men! Although Yoga was traditionally dominated by men, by the time I started teaching yoga it was rare to have more than one male student in class. In the last decade men of all ages are increasingly turning to Yoga. Finally, the public perspective of yoga is catching up to what yogis have known for millennia – Yoga is for everyone.
Yoga has not always been as well received as it is today. In the 1990’s as yoga became increasingly popular, there was a strong push back, especially from evangelical Christians. When teaching yoga in Austin area schools I was warned against using words like ‘Yoga’, ‘meditation’ and even ‘visualization’ as this could result in problems with Christian groups. My first week teaching Yoga to the University of Texas’ Women’s Volleyball, Track, and Golf teams, I had to defend yoga against complaints from some of the girl’s parents that yoga was Satanic. One member of the volleyball team received a video from her families pastor titled: What To Do If Your Best Friend Starts Doing Yoga!
When I first started teaching Pranayama (yoga breathing) workshops on the UT campus I was attacked by a right wing advocacy group called Accuracy in Academia for claiming that breathing purifies the blood, despite the fact that any High School biology teacher could have told them that this is exactly what breathing does.
But resistance to yoga has crumbled in the last decade as more and more evidence, both anecdotal and scientific, has shown its benefits. In 2012 a study showed that 20 million people in the US practice yoga.
If you want further proof of global acceptance of Yoga, consider this… on September 27, 2014 Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed the United Nations and three months later the UN declared June 21st as the International Day of Yoga. 175 nations co-sponsored the resolution, the highest number of co-sponsors ever for any UN General Assembly resolution.
Last week I was invited to participate in Houston’s celebration of the International Day of Yoga with 3400 participants attending the festivities. In addition to receiving a service award from the Consul General of India (along with fellow yoga teachers from Houston – Robert Boustany, Jennifer Buergermeister, Billie Gollnick and Alejandro Chaoul) I also served on a panel discussion on the therapeutic benefits of yoga. The International Day of Yoga was a resounding success globally, and I already look forward to next years events… maybe I will see you there! Namaste’