Yoga in America- By Jonathan Abrams (NASM CPT, Yoga Alliance Regd. Teacher & Active Recovery Conslt)

Updated: May 21, 2019



September 11, 1893. Chicago. The World's Parliament of Religions, an offshoot of the World Columbian Exposition, gathers in the Windy City.


Highly respected delegates from a vast array of faiths gather from all over the planet to meet and share ideas. Their hope is to move humanity forward over the next 17 days with unshakeable moral values, profound camaraderie, and boundless optimism.


Picture the MVPs of various systems of beliefs assembled for an all-star team, minus the trading cards and major endorsements. In fact, let’s have some fun with that sports analogy as we take a look at the Parliament’s lineup.


From Kolkata, India…. standing a materialistically uninvolved, spiritually endowed 5-foot-9…. please welcome… the enlightened… awe-inspiring… Swami Vivekananda!


Yes, Swami heads up our all-star roster here because, on that day, he brought yoga to America. All it took was one speech and a series of poses and, forever after, human existence was changed.


You can Google Swami’s speech. It remains, even now (and forever), a masterfully composed array of deep-rooted, hugely altruistic words with the power to move mountains or, far more importantly, minds.


While you're at it, fill the search bar with “Who Brought Yoga to America in the World Fair?” One click and you’ll find Swami Vivekananda in bold letters, followed by something he wrote before he peaced from the east.

In terms of learning about yoga,


Swami’s words provide a perfect landing point for diving in from the shallow end of the pool. Come leap with me and allow me to say two things, so as to avoid any unnecessary splashes (or, worse, cannonballs).


First, I love and respect yoga.


Secondly, with respect, I love America.


“In America is the place, the people, the opportunity for everything new.”


-Swami Vivekananda




We presently live in a time where no one has any. As a result, yoga has most effectively bridged the gap as a resource for workaholics, fit-a-holics, and other-holics. Its appeal and effectiveness spans from the young to the middle-aged to the numerically mature and to any other life walkers.


Yoga has universally provided us with a tool for being able to take a breath and cool it.


Then there is the difference between those who “practice” yoga and those who “teach” it. We’ll get to that.


You'll find many who "practice" yoga using it exclusively as a means to exercise. The 60 to 90 minutes they spend in class looks more like an extreme hybrid yoga class named something like Max Out or Pass Out, Yoga Burn, or I Bet You Can't Namaste for 60 Minutes and Get Out Alive. And it's their practice, so why not?


Such flexibility (in every sense) is one of the many things I love about yoga. It can be whatever you need it to be. Whether you're looking to relax, loosen up, build strength, or treat a variety of ailments (including COPD, ADHD, asthma or rheumatoid arthritis) yoga will provide.


The list of practical applications for yoga is as unending and ever changing. Just consider some of the latest means of teaching this ancient practice: Harry Potter yoga, beer yoga, twerking yoga, tantrum yoga, kilt yoga, boxing yoga, stiletto yoga, laughter yoga, trampoline yoga, and yoga with animals.


There’s even “voga,” the long-awaited pairing of yoga and vogueing.

Before we stray too far from the physical benefits of yoga, we at least need to skim the surface of yoga’s benefits combined with weightlifting.


Standard movements such as downward dog, camel, and cobra supply exactly what the body needs as a counterbalance to weightlifting. Let’s look at some examples:

• Downward dog is perfect for tight hamstrings if you love to deadlift.

• Camel is a game-changer for relieving lower back pain and giving it strength. It's also a terrific way to improve your back's love-hate relationship with the squat.

• Cobra pose strengthens the shoulders, low back, and legs, and it stretches your abdomen while lengthening the spine.

• The cat cow is the cat's pajamas for increasing spinal flexibility.


So next time, once you've finished up wailing on your core, remember that cobra's the elixir of life to keep your abs strong and your back intact.

In essence, yoga transforms our entire beings. It reduces anxiety and depression; it provides tools to regain proper breathing techniques long forgotten from the time we are infants; it improves overall functionality inside and out, every bone, every organ and even every cell.


But with all that stated, one nagging questions still remains: What is yoga?

Beginning with its Sanskrit translation meaning to unite or to join, the list of meanings attached to yoga is vast, to say the least.


Yoga has been an essential religious aspect of Hinduism since 2500 BC. Jainism, too, also deeply incorporates yoga. While Buddhism is considered to be a philosophy as opposed to a religion, their reverence towards yoga is just as unmistakable.


So what does yoga mean in America? To many, yoga is a tried and true approach that has allowed them to find invaluable worth and meaning within them and all-around them. A daily practice of yoga has enriched the lives of countless individuals, particularly when paired with meditation, acceptance, forgiveness, and patience. If you want to truly practice yoga, this is that.


There are a few other meanings for yoga in America, but quite frankly, they’ve got nothing to do with it. Yoga with weights, yoga for purely the physical practice, or yoga for the pants is “practicing” yoga.


In saying that, I hope you’ll agree that “teaching” yoga is rendered now unnecessary—which brings me to Swami’s quote regarding the potential opportunities afforded to yoga in America.


If Swami Vivekananda knew before speaking at the World's Parliament of Religions what our place and people would turn yoga into, would that be enough to talk him out of it?


If the opportunity for everything new means “voga” and designer pants, then who am I to disagree? But given the practice’s rich heritage and profound impact on so many for so long, didn’t bringing yoga to America end with something completely different altogether?


By this I mean:

• The move from those who practice yoga and teach yoga to those who “practice” yoga and “teach” it.

• Our country’s predictable response of making profit out of non-profit.

• America’s penchant for glorifying our less-savory past while being just as oblivious to the pain we cause as we are to the beauty around us.

• As such, is America not the least electable candidate in giving Swami’s vision of yoga the dignity and esteem than he and it deserves?

• Presently speaking, have we not allowed the phrase Yoga in America to become an oxymoron?


It’s food for thought, I suppose. So I’ll leave you with my final question, and if you can, really let your ideas marinate.


Here goes:


How do you feel about yoga in America? Should it be? Shouldn’t it be? Or was it really ever?


Signing off until next time...


Take it active or easy,


Jon