Yoga is the culture wars’ Survivor: unbloodied, unmuddied, unbothered by the media’s slings and arrows, its leotard still as pristine as its reputation.
Everybody loves yoga; 16.5 million Americans practice it regularly, and 25 million more had plans to try it in 2006. If you’ve been awake and breathing air in the 21st century, you already know that this Hindu practice of health and spirituality has long ago moved on from the toe-ring set. Yoga is American; it has graced the cover of Time twice, acquired the approval of A-list celebrities like Madonna and Sting, and is still the go-to trend story for editors and reporters, who produce an average of eight yoga stories a day in the English-speaking world.
Journalists love yoga because it fits perfectly into the narratives of everyday life. ‘Yoga Joins the Treatments for Kids with Disabilities,’ reported the Evansville Courier & Press last summer. According to a recent broadcast by NBC affiliate WNCN in North Carolina, ‘Yoga Helps Pregnant Women Prepare for Delivery.’ At the same time, a piece ran in Florida’s Bradenton Herald informing readers that ‘Soldiers Shape up with Peaceful Yoga.’
But wait, there’s more: Tribune Media syndicates a strip called Gangsta Yoga with DJ Dog, which appears in newspapers all over the nation. Then there’s ‘Yoga to Relax Sex Workers!’ from the Hindustan Times; and the revelation from Fort Worth, Texas, that yoga is replacing kickball in the city’s high school gym classes. Still not convinced? How about yoga skin care, Christian yoga, iPod yoga, golf yoga, tennis yoga . . . well, you get the picture.
Down the hall in marketing, this kind of press is the stuff of dreams. Yoga has ascended to the category of ‘platform agnostic,’ the highest praise marketers can conjure for any kind of content, trend, or person. Translation? Consumers drop $3 billion every year on yoga classes, books, videos, CDs, DVDs, mats, clothing, and other necessities. And nearly every day, we get news of another study confirming yoga’s benefits for arthritics, asthmatics, dyspeptics, depressives, people with HIV and cancer-literally whatever ails us.
How yoga arrived at its present bulletproof status in the media is something of a curiosity; after all, it’s foreign-born, liberal by association, and inclusive to its philosophical marrow. Yet yoga has somehow managed to embed itself in the great mall of the mainstream-and not like a rusty old peace sign, either, but as a replicating strand of our national DNA. Even red-meat culture warriors like Bill O’Reilly and Ann Coulter couldn’t swift-boat yoga’s progress now.
But yoga’s American dream is of a fairly recent vintage, as I discovered during a few years of research into its media past. In a journey through two centuries of our cultural history, yoga has endured a bumpy ride. It has been feared, loathed, mocked, kicked to the fringes of society, and associated with sexual promiscuity, criminal fraud, and runaway immigration. Really. Which make its recent media beatification all the more surprising.
Yoga arrived in the United States in a cloud of ideas both sacred and profane from what was called the Orient: the vast, exotic, unknowable out there. In 1805 William Emerson, father of Ralph Waldo Emerson, published the first Sanskrit scripture translation in the United States. His son Ralph and his Transcendentalist posse, especially Henry David Thoreau, were dazzled by the Bhagavad-Gita, which Emerson read in translation for the first time in 1843, and other Indian spiritual texts.
Thoreau kept a well-thumbed copy of the Gita in his cabin at Walden Pond and claimed wistfully that ‘at rare intervals, even I am a yogi.’ The Concord, Massachusetts, intellectuals were destined to remain wannabes, however. Yoga is not about texts. It is experiential, its wisdom transmitted skin to skin, teacher to student, which requires actual masters (gurus), who were in short supply for most of this nation’s history. It wasn’t until 1883 that the first Hindu cleric lectured in the parlor of Emerson’s widow in Concord and went on a short speaking tour. Five years later, an itinerant Tantric yogi named Sylvais Hamati befriended a curious 13-year-old Iowan named Perry Baker in Lincoln, Nebraska. Baker, after more than a decade of study at Hamati’s feet-and a glamorous Francophile name change-recreated himself as the first American yogi, Pierre Arnold Bernard.
Throughout those post-Civil War decades, the media’s take on yoga was dictated by the Theosophical Society, an influential spiritualist-reform group founded in New York City in 1875. The Theosophists embraced a combo platter of Hindu and Buddhist beliefs, and Americans first heard such terms as karma and nirvana through their efforts. The Theosophists were awed by the belief that certain yogis had demonstrated occult, Faustian powers over time and space, ‘over men and natural phenomena,’ as the New York Times put it in 1889. Astral projection, telekinesis, clairvoyance, speaking to the dead and hearing them talk back-it was heady stuff.
Partly through the influence of the Theosophists, a growing number of Indian holy men and yogis were here, plying the byways of turn-of-the-century America. The Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 launched America’s first superstar swami: the charismatic Vivekananda (which roughly translates to Blissmaster). The American press dubbed him the Cyclonic Monk for his energetic speaking style, and a lecture bureau took note and signed him up.
More swamis followed in Vivekananda’s path, more Americans saw the light, and that was more or less when yoga’s trouble really started. After decades of sketchy, slightly mocking coverage by newspapers and magazines, yoga came under increasingly vicious attack. What changed, you might wonder? The immigrants arrived-nearly 12 million of them between 1870 and 1900, piling up in the port cities of both coasts. The surge peaked in the decade between 1900 and 1910, when a million immigrants entered the United States each year and ran into an angry, nativist backlash.
On the West Coast a growing xenophobia, first aimed at Chinese and Japanese laborers, slowly turned toward ‘East Indians.’ Starting in the 1880s, a series of laws, beginning with the Chinese Exclusion Act, was passed to control immigration. In San Francisco, the proudly racist Asiatic Exclusion League, which in the past had campaigned against the ‘yellow peril’ from China, Japan, and Korea, turned its attention to immigrants from India. By 1906 all Asian Indians were denied U.S. citizenship; in 1917 the Asiatic Barred Zone Act excluded all immigration from South and Southeast Asia, including India. It wasn’t repealed until 1965.
At the same time, a spiritual American reform movement was nearing the height of its success in a campaign to ‘purify’ the nation’s morals through legislation. You can read the tea leaves here: Fear of foreigners plus a purity panic (brought to a boil by the sensational ‘yellow press’) set loose the idea that these dark-skinned foreigners and the morals-loosening effects of their ‘yogi philosophy’ were a menace to society. Groups of followers were from then on routinely described as ‘cults.’ In the spring of 1908, newspaper readers from coast to coast read about the humiliation of Mr. Winthrop Ellsworth Stone, the president of Purdue University, whose wife fell under the yoga spell and left him and their children.
The American media’s war on yoga picked up momentum, fueled by growing ‘white slave’ hysteria (They are stealing our daughters!). In June 1910, the month Congress unanimously passed the Mann Act, known as the White Slavery Act, the American yogi Pierre Bernard was jailed for abducting two young women in New York City; a week of sensational press coverage, in which he was forever branded the Omnipotent Oom, the Loving Guru of the Tantriks, ensued. Here’s one of 50 headlines from that week, from William Randolph Hearst’s New York American: ‘Police Break in on Weird Hindu Rites: Girls and Men Mystics Cease Strange Dance as ‘Priest’ Is Arrested.’
To the American consumer of news, yoga was no longer just a queer pastime; it was evil, a con, a cult-uncivilized, heathen, and anti-American. Even the word became a metonym for secret doorways and sex worship; yogis were nothing more than swindlers and seducers.
In the autumn of 1911, the slimiest-but in retrospect the most entertaining-of these attacks was published by the Los Angeles Times. ‘A Hindu Apple for Modern Eve: The Cult of the Yogis Lures Women to Destruction,’ the headline read. ‘The incense of sandalwood burned in their honor all the way from the Lake Shore Drive to Fifth Avenue and the Back Bay,’ the article said. ‘These dusky-hued Orientals sat on drawing-room sofas, the center of admiring attention, while fair hands passed them cakes and served them tea in Sevres china.’ Toward the end of the year, Current Literature published a version of a recent piece titled ‘The Heathen Invasion of America,’ which concluded: ‘Literally, yoga means the ‘path’ that leads to wisdom. Actually it is proving the way that leads to domestic infelicity, and insanity and death.’
The federal government was apparently prodded into action by such press reports. ‘Agents are now quietly at work investigating the strange spread of these Oriental religions throughout this country,’ the Washington Post reported in early 1912. The article listed a roster of female converts and their tragic ends: Miss Sarah Farnum ‘gave her entire fortune’ for a Hindu summer school. Miss Aloise Reuss, of Chicago, went to live in the Illinois Insane Asylum. Mrs. May Wright Sewell, of Indianapolis, Indiana, was made ‘dangerously ill’ by the teachings of her yogi.
During the years of the immigration backlash and the morality panic, even into World War I, government agencies enlisted private individuals to go undercover, and journalists did their part. Hearst’s New York American, which had been tyrannizing Bernard (a.k.a. the Great Oom) and his yoga followers since 1910, began a new campaign in 1918 to dig up actionable dirt. After a few months, the paper turned over its findings to the New York district attorney’s office in return for exclusive access to the bust. The page-one story rambled on for 130 column inches, proudly proclaiming the paper’s role in hunting down Bernard’s yoga cult. The headline was a classic: ‘Twelve Cult Worshippers Taken in a Raid Upon Home of the Great Oom.’
In the 1920s, when tabloids became part of the journalistic landscape, yoga became part of the tabs’ new ‘love cult’ obsession. Reporters found love cults from France (‘Rich Worship Love Goddess Along Riviera’) to San Francisco (‘Orgies of Super-Love Cult Send Five to Jail’). Hearst’s New York Journal gave the tabs a run for their money with takeouts like this: ‘Latest Black Magic Revelations About Nefarious American Love Cults,’ which included Bernard, who had combined yoga with baseball, vaudeville, and circuses in Nyack, New York, in the process convincing members of the Vanderbilt family to bankroll his efforts.
By then, America’s second most famous swami, a young Calcutta mystic who went by the name Yogananda, had arrived in the United States. (His Autobiography of a Yogi, published in 1946, is still in print.) Yogananda quickly built an American following for his ‘Yogoda’ brand of meditation-based yoga through relentless touring and speaking. ‘You Americans exercise your bodies and brains too much and your will power too little,’ he admonished, throwing himself from lotus position to a handstand in one motion. His followers purchased a hilltop retreat for his ashram outside Los Angeles that later became the Self-Realization Fellowship.
But even this holy man came in for his share of abuse. He was hauled into court on charges of property fraud in Los Angeles and vaguely threatened with immigration proceedings. He was run out of Miami by 200 angry husbands, as one newspaper reported in 1927: ‘His life threatened by a delegation of indignant citizens, Swami Yogananda, East Indian love cult leader, was at a hotel tonight determined to stay in Miami ‘and fight it out,’ despite Police Chief N. Leslie Quiggs’s order that he leave town immediately.’
In the 1930s and 1940s, a truce settled on the land. The cult connection still hung on for headline writers, and crimes were still attributed to immoral yogis, but a softening could be felt in the media’s stance. With Bernard and his yoga-and-baseball ashram prospering on the East Coast and Yogananda’s yoga-of-the-will thriving on the West, a kind of amused toleration began to invade newsrooms. Yoga no longer qualified as a novelty; it wasn’t going away, but it wasn’t stealing the country’s women, either, and it appealed mostly to rubber-legged, brown-rice-and-green-tea types.
The 1930s brought the rise of gossip columnists, many of whom wrote six days a week and relied to an inordinate degree on movie stars’ predilections, which began to involve yoga. In 1938 Cole Porter was back in the hospital, a year after his legs were crushed in a riding accident. He was studying yoga, reported Leonard Lyons in the Washington Post, ‘to attain complete control of his system.’ Lyons had previously outed Greta Garbo as a lonely yogini; Maureen O’Sullivan was mentioned by the beauty columnist Ida Jean Kain in an article titled ‘Yoga Exercises Finding Favor with Women in America.’ Yoga was by this time, if not totally American, a harmless pastime.
In the 1940s, the first homegrown celebrity yogi since Pierre Bernard turned out to be his nephew Theos Bernard, a lawyer and graduate student who completed his master’s thesis, ‘Introduction to Tantrik Ritual,’ at Columbia University in 1936. Theos traveled to India to study yoga and made his way to Tibet; he arrived at Lhasa on an auspicious day, and so was welcomed and venerated as the first White Lama. His account of his initiation into secret Buddhist rites, Penthouse of the Gods, was published by Scribner’s in 1939. Theos, with his matinee-idol looks and eager-to-please disposition, was an instant success on the lecture circuit. By 1944 he had married a wealthy opera star and settled in his own mountaintop ashram in California, built with his wife’s money. In 1947, on a return trip to Tibet, he was apparently caught up in sectarian crossfire and killed, his body never found.
As you might expect, the 1950s were for yoga a decade of denial and paranoia. ‘It Wasn’t Yoga, Mrs. FDR Says,’ announced a headline in the Chicago Defender. Eleanor Roosevelt, responding to a written report that she practiced yoga in the White House, admitted that although she liked to do headstands, ‘I did not know they were called yoga exercises.’ Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru of India, prompted by Cold War worries, denied reports that his nation would supply the Soviet Union with yogis to help cosmonauts breathe easier in outer space.
In Hartford, Connecticut, of all places, there arose the unsung hero of the yoga revolution, a political correspondent and columnist for the Hartford Courant named Jack Zaiman. Nobody has yet given JZ the credit he deserves. Zaiman, a gym rat by his own lights, looks from his photograph to have been as profound a square as can be imagined. As early as 1953, Zaiman put his credibility on the line by proclaiming: ‘I Am a Yoga.’ Never mind the weird syntax, let us here and now give props to Jack, who went on to write a goodly number of columns extolling the virtues of yoga for the next 10 years. ‘Now don’t laugh,’ he began in 1955, ‘it may sound like a gag but it’s not. I think the most important book in my library is a small volume on Yoga written by a woman named Indra Devi.’
It was no gag. Zaiman took his book to the Y to practice headstands and, conscious of it or not, started the next great leap forward in the advance of yoga in America. In the mid-1950s, everyday people assembled in meeting rooms and gyms at YWCAs and YMCAs to give yoga a try. Why not? We had already tried Latin dancing. The classes spread from neighborhood to neighborhood, from Inglewood to Westwood in L.A., and from Oak Park to La Grange in Chicago. There was still a ‘Ripley’s Believe It or Not!’ approach to yoga among journalists, evident in the tale about a visiting yogi who drank acid, chewed on broken glass, and told reporters that if yoga was practiced long enough, it could protect humanity from a nuclear attack. ‘Yoga Best A-Bomb Control After 12 Years, Says Yogi’ was the headline in the Hartford Courant, but by the decade’s end, the tide had turned; only loonies considered yoga to be dangerous anymore. Heck, even Gary Cooper practiced yoga to relax.
The 1960s began with Frances P. Bolton, a 74-year-old congresswoman from Ohio, telling a radio interviewer that she loved yoga and had learned it back in the 1920s. United Press International picked up the story and put it out on the wires. Bolton was unafraid to be seen as weird, and she was a Republican, too. Take that, Eleanor. In 1961 the Los Angeles Times began a landmark multipart series called ‘What’s Yoga?’ and Richard Hittleman’s Yoga for Health TV show replaced Jack LaLanne in some markets.
By mid-decade, the New York Times estimated that yoga practitioners numbered between 20,000 and 100,000. Then in 1967 the Beatles crossed paths with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, who was preaching a brand of meditation-based yoga that he trademarked Transcendental Meditation. ‘Beatle Says They’ve Given Up Drugs’ was the headline in the Washington Post coverage that summer (that was Paul talking, though their sobriety was extremely temporary, as it turned out). The Beatles made plans to go to India, and the American counterculture lit some incense and followed in spirit. We went mad for yoga-well, for all things Eastern. Mia Farrow, Mick Jagger, Donovan, and others trailed the Beatles to India to spend a few months deepening their study.
In the 1970s and 1980s, yoga experienced slower growth, part of a natural backlash against all things hippie and a concomitant leveling off of media interest. In fact, it kind of disappeared during the Jane Fonda years, the Time of the Burn, for those who remember. Fitness freaks wanted heart-thumping aerobics, marathons, Ironman decathlons; anything but downward dog.
Fast-forward to 1993. Open your morning New York Times to page C-1. Sure enough, there is Sarah Kass introducing you, dear reader, to yoga as if it’s a brand-new health fad. ‘Yoga, a ’60s Survivor, Is Luring New Converts’ read the commanding headline. Kass found a raft of new converts, many of them young. ‘It’s not that yoga hasn’t been there all this time,’ declared Mata Ezraty, director of Yoga Works in Santa Monica, California, ‘but it’s like it’s just been discovered.’ An editor at Yoga Journal, the Berkeley-based bible of the yoga industry, noted in the piece that there had been a surge in attendance in classes and that the magazine’s circulation had ‘more than doubled in six years, to 70,000.’
Today, Yoga Journal is still the leading publication for yoga professionals, and it has branched off into the lucrative area of conferences and retreats. Its editor in chief, Kathryn Arnold, has presided over a tripling of the magazine’s circulation while its advertising revenues have quadrupled since her watch started in 1998. YJ, as it calls itself, is now up to 350,000 subscribers, and Arnold attributes the rise to a singular event. ‘The defining moment when the medical community started taking notice of yoga occurred in 1990,’ Arnold told the Los Angeles Times. That year, the Times went on, the ‘Lancet published the results of the California physician Dean Ornish’s research indicating that lifestyle changes-including yoga-based stress management-could reverse heart disease. From then on it was onward and upward.’
It’s also probably not an accident that the front-runners of the baby boom generation were lurching through their 50s at the time. In 2005, with this group poised to turn 60, Yoga Journal underwrote an expensive study that found-to the relief of YJ‘s marketing team-that about 16.5 million Americans were practicing yoga regularly. It makes perfect sense. What better exercise to facilitate a low-impact glide to the golden years . . . with or without spiritual attachments? There are some 78 million baby boomers living and breathing and getting older. In fact, 7,920 more of them turn 60 every day. If I were a betting man, I would lay odds that yoga is not about to disappear again for a long time to come.
The only question worth a wager now is when publishing’s big dogs-Conde Nast, Hearst, and Rodale, perhaps the New York Times Company-jump in and launch competitive ventures to get on the mat with this free-spending cohort. It’s the 21st century after all, and there’s no longer any fear of yoga, only a lingering suspicion that a competitor somewhere may be getting a leg up.
Excerpted from Columbia Journalism Review, America’s premier media monitor (Nov./Dec. 2006). Subscriptions: $27.95/yr. (6 issues) from Box 578, Mt. Morris, IL 61054; www.cjr.org.