An American History of Yoga
American Writers and Yoga
Romanticism and Mysticism. The American Dream? Well, for American writers, yes.
Asana, the physical component of yoga, is a vital part of Western yogic practice. As of 2013, according to The Washington Post, an estimated 20.4 million Americans practice physical yoga.
Americans have discovered the many benefits of yoga. As a result, over the last few decades, it has become not just a popular form of fitness, but also part of America’s popular consciousness.
The popularity of asana might be new to Americans, but yoga isn’t new to America at all. In fact, yogic philosophy had a major influence on American history, including canonical American literature.
As the scientific revolution peaked, artists reacted to the overflow of information through a new movement in art called Romanticism.
Rather than seeking Truth through science and experiment, Romantic artists focused on introspection, solitude, and Nature to uncover their versions of Truth. These very concepts are central to yogic philosophy.
It is no surprise then that American Romantic writers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau were students of the Bhagavad Gita, yoga’s sacred text.
Emerson once proclaimed, “I owed a magnificent day to the Bhagavad-gita. It was the first of books; it was as if an empire spoke to us, nothing small or unworthy, but large, serene, consistent, the voice of an old intelligence which in another age and climate had pondered and thus disposed of the same questions which exercise us.”
And Thoreau wrote, “In the morning I bathe my intellect in the stupendous and cosmogonal philosophy of the Bhagavad-gita, in comparison with which our modern world and its literature seem puny and trivial.
These writers studied the Gita and shared its philosophy among their contemporaries, including Nathaniel Hawthorne.
As I was preparing for this week’s yoga classes, I came across a copy of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Tales.
Thumbing through the book, I turned to “The Birthmark,” a short story about a man named Aylmer who is conflicted between his love of science and his love for his wife.
Hawthorne writes, “He had devoted himself, however, too unreservedly to scientific studies ever to be weaned from them by any second passion. His love for his young wife might prove the stronger of the two; but it could only be by intertwining itself with his love of science and uniting the strength of the latter to his own.”
Aylmer confronts the conflict that yogis for 5,000 years have battled: the Truth within vs. the “truth” of the external world
The story continues as Aylmer struggles between listening to his inner Truth and giving into the pressures of science as he becomes obsessed with removing his wife’s birthmark.
Yoga tells us that the Truth is always within. But if we don’t listen—if we don’t spend time in solitude—our “truth” will be found in viparyaya (incorrect knowledge).
Hawthorne even mentions the need for solitude. He writes, “The next day…Aylmer apprised his wife of a plan…They were to seclude themselves in the extensive apartments…where, during his toilsome youth, he had made discoveries in the elemental powers of Nature.”
(The American Romantics are famous for the desire to seclude themselves. Walden, anyone???)
However, Hawthorne wrote this text as a cautionary tale, reminding his readers that seeking the Truth can be a dangerous act if it is sought from the wrong source.
Yes, Aylmer goes into solitude. But rather than turning inward, he uses solitude to explore the truth of science, rather than the Truth within—the love for his wife.
He writes, “Our great creative Mother, while she amuses us with apparently working in the broadest sunshine, is yet severely careful to keep her own secrets.”
Those secrets often seem to be right in of us. But as yogis for thousands of years have claimed and as Hawthorne shows, it isn’t what’s in front of us that’s true. It’s what we uncover within.
The American Romantics weren’t wearing Lululemon and practicing hot yoga. But they were yogic. And their texts document an American history that practiced yoga. Just not the yoga we practice today.