About ten years ago, I started to research the early history of yoga in the United States. The conventional wisdom of scholars over the last several decades has held that yoga became popular in America after the liberalization of immigration laws and the rise of countercultural spiritual seekers in the 1960s; before then, there was little yoga to speak of save for a handful of key figures like Yogananda and Swami Vivekananda.
As I began to search through historical newspapers of the interwar decades, however, I came across an abundance of display advertisement for yogis, swamis, rishis, and masters who were offering their spiritual wares to the public in the early twentieth century. Naively, I decided that it would be a good idea to compile all of these advertisements and code out the data from them—names, dates, cities, venues, lecture titles—onto a spreadsheet. Years later, that spreadsheet has expanded into a massive document with over 6,500 classes and lectures from seventy different yoga teachers all based in the United States.
This data is important for multiple reasons. First, it established that yoga had a large, vibrant, and active presence in the United States decades long before it was assumed to have been popular. Counter to the perception that yoga during this time was the domain of the West Coast or only large metropolises, yoga teachers operated across the country in nearly 150 towns and cities. Places such as San Antonio and Omaha were regularly visited by yoga teachers in the late 1920s, sometimes with two yogis or swamis teaching concurrently.
Second, the data clearly showed how the majority of yoga teachers operated during this time. They traveled from one city to another and stayed anywhere from a week to several months. In each city, they offered free public lectures that fed into smaller private classes of instruction for a fee. There were also patterns and methods in their travels. Like Methodist circuit riders, they would regularly return to the same cities once or twice a year. And like astute salesmen, they would adjust their persona and teachings after enough time testing them in front of audiences.
The advertisements also showed how varied and flexible the ideas of yoga were during the interwar years. In advance of the reforms of the hatha yoga renaissance in India, yoga in America was mostly devoid of now-familiar postures. It was more mental and magical. Yoga could be meditation, visualization, diet reform, or philosophy. Yogis and swamis regularly found audiences among Spiritualist groups that sought to communicate with the spirits of the dead or New Thought organizations that believed in the power of one’s thoughts to improve their health and worldly circumstances.
The data I collected revealed other patterns that were not immediately explicable. There was a massive increase in the amount of yoga taught in the United States starting in 1924 when the number of lectures and classes quickly doubled and then doubled again. Yoga was also taught in commercial hotels more than all other venues combined. In only a few years, many yoga teachers moved from teaching in a variety of locations—fraternal organizations like the Freemasons and Odd Fellows, women’s clubs, liberal churches, and high school auditoriums— to almost exclusively operating in hotels. And despite the nationwide diffusion of yoga, yoga teachers were almost nonexistent in the South, save for a handful of rare and fleeting appearances.
While data could place yoga teachers in particular cities and venues on specific dates, data alone could not explain why and how the patterns in their travels came to exist. It was the lens of race, immigration, and Asian American history that provided an explanation. The majority of the yogis and swamis who canvassed the United States had only recently become spiritual teachers. They were largely compelled to do so because of restrictive laws and policies. As they tried to earn a living, they navigated a terrain of racial prejudice, Orientalist stereotypes, and harassment.
The most important catalyst for the expansion of yoga occurred in a court room. Early in 1923, the United States Supreme Court heard an appeal for the citizenship of a Punjabi Sikh migrant named Bhagat Singh Thind. Citizenship during this time was held for “free white men” or “Africans of nativity or descent,” and there was little agreement as to where people from South Asia fit into American ideas of race. Thind argued for his whiteness on the grounds of caste, geography, and the racial science of his day, but the Court unanimously ruled against him.
Thind not only lost his appeal, but all South Asians were ruled to be “aliens ineligible for citizenship.” This placed them under a series of already existent laws against citizens of Asian descent that made them unable to own land or for American women to marry them without losing their own citizenship. Nearly seventy South Asian Americans who had previous gained citizenship had it stripped away. Unable to enter another country or live as citizens in the United States, they were in a condition that the political scientist Sudhindra Bose described as “men without a country.” With few options left to them and an American public eager to see every person from India as a mystic or wonderworker, dozens of South Asian Americans remade themselves into swamis and yogis in the wake of the Thind decision and began new careers on the road.
As these newly minted yoga teachers began to travel across the United States, they learned that many venues could quickly be closed to them due to the suspicions or prejudice of their hosts. Yogi Wassan planned a series of lectures in an Olympia, Washington, high school auditorium that were cancelled at the last minute after a series of complaints to the local school board. Commercial hotels were a reliable and consistent alternative that had amenities for travelers and could accommodate the different events of various sizes that yoga teachers would hold in each city. But as hotels allowed the expansion of yoga, they also limited where it was taught.
The same racial ambiguity of South Asian Americans within America’s racial binary that could classify them as Black, White, or somewhere between the two meant that they could either be subject to or exempt from Jim Crow laws. Some African Americans could pass as “Hindu” and avoid segregation with as little effort as putting on a turban and robes and speaking with an affected accent. Black stage magicians toured the South under Indian personae, and one minister used this loophole to expose the illogic of racial discrimination by entering the same establishments as a “Hindu” that refused him earlier as a Black man. Conversely, many South Asians fell under Jim Crow. Indian students at the University of Michigan in 1912 were denied entry in restaurants and hotels and were “treated by the students as negroes.” Jim Crow similarly affected the dozens of South Asian American traveling yoga teachers and lecturers. Swami Vivekananda was repeatedly denied lodging in several Baltimore hotels in 1894 because they “would not take in a black man, thinking him a negro.” Decades later, Hari Mohan Singh, who transformed himself into “Yogi Hari Rama” after the government revoked his American citizenship, was forced to wear his robes and turban in public at all times while staying at a hotel in Texas so the other patrons could be assured that the establishment was not integrated.
Traveling yoga teachers were also subject to other forms of harassment and arrest in many cities where they taught. Local prosecutors and police regularly used an array of vague and flexible charges to shut down lectures and even put some teachers in jail: vagrancy, practicing medicine within a license, fortune telling, or lack of a proper sales permit. The belief that yogis from India held hypnotic powers and could take advantage of women under their sway led to numerous arrests, court cases, and public scandals. Bhagat Singh Thind, who became a traveling yoga teacher a year after his Supreme Court case, had no less than four dramatic encounters with the law including time spent in a Nebraska jail. In one dramatic case, yoga was held in such low regard that it was partially responsible for the impeachment of the then governor of Oklahoma, Henry Johnston, who was removed from office on charges of incompetence connected to his relationship to Yogi Wassan and Deva Rama Sukul.
Traveling yoga teachers were connected to each other in a kind of informal professional network. They had numerous personal and professional relationships, and at times they would even exchange mailing lists and recommendations for particular cities. Word would have easily spread among them about problems that occurred to one of their guild and what places and practices incurred risk. As racism and Orientalist stereotypes fueled numerous incidents regarding yogis and swamis during the interwar decades, the responses of these yogis and swamis and the preventative measures they subsequently took shaped how and where yoga was taught.
In light of this, the seemingly incidental or broad-minded phrases they used to promote themselves—Yogananda’s insistence that his teachings did not conflict with anybody’s religion or Bhagat Singh Thind’s poetic reason for his donation-based lectures as “freely we give and freely we receive”—appear more like ways to avoid possible harassment or arrest. The absence of yoga in the South (where traveling yogis and swamis were treated especially harsh) makes sense as a way to dodge Jim Crow. The numerous qualifications and qualifiers that yoga teachers from South Asia placed upon themselves in advertisements—as university-educated, “high-caste,” fluent in English, or scientific—similarly feel like ways to soften suspicion and prejudice and used Orientalist assumptions to their benefit.
A century ago, students of yoga in the United States, like many practitioners today, believed that they were engaging in something pure, ancient, and Indian. In reality, the yoga they were doing was a bricolage of the metaphysical and mundane presented to them in an exotic, Orientalized package by largely educated and worldly immigrants from India. These teachers were themselves responding and adapting to a nativist and racist climate. Yoga in the United States during the interwar decades is one of many examples of how Asian religions in the United States cannot be fully understood outside the context of Asian American history.