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  • Writer's pictureAndrew Kelly

The Vedanta Society, New York 1898

Balm of the Orient: New York Herald, 27 March 1898

Swami Vivekananda was a pivotal figure in the introduction of yoga to the West. Two years after addressing the Parliament of World Religions held in Chicago in 1893 (where he caused a sensation) he set up the Vedanta Society in New York: here he gave instruction in his version of ‘Raja Yoga’ —splashed in this 1898 article across the front page of the New York Herald.

This was twenty years before the first adoption of the yoga (ie āsana) class as a format, and before the addition of the standing poses and sun salutes. Note that the practitioners are pictured alone in their own houses, some in their pajamas.

Vivekananda, a sickly man who would die in 1902 at the age of 39 (while meditating!), had an ambivalent but often scathing attitude towards haṭha yogic practice and culture. By 1898 and the publication of this article he had handed over the centre to his chosen successor, but the basic mix will have continued: theoretical teachings directed toward meditation practice, with some traditional āsana (seated poses, inversions) added expressly as an aid to meditation.

This is quite different from what lies ahead but already we have something decidedly modern and new: Indians on lecture tours and teaching in New York, and unlike the closed, initiatory world of world-renouncing haṭha yogins they were open to all comers, men and women alike who did not need to commit over the totality of their lives. 

[The New York Herald for 1898 is not available online, but the writer of the blog Slices of Blue Sky hunted it down on microfiche and posted both images (click there to enlarge; also available on flickr) and a full transcription of the article text. The article had been discussed in Stephanie Syman’s The Subtle Body: the Story of Yoga in America (2010).]


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