Asana: The Dude Abides with a Side of History

Asana (1)

The third limb brings up memories of the cult favorite The Big Lebowski and his catchphrase “The Dude abides.” What does this have to do with Yoga? Asana in Sanskrit translates into staying or abiding, as Yogis, we may associate it with postures. But what does abiding have to do with it? The simple definition provided by Merriam-Webster is to accept or bear, to remain or continue. This applies to taking shapes and making postures as we stay in the expression, we allow the shape that our body can take. By abiding, taking the shape and allowing our breath to guide us serves as a resource to bring our focus inward, and our Drishti (concentration) toward our inner being.

Asana is the third limb of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra. The Yamas and the Niyamas are the first two limbs; they are more philosophical and behavior based. Asana is movement based. Asana is what made Yoga popular in the United States, we are a nation of doers rather than be-ers. As time has gone by we have become more open to the philosophy of yoga but being present is a huge ask for the modern American.

The Asana is merely a shape you take with your body. Without your body, the asana is just a concept, and I think this is a big point I would like to drive home. I have a lot of students come in frustrated because they are unable to do a pose, and more often than not it has to do with their structure and anatomy. But let’s talk about the history here in the West regarding the Asana.

Eugenie V. Peterson (AKA Indra Devi) is the woman we can thank for bringing Yoga to California. She was born into nobility, but due to the Russian Revolution in 1917 she fled her home in Latvia. In her teens, she developed a thirst for Indian philosophy and literature. Indra Devi made a vow to herself to one day go to India. Eugenie had studied theater in Moscow and was adept in dancing and acting, and upon fleeing her native land, she made her way through Europe in a theater troupe. Fast forward to 1927 when she decided to visit India, she sold all of her jewels and furs to stay in India. While there she began to act and dance in Indian Films. She became a colonial socialite attending all of the balls and events of the who’s who in India at the time. She also took the time to know people from various castes.

From all of her socializing, she eventually met the Maharaja of Mysore. After years of battling health issues, a Yogi friend told she should take up the practice of Yoga. She approached the grandfather of Yoga Krishnamacharya, to be his student. He refused on the grounds of her being a Westerner and a woman. So in the spirit of being a Westerner, she went over his head and spoke to his patron the Maharaja Mysore, who told Krishnamacharya to train her. She is thought to be the first Westerner to be taught by the master as well as the first to teach in India.

He agreed to teach her but was dubious of her intentions thinking she may wish only to be a tourist or fetishize the work; as a result, he put her on a strict regimen sure that she would give up. Mind you at this time she was a woman in her 30s (and being in your 30s in the 1920s isn’t like being 30 today), and Krishnamacharya’s pupils generally started in boyhood. That’s a lot of abiding on her end, she continued and remained through the hard, strict regimen until her Guruji saw that she was serious and lightened up a bit. She stayed the course and was his student for eight years. In 1938 her husband was transferred to China, and her Guruji told her to teach Yoga to Westerners, and she began to offer classes in Shanghai. She eventually made her way to the United States in 1947. And where did she land?

HOLLYWOOD! She taught Gloria Swanson, Greta Garbo, Eva Garbo and more. That’s why you will see actors of yore in Yoga poses. She brought and taught the American public Asana Yoga through her studio and her wildly popular book among housewives “Forever Happy, Forever Young”.

The second person who is responsible for how the West embraced Yoga as a physical practice is Richard Hittleman who returned from India in 1950 to New York and taught Yoga in a non-religious manner. Hoping that the Asana would inspire American Yogis to become motivated to learn the philosophy and meditation components of the practice. Indra Devi may have been the first Yogalebrity, but Richard Hittleman was the most well known. He taught Yoga on television in the 1960s. His approach greatly influenced how Yoga classes are taught, even to this day.

Why were Westerners the only ones teaching Asana at that time? The immigration service in the United States imposed a quota on Indian Immigration in 1924, and that is one of the reasons Asana made it here first because it was brought by Westerners that had traveled and studied in India. As I said in the beginning Westerners are more in tune with doing rather than being and that’s the way Asana was introduced as something to do.  The law was overturned in 1965 which created an opportunity for Eastern teachers to share their teachings. The time was ripe, with an interest in deeper meanings and alternatives that arose from the counter-culture of the 1960s and 70s Eastern philosophy and thought was welcomed and eagerly received.

You now have a glimpse into the “why” Asana is the first thing that many of us learn. It was our first introduction to Yoga culturally as Americans.

 

If you want to find out more about Indra Devi read The Goddess Pose: The Audacious Life of Indra Devi, the Woman Who Helped Bring Yoga to the West it’s a great read.

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