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Women in an outdoor yoga community class, Texas, 2010

Modern yoga refers to the exercise, relaxation and self-development techniques wherein posture practice (asanas) is central. They are believed by its practitioners to provide increased strength, flexibility and beauty.[1] In the 21st-century, these techniques have emerged as an academic field of study that "traces its roots in the historic culture of South Asia, more specifically inspired from certain philosophies, teachings and practices of Hinduism", according to Elizabeth De Mechelis.[2]

Yoga is an ancient practice, whose important texts are found in the Buddhist, Hindu and Jain traditions.[3][4][5] It is a term in ancient Indian texts with many definitions.[6] Yoga has traditionally referred to both a school of philosophy (Yoga (philosophy))[7] and many paths for an individual's soteriological and spiritual practice. These historical texts mention asanas, but the posture practice is but one step and not their central focus.[1] They mention either just one asana or assert there exist as many as 8.4 million asanas, but provide no details.[8] A few Hatha yoga texts, some dated to around the 10th-century, describe many posture practices in detail.[9][10][11] Along with asanas, these historic texts additionally include various forms of breathing exercises, meditation, sometimes tantra practices, and means to spiritual liberation (moksha). Yoga in Indian traditions has been more than physical exercise; it has a meditative and spiritual core.[12][13] Outside India, yoga has evolved into a form of posture-based fitness regimen, a stress-relief and relaxation technique.[12] Modern yoga has adopted innovations from Western gymnastics and other practices.[14][1]

Modern posture practices have become a global phenomenon and are now synonymous with the term "yoga". Their foundations can be traced to the early 20th-century.[15] Some yoga scholars such as David White call Vivekananda as the "father of modern yoga", whose 19th-century discourses included yoga.[16] The modern posture practices first spread across America and Europe, and then the rest of the world. Many standing poses used in gymnastics were incorporated into yoga by Krishnamacharya in Mysore from the 1930s to the 1950s. Several of his students went on to found influential schools of yoga: Pattabhi Jois created Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga, which in turn led to Power Yoga; B. K. S. Iyengar created Iyengar Yoga, and systematised the canon of asanas in his 1966 book Light on Yoga; Indra Devi taught yoga to many film stars in Hollywood; and Krishnamacharya's son T. K. V. Desikachar founded the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandalam in Chennai. Other major schools founded in the 20th century include Bikram Choudhury's Bikram Yoga and Swami Sivananda of Rishikesh's Sivananda Vedanta Schools of Yoga.

The number of asanas used in modern yoga has increased rapidly from a nominal 84 in 1830, as illustrated in the Indian text Joga Pradipika, to some 200 by Iyengar in Light on Yoga and over 900 postures modeled by the Brazilian Dharma Mittra – a student of Kailashananda – in 1984. The modern posture practices have been variously branded for commercial purposes. The term "hatha yoga" is also in use, a gentle unbranded yoga practice, independent of the major schools, sometimes mainly for women. Yoga has developed into a worldwide multi-billion dollar business, involving classes, certification of teachers, clothing, books, videos, equipment, and holidays. The ancient cross-legged sitting asanas like lotus pose (Padmasana) and Siddhasana are widely-recognised symbols of yoga.

Some versions of modern yoga contain reworkings of the ancient spiritual tradition, and practices vary from wholly secular, for exercise and relaxation, through to undoubtedly spiritual, whether in traditions like Sivananda Yoga or in personal rituals. Modern yoga's relationship to Hinduism is complex and contested; some Christians have challenged its inclusion in school curricula on the grounds that it is covertly Hindu, while the "Take Back Yoga" campaign of Hindu American Foundation has challenged attempts to "airbrush the Hindu roots of yoga" from modern manifestations.[17] Yoga has evolved in many directions in modern times, and people are using it with different combinations of techniques for multiple purposes.



Elizabeth de Michelis – a scholar credited by Andrea Jain to have started the "modern yoga" typology and studies,[1] defines modern yoga as, "signifying those disciplines and schools which are, to a greater or lesser extent, rooted in South Asian cultural contexts, and which more specifically draw inspiration from certain philosophies, teachings and practices of Hinduism."[2]

According to Andrea Jain, "Modern yoga refers to a variety of systems that developed as early as the 19th century as a consequence of capitalist production, colonial and industrial endeavors, global developments in areas ranging from metaphysics to fitness, and modern ideas and values." In contemporary practice, modern yoga is prescribed as a part of self-development and is believed to provide "increased beauty, strength, and flexibility as well as decreased stress".[1]


According to Andrea Jain, the study of Modern yoga as a "concretized field" began in 2004 with the A History of Modern Yoga monograph by Elizabeth de Michelis.[1] Prior to it, early yoga scholarship such as by Mircea Eliade did not distinguish premodern yoga and modern yoga. The typology of "modern yoga" then did not exist. The monograph by De Michelis, states Andrea Jain, was a groundbreaking work that presented for the first time a fourfold typology comprising "Modern Psychosomatic Yoga, Modern Meditational Yoga, Modern Postural Yoga, and Modern Denominational Yoga".[1]

Mark Singleton – a scholar of Yoga history and practices, states that De Michelis's typology are very useful categories as a way into studying yoga in the modern age, but they are not a "good starting point for history insofar as it subsumes detail, variation, and exception".[18] Singleton does not subscribe to this interpretive framework, and considers "modern yoga" to refer to "yoga in the modern age".[18] He questions the typology as follows:

Can we really refer to an entity called Modern Yoga and assume that we are talking about a discrete and identifiable category of beliefs and practices? Does Modern Yoga, as some seem to assume, differ in ontological status (and hence intrinsic value) from “traditional yoga”? Does it represent a rupture in terms of tradition rather than a continuity? And in the plethora of experiments, adaptations, and innovations that make up the field of transnational yoga today, should we be thinking of all these manifestations as belonging to Modern Yoga in any typological sense?

— Mark Singleton[18]

According to Ian Whicher – a scholar of South Asian Religious Studies known for his studies on the Yoga tradition in India, the surviving early texts of pre-modern yoga tend to be similarly redacted and dry, but yoga in its authentic cultural context "has always been an esoteric discipline taught mainly through oral tradition".[19] This practice-based yoga has always manifested in the form of training by gurus to their disciples in India.[19] This emphasis on the transmission of yoga practice through verbal instruction and by direct demonstration has been a historic part of the yoga tradition.[19] According to Singleton, it is an Orientalists' error to rely exclusively on pre-modern textual material that has survived into the modern age, and this "reliance is particularly evident in the scholarship of yoga".[20] The "modern, English-language yoga", states Singleton, is "greatly informed by the textual vision of Orientalist and anglo-Indian scholarship of the late nineteenth century".[21]

Pre-modern yogaEdit

"Kapala Asana" (headstand, on a tiger skin) from manuscript of Jogapradipika, 1830.

The earliest evidence of yogis (practitioners of yoga) and their spiritual tradition, states Karel Werner – an Indologist specializing in Buddhist studies and Yoga, is found in the Keśin hymn 10.136 of the Rigveda.[22] The Hindu scripture Rigveda uses words of admiration for the yogis, whom it refers to as Kesin.[22] Other Vedic hymns present themes that were likely precursors of the yoga doctrines and practices, states the Indology scholar Stephen Phillips.[23] The earliest known use of the term "yoga" is found in Katha Upanishad and other Principal Upanishads of Hinduism, all dated to the 1st-millennium BCE.[23][24]

The Yoga Upanishads, such as the Yogatattva Upanishad, are among the oldest known texts on yoga that provide description of Yoga techniques and its benefits, states Mircea Eliade – a scholar of Yoga.[25] The Yogatattva Upanishad – variously dated between the 2nd[26] and pre-13th-century[27] – includes four chief asanas (siddha, padma, simha and bhadra) and states in its Sanskrit verses that yoga practice leads to "external signs of lightness of body, brilliance of complexion, increase in digestive power" and other benefits.[25] Similar benefits – steadiness, lightness, beauty, elegance of body and others – are also mentioned in other Sanskrit texts such as those belonging to the Hatha yoga traditions, as well as in non-Sanskrit texts such as those of the Digambara Terapanthis sub-tradition of Jainism.[28] These texts assert the "possibility of innumerable postures", and many of these manuscripts are dated to between the 11th and 13th-centuries, according to Olle Qvarnström and Jason Birch.[28]

Svatmarama's 15th century compilation, the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, describes 15 asanas, and states that of these, four are important, namely the seated poses Siddhasana, Padmasana, Bhadrasana and Simhasana.[29]

By the 17th century, asanas became an important component of Haṭha yoga practice.[30] The Hatha Ratnavali[31] by Srinivasa names 84 asanas, describing 36 of them.[32][33] These include several variations of Padmasana and Mayurasana, Gomukhasana, Bhairavasana, Matsyendrasana, Kurmasana, Kraunchasana, Mandukasana, Yoganidrasana, and many names now not in wide usage.[34] An illustrated 1602 Persian manuscript, the Bahr al-Hayat, depicts a yogi performing 22 asanas; it describes postures including Garbhasana.[35][36] The Gheranda Samhita (late 17th century) states that of the 84 asanas claimed to exist, 32 "are useful in the world of mortals."[37]

An 1830 illustrated manuscript of Ramanandi Jayatarama's 1737 Joga Pradipika contains high quality paintings of 84 seated and inverted asanas and 24 mudras in the Rajput style, probably from the Punjab, from before the onset of modern yoga. The illustrations are symbolic, not naturalistic. The yoga scholar Gudrun Bühnemann observes that these early images do not demonstrate a more ancient lineage of 84 asanas, "nor is there any evidence that it ever existed."[38][39] The Sritattvanidhi, a 19th century manuscript written before 1868, illustrates and describes 122 asanas.[40] By the late 19th century, an early modern yoga was being created and presented to the Western world by Vivekananda and others, embodying the period's distaste for asanas and fakirism by not mentioning them.[41]

Yogi Ghamande's 1905 book Yogasopana Purvacatuska marks a transition from the secret, medieval treatment of Haṭha yoga to the public, modern form. Illustrated with half-tone engravings of Ghamande performing 37 asanas, it is the first book to display asanas in realistic, quasi-photographic detail, and in so doing breaking Haṭha yoga's injunction of secrecy.[42][43]

Western traditionsEdit

A pose close to Samakonasana in Thomas Dwight's "The Anatomy of a Contortionist", Scribner's Magazine, April 1889

In the Western world, poses much like Durvasasana, Ganda Bherundasana and Hanumanasana appeared in Thomas Dwight's 1889 article "Anatomy of a Contortionist".[44][45][46] Poses close to Virabhadrasana, Adho Mukha Svanasana, Utthita Padangusthasana, Supta Virasana and others were described in Niels Bukh's 1924 Danish text Grundgymnastik eller primitiv gymnastik (known in English as Primary Gymnastics).[47][45]

Bukh's poses were derived from a 19th century Scandinavian tradition of gymnastics dating back to Pehr Ling, and "found their way to India" by the early 20th century.[45][48] In Mark Singleton's view, "virtually all" the standing poses,[a] and the many other asanas first seen after 1900, were created under the influence of modern physical culture.[50]

Vivekananda's 1893 visit to the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago,[51] and his 1896 book Raja Yoga, introduced yoga to the Western world. However, he wholly rejected hatha yoga and its "entirely" physical practices such as asanas as difficult and ineffective for spiritual growth. This was the unpromising base from which modern transnational yoga developed.[52] He was foreshadowed by Madame Blavatsky's vague 1875 fusion of Asian spirituality, incorporating Patanjali's Yoga, Buddhism, and Zoroastrianism with her personal "intercourse with the spirit world" in her version of Theosophy.[53]

In America, Genevieve Stebbins, loosely following the system of François Delsarte,[54] combined callisthenic exercises for women, deep breathing, relaxation and meditative visualisation in an esoteric spiritual framework, as described in her 1892 book Dynamic Breathing and Harmonic Gymnastics. A Complete System of Psychical, Aesthetic, and Physical Culture.[55][56] Yoga asanas were brought to America by Yogendra, sometimes called "the Father of the Modern Yoga Renaissance", his system influenced by that of Max Müller.[57][58] Yogendra founded a branch of The Yoga Institute in New York state in 1919, a year after founding the first one at Santa Cruz, Bombay.[59][60] Yogendra began the process of "domesticating" hatha yoga, seeking scientific evidence for yoga's health benefits, and publishing many books on the subject, such as his 1928 Yoga Asanas Simplified[61] and his 1931 Yoga Personal Hygiene. This helped to undo the negative image of asana practice.[62] The American explorer and author Theos Bernard studied traditional hatha yoga and tantric yoga, travelling to India and Tibet, and publicising these traditions in books such as his 1943 Hatha Yoga: The Report of A Personal Experience.[63][64][65]

"Seal" posture from Mary Bagot Stack's Building the Body Beautiful, 1931. It closely resembles Salabhasana, locust pose; she had learnt some asanas in India in 1912.[66]

In the 1930s, women in Britain regularly took exercise classes involving stretching exercises with postures now called Paschimottanasana, Trikonasana and others, but these were not called "yoga".[67] Poses including what are now known as Sarvangasana and Salabhasana were illustrated in the exercise instructor Mary Bagot Stack's 1931 Building the Body Beautiful, along with "breath-work" and an esoteric spiritual context; she had travelled in India in 1912 and incorporated some asanas in her method.[66][68] Postures "instantly recognizable" as Rajakapotasana, Urdhva Dhanurasana, Eka Pada Viparita Dandasana and Natarajasana were shown off by Adonia Wallace in Health and Strength magazine in July 1935; again, these were not associated with yoga, which the magazine covered in a separate section.[69] The form and content of modern yoga classes is in Singleton's view "strikingly similar"[70] to the exercise classes taught by Stack and others in the 1930s, and "may represent a direct historical succession" from them.[70]

Modern Yoga Renaissance, IndiaEdit

Modern yoga was created, in what has been called the Modern Yoga Renaissance,[58] by the blending of Western styles of gymnastics with postures from Haṭha yoga in India in the 20th century.[71][57] Before 1900 there were few standing poses in Haṭha yoga.[50][72][73][b] The scholar of religion Andrea Jain observes that the emphasis on practising asanas was "not central to any yoga tradition" before the 20th century.[74] The yoga scholar Norman Sjoman states that there is "no continuous tradition of practice that can be traced back to the texts on [hatha] yoga",[75] but that Kuvalayananda had, early in the 20th century, attempted to revive or to create a practice based on the medieval texts.[63] The flowing sequences of salute to the sun, Surya Namaskar, now accepted as yoga and containing popular asanas such as Uttanasana and upward and downward dog poses,[76][77] were popularized by the Rajah of Aundh, Bhawanrao Shrinivasrao Pant Pratinidhi, in the 1920s, though the Rajah denied having invented them.[78][79][80]

"The father of modern yoga"[81] Krishnamacharya teaching yoga in Mysore, 1930s[45]

From the 1850s onwards, there developed in India a culture of physical exercise to counter the colonial stereotype of supposed "degeneracy" of Indians compared to the British,[82][83] a belief reinforced by then-current ideas of Lamarckism and eugenics.[84][85] This culture was taken up from the 1880s to the early 20th century by Indian nationalists such as Tiruka, who taught exercises and unarmed combat techniques under the guise of yoga.[86][87] The German bodybuilder Eugene Sandow was acclaimed on his 1905 visit to India, at which time he was already a "cultural hero" in the country.[88] The scholar Joseph Alter suggests that Sandow was the person who had the most influence on modern yoga.[88][89]

In 1924, Swami Kuvalayananda founded the Kaivalyadhama Health and Yoga Research Center in Maharashtra, attempting to give a scientific and medical basis to asana practice, and emphasising its health benefits.[90] He combined asanas with Indian systems of exercise and modern European gymnastics, having according to Alter a "profound" effect on the evolution of yoga.[91][92]

In 1925, Paramahansa Yogananda, having moved from India to America, set up the Self-Realization Fellowship in Los Angeles, and taught yoga, including asanas, breathing, chanting and meditation, to "tens of thousands of Americans".[93] In 1923, Yogananda's younger brother, Bishnu Charan Ghosh, founded the Ghosh College of Yoga and Physical Culture in Calcutta; the college taught yoga to Bikram Choudhury, founder of Bikram Yoga.[57]

The proponent of Indian physical culture K. V. Iyer consciously combined "hata yoga" (sic) with bodybuilding in his Bangalore gymnasium around 1930. Iyer toured India doing lecture-demonstrations, accompanied by the yoga guru Seetharaman Sundaram, the author of the first modern guide to asanas in English and illustrated with photographs, the 1928 Yogic Physical Culture.[94][95][96]

Tirumalai Krishnamacharya (1888–1989), "the father of modern yoga",[81][97] claimed to have spent seven years with one of the few masters of Haṭha yoga then living, Ramamohana Brahmachari, at Lake Manasarovar in Tibet, from 1912 to 1918.[98][99] He studied under Kuvalayananda in the 1930s, creating in his yogashala in the Jaganmohan Palace in Mysore "a marriage of Haṭha yoga, wrestling exercises, and modern Western gymnastic movement, and unlike anything seen before in the yoga tradition."[45] The Maharajah of Mysore Krishna Raja Wadiyar IV was a leading advocate of physical culture in India, and a neighbouring hall of his palace was used to teach Surya Namaskar classes, then considered to be gymnastic exercises. Krishnamacharya adapted these sequences of exercises into his flowing style of yoga.[98][100]

Postures in the Danish gymnast Niels Bukh's 1924 Primary Gymnastics[101] resembling the asanas Parighasana, Parsvottanasana, and Navasana, supporting the suggestion that Krishnamacharya derived some of his asanas from the gymnastics culture of his time[102]

Among Krishnamacharya's pupils were people who became influential yoga teachers themselves: the Russian Eugenie V. Peterson, known as Indra Devi (from 1937), who moved to Hollywood, taught yoga to actors and other celebrities, and wrote the bestselling[103] book Forever Young, Forever Healthy;[104] Pattabhi Jois (from 1927), who founded the flowing style Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga whose Mysore style makes use of repetitions of Surya Namaskar, in 1948,[99][105] which in turn led to Power Yoga;[106] B.K.S. Iyengar (from 1933), his brother-in-law, who founded Iyengar Yoga; T.K.V. Desikachar, his son, who continued his Viniyoga tradition; Srivatsa Ramaswami; and A. G. Mohan, co-founder of Svastha Yoga & Ayurveda.[107][108] Together they made yoga popular as physical exercise and brought it to the Western world.[99][105] The asanas taught by Jois and Iyengar, and derived from Krishnamacharya's teaching, include over 28 that are "strikingly similar (often identical)"[102][c] to illustrations in Bukh's Primary Gymnastics.[101][d] These formed a familiar part of worldwide gymnastic culture in the early 20th century, as seen in magazines like Health and Strength; there is no suggestion that Krishnamacharya borrowed directly from Bukh.[110] Other similarities are that Bukh's exercises are graded into six series, are vigorously aerobic, are meant to be accompanied by deep breathing, and are linked by jumping movements (now called vinyasas), all just as in Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga.[110] Iyengar's 1966 book Light on Yoga popularised yoga asanas worldwide with what Sjoman calls its "clear no-nonsense descriptions and the obvious refinement of the illustrations",[111] though the degree of precision it calls for is missing from earlier yoga texts.[112]

Other Indian schools of yoga took up the new style of asanas, but continued to emphasize Haṭha yoga's spiritual goals and practices to varying extents. The Divine Life Society was founded by Sivananda Saraswati of Rishikesh in 1936. His many disciples include Swami Vishnudevananda, who founded the International Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Centres, starting in 1959; Swami Satyananda of the Bihar School of Yoga, a major centre of Hatha yoga teacher training, founded in 1963;[113][114] and Swami Satchidananda of Integral Yoga, founded in 1966.[113]

Vishnudevananda published his Complete Illustrated Book of Yoga in 1960,[115] with a list of asanas that substantially overlaps with Iyengar's, sometimes with different names for the same poses;[116][e] Jois's asana names almost exactly match Iyengar's.[117]

Worldwide commodityEdit

Yoga in public, Jakarta, 2013. The participants are relaxing in Shavasana.

Three changes around the 1960s allowed yoga to become a worldwide commodity. People were for the first time able to travel freely around the world: consumers could go to the east; Indians could migrate to Europe and America; and business people and religious leaders could go where they liked to sell their wares. Secondly, people across the Western world became disillusioned with organised religion, and started to look for alternatives. And thirdly, postural yoga became an uncontroversial activity suitable for mass consumption, unlike religious forms such as Siddha Yoga or Transcendental Meditation.[118] This involved the dropping of many traditional requirements on the practice of yoga, such as giving alms, being celibate, studying the Hindu scriptures, and retreating from society.[119]

From the 1970s, modern yoga spread across many countries of the world, changing as it did so, and becoming "an integral part of (primarily) urban cultures worldwide", to the extent that the word yoga in the Western world now means the practice of asanas, typically in a class.[f][120]

The market for yoga grew, argues the scholar of religion Andrea Jain, with the creation of an "endless"[121] variety of second-generation yoga brands, saleable products, "constructed and marketed for immediate consumption", based on earlier developments.[121] For example, in 1997 John Friend, once a financial analyst,[122] who had intensively studied both the postural Iyengar Yoga and the non-postural Siddha Yoga, founded Anusara Yoga. Friend likened the choice of his yoga over other brands to choosing "a fine restaurant" over "a fast-food joint"; The New York Times Magazine headed its piece on him "The Yoga Mogul",[123] while the historian of yoga Stephanie Syman[124] argued that Friend had "very self-consciously" created his own yoga community.[125][123] For example, Friend published his own teacher training manual, held workshops, conferences, and festivals, marketed his own brand of yoga mats and water bottles, and prescribed ethical guidelines.[126] When Friend did not live up to the brand's high standards, he apologised publicly and took steps to protect the brand, in 2012 stepping back from running it and appointing a CEO.[127]

Jain states that postural yoga is becoming "part of pop culture around the world".[128] Alter writes that it illustrates "transnational transmutation and the blurring of consumerism, holistic health, and embodied mysticism—as well as good old-fashioned Orientalism."[129] The scholar Jon Brammer described its status in 2010 as "a popular semi-spiritual commodity for everyone", giving as an example the gathering that year of 10,000 yoga practitioners to be led as a class in New York's Central Park, the first of its kind. The event was in Brammer's view a demonstration that "yoga is so multi-faceted, accessible, and acculturated that a commercial entity can 'put on a show' to popularize yoga with the help of a state board of parks and recreation."[130] Singleton argues that the commodity is the yoga body itself, its "spiritual possibility"[131] signified by the "lucent skin of the yoga model",[131] a beautiful image endlessly sold back to the yoga-practising public "as an irresistible commodity of the holistic, perfectible self".[131]

Comparison with Haṭha yogaEdit

Modern yoga is related to Haṭha yoga (one aspect of traditional yoga).[132] Bühnemann states that the traditional Hatha yoga traditions teach "a very limited number of asanas", and make them subordinate to other aspects and practices such as pranayama.[133] Traditional yoga often made use of a single asana, held for a long time.[134]

Modern yoga is a global development that is variously viewed through "cultural prisms" including New Age religion, psychology, sports science, medicine,[135] photography,[136] and fashion.[137] Jain states that although "hatha yoga is traditionally believed to be the ur-system of modern postural yoga, equating them does not account for the historical sources". According to her, asanas "only became prominent in modern yoga in the early twentieth century as a result of the dialogical exchanges between Indian reformers and nationalists and Americans and Europeans interested in health and fitness".[138] In short, Jain writes, "modern yoga systems ... bear little resemblance to the yoga systems that preceded them. This is because [both] ... are specific to their own social contexts."[139]

Western originsEdit

According to Sjoman, the asanas taught in Iyengar's Light on Yoga can be traced to his teacher, Krishnamacharya, "but not beyond him".[111] Goldberg states that Yogendra's beliefs about the value of yoga for relaxation derived from "Western alternative medicine and physical culture", especially from Stebbins.[140] Alter writes that Yogendra and Kuvalayananda "sought to purge yoga practices ... of all things esoteric, mystical and magical and [to] establish practice on the basis of pragmatic, rational, scientific principles",[141] and that these two men in effect invented "yoga as we know it today".[141] Anne Cushman writes that the 20th century pioneers in India looked out ancient hatha yoga texts, "combined their methods with Western gymnastics and fitness systems, and presented them in a sanitized modern context—as methods for cultivating wellness and vitality of body, mind, and spirit."[142] Yogendra's Yoga Institute considers itself part of a "Renaissance" of yoga.[58] In short, the relationship between modern yoga and medieval Haṭha yoga is, in Singleton's words, "one of radical innovation and experimentation", and not "the outcome of a direct and unbroken lineage of haṭha yoga."[143]



Modern yoga consists largely but not exclusively of the practice of asanas. The number of asanas grew slowly from the development of Haṭha yoga in the medieval period, but has grown rapidly since the start of the 20th century, as shown in the graph.[144]

Given this growth, many of the asanas now in use did not exist in Haṭha yoga. However, the ancient cross-legged sitting asanas like lotus pose (Padmasana) and Siddhasana are widely-recognised symbols of yoga, with the connotation of "spiritual urban cool".[145]

Asanas can be classified in different ways, which may overlap: for example, by the position of the head and feet (standing, sitting, reclining, inverted), by whether balancing is required, or by the effect on the spine (forward bend, backbend, twist), giving a set of asana types agreed by most authors.[146][147][148][149] Mittra uses his own categories such as "Floor & Supine Poses".[150] Yogapedia and Yoga Journal add "Hip-opening"; Darren Rhodes, Yogapedia and Yoga Journal also add "Core strength".[151][152][153] The table shows an example of each of these types of asana, with the title and date of the earliest document describing that asana. Dates of the individual asanas of every type are given in the separate List of asanas.

GS = Goraksha Sataka; HY = Hemacandra's Yogasastra; HYP = Hathat Yoga Pradipika; JP = Joga Pradipika; GhS = Gheranda Samhita; TK = Tirumalai Krishnamacharya; V = Vimanarcanakalpa
Types of asana, with dates and examples
Type Described Date Example English Image
Standing TK[154][50] 20th C. Parsvakonasana Side angle
Sitting GS 1:10-12 10th-11th C. Siddhasana Accomplished
Reclining HYP 1:34 15th C. Savasana Corpse
Inverted HY 11th C. Sirsasana Yoga
Balancing V[35] 10th-11th C. Mayurasana Peacock
Forward bend HYP 1:30 15th C. Paschimottanasana Seated Forward Bend
Back bend HYP 1:27 15th C. Dhanurasana Bow
Twist HYP 1.28-29 15th C. Ardha
Half Lord of
the Fishes
Hip-opening HYP 1:20 15th C. Gomukhasana Cow Face
Core strength TK[155][50] 20th C. Navasana Boat


Different schools teach yoga with emphasis on aerobic exercise (such as Bikram Yoga), precision in the asanas (like Iyengar Yoga), or spirituality (like Sivananda Yoga). Unbranded "hatha yoga" (not to be confused with medieval Haṭha yoga) may teach any combination of these.

The number of schools and styles of yoga in the Western world has continued to grow rapidly. By 2012, there were at least 19 widespread styles from Ashtanga Yoga to Viniyoga. These emphasise different aspects including aerobic exercise, precision in the asanas, and spirituality in the Haṭha yoga tradition.[156][157]

These aspects can be illustrated by schools with distinctive styles. Thus, Bikram Yoga has an aerobic exercise style with rooms heated to 105 °F (41 °C) and a fixed pattern of 2 breathing exercises and 26 asanas. Iyengar Yoga emphasises correct alignment in the postures, working slowly, if necessary with props, and ending with relaxation. Sivananda Yoga focuses more on spiritual practice, with 12 basic poses, chanting in Sanskrit, pranayama breathing exercises, meditation, and relaxation in each class, and importance is placed on vegetarian diet.[156][157][158] Jivamukti yoga uses a flowing vinyasa style of asanas accompanied by music, chanting, and the reading of scriptures. Kundalini yoga emphasises the awakening of kundalini energy through meditation, pranayama, chanting, and suitable asanas.[157]

A "hatha yoga" class practising Vrikshasana, tree pose, in Vancouver, Canada

Alongside the yoga brands, many teachers, for example in England, offer an unbranded "hatha yoga",[g] often mainly to women, creating their own combinations of poses. These may be in flowing sequences (vinyasas), and new variants of poses are often created.[70][159][157] The gender imbalance has sometimes been marked; in Britain in the 1970s, women formed between 70 and 90 percent of most yoga classes, as well as most of the yoga teachers.[160]

The tradition begun by Krishnamacharya survives at the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram in Chennai; his son T. K. V. Desikachar and his grandson Kausthub Desikachar teach in small groups, coordinating asana movements with the breath, and personalising the teaching according to the needs of individual students.[156][161]


Trikonasana is practised in Iyengar yoga with emphasis on correctness, sometimes as here using props.[162]

Yoga sessions vary widely depending on the school and style,[163][157] and according to how advanced the class is. As with any exercise class, sessions usually start slowly with gentle warm-up exercises, move on to more vigorous exercises, and slow down again towards the end. A beginners' class can begin with simple poses like Sukhasana, some rounds of Surya Namaskar, and then a combination of standing poses such as Trikonasana, sitting poses like Dandasana, and balancing poses like Navasana; it may end with some reclining and inverted poses like Setu Bandha Sarvangasana and Viparita Karani, a reclining twist, and finally Savasana for relaxation and in some styles also for a guided meditation.[164] A typical session in most styles lasts from an hour to an hour and a half, whereas in Mysore style yoga, the class is scheduled in a three-hour time window during which the students practice on their own at their own speed, following individualised instruction by the teacher.[164][157]


The evolution of modern yoga is not confined to the creation of new asanas and linking vinyasa sequences. Hybrid activities combining yoga with martial arts, aerial yoga combined with acrobatics, yoga with barre work (as in ballet preparation), horseback yoga, yoga with ring-tailed lemurs,[165] and yoga with weights are all being explored.[166]


Physical or HinduEdit

Since the mid-20th century, yoga has been used, especially in the Western world, as physical exercise for fitness and suppleness,[71][167] rather than for what the historian of American yoga, Stephanie Syman, calls any "overtly Hindu"[168] purpose. In 2010, this ambiguity triggered what the New York Times called "a surprisingly fierce debate in the gentle world of yoga".[169] Some saffronising Indian-Americans campaigned to "Take Back Yoga"[169] by informing Americans and other Westerners about the connection between yoga and Hinduism. The campaign was criticised by the New Age author Deepak Chopra, but supported by the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, R. Albert Mohler Jr.[169] Jain[h] notes that yoga is not necessarily Hindu, as it can also be Jain or Buddhist; nor is it homogeneous or static, so she is critical of both what she calls the "Christian yogaphobic position" and the "Hindu origins position".[171] Jared Farmer writes that Syman identifies a Protestant streak in modern yoga, "with its emphasis on working the body. This effortful yoga is, she says, paradoxical, both 'an indulgence and a penance'."[172][173]

Yoga (here Hanumanasana) is permitted in Malaysia as long as it does not contain religious elements.[174]

Authorities differ on whether yoga is purely exercise.[175][176] For example, in 2012, New York state decided that yoga was exempt from state sales tax as it did not constitute "true exercise", whereas in 2014 the District of Columbia was clear that yoga premises were subject to the local sales tax on premises "the purpose of which is physical exercise".[174] Similar debates have taken place in a Muslim context; for example, restrictions on yoga have been lifted in Saudi Arabia.[177] In Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur permits yoga classes provided they do not include chanting or meditation.[174] The yoga teacher and author Mira Mehta, asked by Yoga Magazine in 2010 whether she preferred her pupils to commit to a spiritual path before they start yoga, replied "Certainly not. A person's spiritual life is his or her own affair. People come to yoga for all sorts of reasons. High on the list is health and the desire to become de-stressed."[178] Kimberley J. Pingatore, studying attitudes among American yoga practitioners, found that they did not view the categories of religious, spiritual, and secular as alternatives.[179]

However, Haṭha yoga's "ecstatic .. transcendent .. possibly subversive" elements remain in modern yoga.[168] For example, Syman suggests that part of the attraction of Bikram and Ashtanga Yoga was that under the sweat, the commitment, the schedule, the physical demands and even the verbal abuse was a hard-won ecstasy, "a deep feeling of vitality, a feeling of pure energy, an unbowed posture, and mental acuity".[180] That context has led to a division of opinion among Christians, some like Alexandra Davis of the Evangelical Alliance asserting that it is acceptable as long as they are aware of modern yoga's origins,[181] others like Paul Gosbee stating that yoga's purpose is to "open up chakras" and release kundalini or "serpent power" which in Gosbee's view is "from Satan", making "Christian yoga .. a contradiction".[181] Church halls are sometimes used for yoga, and in 2015 a yoga group was banned from a church hall in Bristol by the local parochial church council, stating that yoga represented "alternative spiritualities".[182]

In a secular context, the journalists Nell Frizzell and Reni Eddo-Lodge have debated (in The Guardian) whether Western yoga classes represent "cultural appropriation". In Frizzell's view, yoga has become a new entity, a long way from the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, and while some practitioners are culturally insensitive, others treat it with more respect. Eddo-Lodge agrees that Western yoga is far from Patanjali, but argues that the changes cannot be undone, whether people use it "as a holier-than-thou tool, as a tactic to balance out excessive drug use, or practised similarly to its origins with the spirituality that comes with it".[183] Jain argues however that charges of appropriation "from 'the East' to 'the West'" fail to take account of the fact that yoga is evolving in a shared multinational process; it is not something that is being stolen from one place by another.[184]


The Indian Minister for Women and Child Development, Maneka Gandhi, joining a programme of yoga for pregnant women in 2018. She is sitting in Dandasana, staff pose.

Modern yoga has been popularized in the Western world by claims about its health benefits.[185] The history of such claims was reviewed by William J. Broad in his 2012 book The Science of Yoga; he argues that while the health claims for yoga began as Hindu nationalist posturing, it turns out that there is ironically[186] "a wealth of real benefits".[186] Among the early exponents was Kuvalayananda, who attempted to demonstrate scientifically in his purpose-built 1924 laboratory at Kaivalyadhama that Sarvangasana (shoulderstand) specifically rehabilitated the endocrine glands (the organs that secrete hormones). He found no evidence to support this claim, for this or any other asana.[187]

The impact of modern yoga on physical and mental health has been a topic of systematic studies, with evidence that regular yoga practice yields health benefits.[188][189][190] A review of six studies found benefits for depression, but noted that the studies' methods imposed limitations.[191] A review of 10 studies comparing yoga and exercise found that yoga was as effective as or better than exercise for several health measures, most likely achieving these results by regulating the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis and the sympathetic nervous system.[192]

The practice of asanas has been claimed to improve flexibility, strength, and balance; to alleviate stress and anxiety, and to reduce the symptoms of lower back pain.[193][194] A review of five studies noted that three psychological (positive affect, mindfulness, self-compassion) and four biological mechanisms (posterior hypothalamus, interleukin-6, C-reactive protein and cortisol) that might act on stress had been examined empirically, whereas many other potential mechanisms remained to be studied; four of the mechanisms (positive affect, self-compassion, inhibition of the posterior hypothalamus and salivary cortisol) were found to mediate yoga's effect on stress.[195]

Claims have been made about beneficial effects on specific conditions such as asthma,[193][194] chronic obstructive pulmonary disease,[193][194] and diabetes.[196] A systematic review noted that yoga may be effective in alleviating symptoms of prenatal depression.[197] A review of ten studies of older people found a large variability in yoga styles and outcomes, suggesting some improvement in gait, balance, flexibility, lower body strength, and weight loss, but with a need for further evidence.[198]

There is evidence that practice of asanas improves birth outcomes[194] and physical health and quality of life measures in the elderly,[194] and reduces sleep disturbances[193] and hypertension.[199][200] A review of six studies found that Iyengar yoga is effective at least in the short term for both neck pain and low back pain.[201] Studies suggest little or no effectiveness on cancer, though some researchers argue that yoga may reduce risk factors and assist in a patient's psychological healing.[202][203]

Secular religionEdit

A personal yoga ritual

From its origins in the 1920s, modern yoga has had a "spiritual" aspect which is not necessarily neo-Hindu; its assimilation with harmonial gymnastics is an example.[204][205] Jain calls modern yoga "a sacred fitness regimen set apart from day-to-day life."[206] Yoga practice sessions have, notes Elizabeth De Michelis, a highly specific three-part structure that matches Arnold van Gennep's 1908 definition of the basic structure of a ritual:[207]

   1. a separation phase (detaching from the world outside);[207][208]

   2. a transition or liminal state; and[207][208]

   3. an incorporation or postliminal state.[207][208]

Yoga classes traditionally end with Savasana, forming Van Gennep's postliminal state.[207][208]

For the separation phase, the yoga session begins by going into a neutral and if possible a secluded practice hall; worries, responsibilities, ego and shoes are all left outside;[209][210] and the yoga teacher is treated with deference. The actual yoga practice forms the transition state, combining practical instructions with theory, made more or less explicit. The practitioner learns "to feel and to perceive in novel ways, most of all inwardly";[210] to "become silent and receptive" to help to get away from the "ego-dominated rationality of modern Western life".[211][212] The final relaxation forms the incorporation phase; the practitioner relaxes in Savasana, just as dictated by the Hatha Yoga Pradipika 1.32. The posture offers "an exercise in sense withdrawal and mental quietening, and thus .. a first step towards meditative practice",[213] a cleansing and healing process, and even a symbolic death and moment of self-renewal.[214] Iyengar writes that savasana puts the practitioner in "that precise state [where] the body, the breath, the mind and the brain move toward the real self (Atma)" so as to merge into the Infinite, thus explaining the modern yoga healing ritual in terms of the Hindu Vishishtadvaita: an explanation that, De Michelis notes, practitioners are free to follow if they wish.[215][216]

The yoga scholar Elliott Goldberg notes that some practitioners of modern yoga "inhabit their body as a means of accessing the spiritual... they use their asana practice as a vehicle for transcendence."[217] He cites Vanda Scaravelli's 1991 Awakening the Spine as an instance of such transcendence: "We learn to elongate and extend, rather than to pull and push... [and so] an unexpected opening follows, an opening from within us, giving life to the spine, as though the body had to reverse and awaken into another dimension."[217][218]

In mindful yoga, the practice of asanas is combined with pranayama and meditation, using the breath and sometimes Buddhist Vipassana meditation techniques to bring the attention to the body and the emotions, thus quietening the mind.[219]


The idea of competitive yoga may seem an oxymoron to some people in the yoga community, but the fiercely contested Bishnu Charan Ghosh Cup is now held annually in Los Angeles.[220]


Fashion leggings (yoga pants) are becoming big business.[221]

By the 21st century, yoga had become a flourishing business; a 2016 Ipsos study reported that 36.7 million Americans practise yoga, making the business of classes, clothing and equipment worth $16 billion in America, compared to $10 billion in 2012, and $80 billion worldwide. 72 percent of practitioners were women.[222][223][224] By 2010, Yoga Journal, founded in 1975, had some 360,000 subscribers and over a million readers.[225]

Clothing and equipmentEdit

Fashion has entered the world of yoga, with brands such as Lorna Jane and Lululemon offering their own ranges of women's yoga clothing.[223] Sales of goods such as yoga mats are increasing rapidly;[223] sales are projected to rise to $14 billion by 2020 in North America, where the key vendors are Barefoot Yoga, Gaiam, Jade Yoga, and Manduka, according to a 2016 report by Technavio.[226] Sales of athleisure clothing such as yoga pants were worth $35 billion in 2014, forming 17% of American clothing sales.[221] A wide variety of instructional videos are available, some free,[227][228] for yoga practice at beginner and advanced levels; by 2018, over 6,000 commercially-produced titles were on sale.[229] Over 1,000 books have been published on yoga poses.[230] Yoga has reached high fashion, too: in 2011, the fashion house Gucci, noting the "halo of chic"[231] around yoga-practising celebrities such as Madonna and Sting, produced a yoga mat costing $850 and a matching carry case in leather for $350.[231]

In India, participants typically wear loose-fitting clothes for yoga classes, while serious practitioners in yoga ashrams practice an arduous combination of exercise, meditation, selfless service, vegetarian diet and celibacy, making yoga a way of life.[232]

Holidays and trainingEdit

Yoga holidays are offered in "idyllic"[233] places around the world, including in Croatia, England, France, Greece, Iceland, Indonesia, India, Italy, Montenegro, Morocco, Portugal, Romania, Spain, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Turkey;[233][234][235] in 2018, prices were up to £1,295 (about $1,500) for 6 days.[233]

Teacher training, as of 2017, could cost between $2,000 and $5,000.[223] It can take up to 3 years to obtain a teaching certificate.[236] Yoga training courses, as of 2015, were still unregulated in the UK; the British Wheel of Yoga has been appointed the activity's official governing body by Sport England,[237] but it lacks power to compel training organisations, and many people are taking short unaccredited courses rather than one of the nine so far accredited.[236]

Bikram Choudhury teaching a Bikram Yoga class, 2003

Copyright claimsEdit

Bikram Yoga has become a global brand,[238] and its founder, Bikram Choudhury, spent some ten years from 2002 attempting to establish copyright on the sequence of 26 postures used in Bikram Yoga, with some initial success. However in 2012, the American federal court ruled that Bikram Yoga could not be copyrighted.[239] In 2015, after further legal action, the American court of appeals ruled that the yoga sequence and breathing exercises were not eligible for copyright protection.[240]

In cultureEdit


The actress Mariel Hemingway's 2002 autobiography Finding My Balance: A Memoir with Yoga describes how she used yoga to recover balance in her life after a dysfunctional upbringing: among other things, her grandfather, the novelist Ernest Hemingway, killed himself shortly before she was born. Each chapter is titled after an asana, the first being "Mountain Pose, or Tadasana", the posture of standing in balance.[241][242]

The teacher of yoga and mindful meditation Anne Cushman's 2009 novel Enlightenment for Idiots tells the story of a woman nearing the age of thirty whose life as a nanny and yogini hopeful isn't working out as expected, and is sure that a visit to the ashrams of India will sort out her life. Instead, she finds that nothing in India is quite what it seems on the surface.[243][244]

Kate Churchill's 2009 film Enlighten Up! follows an unemployed journalist for six months as, on the filmmaker's invitation, he travels the globe – New York, Boulder, California, Hawaii, India – to practise under yoga masters including Jois, Norman Allen,[i] and Iyengar. The critic Roger Ebert found it interesting and peaceful, if "not terribly eventful, but I suppose we wouldn't want a yoga thriller". He commented: "I'm glad I saw it. I enjoyed all the people I met during Nick's six-month quest. Most seemed cheerful and outgoing, and exuded good health. They smiled a lot. They weren't creepy true believers obsessed with converting everyone."[246][247]


Yoga is becoming a subject of academic inquiry. Medknow (part of Wolters Kluwer), with Swami Vivekananda Yoga Anusandhana Samsthana university, publishes the peer-reviewed open access medical journal International Journal of Yoga.[248][249] An increasing number of papers are being published on the possible medical benefits of yoga, such as on stress and low back pain.[250] The School of Oriental and African Studies in London has created a Centre of Yoga Studies; it hosts the Hatha Yoga Project which is tracing the history of physical yoga, and it teaches a master's degree in yoga and meditation.[251]


  1. ^ An exception is Vrikshasana, known from the 17th century.[49]
  2. ^ One of the few exceptions is Vrikshasana, tree pose, described in the 17th century Gheranda Samhita 2.36.
  3. ^ Singleton notes that posture is limited by the structure of the human body, so that similarity is not proof of borrowing.[109]
  4. ^ Niels Bukh's Primary Gymnastics includes postures resembling Adho Mukha Svanasana (p. 36), Balasana (p. 32), Dandasana (p. 44), Navasana (p. 125), Prasarita Padottasana (p. 141), Parighasana (p. 119), Salabhasana (p. 140), Paschimottanasana (p. 99), Parsvottanasana (p. 86) Savasana (p. 46), Sukhasana (p. 45), Supta Trivikramasana (p. 83), Tadasana (p. 28), Uttanasana (p. 44), and Vajrasana (p. 32).
  5. ^ The different names are sometimes closely connected. For example, Vishnudevananda's Anjaneyasana 2 is Iyengar's Hanumanasana; Anjani is Hanuman's mother, and Anjaneya is a matronymic for Hanuman.
  6. ^ De Michelis notes that to speakers of Indic languages, yoga has a "quite different" semantic range, including meditation, prayer, ritual and devotional practices, ethical behaviour, and "secret esoteric techniques" that average English speakers would not consider to be yoga.[120]
  7. ^ Not to be confused with medieval Haṭha yoga
  8. ^ Andrea Jain is not, despite her surname, a practising Jain.[170]
  9. ^ Allen was the first American to be taught by Jois.[245]


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