Modern yoga

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Modern yoga is a wide range of yoga practices with differing purposes, encompassing in its various forms yoga philosophy derived from the Vedas, physical postures derived from Hatha yoga, devotional and tantra-based practices, and Hindu nation-building approaches.

The scholar Elizabeth de Michelis proposed a 4-part typology of modern yoga in 2004, separating modern psychosomatic, denominational, postural, and meditational yogas. Other scholars have noted that her work stimulated research into the history, sociology, and anthropology of modern yoga, but have not all accepted her typology. They have variously emphasised modern yoga's international nature with its intercultural exchanges; its variety of beliefs and practices; its degree of continuity with older traditions, such as ancient Indian philosophy and medieval Hatha yoga; its relationship to Hinduism; its claims to provide health and fitness; and its tensions between the physical and the spiritual, or between the esoteric and the scientific.


Early modern yoga[edit]

In the early years of British colonialism in India, the elites from the United States, Europe, and India rejected the concept of hatha yoga and perceived it as unsociable.[1] By the late 19th century, yoga was presented to the Western world in different forms such as by Vivekananda and Madame Blavatsky. It embodied the period's distaste for yoga postures and hatha yoga more generally, as practised by the despised Nath yogins, by not mentioning them.[2] Blavatsky helped to pave the way for the spread of yoga in the West by encouraging interest in occult and esoteric doctrines and a vision of the "mystical East".[3] She had travelled to India in 1852-3, and became greatly interested in yoga in general, while despising and distrusting hatha yoga.[4] In the 1890s, Vivekananda taught a mixture of yoga breathwork (pranayama), meditation, and positive thinking, derived from the new thought movement, again explicitly rejecting the practice of asanas and hatha yoga.[5]

Yoga as exercise[edit]

A few decades later, a very different form of yoga, the prevailing yoga as exercise, was created by Yogendra, Kuvalayananda, and Krishnamacharya, starting in the 1920s. It was predominantly physical, consisting mainly or entirely of asanas, postures derived from those of hatha yoga, but with a contribution from western gymnastics. They advocated this form of exercise under the guise of the supposed specific medical benefits of particular postures, quietly dropping its religious connotations, encouraged by the prevailing Indian nationalism which needed something to build an image of a strong and energetic nation. The yoga that they created, however, was taken up predominantly in the English-speaking world, starting with America and Britain.[5]


The popularity of modern yoga increased as travel became more feasible, allowing exposure to different teachings and practices. Immigration restrictions were relaxed from India to the USA and some parts of Europe around the 1960s. And, spiritual gurus began to offer what they referred to as solutions to the problems of modern life. As new-age high profile individuals, such as the Beatles, tried out yoga, the practice became more visible and desirable as a means to improve life.[1]

De Michelis's four types[edit]

The idea of yoga as "modern" was current before any definition of it was provided; for example, the philosopher Ernest Wood referred to it in the title of his 1948 book Practical Yoga, Ancient and Modern.[6] Elizabeth de Michelis started the academic study of modern yoga with her 2004 typology.[7] She defined 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."[8] With Vivekananda's 1896 Raja Yoga as its starting point, her typology of yoga forms as seen in the West, explicitly excluding forms seen only in India, proposed four subtypes.[9]

De Michelis type[9] De Michelis definition[9] Example given by De Michelis
of "relatively pure contemporary types"[9]
Image of example guru
named by De Michelis[9]
"Modern Psychosomatic Yoga" Body-Mind-Spirit training
Emphasises practical experience
Little restriction on doctrine
Practised in a privatised setting
The Yoga Institute, Santa Cruz (Yogendra, 1918)
Kaivalyadhama, Lonavla (Kuvalayananda, 1924)
Sivananda yoga (Sivananda, Vishnudevananda, etc., 1959)
Himalayan Institute (Swami Rama, 1971)
Yogendra, c. 1920
"Modern Denominational Yoga" Neo-Hindu gurus
Emphasis on each school's own teachings
Own belief system and authorities
Cultic environment, sometimes sectarian
May use all other forms of Modern Yoga
Brahma Kumaris (Lekhraj Kripalani, 1930s)
Sahaja Yoga (Nirmala Srivastava, 1970)
ISKCON (A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, 1966)
Rajneeshism (Rajneesh, c. 1964)
Late Transcendental Meditation
Nirmala Srivastava, 1994
"Modern Postural Yoga" Emphasises asanas (yoga postures)
and pranayama
Iyengar Yoga (B. K. S. Iyengar, c. 1966)
Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga (Pattabhi Jois, c. 1948)
Pattabhi Jois, 2006
"Modern Meditational Yoga" Emphasises mental techniques
of concentration and meditation
Early Transcendental Meditation (Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, 1950s)
Sri Chinmoy, c. 1964
some current Buddhist organisations[a]
Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, 1978

From the 1970s, modern yoga spread across many countries of the world, changing as it did so, and in De Michelis's view 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.[b][10]

Other viewpoints[edit]

Endless variety[edit]

Mark Singleton, a scholar of yoga's history and practices, states that De Michelis's typology provides categories useful as a way into the study of yoga in the modern age, but that it is not a "good starting point for history insofar as it subsumes detail, variation, and exception".[11] Singleton does not subscribe to De Michelis's interpretative framework, instead considering "modern yoga" to be a descriptive name for "yoga in the modern age".[11] He questions the De Michelis 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[11]
"The father of modern yoga"[12] Krishnamacharya teaching postural yoga in Mysore, 1930s[13]

Modern yoga is derived in part from Haṭha yoga (one aspect of traditional yoga),[14] with innovative practices that have taken the Indian heritage, experimented with techniques from non-Indic cultures, and radically evolved it into local forms worldwide.[15][13] The scholar of religion Andrea Jain calls modern yoga "a variety of systems that developed as early as the 19th century as a [response to] capitalist production, colonial and industrial endeavors, global developments in areas ranging from metaphysics to fitness, and modern ideas and values."[7] 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".[7]

Modern yoga is variously viewed through "cultural prisms" including New Age religion, psychology, sports science, medicine,[16] photography,[17] and fashion.[18] 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".[19] 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."[20]


Modern yoga has been led by disparate gurus for over a century, ranging from Vivekananda with his Vedanta-based yoga philosophy to Krishnamacharya with his gymnastic approach, his pupils including the influential Pattabhi Jois teaching asanas linked by flowing vinyasa movements and B. K. S. Iyengar teaching precisely-positioned asanas, often using props. The gurus' approaches to yoga span the tantra-based Kripalu Yoga of Swami Kripalvananda and the Siddha Yoga of Muktananda; the Bhaktiyoga of Svaminarayana, as of Sathya Sai Baba; the "inner technology" of Jaggi Vasudev's Isha Yoga and Sri Sri Ravi Shankar's "Art of Living"; and finally the Hindu nation-building approaches of Eknath Ranade and of Swami Ramdev. Through the work of these gurus, yoga has been widely disseminated across the western world, and radically transformed in the process. Health benefits have been claimed; yoga has been brought to a "spiritual marketplace", different gurus competing for followers; and widely differing approaches have claimed ancient roots in Indian tradition.[21] The result has been to transform yoga from "a hidden, weird thing"[22] to "yoga studios on almost very corner",[22] in a "massive transition from spiritual practice to focusing on health and fitness".[23] The trend away from authority is continued in post-lineage yoga, which is practised outside any major school or guru's lineage.[24]

The author and yoga teacher Matthew Remski writes that Norman Sjoman[c] considered modern yoga to have been influenced by South Indian wrestling exercises; Joseph Alter[d] found it torn between esoteric and scientific; Mark Singleton[e] discovered a collision of Western physical culture with Indian spirituality; while Elliott Goldberg[f] depicted "a modern spirituality, written through richly realized characters" including Krishnamacharya, Sivananda, Indra Devi, and Iyengar.[26][27]

Cultural exchange and syncretism[edit]

Anya Foxen uses this c. 1928 photograph of the actress and dancer Marguerite Agniel in "Buddha position" by John de Mirjian to illustrate her view that modern yoga involves both cultural exchange and syncretism.[28]

Suzanne Newcombe, a scholar of modern yoga, especially in Britain, writes that modern yoga's development included "a long history of transnational intercultural exchange", including between India and countries in the western world, whether or not it is an "outgrowth of Neo-Hinduism". It is seemingly torn between being a secular physical fitness activity sometimes called "hatha yoga" (not the similarly named the medieval practice of Haṭha yoga), and a spiritual practice with historical roots in India. She noted that the historical, sociological, and anthropological aspects of modern yoga were starting to be researched.[29]

The scholar of religion Anya Foxen writes that "modern postural yoga", especially in America, was created through a complicated process involving both cultural exchange and syncretism of disparate approaches. Among the many ingredients are the subtle body and various strands of Greek philosophy, Western esotericism, and wellness programs for women based on such things as the teaching system of François Delsarte and the harmonial gymnastics of Genevieve Stebbins.[28]

A contested relationship to Hinduism[edit]

James Mallinson, a scholar of Sanskrit manuscripts and yoga, writes that 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 the Hindu American Foundation has challenged attempts to "airbrush the Hindu roots of yoga" from modern manifestations. Modern yoga, he writes, uses techniques from "a wide range of traditions, many of which are clearly not Hindu at all".[30] While yoga was integrated with Vedantic philosophy, "the first text to teach hathayoga says that it will work even for atheists, who ... did not believe in karma and rebirth".[30]


  1. ^ On page 73, De Michelis refers readers to Gombrich & Obeyesekere 1988 and Sharf 1995 for more on Buddhist contexts.
  2. ^ 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.[10]
  3. ^ Norman Sjoman wrote The Yoga Tradition of the Mysore Palace in 1996.
  4. ^ Joseph Alter wrote Yoga in Modern India: The Body between Science and Philosophy in History of Religions in 2004.[25]
  5. ^ Mark Singleton wrote Yoga Body: the origins of modern posture practice in 2010.
  6. ^ Elliott Goldberg wrote The Path of Modern Yoga in 2016.


  1. ^ a b Jain, Andrea (2016-07-07), "Modern Yoga", Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Religion, doi:10.1093/acrefore/9780199340378.013.163, ISBN 978-0-19-934037-8
  2. ^ Singleton 2010, pp. 4–7.
  3. ^ Meade 1980, p. 8.
  4. ^ Singleton 2010, pp. 76–77.
  5. ^ a b Singleton, Mark (16 April 2018). "The Ancient & Modern Roots of Yoga". Yoga Journal.
  6. ^ Wood 2015.
  7. ^ a b c Jain, Andrea (2016). "Modern Yoga". Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Religion. Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/acrefore/9780199340378.013.163. ISBN 9780199340378.
  8. ^ De Michelis, Elizabeth (2007-10-16). "A Preliminary Survey of Modern Yoga Studies". Asian Medicine. 3 (1): 2–3. doi:10.1163/157342107x207182. ISSN 1573-420X. S2CID 72900651.
  9. ^ a b c d e De Michelis 2004, pp. 187–189.
  10. ^ a b De Michelis, Elizabeth (2007). "A Preliminary Survey of Modern Yoga Studies" (PDF). Asian Medicine, Tradition and Modernity. 3 (1): 1–19. doi:10.1163/157342107X207182.
  11. ^ a b c Singleton 2010, pp. 18–19.
  12. ^ Mohan, A. G.; Mohan, Ganesh (29 November 2009). "Memories of a Master". Yoga Journal. Archived from the original on 6 March 2010.
  13. ^ a b Singleton, Mark (4 February 2011). "The Ancient & Modern Roots of Yoga". Yoga Journal.
  14. ^ "Yoga". Oxford Dictionaries. Archived from the original on January 30, 2018. Retrieved 25 April 2019. The yoga widely known in the West is based on hatha yoga, which forms one aspect of the ancient Hindu system of religious and ascetic observance and meditation, the highest form of which is raja yoga and the ultimate aim of which is spiritual purification and self-understanding leading to samadhi or union with the divine
  15. ^ Singleton 2010, pp. 32–33.
  16. ^ Mallinson & Singleton 2017, p. ix.
  17. ^ Mastalia 2017.
  18. ^ Thompson, Derek (28 October 2018). "Everything You Wear Is Athleisure: Yoga pants, tennis shoes, and the 100-year history of how sports changed the way Americans dress". The Atlantic. Lululemon has sparked a global fashion revolution, sometimes called 'athleisure' or 'activewear,' which has injected prodigious quantities of spandex into modern dress and blurred the lines between yoga-and-spin-class attire and normal street clothes.
  19. ^ Jain, Andrea R. (2012). "The Malleability of Yoga: A Response to Christian and Hindu Opponents of the Popularization of Yoga". Journal of Hindu-Christian Studies. Butler University, Irwin Library. 25 (1). doi:10.7825/2164-6279.1510.
  20. ^ Jain 2015, p. 19.
  21. ^ Singleton, Mark; Goldberg, Ellen (2014). Gurus of Modern Yoga. Oxford University Press. pp. 1–14. ISBN 978-0199938728.
  22. ^ a b Gibson, Krysta. "The Path of Modern Yoga". New Spirit Journal. Retrieved 22 March 2019.
  23. ^ Barclay, Axie (12 December 2016). "The Path of Modern Yoga: The History of an Embodied Spiritual Practice". San Francisco Book Review. Retrieved 22 March 2019.
  24. ^ Lucia, Amanda J. (2020). White Utopias: The Religious Exoticism of Transformational Festivals. University of California Press. pp. 75 ff, 136 ff. ISBN 978-0-520-37695-3.
  25. ^ Alter 2004.
  26. ^ Goldberg 2016.
  27. ^ Remski, Matthew (4 August 2016). "Elliott Goldberg Rides the Elephant: An In-Depth Review of The Path of Modern Yoga". Matthew Remski. Retrieved 22 March 2019.
  28. ^ a b Foxen, Anya P. (2020). Inhaling Spirit: Harmonialism, Orientalism, and the Western Roots of Modern Yoga. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-008274-1.
  29. ^ Newcombe, Suzanne (25 Nov 2009). "The Development of Modern Yoga: A Survey of the Field". Religion Compass. Wiley. 3 (6): 986–1002. doi:10.1111/j.1749-8171.2009.00171.x. ISSN 1749-8171.
  30. ^ a b Mallinson, James (2013). "Yoga and Religion". Heythrop College: A Seminar on Modern Yoga, London. UK Hindu Christian Foundation. Retrieved 13 July 2021.


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