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Boston Brahma

How a group of turn-of-the-century Cambridge women

WHEN PATRICIA WALDEN taught the final class at the BKS Iyengar Yoga Center in Somerville earlier this summer, it was the end of an era for yoga in New England. Walden, who founded the studio 18 years ago, is something of an icon in contemporary yoga. In her nearly 30-year career, she has taught thousands of students around the world, graced the cover of yoga magazines, and appeared in numerous videos that have collectively sold well over a million copies.

On a late June evening, Walden marked the closing of her studio with a workshop for menopausal women. Orange and yellow streamers hung limply from the ceiling. But standing before her studenats, Walden began exuberantly, ``A class on menopause feels appropriate. We'll go off with a flash.'' With little additional ceremony, she proceeded to instruct 45 middle-aged women to relax their abdomens.

It was in some ways a happy occasion. A rent hike led to the shuttering of her studio but Walden (who teaches a form of Hatha yoga) no longer needs a physical space to attract students. Her workshops and videos have helped propel this once-exotic practice into the American mainstream, where it has been taken up by everyone from businessmen to movie stars to soccer moms to senior citizens. Some churches have even begun offering yoga classes to attract parishioners. Yoga has become so popular - by some estimates, 15 million Americans take classes regularly - that the national press diligently covers every aspect of the practice, from its health benefits to the sectarian squabbling of celebrity yogis.

What few realize is that the success story of American yoga really begins in New England more than a hundred years ago, with a remarkable generation of independent women. The students at Walden's final workshop risked little more than a parking ticket. But the women who first began practicing yoga about 100 years ago risked being branded an affront to Christian domesticity, members of a dangerous cult, and quite possibly insane. The yoga they practiced bears little resemblance to today's, but their daring made it possible.

. . .

Yoga as a metaphysics was known to Emerson, Thoreau, and the other New England Transcendentalists, who found in the earliest English translations of the Bhagavad-Gita and other Hindu scriptures ballast for their own philosophical ideas. But yoga as a practice didn't arrive in America with any force until the late 19th century, when a group of influential Cambridge women encountered Hindu swamis and, for a brief moment, became the hub of yoga in America.

These latter-day bluestockings were profligate reformers - most were members of the National Women's Temperance Union, among other organizations - and many had literary careers. Sara Chapman Bull was a young widow of means and the author of a well-received biography of her late husband, an internationally renowned Norwegian violinist. Sarah Farmer, the daughter of a prominent philanthropist, was a feminist, abolitionist, and patron of the arts. Julia Ward Howe, author of ``The Battle Hymn of the Republic,'' was the grand dame of the set. These women were friends of the Lowells and Longfellows, Ralph Waldo Emerson, John Greenleaf Whittier, and Mark Twain.

At first, these women studied Hindu scriptures. Eventually some learned to meditate. They sat in their Victorian dresses, sometimes in quiet rooms, sometimes outside under tall pines. Though it makes for a striking, even comical image, these corseted ladies definitely did not take crow pose or back-bend or stand on their heads. They were doing yoga, but not as it's commonly understood today.Yoga is not just a set of baroquely complex postures. It is one of six traditional schools of Hindu thought and was codified in Yoga Sutras of Patanjali roughly 2000 years ago. The term yoga also refers to a vast collection of practices - including chanting, breath control, and the mastery of finely graded levels of concentration - aimed at a very specific goal: to achieve liberation from embodied life on earth.

In Hinduism, life on earth is the very definition of suffering; even death, which carries with it the certainty of reincarnation, offers no escape. There's only one way to get off the merry-go-round of birth, suffering, death: merge your soul with Brahman - the unchanging, eternal, absolute. The various types of yoga - Raja, Jnana, Karma, Bhakti, and Hatha, to name just a few-show you how.

Yoga thus presents some major challenges to Western philosophical and religious conventions. And when it was first introduced, yoga seemed downright subversive. Orientalist scholars, many of them Christian missionaries, presented Hinduism as a cult and yoga as, in the words of the esteemed Oxford Sankritist Sir Monier Williams, ``a mere contrivance for concentrating the mind with the utmost intensity upon nothing in particular.'' Yoga, in short, was for heathens.

But to Sara Bull and her circle, yoga seemed wholly compatible with their liberal brand of Christian faith. This was no accident. The first Hindus in America were eager to demonstrate that Hinduism, including yoga, was a belief system that was not only on a par with Christianity, but consistent with Jesus' teachings.

Of those pioneering Hindus, Swami Vivekananda was particularly irresistible to American audiences, as well as the media. In 1893, Vivekananda came to the U.S. with money raised by his fellow monks and launched a nationwide lecture tour with an impassioned speech at the World's Parliament of Religions in Chicago.

Americans were awed by Vivekananda's saffron robes and fierce intellect. ``He was a most gorgeous vision,'' wrote Mary Tappan Wright, wife of Harvard Classics professor John Wright. ``He had a superb carriage of the head, was very handsome about thirty years old in time, ages in civilization.'' Mary's husband found Vivekananda ``more learned than all our learned professors put together.'' His oratorical magnetism routinely added inches to his small stature.

At first, most of Vivekananda's lectures were devoted to establishing a universal foundation for all religions, and disputing the idea, long-argued by missionaries, that Hinduism itself was the source of India's woes. It was only after a year in the United States that he gave lessons in the practice of yoga to a small group of mostly female students at Green Acre, Sarah Farmer's hotel-turned-spiritual retreat on the grassy banks of the Piscataqua River in Eliot, Maine. One diligent note-taker, Josephine Locke, recorded Vivekananda's instruction: ``The word `yoga' is the root of which our word yoke is a derivation meaning to join, & yoga means joining ourselves with God. Joining me with my real self First get hold of the air, then the nervous system, then the mind, then the atma or spirit ''

That a woman could write these words was a radical break not just from Western tradition but from Hindu tradition as well. For more than 2,000 years, yoga had been transmitted primarily from a guru to his disciples, who were mostly Brahmin boys, at an ashram. And the relationship between guru and disciple was no weekend affair; in Vivekananda's words, it was more ``like an adoption,'' in which the disciple became ``truly [the guru's] child, his son in every respect.''

Not that these were docile women happy to submit to a paternalistic guru. They were feminists, and Vivekananda himself was an open supporter of women's rights. In a speech in Baltimore he said bluntly, ``I see no reason why American women should not vote.''

The feminists' commitment to yoga turned out to be good news for the practice. Bull's home, at 168 Brattle Street, became a locus for devotees of Vivekananda's philosophy, which he first referred to simply as yoga but later named ``Vedanta.'' Her Cambridge Conferences introduced many Harvard professors, including William James, to yoga. Other independent women helped set up the first American Vedanta Society in New York, which offered classes on yoga and other aspects of Hinduism. (There are now more than 15 Vedanta Societies from Providence to Portland, Ore.)

But the cost of devotion was particularly high for female practitioners. As Boston University professor of religion Stephen Prothero has documented, these women were routinely denounced in the press. One critic, writing in Hampton-Columbian magazine in 1911, named names: ``Mrs. May Wright Sewell who spent much time with Mrs. Bull at the latter's Cambridge home, is suffering from ill health, and is said to be a physical wreck through the practice of yoga and the study of occultism.'' To the guardians of proper Christian domesticity, these very visible women were setting a very bad example.

In fact, when Sara Bull died in January 1911, the obituary in The Boston Daily Globe made no mention of her devotion to yoga. It was only when her daughter, Olea Bull Vaughan, challenged the will, contending that her mother had been duped by Vivekananda, that Bull's spiritual transformation was discussed - and became grist for a national scandal.

. . .

Since then, yoga has not just lost its taint. It has become, by some estimates, a $27 billion industry and a cultural phenomenon that has shifted our conception of the mind-body connection. But the yoga practiced today is quite different from the practice described in Vivekananda's treatises ``Jnana-Yoga,'' ``Bhakti-Yoga,'' ``Karma-Yoga,'' and ``Raja-Yoga.'' For it was another, slightly younger form of yoga, Hatha yoga, that defused most religious and moral objections and would eventually catapult the practice into the mainstream.

Today, Hatha yoga is associated almost exclusively with a set of physical postures, uncomplicated by Hinduism or mysticism and often stripped of their Sanskrit names. But at first many Americans - and even some Indians - viewed Hatha yoga as an occult discipline better suited to the dime museums. Not that they weren't intrigued: Reports of Hatha yogis reversing the peristalsis of their bowels and living for centuries titillated Americans who were already in the throes of all sorts of health fads, from Dr. Kellogg's ``biological living'' dietary and fitness program to theories of magnetism that prescribed wearing rubber-soled shoes or sleeping in beds insulated with glass feet.

The Hatha yogis, with their focus on using the body to achieve transcendence, dismayed Vivekananda. ``Health is the chief idea, the one goal of Hatha yoga,'' he proclaimed disapprovingly. While on an early lecture tour, he was often plied with questions about the Hatha yogis' feats of levitation and conjuring. The Memphis Commercial Appeal reported that one particularly persistent woman asked if he ``could perform wonderful tricks and if he had been buried alive'' as part of his training. ``What have those things to do with religion?'' he retorted.

Vivekananda and the Vedantists seem to have feared that Americans would be seduced by the physical side-effects of Hatha yoga and lose sight of the real aim of the practice: To realize the divine. Upon hearing rumors that the man in charge of the New York Vedanta Society was teaching Hatha yoga, Sara Bull quickly tried to redirect his energies, advising ``all the Swamis to venture devotional teaching only in raja-yoga for our country.''

Bull's efforts were to no avail. Within a few decades, Hatha yoga overshadowed other forms of the practice in America. By the 1950s, yoga was being marketed as a way to stay fit and emotionally balanced. Teachers like Indra Devi, author of the 1953 bestseller ``Forever Young, Forever Healthy'' (she died last year at 102), and Richard Hittleman, creator of the TV show ``Yoga For Health,'' which aired from 1961 to 1981, appealed to mass America by replacing most references to spiritual transcendence with bland guarantees of mental and physical hygiene. Doubts about yoga focused on its efficacy as a fitness regimen, not the truth of its philosophy.

Ironically, the very secularization of yoga that Vivekananda denounced has allowed millions to practice without censure. Some Christian groups have protested the teaching of yoga in schools, but most Americans view it as a low-impact workout spiked with a little spirituality. Today, if you do yoga, you probably practice some form of Hatha yoga, whether it's Iyengar, Ashtanga, Bikram, or ``Power'' yoga.

But echoes of the early disputes about the right kind of yoga for Americans linger. Only now, it's the Hatha yoga community itself that's divided. Many believe that yoga has devolved into mere calisthenics, allowing cynics to dismiss this rigorous discipline as yet another tool in the narcissists' kit. True yoga, the traditionalists argue, requires nothing less than reorienting your entire life toward Brahman, the divine.

Bull and her peers understood this, which made them brave and even a little bit crazy. Today, even those of us dabbling at the edges of the practice are indebted to them.

Stefanie Syman is writing a book about the cultural history of yoga in

America. She can be reached at

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