Lineages of Modern Yoga, Part I

By Eric Shaw

Vivekananda leading a yoga retreat, c. 1896

If yoga history is just a set of teaching lineages, that family line begins with Swami Vivekananda’s teaching outside India in 1893.

 From the seeds planted in his first speech in Chicago, on September 11th of that year, we can apply a generational model to yoga, labeling Swami V “Generation Zero.”  

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In this pattern, the important figures active in India’s Mysore, Mumbai, Rishikesh, Kolkata and Bangalore in the early 20th century’s Hatha Yoga Renaissance are Generation 1.0.

The yogis who learned under them–the widely-trumpeted BKS Iyengar, K. Pattabhi Jois, Indra Devi and TKV Desikachar (plus a few others) become Generation 2.0.  

These Generation 2.0 teachers are mostly responsible for taking yoga to the wider world.

All but a handful of these instructors have died, though their students–whom we’ll call Generation 3.0–remain among us.

Be that as it may, these influential men and women are commonly in their 60s and are now yielding to a newer family of innovators.  

Using very approximate dates, each generation began public teaching in these years:

Gen 0.0 in 1893

Gen 1.0 in 1920

Gen 2.0 in 1950

Gen 3.0 in 1980

and Gen 4.0 (not discussed here) in 2010.

We’ll tell the story of these generations in this issue of Namaskar and the next.

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On May 31st of 1893, the 30-year-old, Swami Vivekananda (1864 – 1903), left India for the first of two multi-year teaching trips abroad–before his early death (of a brain aneurysm) at the age of 39. His first excursion lasted until 1896; his second went from the mid-summer of 1899 to the late winter of 1900.  

Though he traveled mainly in the U.S., he also traveled to Austria, Britain, Egypt, France, Germany, Greece, Holland, Hong Kong, Italy, Japan, Singapore, Switzerland and Turkey.

His advent came at the World Parliament of Religions. He wowed that Chicago audience, then went on to wow folks throughout America and Europe while establishing numerous Ramakrishna Vedanta Centers–institutions for the study of yoga and Indian spirituality.  

He taught postures, chanting and meditation to his students and translated the Yoga Sutras for a popular audience.  This book, Raja Yoga (p. 1896) became a best-seller in both America and Europe and planted yogic ideas in the intellectual mainstream, giving strong impetus to a newly-imagined mysticism and an enlightened psychology while accelerating a wide range of New Age ideas.

This was the beginning of yoga in its modern form.

In 1886, after some years of study, Vivekananda had received shaktipat, or lineage power, from his guru, the multi-religious Ramakrishna Paramahamsa (1836 – 1886) (pictured extreme left).  He also learned from the famed Hindu-Christian syncretist, Keshub Chandra Sen (1839 – 1884) (at middle). After Ramakrishna died, he studied briefly with the renunciant, Pavhari Baba (d. 1898)

A lineage of top-level Western scholars in India also contributed to Vivekananda’s unique capacities. The great philosopher, William Hastie (1842 – 1903) (pictured center), taught Vivekananda at the General Assembly’s Institution in Calcutta–where Swami V got his Bachelor’s Degree.  Hastie nurtured Vivekananda’s awareness of cutting-edge Western intellectual developments and spoke openly of Vivekananda’s unique intellectual gifts to those in his circle. 

These mentors gave the Swami a unique skillset for bridging Oriental and 

Vivekananda and his gurubhais (brother monks)

Occidental understanding–and he did so with gusto.

Once in the U.S., his main lineage partners were his gurubais–fellow monks from the Ramakrishna Order he’d founded. (Vivekananda sits in the middle of five of these monks in this picture.) They formed an important cadre of Gen 2.0 teachers. Many of them traveled to teach in Europe and America at the Swami’s bidding, or at the invitation of worldwide Ramakrishna Vedanta Centers after Vivekananda’s death.  

The chief figure among them was Swami Abhedananda (1866 – 1939).

Abhedananda wrote books and taught in the States from 1896 till 1921. He got to the U.S. while Vivekananda was still in-country and they spent some time teaching together. Like Vivekananda, he taught yoga postures to his students.  

The other most impactful member of the Ramakrishna lineage was Swami Prabhavananda (1893 – 1976), who came to the U.S. in 1923 and deeply influenced thought leaders such as Christopher Isherwood (1904 -1986), Aldous Huxley (1894 -1963) and Gerald Heard (1889 – 1971).  Heard founded the Trabuco College alongside Huxley and strongly influenced Michael Murphy (b. 1930) and Richard Price (1930 – 1985) to found Esalen.  Isherwood, a noted novelist, and Prabhavananda joined together to write a well-received translation of the Bhagavad Gita.

Vivekananda’s example–a spiritual teacher with great knowledge and charisma who leaves India and establishes a lineage–was followed by many after him.

Yogananda teaching asana at his Mt. Washington Headquarters near L.A.

The primary example of this is the Gen 1.0 figure, Paramahansa Yogananda (Born Mukunda Lal Ghosh, 1893 – 1952). 

He relocated to the U.S. in 1920, where he established the Self-Realization Fellowship, wrote the Autobiography of a Yogi and stayed until his death.  He taught such figures as Swami Kriyananda (James Donald Walters, 1926 – 2013) and Roy Eugene Davis (1931 – 2019).  

Though not primary to his Kriya Yoga system, Yogananda taught some Hatha Yoga to his many followers.

The swami was supernaturally guided by two saints from his family lineage: the purportedly immortal Babaji, as well as Lahiri Mahasaya, (1828 – 1895).

Yogananda with his guru, Sri Yukteswar, Calcutta, 1936

His primary guru was Sri Yukteswar Giri (1855 – 1936) of Calcutta (pictured here with Swami Y). Yukteswar taught Yogananda and Yogananda taught his influential fitness-yogi brother, Bishnu Ghosh (1903 -1970).

Though Buddha Bose (1912-1983), married Bishnu’s daughter, Ava Ravi, in 1941, trained under his master for years, wrote books, and toured the world exhibiting a highly-accomplished posture practice, he’s been mostly forgotten, whereas Ghosh’s other marquee disciple, the Generation 2.0 figure, Bikram Choudhury (b. 1944), started a worldwide movement after coming to Los Angeles in 1970 and has maintained a powerful public presence to this day.  

Though recently disgraced, it can be argued that Choudhury brought more people to yoga than any individual in history. At the height of his Bikram Yoga movement, over 400 yoga studios worldwide taught his exacting 26-posture, hot yoga practice to packed classes, dawn till dusk.  

A great number of notable Generation 3.0 yogis studied under him: the great anatomist and Yin Yogi, Paul Grilley (b. 1958), the posture systems master, Tony Sanchez (b. 1959), the hot yoga innovator, Jimmy Barkan, the enterprising Emmy Cleaves (b. 1924) and the Power Yoga superstar, Baron Baptiste (b. 1963).  All were his lieutenants for long or short periods during their distinguished careers.

BKS Iyengar with Judith Hanson Lasater in Berkeley, CA, 1974

If Bikram takes first place in the contest for most yoga converts, second place falls to the long-lived alignment master of Gen 2.0, B. K. S. Iyengar (1918 – 2014

), whose 1964 book Light on Yoga made the practice a byword for health, beauty and the deep authority of India’s spiritual traditions.   

Iyengar’s concept of bodily alignment, though evolved by others, is now yoga gospel, and its masters number in thousands.

Among his numerous 3.0 disciples, John Friend’s (b. 1959) thoroughgoing organic alignment formulations and creation of a worldwide movement in Anusara Yoga, plus his later explorations in the Global Bowspring system, transformed yoga far, far more than any other Iyengar protege.

Aside from Friend, Vanda Scaravelli’s (1908 – 1999) philosophy of ease and work with the spine, Judith Hanson Lasater’s (b. 1947) practical methodologies (with Iyengar, above right), Rama Jyoti Vernon’s (b. 1941) international work with mindfulness, and Shandor Remete’s (b. 1948) radical departure from Iyengar’s static system to merge yoga with Indian dance through his Shadow Yoga form, are probably most worthy of mention.