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Yoga’s 20th-Century Evolution, in Classic Photographs
Written By: Lily Rothman, Liz Ronk
A comprehensive survey by Yoga Journaland Yoga Alliance found that more than 36 million Americans practice yoga, with those people spending a combined $16 billion a year on accessories, classes and other yoga expenses. In addition, 80 million people who had never done yoga said they thought chances were good that they’d give it a shot.
That means things have changed considerably since the early 20th century, when the practice first began to move into the American spiritual and athletic mainstream. But, from LIFE Magazine’s very first years in the 1930s, the publication and its photographers were chronicling that growth.
In 1937, the magazine followed the news that a Yale scholar from India had examined the science behind yoga, which was explained to readers as a mystic Hindu practice that let the expert, through muscular control, detach from mind and body to allow the “higher world-soul” to join with him. “Whatever the religious result of yogic exercises may be,” the magazine reported, “they undoubtedly have therapeutic value, help general bodily health.” A few years later, in the article from which the first slide above is drawn, the magazine profiled the “lithe young devotees of an ancient and honorable religion” whom photographer Wallace Kirkland had met on a trip to India. In the decades that followed, with the help of celebrities such as violinist Yehudi Menuhin and participants in the truth-seeking of the 1960s and ’70s, the magazine stopped having to explain what yoga meant to readers.
As for the reason behind the practice’s popularity, perhaps it came down to the explanation offered by Tom Law, the “yoga guerrilla” profiled by LIFE in 1970: “Yoga gets me reconnected,” he said. “As soon as I get into the position it begins to happen for me. The center of the earth becomes located in my stomach, my head is in the stars, and yet I am here too. Yoga really works, which is why I think it will be popular.”