How U.S. Immigration Law Helped Bring Yoga to America

In the United States, yoga has often been associated with the New Age movement. No doubt spurred on by celebrities like The Beatles becoming enamored with certain Eastern practices, yoga is perceived to have taken a foothold in America, especially among certain subcultures, like the hippies. This era also coincides with the liberalization of this country’s immigration laws, making the U.S. more accessible to people originating from the furthest reaches of the globe.

But, unbeknownst to many, yoga’s prominence in the U.S. actually far predates the rise of psychedelic music and flower power – and was propelled, in part, by U.S. immigration policy. In 1923, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Indians were non-white, and therefore ineligible to become naturalized U.S. citizens. This also stripped Indians of their right to own property, in most situations, and largely limited their ability to seek gainful employment. Many returned to India, but a significant number of those who remained turned to teaching yoga and eastern philosophy as a means of eking out a living.

Even before this infamous court case, many Americans were familiar with yoga – or, at least, acquainted with a skewed version of the practice. A number of short films featured “yoga” prominently, presenting it as an almost-magical practice. Thomas Edison’s 1902 film, Hindoo Fakir, features what amounts to a caricature of a yogi performing a stage act.

It was largely this mystical view of yoga that Indians sold to audiences and students across the country. It is difficult to say how much of what was demonstrated and taught actually was related to classical yoga teachings. But, American audiences far and wide came to learn about these practices that were previously unknown to them.

By the 1940s, Americans’ fascination with yoga had abated. But, as the U.S. began to shed its overtly racist immigration laws to increase the cultures allowed into our melting pot (1965), a more sophisticated appreciation of yoga emerged. Many Americans use yoga only as a physical workout, rather than fully embracing its holistic benefit, and, while modern trends like goat yoga may eventually fade away, it does appear that at least some version of yoga is here to stay.

[See Forgotten histories: Yoga’s Popularity in the US Long Predates Hippies and Bead-Wearing Hipsters by Philip Deslippe, Scroll.in, 21.May.2018, Early Films (Including One by Thomas Edison) Made Yoga Look Like Magic, by Vicky Gan, Smithsonian.com, 18.Nov.2013, and U.S. Immigration Since 1965, History.com.]

 

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