Did the Beatles introduce yoga to the Western world?

Yoga Image Gallery The Beatles give an audience to the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in September 1967. From left to right: Paul McCartney, Jane Asher, Pattie Boyd, Ringo Starr, his wife Maureen, John Lennon, George Harrison and Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. See more yoga pictures.
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Yoga is an integral part of many peoples' exercise regimens. Students attend yoga classes at their local studio or gym, watch instructional DVDs at home and purchase books to broaden their knowledge. People around the world enjoy the health, mental and spiritual benefits of yoga. But while yoga has been practiced by some Eastern cultures for millennia, it was only introduced to the West in the 20th century. How much did the Beatles have to do with the West's sudden interest in this ancient art?

Yoga actually made its first appearance in the West in the early 19th century. It was studied as an Eastern philosophy in the early 20th century and gained popularity as a part of the health and vegetarian movement of the 1930s. But it wasn't until the 1960s that yoga really began to take off. Prominent Indian yogis began moving to Western countries to extend their teachings.

It was around this time that the Beatles were first exposed to yoga. While the group was filming "Help!" in the Bahamas in 1965, they met Swami Vishnu-Devananda, the founder of Sivandana Yoga. He presented them with signed copies of his work, "The Illustrated Book of Yoga." George Harrison was fascinated by the book and began studying yoga and Eastern religion. His wife, Pattie Boyd, encouraged him to study Eastern mysticism, Indian philosophy and become a vegetarian. By 1966, Harrison journeyed to India to study sitar, a type of stringed instrument, under the master Ravi Shankar.

While Harrison studied in Bombay, Boyd heard of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the founder of Transcendental Meditation (TM). The Maharishi, born Mahesh Prasad Varma, wanted to make meditation easy to understand and practical. In 1955, he wrote his first book, "The Science of Being and the Art of Living," and began teaching TM in 1958.

Harrison and Boyd were struck by the Maharishi's teachings and bought tickets for the Beatles to see him in London. The group followed the Maharishi to Bangor, Wales to learn more about meditation. They eventually traveled to his ashram, or religious retreat, in Rishikesh in the Himalayas where they were joined by other celebrities like Mia Farrow, Donovan and Mike Love of the Beach Boys. The Beatles studied as a group until certain members of the band began to lose interest in TM.

But after John Lennon accused the Maharishi of molesting Mia Farrow, the Beatles fell out with their former master. The allegations were unproven and no charges were ever filed, but the damage was done. Proponents of the Maharishi suggested the split was not the fault of the yogi, but was instead caused by the Beatles' use of LSD and other drugs in the ashram. George Harrison was the only member of the Beatles to later make amends with the Maharishi.

However, the Beatles had been profoundly influenced by their time with the Maharishi. Much of the music on the White Album was inspired by the yogi's words and their experience with TM. The Maharishi also profited from the connection. By the 1970s, more than five million people practiced TM [source: Times Online]. Because the Beatles had helped popularize the yogi's teachings, they were partly responsible for popularizing yoga in the West.

But of course the Beatles aren't solely responsible for the Westernization of yoga. In the next section, we'll learn about other influential teachers and practitioners.

Other people who made yoga popular in the West

Violinist Yehudi Menuhin observing as Yogi Vithaldas practices yoga.
Violinist Yehudi Menuhin observing as Yogi Vithaldas practices yoga.
Wallace Kirkland/Time Life Pictures/

There were many other people who helped popularize yoga in the West beside the Beatles. The yogis Sri Krishnamacharya, Swami Sivananda, Sri Yogendra and Swami Kuvalyananda all tried to make ancient yoga texts applicable to modern culture. These teachers made efforts to include women and foreigners in their circles. They promoted Hatha yoga, the yoga of physical processes. They also believed that Indian philosophy could coexist with Western science and medicine.

The yogis helped establish connections to the Western world. However, it was their students who really helped spread the study of yoga. Some of Swami Sivananda's students included Swami Satchitananda, who presented yoga at Woodstock, and Swami Vishnu-devananda, who established ashrams around the world. The influential Bellur Krishnamachar Sundaraja Iyengar was a student of Sri Krishanamacharya.

B.K.S. Iyengar was born in 1918 in Bellur, India. He was a sickly child who fought to overcome influenza, malaria, tuberculosis and typhoid fever. Doctors believed he would not live past age 20. Iyengar studied yoga under his brother-in-law, Sri Tirumalai Krishnamacharya, who is credited with modernizing Hatha yoga. By 1937, Iyengar was teaching yoga himself, hoping to spread the study that he believed had saved his life.

Iyengar's teachings spread to the West when he met the famous violinist Yehudi Menuhin in 1954. Iyengar demonstrated the yoga poses that eventually became known as Iyengar yoga. Menuhin was so impressed by the yogi and the study that he arranged for Iynegar to travel with him and spread yoga. In 1966, Iyengar wrote "Light on Yoga," which described and illustrated over 200 yoga asanas, or poses. Three million copies have been sold since the book's publication. In 2004, Time Magazine named Iyengar as one of its "100 Most Influential People" for his role in bringing yoga to the West. Iyengar continues to supervise classes at his institute in Pune, India.

To learn more about yoga, health and music, look over the links on the next page.

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More Great Links


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