New York, 1896
With its mass influx of migrants at the end of the 19th century, New York City was open to new thought and experimentation. Vivekanada's main esoteric and cultist following was based in and around New York City - it was there that Madam Blavatsky founded the Theosophical Society. So it was in New York that Vivekananda settled when he grew weary of touring the country.
The notion of yoga was already familiar in the West. The Theosophical Society did much to popularise Indian spiritual ideas, including yoga, through their publications about and translations of ancient texts.
But where the Theosophists emphasised the exclusive monastic nature of yoga, Vivekananda insisted on its universal accessibility. This fitted very neatly into the self-improvement ethos of the esoteric communities he attracted.
Vivekananda did not set out to become a yoga teacher, but because of the demand for practical spiritual techniques from his followers, he began to teach yoga classes to groups of 50 or more. In July 1896, he published his seminal book ‘Raja Yoga’ as a guide to spiritual techniques.
Vivekananda regarded all forms of spiritual practice as yoga. His mental and spiritual practice may not be familiar to many in today's yoga classes, but ‘Raja Yoga’ impacted on modern yoga in several ways.
By including an English translation of the Yogasutras in his book, he reinforced the connection to an ancient practice. And the open-to-all, self-improvement approach became the basis of many yoga manuals to come.
Postures receive only passing mention in ‘Raja Yoga’. Indeed Vivekananda was quite dismissive of the physical practice, complaining that the only yoga taught in Bengal was “the queer breathing exercises of Hatha Yoga – which is nothing but a kind of gymnastics”.
By distancing ‘Raja Yoga’ from postural practice and all the negative connotations of the 19th century yogi, he gave it a superior spiritual status.