“The religion of the devil” or how yoga was introduced to the West in the worst possible way

Generally speaking, September doesn’t seem to be the most anticipated month of the year. Around him accumulate as many desires as daily curses which, although comparable to the transition to the new year between December and January, in reality have little resemblance, except the obvious need of this period: you do not You won’t read anything else on social media or hear that returning to work after a vacation is fun.

There are many ways to deal with it, and every day new methods are offered, some more popular than others, but yoga dominates all others.

You certainly know someone who has integrated this practice into their routine, whether at home (if we were talking about “pandemic culture” today, we would start there) or in one of these health centers. more and more common in your neighborhood. If it doesn’t, it’s probably because you’re the one who tried it. Because yoga is everywhere, but remembering its presence is above all a way of remembering that it is not new in the West. And no, we’re not going to talk about mandalas.

When yoga crossed the socio-political boundaries of its country of origin, India, it first spread to Asia thousands of years ago. It took a few hundred more years until, in the 20th century, the United States became his gateway to a world very different from the one from which he came. This served as bait: in the 1920s, across the ocean, yoga was spreading like wildfire (although you had to do anything but run to practice it). It confronted its slogans, ideals and principles with those of the West, being described as the “religion of the devil” against the Catholic Church.

A new perception of the body

At the time, the world had embarked on a collective euphoria for sport at the turn of the century. The first modern Olympic Games had just taken place in 1896, sparking new interest in athletics and the physical ideal of ancient Greece. At the same time, the relatively new science of physiology began to provide new criteria for how the body functions. This new emphasis on the connection between health and exercise has given rise to a growing culture of physical improvement.

Religion had never been an obstacle to this, probably because it had always been able to shape any form of exercise as it wished. Yoga, however, did not lend itself to this. He had his own idiosyncrasy, his own point of view; in short, his own religion (different from the one he came from). In Sanskrit, its name means ‘union’. It aims to unite the spiritual, physical and mental. It is one of the six orthodox dárshanas (doctrines) of Hinduism.


So it quickly spread across the United States, much to the surprise and disappointment of its Christian leaders who sought all sorts of remedies to prevent it. Just look at how yoga, or “Eastern philosophy with a coiled serpent as its emblem,” as journalist Mabel Potter Daggett described it, arrived in the West, at a time when it was increasingly difficult to confine women in stereotypical roles. How to avoid it? How to stop them? Neither method seemed to work.

The decision to “go astray”

Indeed, many women have taken up yoga. Christian clergy feared that they were drifting away from religion, just as they were beginning to drift away from traditional painting and their homes, this time “led astray by the false promises of eternal youth of the yoga gurus “. What they didn’t know, or didn’t want to know, was that beyond these false promises, yoga offered much more tangible benefits than simple youth: a contortion of the body to become aware of it, to pleasure and, ultimately, for everything many didn’t even know they had a body for. To own themselves.

“As early as the 19th century, many Christian leaders warned that yoga was not simply a way to strengthen one’s religious identity and commitments, nor just to get in shape and reduce stress,” emphasizes Andrea R. Jain , professor of religious studies at Indiana University, in an article on Jstor. “It was a Hindu religious movement that was the antithesis of Christianity.” If this dichotomy persists today, it was not insignificant, especially for women, at the time.


“Eva eats the apple again,” Daggett wrote in one of his articles. At the time, this journalist had a notable influence within American Christian circles. His words were published in 1911 under the title “The Pagan Invasion”. She wasn’t entirely wrong. Because in fact, a large percentage of those who devoted themselves to this fashionable discipline ended up moving away from Christian constraints and religion itself. But yoga introduced to the West was only the result of factors that were already present under Christian rule.

From female freedom to an activity for the rich

As Lalita Kaplish explains in an article for the Wellcome Collection, exercise classes for women have always focused on flexibility, posture and health. “So when modern yoga appeared in the West, women were already particularly receptive to the holistic approach it offered.” In other words, Kaplish indicates that, in the 1920s, physical culture systems for women were closer to modern yoga than to gymnastics or bodybuilding which had begun to develop since the middle of the previous century.


Geneviève Stebbins knew this well, she who was the first woman to create this connection and especially to theorize it. In her work “The Genevieve Stebbins System of Physical Training”, published in 1898, she laid the foundations of a completely new (or at least renewed) school focused on the physical and the feminine. With chapters on relaxation, breathing, and sequences of dance-like exercises, she introduced yoga with only slight modifications to earlier patterns of women’s gymnastics in the West.

Most of the women who were tempted to try Stebbins’ method were wealthy upper-class women, who devoted their entire fortune to the advancement of the practice.

Stebbins, a great connoisseur of yoga, describes in her book her encounter with what she calls “dynamic breathing” during a course in London where “the participants were mentally tired intellectuals, some of them Oxford professors; the instructor was a Hindu expert.” His system includes an exercise explicitly called yoga breathing, “so named because used by the Brahmins and yogis of India.” Yoga had been introduced to American society only five years earlier, in 1893, by Swami Vivekananda. He presented it at the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago, but found little response among the participants. However, when Stebbins’ system incorporated a mystical element that allowed a woman to “harmonize with the great mysterious forces around her and gain inner power,” everything changed.

Naturally, the majority of women who tried Stebbins’ method were wealthy, upper-class women. Over the years, some have amassed veritable fortunes. Convinced of their new belief, they invested their wealth and their lives in the advancement of yoga in America. Today, part of yoga philosophy has been reduced to the production system ideal: where money is king, taking a moment to stretch in silence becomes a challenge.