The Relentless Rise of Modern Yoga

How did Yoga Become so Popular

In one form or another, yoga has existed in the West since the early 1900s. The meditative side of the ancient art found its way into the Indian export market first, and then the physically beneficial side.

The 1960s in the USA saw the rise of alternative philosophies. Young people had become disinterested in the rules and taboos of the church in the 1950s and were seeking another spiritual path. Yogis, ashrams and other bits and pieces of Hinduism started to appear on the US landscape. Influential figures such as The Beatles did much to add credence to all things Hindu.

By the time the 1970s rolled around, another aspect of Yoga was beginning to draw attention. The ‘70s was the beginning the fitness boom. Every day, new gyms were opening and new styles of exercise were being promoted; yoga fit right in.

On into the twenty first century, with the advent of fitness videos and then the internet, fitness has become a multi-billion dollar industry and yoga has kept a sizeable share of that. In the US, where success is only ever measured in dollars, yoga is a 27 billion dollar industry.

Vinyasa and Ashtanga

Speculations about the antiquity of yoga go back as far as the imagination will allow, but the oldest written records of anything can only be reliably dated to around five thousand years. Ancient references to the practice of yoga do exist, but they concentrate on the spiritual disciplines.

In Hindu philosophy we find six main branches of yoga: karma, raja, jnana, tantra, bhakti, and hatha. Hatha yoga is the physical yoga branch and represents most of what you will find in the West. It may surprise you to know that the first known text to focus entirely on the physical postures of yoga (asanas) was written in the early 1800s. The manual contained 122 yoga poses, by far the most comprehensive text of its kind in existence at the time.

The Ancestor of the Modern Yoga School

In 1924, Tirumali Krishnamacharya, a student of the discipline contained in the manual, was enlisted by the Maharaja of Mysore to open a royal yoga school to teach the royal family. Krishnamacharya developed a vigorous style of yoga designed to build strength and stamina. This was the beginning of what is today known as Ashtanga or Vinyasa Yoga.

In the 1970s, two of Krishnamacharya’s students, B.K.S. lyengar and K. Pattabhi Jois, popularised their own versions. This was the birth of two of the most popular styles in modern yoga – Iyengar and Ashtanga. Iyengar’s Light on Yoga, has become the Hatha yoga bible for many.

What do the Terms Asthanga and Vinyasa Mean Today?

According to Claudia Azula, Ashtanga refers to the system of eight limbs that dedicated yogis will follow on their quest for the state of yoga.  Vinyasa is the art of using the breath, in deep and smooth ways while practicing the asanas.

Benefits of Yoga

If you ask yoga practitioners why they practice, you will get a variety of answers. Some will emphasise the mind-body connection and the quest for inner peace and self-knowledge. Others will talk about yoga’s rejuvenating effects on the body such as increased flexibility and energy, or an overall feeling of wellness. Many seek benefits which fall into both these categories such as improved focus and the reduction of stress and anxiety, with its accompanying symptoms.

When you consider that the effects of yoga have been the subject of scientific study since the seventies, the list of bodily functions and systems that profit from yoga is quite impressive. Here’s a brief collection of poses for some of the more common benefits:


Glandular System


Nervous System

Musculoskeletal Function

Reproductive System

Respiratory System



Back problems



Weight loss

In a recent survey, 86% of practitioners said they experienced a strong feeling of mental clarity from their practice. Which may be a sign that in spite of the Western flavour that yoga has taken, it has not lost all of its meditative aspect.

What about you? Why do you practice yoga? Or why would you?

Written by: Nour Issa

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