David J. Neumann: What is Yoga? Who is a Yogi?

Finding God Through Yoga by David J. NeumannToday we welcome a guest post from David J. Neumann, author of Finding God through Yoga:  Paramahansa Yogananda and Modern American Religion in a Global Age, just published by UNC Press.

Paramahansa Yogananda (1893–1952), a Hindu missionary to the United States, wrote one of the world’s most highly acclaimed spiritual classics, Autobiography of a Yogi, which was first published in 1946 and continues to be one of the best-selling spiritual philosophy titles of all time. In this critical biography, David Neumann tells the story of Yogananda’s fascinating life while interpreting his position in religious history, transnational modernity, and American culture. Beginning with Yogananda’s spiritual investigations in his native India, Neumann tells how this early “global guru” emigrated to the United States in 1920 and established his headquarters, the Self-Realization Fellowship, in Los Angeles, where it continues today.

Finding God through Yoga is available now in both print and ebook editions.


What is Yoga? Who is a Yogi?

Yoga has become an inescapable facet of contemporary life around the world. The U.N. declaration of International Yoga Day in 2015 serves as a fitting symbol of the global spread of this popular practice.

The establishment of this annual yoga commemoration was largely due to the efforts of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a tireless promoter of Indian tradition. In acknowledging the UN’s decision, he waxed poetic about India’s gift of yoga to the world, offering a capacious definition of yoga practice.

“Yoga is an invaluable gift of India’s ancient tradition. This tradition is 5000 years old. It embodies unity of mind and body; thought and action; restraint and fulfilment; harmony between man and nature; a holistic approach to health and well-being. It is not about exercise but to discover the sense of oneness with yourself, the world and the nature.”

Among other achievements, International Yoga Day spawned a new Guinness Book Record: the largest yoga instruction gathering ever, achieved in Rajasthan in northwestern India, when more than 100,000 people gathered at one location to receive yoga instruction.

In the US, yoga’s popularity grows apace. Over 35 million Americans have practiced yoga, more than 10 percent of the nation’s population. Yoga has appeared in a number of K-12 classrooms around the country, sometimes spawning controversy—and lawsuits—regarding the separation of church and state.

This popularity has made yoga big business. American yoga practitioners spend a collective $16 billion a year on classes and yoga products. The commercial dimension of yoga has caused critics to warn about the corruption of yoga. For example, the subtitle of Jeremy Carrette and Richard King’s book, Selling Spirituality: The Silent Takeover of Religion captures the authors’ earnest attempt to “uncover what amounts to a silent takeover of ‘the religious’ by contemporary capitalist ideologies by means of the increasingly popular discourse of ‘spirituality.’”

This prompts the question: What is yoga?

Not surprisingly, there are many answers to this question, and many of them have nothing to do with what is popularly understood as yoga. In Hindu tradition, yoga refers to pathways of liberation, which are most commonly identified as karma yoga, bhakti yoga, and jnana yoga—liberation through, respectively, appropriate action, through devotion, and through knowledge. The Bhagavad Gita, a great spiritual classic of Indian tradition, describes and affirms all of these pathways.

Paramahansa Yogananda, author of a much more recent spiritual classic, Autobiography of a Yogi, offers interesting insight into various questions of yoga practice, its relation to particular postures, its spirituality, and the issue of commercialization.

Yogananda was born in India but died in the US after receiving American citizenship late in life, suggesting the hybrid identity of yoga. He taught an elaborate set of meditation techniques, but he ignored postures almost entirely. He said that the purpose of yoga was “God-contact.” And he provided yoga instruction not in person but remotely through paid subscription—an early and surprising example of distance learning. He obviously saw no conflict between spiritual growth and financial success. He strongly hinted that he was a fully self-realized guru, a Christ for the twentieth century. But he also encouraged his male and female disciples that they could become yogis too.

Modi recently praised Yogananda’s global influence. “It is evident that he does not merely stress the ways to outer freedom, but focuses on the inner journey…. Removing rigid dogma, he made spirituality so approachable and tangible that in these hundred years since he started it, his work has become a world-wide movement, a perennial resource of spiritual understanding.”

For all of these reasons, his followers in the US and India have bestowed the epithet “Father of Yoga in the West” on their master. Based on his enduring influence in American understandings and practice of yoga—including its highly commercialized nature–they might be on to something.


David J. Neumann is assistant professor of history education at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona.  For more info, visit his website.