Much of the yoga we have become familiar with in the West evolved during the mid to late 19th century. This was a period when the West was opening up to ideas and philosophies from India and the Far East.
This process was a part of the cultural exchange which went hand-in-hand with the imperial aspirations of the European nation states. The Europeans sold christianity (or a least a version of it) to their hosts and the western countries were sold yoga (or a least a version of it) .
In both cases, the vendors realised that their sales pitch had to be adapted to the local beliefs and customs, or else it had no chance of being accepted.
One of the early adherents of yoga to the west was a gentleman called Vivekananda, who’s book on Raja Yoga has become a classic work on the subject in the westernised yoga tradition.
Vivekananda’s teaching became a blend of selective hindu esoteric yoga teachings and western mystical thought. These western influences included the works of the theosophical society, Swedenborg’s ideas and mesmeric traditions.
As a consequence the western view of yoga is sometimes incomplete.
For instance, Raja Yoga focuses on trancendental ‘realisation’ to a degree which orthodox hindu yoga would find inappropriate and excessive for an ordinary house-holder or lay person.
An observation from Ramakrishna, a contemporary of Vivekananda, advises that to say “Bramaha alone is real, the world is illusory”, is fine while in a state of trancendental union. But it is inaccurate and misleading when in one’s normal body-consciousness.
Another example is Raja Yoga’s focus on energy (prana) and matter (akasa). These were popular western concepts for discussion at the time, but are of much less significance in the broader body of hindu yogic traditions.
Within the Raja Yoga movement, there was also a subtle and important shift in the view of the state of Samadhi (a trancendental mystical experience). In Raja Yoga it became interpreted as a fulfilment of human potential. Whereas Patanjali (one of the earliest yogic teachers) views Samadhi as a process of purification towards a trancendental liberation.
More generally, it is important for western students of yoga to understand that the works of Patanjali are very different for the limited form of Raja Yoga often presented in the West. In some ways, it helps to think of Patajali’s yoga as a summarised, or short-hand version, of the extensive hindu religious tradition.
Two great books on this subject are:
1. A History of Modern Yoga, by Elizabeth De Michelis, Pub: Continuum, 2004.
2. A Study of Patanjali, by Surendranath Dasgupta, Pub: Motilal Banarsidass, 2nd Ed., 1989