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International Yoga Day Special: 10 Indian gurus who founded global yoga movements

Their diverse teachings have illuminated the path to well-being for millions worldwide.

Representative Image. / iStock photo

As International Day of Yoga approaches, let's celebrate 10 incredible Indian gurus whose diverse teachings have illuminated the path to well-being for millions worldwide, making yoga a household word and the practice acceptable across belief systems.

Swami Vishnudevananda. / Sivananda Ashram Yoga Farm

Swami Vishnudevananda

Swami Vishnudevananda was instructed by his master, Swami Sivananda of Rishikesh, in 1957 to share the teachings of Yoga and Vedanta in the West, with the message “People are waiting.” Over 37 years, he came to be known as the Flying Yogi, as he tirelessly spread this message as a devoted spiritual teacher, establishing centers and ashrams worldwide.

Swami Sivananda's goal was to disseminate spiritual wisdom and instruct individuals in the disciplines of Yoga and Vedanta. Swami Vishnudevananda pioneered the idea of Yoga Vacations, establishing centers focused on holistic rejuvenation of body, mind, and spirit.

The International Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Centres, founded by Swami Vishnudevananda, has grown to nearly 60 locations worldwide since its first center in Montreal in 1959. Renowned for preserving the purity and tradition of yoga, these centers offer various programs, including teacher training and opportunities for spiritual growth through Karma Yoga.

BKS Iyengar. / Iyengar Yoga Institute

BKS Iyengar

BKS Iyengar, a renowned yoga guru, profoundly influenced the global yoga landscape with his precise and therapeutic approach to the practice. Born in 1918 in Karnataka, Iyengar transformed his frail childhood through rigorous practice, developing what is now known as Iyengar Yoga.

His method emphasizes alignment, precision, and props, making yoga accessible to all, regardless of age or physical condition. Iyengar's teachings prioritize the meticulous execution of postures, which enhances physical health and mental clarity. His seminal book, ‘Light on Yoga,’ has become a definitive guide for practitioners worldwide, translating ancient yoga wisdom into practical techniques for modern living.

Iyengar Yoga is practiced globally, with dedicated institutes and certified teachers in over 70 countries. The Ramamani Iyengar Memorial Yoga Institute in Pune, established in 1975, serves as the epicenter of this tradition, attracting students from all over the world. Iyengar's contribution extends beyond physical postures; he integrated the philosophical and spiritual aspects of yoga, advocating for a holistic approach to well-being.

His work earned him numerous accolades, including the Padma Vibhushan, India's highest civilian award. His legacy continues through his children, Geeta and Prashant Iyengar.

K Pattabhi Jois. / Ashtanga Yoga Athens

K Pattabhi Jois

K Pattabhi Jois, a prominent yoga guru, is best known for developing and popularizing Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga, a dynamic and physically demanding style of yoga characterized by a specific sequence of postures linked by breath.

Born in 1915 in Karnataka, Jois was a dedicated student of T Krishnamacharya, from whom he learned the foundational principles of Ashtanga Yoga. Jois's contribution to yoga includes systematizing this method, which emphasizes the synchronization of breath with movement, creating a flow of postures that generates heat and purifies the body.

Ashtanga Yoga has a global following, with practitioners and dedicated studios worldwide. The Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute, established by Jois in Mysore, remains a pilgrimage site for yoga enthusiasts. This tradition's unique aspect is its structured series of postures, which must be mastered sequentially, promoting discipline, strength, flexibility, and inner peace.

Pattabhi Jois's legacy continues through his grandson, Sharath Jois.

Swami Satyananda Saraswati of Bihar School of Yoga. / Wikipedia

Swami Satyananda Saraswati of Bihar School of Yoga

The Bihar School of Yoga, founded in 1964 by Swami Satyananda Saraswati, is a renowned institution dedicated to the holistic teaching and practice of yoga. Located in Munger, India, this school integrates traditional yogic knowledge with modern science, offering a comprehensive approach to physical, mental, and spiritual well-being.

Swami Satyananda's pioneering contributions include the systematization of various yoga practices, such as asanas, pranayama, mudras, bandhas, and meditation, making them accessible and beneficial for all. His teachings emphasize the balanced development of body, mind, and spirit through an integrated system of yoga.

The school's influence extends globally, with centers and affiliated organizations including Australia, Europe, North America, and South America. The Bihar School of Yoga is particularly noted for developing yoga nidra, a deep relaxation technique that fosters profound mental and physical rejuvenation.

Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati, a direct disciple of Swami Satyananda, currently leads BSY, continuing its mission and expanding its reach. Under his guidance, the school has maintained its commitment to preserving the purity and depth of yogic tradition while adapting to contemporary needs.

Bikram Choudhary / Wikipedia

Bikram Choudhary

Bikram Choudhury, the founder of Bikram Yoga, is a prominent yet controversial figure in the yoga world. Born in Calcutta, Choudhury developed his unique style of hot yoga, which consists of 26 postures and two breathing exercises practiced in a room heated to around 105°F (40°C) with 40 percent humidity. This approach aims to replicate the climate of India, enhancing flexibility and detoxification through intense sweating. Bikram Yoga gained immense popularity, spreading across the globe with studios in North America, Europe, Asia, and beyond.

Choudhury's method has contributed to popularizing yoga in the West, particularly among those seeking a rigorous physical workout. However, his legacy is marred by scandals, including allegations of sexual misconduct, abuse, and legal battles. Yet, many of his certified teachers continue to practice and teach Bikram Yoga, maintaining the method's presence worldwide.

Swami Rama. / Himalayan Institute

Swami Rama

Swami Rama was a renowned yoga guru who brought Himalayan yoga traditions to the West. Born in 1925, he founded the Himalayan Institute of Yoga Science and Philosophy, which continues to teach yoga, meditation, and philosophy based on the lineage of the Himalayan masters. Swami Rama emphasized the holistic nature of yoga, encompassing physical postures, meditation, breathing exercises, and ethical living.

The Association of Himalayan Yoga Meditation Societies International (AHYMSIN) was established by Swami Rama to spread these Himalayan yoga traditions globally. Following his passing in 1996, Swami Veda Bharati became the spiritual guide of AHYMSIN, succeeded by Swami Ritavan Bharati.

Swami Rama played a key role in making Himalayan yoga accessible to Western audiences. Through his teachings, lectures, and books, he presented yoga as a holistic practice encompassing asanas, breathing exercises (pranayama), meditation, and ethical living. He actively participated in research on yoga's benefits, adding scientific credibility to the practice and fostering wider acceptance.

Through comprehensive teacher training programs, AHYMSIN ensures the proper transmission of Himalayan yoga techniques and philosophy by qualified instructors.

The Swami Rama Sadhaka Grama ashram in Rishikesh serves as the global headquarters of AHYMSIN and a center for immersive learning in the Himalayan Yoga Tradition.

Baba Ramdev. / Facebook/Swami Ramdev

Baba Ramdev

Baba Ramdev, a name synonymous with yoga in modern India, has been a major force in bringing the practice to the masses. His contribution lies in popularizing yoga through mass media appearances and large-scale yoga camps, making it accessible to a vast Indian audience and sparking interest internationally.

Ramdev's approach focuses on yoga's practical benefits for physical and mental well-being. The cornerstone of his practice lies in asanas and pranayama, presented in a way that's easy to understand and follow.

Swami Satchidananda. / Integral Yoga India

Swami Satchidananda

Swami Satchidananda, a respected figure in the international yoga scene, was pivotal in bringing classical yoga traditions to the West. His unique contribution lies in the creation of Integral Yoga, a system that bridges the gap between physical practice and spiritual growth. Integral Yoga goes beyond simply mastering asanas and pranayama. It incorporates the wisdom of yoga philosophy, encouraging meditation and a service-oriented approach to life.

What sets Integral Yoga apart is its inclusivity. Unlike traditional lineages with strict practices and regulations, Integral Yoga welcomes individuals of all faiths and backgrounds, fostering a sense of community and shared exploration. Swami Satchidananda's dedication to sharing his knowledge led him to establish Integral Yoga Institutes and Centers worldwide. Yogaville, nestled in Virginia, USA, serves as the international headquarters.

TKV Desikachar. / Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram

TKV Desikachar

TKV Desikachar, son of the legendary yoga guru T Krishnamacharya, wasn't just another yoga guru; he was a revolutionary who personalized the practice. His most significant contribution lies in the evolution and global spread of Viniyoga. Unlike the standardized sequences often associated with Vinyasa yoga, Desikachar's approach emphasized truly individualized practice.

Viniyoga, in his system, wasn't a one-size-fits-all program. Instead, it was a meticulously crafted journey designed for each student. Asanas, pranayama, and meditation were all carefully chosen and adapted based on a student's physical limitations, age, health conditions, and even cultural background.

Desikachar established the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram (KYM) in Chennai as a beacon of his teachings. KYM also provides comprehensive teacher training programs and researches the therapeutic applications of yoga, further solidifying its reputation as a center for innovation and knowledge.

After Desikachar passed away in 2016, his sons and a vast network of certified Viniyoga teachers worldwide carry his torch.

Yogi Bhajan. / Students of Yogi Bhajan

Yogi Bhajan

Yogi Bhajan, a charismatic figure of Sikh heritage, introduced Kundalini Yoga to the West. His impact goes beyond mere postures. His system aimed to awaken the dormant Kundalini energy at the base of the spine, believed to unlock spiritual potential. His unique approach combined powerful kriyas (sets of postures, breathing exercises, and mantras) with meditation to create a potent experience. The practice emphasized physical and mental discipline, with an emphasis on chanting and a strong sense of community. This holistic approach resonated with many seeking a path to spiritual growth and self-discovery.

Yogi Bhajan's legacy lives on through the Healthy, Happy, Holy Organization (3HO), a vast network of centers established worldwide. These centers offer Kundalini Yoga classes, workshops, and teacher training programs. While he faced controversies during his lifetime, there's no denying his significant contribution in making Kundalini Yoga a recognized yoga tradition in the West.

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