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Yoga at Times Square. Image source: littlemebigyou.wordpress.com
  • The 1920s saw the fears of yoga and its teachers reaching its peak
  • Broken marriages, suicides, and contested wills were attributed to yoga in the early twentieth century
  • The 2016 Yoga in America Study states that 80 million people are likely to try yoga for the first time over the next 12 months

With over 36 million yoga practitioners in the U.S, yoga is expanding its reach above all horizons. Yoga has become so popular that the total expense of yoga classes, clothing, equipment and accessories, has risen to $16 billion a year up from $10 billion over the past four years. The 2016 Yoga in America Study states that thirty-four percent of Americans, or 80 million people, say they are likely to try yoga for the first time over the next 12 months. But yoga wasn’t always held in high regard, it was viewed in the early twentieth century as mental and magical, and broken marriages, suicides, and contested wills were attributed to yoga.

Yoga or “Yogi Philosophy” was common to talk of hypnotism. Yoga teachers in the United States during this time were like travelling salesmen, moving from one town to another and Methodist circuit riding preachers, giving public lectures and teaching private courses. The American public would conjure up fantastic ideas about yoga’s power and the itinerant men from India who taught it as there were very few Asian immigrants. But by the 1920s, figures such as Mabel Daggett grouped these incidents together, connected them to fears of South Asian immigration, and imagined a deliberate conspiracy of “swarthy Hindoo priests” launching a “Heathen Invasion” of the United States.


The 1920s saw the fears of yoga and its teachers reaching its peak.

Henry Simpson Johnston, who moved to the Oklahoma from Indiana to practice law in the town of Perry, became a well-regarded and powerful figure throughout the county. Johnston was then elected to the first Oklahoma Senate, and after returning to his law practice in Perry successfully ran for the Governor’s seat in 1926.

Yogi Wassan Class Image Source: Saada.org ( Texas/Dallas History division of the Dallas Public Library)

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The governor, his secretary, Mrs Oliver Hammonds and her uncle held their own personal array of esoteric and occult beliefs. Johnston was a serial joiner of fraternal organisations and was a member of the Klu Klux Klan, the Freemasons, and the Rosicrucians, and by his own admission counted Theosophy, New Thought, Unity, and Christian Science among his philosophical affinities. Mamie Hammonds was part of the Kamelia, a women’s adjunct to the Klan and her uncle Armstrong who was a Rosicrucian. Johnston, Hammonds and Armstrong also had shared interests in numerology and astrology, mentions saada.org.

These associations created fascinating stories and articles and even warned the people that Oklahoma was under a “dictatorship of the spirits,” and that “Strange Gods” ruled Oklahoma. One of the most problematic of these associations was Judge Armstrong’s relationship with, Yogi Wassan, a Punjabi Sikh immigrant from the village of Ball.

Yogi Wassan placed a strong emphasis on physical wellness through diet, exercise, and breathing regimens and would often perform feats of strength on stage and use his own brawny body as proof of his techniques. He was viewed as a sort of mystic pope of the quiet sect of Yogi by the people of Oklahoma.

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Image Source: Saada.org

A pardon he issued for a murderer on the suggestion of his official secretary H.E. Sullivan, and the alleged corruption and mismanagement within the Highway Commission along with his ties to yoga resulted in Johnston’s suspension from his office and an awaiting impeachment trial.

At the end of the impeachment hearings, Johnston was acquitted of nearly all the charges except the vague charge of “general incompetence.” The media speculated endlessly on rumours of chanting, incense smoke, swamis, and yogis, and it is difficult to not see those same rumours in the single vague charge that removed Johnston from office.

-This article is prepared by Ajay Krishna, a staff-writer at NewsGram.

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