When he first arrived on the West Coast in 1925, Paramahansa Yogananda called Los Angeles “the Benares of America.” L.A. reminded him of India’s holiest city because a certain spiritual energy permeated the hot, dry air. He may have sensed that the growing town was destined to become the prime relay station for the processing and distribution of Yogic teachings.
Yogananda himself, of course, played a principal role in that history. After making a 12-acre site atop Mount Washington the international headquarters of his Self-Realization Fellowship, he became “the 20th century’s first superstar guru,” to quote the LA Times. Over the years, Yogananda’s visible footprint was placed on other choice properties in the region, notably the magnificent Lake Shrine on Sunset in Pacific Palisades and the cliff top retreat in Encinitas, where he wrote his iconic memoir, Autobiography of a Yogi.
More than two decades before Yogananda made L.A. his home, Swami Vivekananda ushered in the 20th century in this part of the world. During his three-month visit commencing in December of 1899, lecture halls were filled with crowds eager to hear the triumphant star of the 1893 World’s Parliament of Religions speak on subjects like “The Science of Yoga.” In 1923, one of his devotees, Swami Paramananda, founded Ananda Ashrama, a still-functioning sanctuary in the hills of La Crescenta. A few years later, the triple-domed temple of the Vedanta Society rose up in Hollywood. There, in the 40s and 50s, a trio of celebrated authors, Gerald Heard, Christopher Isherwood and Aldous Huxley, were schooled in Vedanta philosophy and Yogic practices by the erudite Swami Prabhavananda, who presided over the temple from 1929 until his death in 1976 at the age of 82. The essays, novels and nonfiction books (e.g., Huxley’s seminal The Perennial Philosophy) produced by those literary lions educated millions about India’s spiritual treasures. Prabhavananda and Isherwood teamed up on elegant translations of the Bhagavad Gita and the Yoga Sutras (titled How to Know God) that were the best-read versions of those classics for years. The Hollywood center remains a custodian of Vivekananda’s vision of adapting the ancient dharma to the modern West.
The other Hollywood—the star-making industry, as opposed to the geographical entity—has also played a major role in beaming Yoga and Indian philosophy to the masses. As early as the 1930s, celebrities such as Charlie Chaplin and Greta Garbo would motor up to Ojai in their roadsters to listen to the pathless pathfinder, Jiddu Krishnamurti. It was in Ojai that the iconoclastic Krishnamurti had the spiritual breakthrough that led him to reject the messiah-like role for which he’d been groomed by the Theosophists who brought him to the West as a teenager. For nearly six decades, his spring lecture series drew thousands of Angelenos to Ojai annually.
Hollywood star power also taught folks in the hinterlands about Hatha Yoga. Celebs like Mae West and Greta Garbo were linked to the practice early on, and in the 1950s gossip columnists reported that icons such as Gary Cooper, Marlon Brando, and Marilyn Monroe were into it. Marilyn was said to do asanas “to improve her legs,” proving that Yoga as physical fitness did not begin in the Madonna era. One of the teachers of celebrities and thousands of others was Indra Devi, the so-called First Lady of Yoga, whose landmark book, Forever Young, Forever Healthy, coupled with numerous public appearances, helped bring the teachings to the masses. Born in Eastern Europe, she was a student of the legendary Hatha revivalist Tirumalai Krishnamacharya. Only an exceptional woman could have broken through India’s male-only Yoga club back then, and Indra Devi remained exceptional until her death in 2002 at the age of 102.
Among the region’s other mid-century Hatha teachers was Bishnu Charan Ghosh, Yogananda’s younger brother. One of his students was Bikram Choudhury, who went on to build a worldwide empire with his trademark high-temperature Yoga. Another innovator in L.A. at the time was Richard Hittleman. A devotee of the non-dualist saint Ramana Maharshi, Hittleman penned enormously popular books and pioneered the use of video. His daily TV show, “Yoga for Health,” debuted in L.A. in 1961 and was syndicated nationally for years.
In 1953, Judith Tyberg, a direct disciple of Sri Aurobindo, one of the spiritual giants of modern India, founded the East-West Cultural Center near the intersection of Beverly and Vermont. The center moved several times before settling into its present location in Culver City in 1985. A native San Diegan who studied Sanskrit in Benares, Dr. Tyberg introduced Angelenos to Sri Aurobindo’s work and hosted visiting teachers who went on to have a huge impact on modern Yoga. Among them was Swami Vishnudevananda, who was sent to America in 1957 by his guru, Swami Sivananda of Rishikesh. Ganga White, one of many seekers who found their way to East-West in the sixties, trained with Vishnudevananda and later opened the Sivananda Center for Yoga on Sunset and Western during the apex of flower power. The Hare Krishna devotees added to the colorful atmosphere of the era, giving locals their first glimpse of traditional Hindu Bhakti and their first earful of Sanskrit chanting, a precursor to today’s kirtan scene. They would soon establish an L.A. temple (now in Culver City) and, in 1977, start their annual Festival of Chariots in Venice.
In the seventies, White disconnected from the Sivananda lineage and turned The Center for Yoga into a prototype of today’s independent studio. It offered an eclectic menu of classes and hosted a parade of luminaries, from Swami Satchidananda to Allen Ginsberg to the first teachers trained by the influential Hatha masters B.K.S. Iyengar and Pattabhi Jois (Iyengar himself lectured there in 1976, as did Pattabhi Jois in 1985). The center caught on quickly, forcing a move to a larger location on Larchmont Boulevard, which is now owned by YogaWorks. White went on to found the White Lotus Foundation in Santa Barbara, and Swami Vishnudevananda’s lineage was reestablished as the Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Center, which is now located in Marina Del Rey.
The watershed moment in the West’s embrace of India’s spiritual heritage came when the Beatles met Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, studied his Transcendental Meditation (TM) and, in early 1968, famously retreated to the banks of the Ganges River. Overnight, words like mantra, guru, and ashram entered the collective vocabulary, and it became acceptable, even fashionable, to start the day in silent meditation. The locus of that phenomenon was London, but the sparks were lit years earlier in L.A. when clean-cut citizens of Ozzie and Harriet’s America were drawn to the Maharishi. When college students looking for ways to expand their awareness without dangerous drugs turned to TM, the Students International Meditation Society (SIMS) was created at UCLA. By 1966, SIMS had branches at several major campuses, and after the Beatles’ media explosion its office on Gayley Avenue became the administrative engine of a massive movement. One of the UCLA meditators, Keith Wallace, wrote his doctoral dissertation on the physiology of TM, and his findings, published in 1970, would jumpstart a research juggernaut that moved meditation into the mainstream.
The chain reaction that led directly to the Beatles began with an L.A. record producer named Richard Bock. The head of World Pacific Records, Bock started promoting the music of Ravi Shankar soon after the great sitarist’s first visit to the West in 1956. He produced some of Shankar’s early albums and connected him to L.A. based jazz artists like flutist Paul Horn, who became one of the first American TM teachers and later recorded the seminal “Inside the Taj Mahal” album. Bock also introduced Shankar to John Coltrane, who infused his music with Indian sounds and themes, and to Alice Coltrane, who went on to become a Swami with an ashram of her own in the Malibu hills. It was also through Bock that David Crosby, then a member of the Byrds, first heard Shankar’s music. Crosby shared his discovery with George Harrison in 1965, at a Benedict Canyon party. The rest is musical and spiritual history. While studying sitar with Shankar in India, the quiet Beatle’s spiritual longing found direction, and his path led to the historic Beatles-in-India moment.
Once the floodgates were opened, L.A. continued to be the principal conduit for the East-to-West transmission. Yogi Bhajan, who first appeared at the East-West Cultural Center in 1969, started teaching his distinctive Kundalini Yoga on Melrose Ave, down the road from the Bodhi Tree, which in 1970 established itself as the prototype for spiritual bookstores everywhere. Also starting up in a Melrose storefront (circa 1972) was the American guru who was born Franklin Jones, became Bubba Free John and, after more name changes, passed away as Adi Da Samraj.
Virtually every teacher whose impact reverberated nationally made important inroads in Los Angeles. Swami Muktananda, for instance, introduced his Siddha Yoga to Angelenos during his three world tours, beginning in 1970. On his first visit, he was accompanied by Ram Dass, who was then in the early stages of his indispensible life as the spiritual teacher formerly known as Harvard psychologist Richard Alpert. Mutkananda spent six months in L.A. on his third tour, holding public events in a huge tent in Santa Monica, where the Loews Hotel now stands. His successor, Swami Chidvilasananda (Gurumayi), also came to Los Angeles a number of times in the eighties and nineties. And, as local Yogis know, B.K.S. Iyengar and Pattabhi Jois, the progenitors of the asana-based practice now virtually synonymous with the word Yoga, established a powerful L.A. presence. The transmission continued through the turn of the century, as new teachers—Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, Mata Amritanandamayi, Sri Karunamayi, Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev, and others—have found some of their most welcoming audiences in L.A.
Somehow, a city known for glitz and glamour also acquired a strong ethos of inner development. In what other city could Bhakti Fest, Yoga Month or Yoga therapy have been incubated? Where else could professor Christopher Chapple create a Yoga Studies program at the Jesuit-run Loyola Marymount University? Los Angeles has probably produced more Yoga teachers per capita than anywhere else in the country, and must surely lead the nation in the number of asanas performed and mantras intoned per day. By all indications, the Benares of America will continue to beam Yoga in all its forms as skillfully as it beams movies and TV shows.
Philip Goldberg has been studying the world’s spiritual traditions for more than 50 years, as a practitioner, teacher, and author. An Interfaith Minister, public speaker, and workshop leader, his numerous books include Roadsigns on the Spiritual Path; American Veda: From Emerson and the Beatles to Yoga and Meditation, How Indian Spirituality Changed the West; The Life of Yogananda: The Story of the Yogi Who Became the First Modern Guru, and his latest, Spiritual Practice for Crazy Times: Powerful Tools to Cultivate Clarity, Calm and Courage. He blogs on Elephant Journal and Spirituality & Health, cohosts the popular Spirit Matters podcast, and leads American Veda Tours to India. His website is www.PhilipGoldberg.com.