There on the shores of the Kanti Sarovar lake near Kendanarth, the first Guru was born as Shiva imparted his wisdom to the seven sages in the art, science and mechanics of yoga. The tradition continues. Here are 12 of the many yoga gurus who helped change the world.
“Yoga chitta vritti nirodha (Yoga is yoking the modifications of the mind stuff into stillness)" Sutra 1.2
The history of the great yogic sage Patanjali is populated with legends and contradictory accounts of his origins. We do know that Maharishi Patanjali is considered the father of yoga when around maybe 200 B.C.E., he wrote the Yoga Sutras (thread). Comprised of 195 sutras strung together to form a yogic framework of daily ethical practice, it resides in an eight-limbed path (Ashtanga) and teaches student to be free of suffering, or at least to lead a better life.
Today Patanjali’s seminal work is read by every student completing his or her yoga teacher training.
“Spiritual teachings destroy ignorance and therefore remove darkness, but they cannot throw light on the inner self, for the self is light.”
Also known as Guru Dev, he was born into the priest caste. At age 9 he left home on his spiritual path, renouncing his home life and heading to the Himalayas where at 14, he met his guru, Swami Krishnānanda Saraswati. He remained a recluse in a cave seeing his guru once a week for a decade, then emerged a siddha (accomplished one) and was immediately compared with the great Advaita philosopher, Adi Shankar.
He influenced thousands and his disciples were great teachers, including the transcendental meditation leader, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.
“To practice Yoga daily and systematically is to develop immunity against all diseases.”
A pioneer in the scientific research and education of yoga in the 1920s, Kuvalayananda founded the Kaivalyadhama Health and Yoga Research Center, still in operation in Lonavla, Maharashtra, India. India is home to several other centers researching and promoting yoga.
His master, Paramahamsa Madhavdasji, (Bengalese, 1798-1921) imparted his passion for the discipline of yoga and thus was born the scientific study into the psychophysical benefits of this ancient system. Kuvalayananda had 3000 students per year, including Mahatma Gandhi, J.R.D. Tata and Shrimati Indira Gandhi.
Chances are whatever yoga you practice was shaped in some way by this Brahmin-born, 5-foot-2-inch yogi whose influence spread like wildfire worldwide. He ascribed therapeutic values (having spent time with Swami Kuvalayananda in his yoga research center) and incorporated sequencing with counter poses for optimal health results. Not much is known of his early years except that he was encouraged by his father at age 5 as a descendent of the great ninth-century yogi, Nathamuni.
Under his guru Sri Ramamohan Brahmachari, he is said to have mastered 3000 asanas and could stop his pulse entirely at will. His passion for yoga led him to Mysore, where he remained and began a school we know as Ashtanga Vinyasa. The school was made famous more than 40 years later by his best student, Pattabhi Jois.
Sources: YogaJournal, Ashtanga.info
"We are what we think we are. The habitual inclination of our thoughts determines our talents and abilities, and our personality. So whatever you want to be, start to develop that pattern now."
Like all of the other gurus listed here, Paramahansa was born under a different name. Raised in a devout family, he too left home for his spiritual search at an early age. At 17 he found his guru, Swami Yukteswar Giri. Like most of the other gurus listed here, he was dedicated to educating children and opened a how-to-live boys' school in West Bengal.
It was to become the model for his worldwide initiative, the Self-Realization Fellowship, which he opened in California in 1920 upon visiting the U.S. for a conference in Boston. He lived most of his life in the U.S. and died after reading a poem about India to a room full of dignitaries.
Anandamayi Ma (April 30, 1896-Aug. 27, 1982)
“I have no particular path. All paths are my paths.”
Her name means Bliss Permeated Mother, and like a maternal figure she supported her followers to seek their own true nature. She refused to be considered a guru and was always referred to as Ma, though her childlike body remained chaste even when wed at the young age of 15, obeying inner voices who would guide her.
Her teachings called on all humanity to seek self realization as a priority, with all other matters being secondary. Paramahansa Yogananda wrote of her in his well-known writings on self realization. She incorporated jokes, songs, and joyfulness into her teachings, which were always spontaneous and inspired. She went where she was invited and opened up the sacred rituals to female participation.
“With transcendental meditation technique we have a natural and effective means to dissolve even deeply rooted fatigue and stress. This is the way to unfold full value of life.”
The Maharishi gives full credit to his spiritual leader, Swami Brahmanandna Saraswati, for inspiring his teachings. He said it took him two years to master that feeling of “oneness." This guru from an upper-caste family became a household name in the 1960s and '70s. He was the “giggling guru” to the Beatles, Beach Boys and other celebrities.
He taught his transcendental meditation technique to more than 5 million people while inducting more than 40,000 teachers and founding hundreds of colleges, universities and schools. Maharishi’s organization is worth hundreds of millions of dollars, all from that “one thing in mind that (he knew) would be useful to every man.”
Sources: Maharishi.org, TM.org
“The mental ability to concentrate is inherent to all; it is not extraordinary or mysterious. Meditation is not something that a yogi has to teach you; you already have the ability to shut out thoughts.”
Sivananda was a physician for many years in Malaysia known for treating the poor. A frustration with traditional medicine led him back to India to pursue a spiritual quest. After meeting his guru, Vishwānanda Saraswati, he led a life of austerity and continued to doctor the infirm as he traveled the country.
Through his yoga of synthesis, he was able in 1945, to establish an ayurvedic pharmacy, and create the All-World Religions Federation. He established the All-World Sadhus Federation in 1947 and Yoga-Vedanta Forest Academy. His yoga vedanta centers exist worldwide.
Yoga teaches to cure what need not be endured and endure what cannot be cured.”
To the world he was the beloved B.K.S. Iyengar, King of Yogis. One of the earliest students and brother-in-law of Krishnamacharya, he went to Mysore at his invitation to study yoga and improve his health. Voted one of the most influential people by Time Magazine, he is known for popularizing yoga in India and the rest of the world, including getting the Queen of Belgium to stand on her head in sirsasana at age 80.
His teaching methods focused on flexibility and stamina, incorporating heavy use of props from his own unfortunate accident that left him with a back injury.
“Do your practice and all is coming.”
At age 12, Pattabi Jois attended a lecture by Krishnamacharya at the Jubilee Hall, and became a student the next day. He kept it secret from his family for two years. He made his way to Mysore, where later he was to meet up again with his guru and teach at his yoga shala (school). In 1933 he got married and had three children who ran his famous Shri K Pattabhi Jois Ashtanga Yoga Institute in Mysore.
An article written on yoga mentioned Pattabi Jois, thus opening the floodgates of foreigners who flock there to this day to take the three series of Ashtanga. These include some of most famous celebrities.
“It is so simple to be happy but so difficult to be simple.”
Gururaj was a mystic, a philosopher and a poet who imparted jnana yoga (that of knowledge). He moved from India to South Africa and became a successful businessman. After learning from his spiritual guru Swami Pavitrananda, he began by giving meditation practice in his living room in Cape Town. In 1974 with the assistance of his devotees, he started the South African Meditation Society, the International Foundation for Spiritual Unfoldment and several mediation societies around the world.
Sources: Gururajananda.com, IFSU.org, Britishmeditationsociety.org
“The duty of a doctor is to treat patients. In the same way, my duty is to console those who are suffering.”
Also known as Ammaji aka Amma, she is regarded as more of a saint than a guru, with a following that outnumbers the population of some island nations. From a young age she dedicated herself to feeding and helping those in need. She averted marriage and instead started a foundation, Mata Amritanandmayi Math.
She imparts darshan (blessings or to see) in the form hugs and is known as the “hugging saint” to more than 32 million people. She has recorded some 1000 bhajans (devotional chants) in 35 languages. She embraces the world with food and services through her foundations in more than 40 countries. Recently there have been scandals regarding her ashrams, however she remains within a halo of peace.
Sources: Amma, Awaken