The epic story of how Buddha Bose, Bishnu Ghosh and Yogananda took yoga from Calcutta to the rest of the world.
In Calcutta Yoga, Jerome Armstrong e t y weaves the multi-generational story of the first family of yoga and how they modernized the ancient practice. The saga covers four generations, the making of a city, personal friendships, and shines light on the remarkable people who transformed yoga and made it a truly global phenomenon.
Along the way, we also meet the people who founded the schools of yoga that are so well known today. Enriching the cast of characters are the internationally renowned B. K. S. Iyengar, Mr Universe Monotosh Roy, even as the book uncovers the truth about Bikram Choudhury, the founder of Bikram Yoga. We follow them and others from the streets of Calcutta to the United States, London, Tokyo and beyond, where they perform astounding feats and help revise Western perceptions of yoga.
Cleverly researched and enjoyably anecdotal, Calcutta Yoga gives a holistic picture of the evolution of yoga, and pays homage to yogic heroes previously lost from history, while highlighting the pivotal early role the city of Calcutta played in redefining the practice. A culmination of rigorous fieldwork and numerous interviews, this book is as much about yoga as it is about history, relationships and human nature.
JEROME ARMSTRONG travelled across India from 2015 to 2019, staying for weeks or months at a time while researching for and writing Calcutta Yoga. His PhD in Conflict Analysis and Resolution is from George Mason University. In the early 2000s, he was one of the first popular political bloggers. He co-authored Crashing the Gate: Grassroots, Netroots and the Rise of People-Powered Politics (2006), and worked in digital media for political campaigns in the United States and internationally for over a decade. He is a co-founder of Vox Media, the leading independent modern media company. Born in Los Angeles, he resides in Alexandria, Virginia with his family, where he practises and teaches yoga and qigong.
The name I knew. What drew me in, what made me linger, was a desire to know what was missing, forgotten.
It was a wintry day in November 2013. I travelled from my home and across the Potomac River to one of the Smithsonian buildings in Washington DC. On display in the gallery were materials tracking the historical roots of yoga as it morphed from its classical practice within India into a modern worldwide cultural phenomenon. I closely examined the documents and photographs on display and purchased a commemorative book: Yoga: The Art of Transformation. In a chapter on the origins of yoga asana practice was a full-page photo of Buddha Bose. Beneath the photo was a caption:
Buddha Bose, a student of yoga master Bishnu Ghosh, shows his skills at a yoga exercise demonstration, London, ca. 1930s.
The photo of Buddha was phenomenal; he was performing a difficult abdominal muscle control posture. After admiring the photo, my attention was drawn to the lack of attendant details. There was no mention of a photographer, location or even a date; only the decade the photo was taken featured. And nothing about Buddha Bose was included elsewhere in the book.
He forgot the world. And the world forgot him.'
Few have heard the name Buddha Lal Bose. Even fewer have heard his story. In March 2014, after locating a copy of the hard-to-find Volume 1 of Key to the Kingdom of Health through Yoga (1939) written by Buddha, I wondered about the whereabouts of Volume 2. I thought, 'Well, someone must have already found out what happened; why it wasn't published.' A search revealed little information. I found a 1938 newspaper article which described the performance of eighty-four asanas by Buddha Bose in London and Washington DC; a 1939 issue of Ken magazine out of New York included four photographs of Buddha, in postures that were not included in Volume 1. But that was about all. More than seventy-five years had passed since Volume 1 was published, which led me to conclude that the story of Buddha Bose's life had not yet been told. This book tells the story of what happened to him: the forgotten yogi of the twentieth century and his life inside the yoga family of Calcutta.
I knew I would write this book when I uncovered a lone copy of Buddha's unpublished manuscript — an entire album titled 'Yoga Asanas'. Buddha had brought the nearly finished manuscript from Calcutta to London in 1938 and left it there to be published. But his personal ordeal and the world affairs of the forties put things on hold. Indefinitely. What had happened to the manuscript and photos next was a mystery.
In London, the manuscript was placed in a family trunk and forgotten. Four decades later, two young sisters pulled it out and attempted to get into the 'funny shapes' made by 'Uncle Buddha'. They soon tired and returned it to the trunk. Two more decades and another generation went by before the belongings of the London house were sold off. Later in the research, I encountered another possibility.
An American man, by the name of Edward Groth, was a yoga student of Buddha's in the 1930s, while he worked at the American Consulate in Calcutta. Groth was an avid photographer, and may have taken the photographs of Buddha found within the manuscript, and brought it back with him to the states when he retired. Whatever the case, the manuscript went missing, only to reemerge at an estate sale in San Francisco. In 2003, an art collector of specialty prints from the 1930s won a bid for the manuscript, paying $11,000. He prized its pristine condition and only
once showed it publicly, at the Association of International Photography Art Dealers Fair in March of 2011. I discovered this through a lone online review, praising the collection of photographs as one of 'the best' booths at the fair. The article contained this gem of a clue, written by Emma Allen:
And most mysterious and charming of all, a series of instructional yoga photos depicting the 20th century master 'Buddha Bose' in various improbable poses. Wall text enigmatically explained that the gleaming, well-oiled Bose made the series for his 'Uncle Edward'.
`Who is Uncle Edward?' was the first question that popped into my mind. Then came the second, 'Is this the missing Volume 2 from Buddha Bose?' With this article I had something tangible. I needed to find the art collector. The author of the article provided clues, explaining that the San Francisco collector displayed 'nostalgic silver gelatin photographs' from the past and the gallery was 'moving soon to New York'. The article was a few years old, though; and I couldn't locate the collector in San Francisco or New York. When I finally tracked him down through a web-archived page, I contacted him via email. He replied, 'I am deep in the Colorado mountains ... next week I will tell you more about the Buddha Bose thesis I own and its ninety asana photographs and detailed descriptions. It's quite amazing.' A couple of months later, in July of 2014, after many more emails back and forth, I ventured to Connecticut to view the manuscript. It was complete and had never been published. Signed by Buddha Bose on 15 July 1938, it contained dozens of intermediate and advanced asanas not included in Volume 1. Michael Shapiro, the owner, asked why I wanted access to the manuscript. I replied simply, 'To share it with others.' He responded, 'I've been waiting fifteen years for someone to show up and say that to me.' He agreed to allow it to be published but requested that I seek out Buddha's living family and learn the history of the manuscript. Little did I realize that this was like being given a map and sent out on a global treasure hunt; the mystery quickly turned into an adventure!
**Contents and Sample Pages**
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