Rishi Singh Gherwal demonstrating uḍḍīyāna bandha. From Complete Yoga, September 1937. From the collection of the Philip Deslippe.
The above black and white photograph depicts a fascinating yet lesser-known figure in the history yoga’s early transmission from India to the West, one "Rishi Singh Gherwal." The Rishi's tale is paradigmatic of an informative, albeit lost, period in yoga's transmission from East to West, and is a case study we will be exploring in the upcoming online course, YS 102: Modern Yoga in the West.
Rakha Singh Gherwal (1889-1964), born an Indian Sikh from the Punjab, arrived in New York via England by ship on the S.S. Berengaria in August 1923. During this time immigrants to the United States faced severe racism, discrimination, and had great difficulty finding work or gaining citizenship. Within two years of his arrival, with options limited, Gherwal changed his name to "Yogi Gherwal" and began a viable career as a traveling yoga teacher throughout the United States in the late 1920s and 30s. He went on to write and publish a dozen books and pamphlets in English, including titles such as Practical Hatha Yoga: Science of Health, How to Keep Well and Cure Diseases by Hindu Yogic Practice, and Great Masters of the Himalayas: Their Lives and Temple Teaching.
According to modern yoga historian and our guest Yogic Studies instructor, Philip Deslippe, the "Hatha Yoga pamphlet and its depictions of Gherwal in asanas such as Bow, Fish, Grasshopper, and Cobra, is most likely the first photographic appearance of and publicly available guide to hatha yoga postures in the United States (Deslippe 2016: 101)."
Flyer of Rishi Singh "Grewal" (Gherwal). From the collection of Philip Deslippe.
Yogi eventually changed his public name to "Rishi Singh Gherwal" as you can see (misspelled) in the image above—a flyer for one of the Rishi’s many public lecture events. Gherwal settled in southern California, where he established a yoga center in Santa Barbara, before passing away in 1964. His center, passed down through the hands of students, would later be taken over by Ganga White and what would eventually become the White Lotus Foundation in Santa Barbara, still in existence and training many yoga teachers today.
The life, career, and voyage of Gherwal, from the Punjab to traveling around the United States as one of America’s first India-born yoga teachers, is a remarkable and largely untold story of early modern yoga in the West. However, there are other fascinating Yogis and Swamis like him, whose stories have fallen through the cracks of the annals of yoga history. We will be exploring more case studies like Gherwal’s, in the upcoming course, YS 102: Modern Yoga in the West.
Podcast Interview with Philip Deslippe
Learn more about YS 102