Australia and our Yoga History

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IT’S HARD FOR AUSTRALIA to imagine — when yoga studios are visible on every street corner and we can easily look online for a convenient class — what it was like when our favourite and fastest-growing ‘sport’ had just made it to our shores.

Australia was relatively late to embrace yoga, compared to America and Europe. During the 1920s, academics of the occult began researching the practice. But it was 50 years ago, in 1967, when model Roma Blair, in fishnet tights and beehive hairdo, got Don Lane into shorts and onto the floor to do a quick asana tutorial on the set of the Don Lane Show, that you could truly say Australians had accepted yoga into our living rooms.

From East to West

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It’s good to remember that yoga in Australia wouldn’t have happened without refugees and immigrants. Our first yoga studio owner, Michael Volin, also known as Swami Karmananda, was born and educated in China and was a student of Indra Devi. According to his wife, Daphne Volin, he was expelled by the Communists, and entered Australia with his mother and brother as a ‘displaced person’.

Michael opened the Sydney Yoga Centre in 1950, and about five years later, Melbourne followed. There the main teacher was Margrit Segesman, a Swiss émigré who had tuberculosis and had been advised by Carl Jung to do yoga, according to Dr Fay Woodhouse, a historian at the University of Melbourne. She lived as an ascetic in a cave in Tibet, before being sent by her teacher to spread yoga to the West. She founded the Margaret Segesman School of Yoga which, as the Gita School of Yoga, remains to this day in Hoddle St, Melbourne.

Housewives and office workers: Making it mainstream in Australia

In 1962, the Roma Blair Yoga and Health Centre opened in Pitt St, Sydney. Roma, known later as Swami Nirmalananda, had studied in South Africa with Swami Venkatesananda Saraswati and Mani Finger, who was in turn a student of both Paramahansa Yogananda and Swami Sivananda. Roma had led a life worthy of a novel, including languishing in a Japanese POW camp in Singapore for three years and later becoming a well- known model. She was a gifted speaker and a natural publicist, able to bring discrete groups and people together in a common cause, and her efforts did much to broaden yoga’s appeal. In the early Sixties, Roma began an exercise show on Channel Nine television, Relaxing With Roma, which she devised with uptight housewives in mind, and an early-morning program for office workers, Wake Up and Live. She contributed a regular column for the Daily Telegraph and Daily Mirror, and ran a busy class schedule in her own studio and gyms across Sydney, with her executive teacher Joy McIntosh, who still teaches in Tuross Head, NSW.

Yoga = Union

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Roma, Margrit and Michael, who had by then moved from Sydney to South Australia, founded an International Yoga Teachers Association, known as the IYTA. The idea was to unify yoga teachers across national boundaries and across different lineages. Over the next five years, Roma’s own teacher training evolved into the more formalised training of the IYTA, at first just in NSW in 1971, but later in all states and territories, and in disparate centres across the globe ranging from Singapore to Spain. International conventions were also organised, and over the years took place in South Africa, Puerto Rico, Spain, Japan, Switzerland, India, and in many Australian locations including Jenolan Caves and Uluru.

But then it was the Sixties, and yoga’s popularity piggybacked on the nascent self-awareness movement. Women’s Lib was a hot topic, and housewives and office girls alike
flocked to this practice of yoga, which promised freedom of movement and dress, personal individuation, and freedom of the mind, all in one. It’s hard to imagine today, when anyone can buy a ticket to India online and join an ashram tour, what chutzpah it would have taken Roma Blair, Margrit Segesman and their many female students, to travel solo or in small groups to India and other countries and live in a cave or an ashram.

From West to East: The influence of Western culture on modern yoga

Yet those early Australian teachers offered something to the Indian teachers as well. Hatha Yoga as we know it is a product of cross- fertilisation between Indian traditions and Western innovation and research, as has been argued by Mark Singleton. Australia was no exception. Joy McIntosh tells the story of how Roma and she developed a series of joint limbering exercises, which later were reinvented as the pavanamuktasana series that appears in Asana, Pranayama, Mudra, Bandha authored by Satyananda in 1969. “The Swami was teaching very advanced postures which his students in India could do. But our students needed extensive limbering exercises before they could attempt many of the asana,” she explains. “When Satyananda saw Roma and me teaching these he took photos, and when we went to Bihar in 1969 we saw him presenting the photos as slides to new teachers. Whenever anyone had a question about them he would reply, ‘Ask the Australians’!”

Sally Janssen, an early president of the IYTA, was tasked with setting up the association’s code of ethics, a document that has evolved with the times to support IYTA teachers today, but then and now required teachers to follow the yamas and niyamas of Patanjali, and to refrain from promising supernatural connections, or disseminating ‘dogma’.

Matthew O’Malveney, one of the early teachers of ‘Christian Yoga’, was the first editor of the International Light, which became a much-loved quarterly journal. These days, the journal showcases a contemporary evidence-based approach to the teaching of yoga, but still has an international flavour, carrying articles from Greece, the Middle East, India and Singapore, as well as the US, UK and Canada.

About the IYTA

As befits its Australian cultural origins, the IYTA is non-guru-based, and while members are free to follow their own guru, the official leadership of the IYTA is democratically elected, and can only serve a single four-year term. Its Handbook of Asanas is compiled by an evolving team of teachers and constantly updated, according to IYTA’s evidence- based approach. And in recent years, under the leadership of its outgoing president, Mary-Louise Parkinson, the training association has branched out into postgraduate training in prenatal, postnatal, back care, and Yin, with more advanced training modules currently in development. www.iyta.com.au