A Collection of 16 Amazing Vintage Yoga Photos Taken by LIFE Photographers

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A recent survey by Yoga Journal and Yoga Alliance found that the number of Americans who practice yoga was up to 36 million. In addition, 80 million people who had never done yoga said they thought chances were good that they’d give it a shot.

That means things have changed considerably since the early 20th century, when the practice first began to creep into the American spiritual and athletic mainstream. But, from LIFE Magazine’s very first years in the 1930s, the publication and its photographers were chronicling that growth.

In 1937, the magazine followed the news that a Yale scholar from India had examined the science behind yoga, which was explained to readers as a mystic Hindu practice that let the expert, through muscular control, detach from mind and body to allow the “higher world-soul” to join with him. “Whatever the religious result of yogic exercises may be,” the magazine reported, “they undoubtedly have therapeutic value, help general bodily health.”

A few years later, in the article from which the first slide above is drawn, the magazine profiled the “lithe young devotees of an ancient and honorable religion” whom photographer Wallace Kirkland had met on a trip to India. In the decades that followed, with the help of celebrities such as violinist Yehudi Menuhin and participants in the truth-seeking of the 1960s and ’70s, the magazine stopped having to explain what yoga meant to readers.

As for the reason behind the practice’s popularity, perhaps it came down to the explanation offered by Tom Law, the “yoga guerrilla” profiled by LIFE in 1970: “Yoga gets me reconnected,” he said. “As soon as I get into the position it begins to happen for me. The center of the earth becomes located in my stomach, my head is in the stars, and yet I am here too. Yoga really works, which is why I think it will be popular.”

Here, below is a collection of some of fascinating photos taken by LIFE photographers that show people doing yoga from between the 1940s and 1970s.

Boy twisting himself into a yoga position, 1940. (Wallace Kirkland The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images)

Folk singer John Jacob Niles performing elbow-standing exercise, adapted from yoga, to relax. 1943. (Alfred Eisenstaedt The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

Hindu man practicing yoga, 1949. (Eliot Elisofon The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

Ballet dancer and actress Ricki Soma arching backward as her father Tony Soma and other family members take various Yoga positions, 1947. (Lisa Larsen The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images)

Sir Paul Duke on the BBC TV show, “Laughter and Life” showing yoga exercises, 1949. (William Sumits The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

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