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William Walker Atkinson (1862-1932)

And in the home of the novelist

There is a satin-like bow on an harp.
You enter and pass hall after hall,
Conservatory follows conservatory,
Lilies lift their white symbolical cups,
Whence their symbolical pollen has been excerpted,
Near them I noticed an harp
And the blue satin ribbon,
And the copy of Hatha Yoga.
Ezra Pound, from Moeurs Contemporaines V (1919)

Hatha Yoga is an actual book, not a product of the poets imagination. I can say this with
confidence because I have a copy, bought at a used book store for $15. Sub-titled The Yogi
Philosophy of Physical Well-Being, it was first published, remarkably enough, in 1904, one of
the firstif not the firstbooks written about Hatha Yoga in English for a popular audience.
The title page attributes the work to a Yogi Ramacharaka who, from 1903 and 1909, churned
out 14 books, all of which are still available either in print or on lineon subjects ranging from
Hindu philosophy and yoga to Oriental occultism, mystic Christianity, life after death and
reincarnation, and the science of psychic healing.

Who was Yogi Ramacharaka? His publisher, the Yogi Publication Society (YPS), which in
the early 1900s was headquartered in Chicago, tells the following story about him. Born in
India around 1799, YR like several of the seekers in this book ventured out early in life to
hunt for the Truth. He spent many years trudging back and forth across the East, fasting,
meditating, and digging through the libraries of countless lamaseries and monasteries. Around
1865, after having passed what must have been a good 40 years on his quest, YR finally
discovered the unnamed basis for his philosophy. At about the same time, he acquired a
student, the eight-year-old son of a Brahmin family, who we know as Baba Bharata. YR then
resumed his peripatetic ways, retracing the steps of his lifes journey, this time with little
Baba in tow.

We next hear about the wanderers almost 30 years later, in 1893. Now 94, and sensing that he
would soon shuffle off his mortal coil, YR deputized Baba to spread his teaching near and
far. You may recall that in that year, the WPR convened in Chicago as part of the Worlds
Fair. Baba realized that such a gathering would make the perfect bully pulpit, so off he went
to the US. His appearance at the Parliament was, according to the YPS, an instant success.
He lectured before enthusiastic audiences from all parts of the world who were visiting the
Fair, attracting a considerable following in the process. Many wished him to start a new
religionbut he felt only the urge to write about YR and his teaching.

While he might have been an effective, even charismatic speaker, Baba wasnt much of a
writer. Fortunately he met one William Walker Atkinson, described as an English author,
and despite their divergent backgrounds, they apparently recognized in each other a fellow
traveler. They agreed to pool their talents and write books, Baba contributing his gurus hard-
earned wisdom, Atkinson his talent with words. It seemed only proper that they signed their
joint efforts YR.
Its a touching tale but with a big hole thats hard to plug: theres absolutely no record that a
Baba Bharata addressed the Parliament, though as we know Baba Premananda Bharati with-a-
final-i arrived in New York City around 1902. Some people have jumped to the conclusion
that, just because the story doesnt exactly add up, Baba was only a figment of someones
vivid imagination. Though we cant say for sure this is the case, it does seem likely, and this
in turn leads us to surmise that, lacking any concrete evidence to the contrary, YR was a
made-up character too. So if these two gentlemen were fictitious, who wrote those 14 books?

The only name left standing from the YPS story is the ghost writer, English author William
Walker Atkinson, who was both a real person and an author. But why the YPS called him
English is a mysterymaybe what they meant is that he wrote in Englishbecause Atkinson
was born and raised in Baltimore. Around 1890 hed become a successful businessman and
lawyer, but success as it still often does today took a toll. In his late 20s or early 30s (its not
clear exactly when), he experienced some kind of debilitating breakdown (what exactly
happened isnt spelled out, but it seems he suffered what we would call professional
burnout) and financial ruination.

In those far-off days before the ready availability of sympathetic though pricey therapists and
mood-altering drugs, Atkinson decided to take the proverbial bull by the horns. He pulled
himself out of his funk with the help of techniques he learned from a popular self-help
movement known variously as New Thought, Mental Science, Mind Cure, the Boston Craze,
and Practical Christianity. Eager to join and help promote the vehicle of his miraculously
restored physical, psychic, and financial health, Atkinson moved to the ground zero of NT
activity, Chicago, sometime in the late 1890s.

It didnt take long for him to hop aboard the bandwagon. By 1900 he was an associate editor
of a NT magazine, Suggestion, and had published his first book, Thought-Force in Business
and Everyday Life. Technically Atkinson was responsible for nearly 40 books (he also co-
wrote another 20), which nowadays would be shelved in the self-help, New Age or occult, or
business sections of the bigger national chain stores, probably with a packaged CD or video.
His interests were eclectic, to say the least, and most of us would agree somewhat out of the
ordinary, unless your usual reading fare includes books about personal magnetism and the
magnetic gaze, telepathy, practical mental influence and mind reading, practical
psychic trainingan umbrella term that covers psychometry (the technique of divining
information about people or events related to an object solely by touching or being close to it),
intuition, clairvoyance, psychomancy (divination with the help of spirits), and crystal gazing
the science of observing, remembering and recalling, self-healing by thought force, the
art of logical thinking and the psychology of salesmanship, and the ever popular
reincarnation and the law of karma. Incidentally, Atkinsons 1906 book, Thought Vibration
or The Law of Attraction in the Thought World, was a major inspiration for the 2006 movie,
The Secret.

I used the word technically above because Atkinson also wrote another 40 or so books
disguised, in some cases effectively, in others poorly, with one of a half-dozen pseudonyms
(that we know about). He wrote about a dozen books, for example, as the renowned master of
the art and science of Personal Magnetism, Parisian Theron Q. Dumont. The story here is that
Theron wrote in stilted guidebook English, which he humbly admits in the opening chapter
to The Art and Science of Personal Magnetism (1913), and gratefully acknowledges an
American student, identified only as Mr. L. N. D., for transforming his work into idiomatic,
American man on the street English. But Theron was no one-trick pony: he also wrote
about developing concentration and mental power and efficiency, memory training, mental
therapeutics, or Just How to Heal Oneself and Others, the theory and practice of character
reading, successful salesmanship, and most interesting for yogis, The Solar Plexus or
Abdominal Brain, one of four brainsand you thought we only have onein the human body.

By now youve probably guessed that Atkinson was our mysterious Yogi Ramacharaka. We
then might wonder: Why go through all the trouble to pretend to be writing for a non-existent
person? One possible reason is that Atkinson felt books ostensibly about Indian philosophy
and yoga would gain credence with his readers if they thought they were written by a yogi.
The strange thing is that several of his later books had almost nothing to do with yoga. The
Science of Psychic Healing (1909), for example, an odd sequel to the earlier Hatha Yoga, is
a plain, simple, practical presenation of the various forms of Psychic Healing, [9] including
Pranic Healing, Thought-Force Healing, and Spiritual Healing. Then theres Mystic
Christianity or The Inner Teachings of the Master (1908), a re-telling of the Jesus legend and
an account of the occult teachings of the early Christian church. , its only connection to yoga
being its advocacy of the Jesus-goes-to-India hypothesis to account for the so-called lost

This latter book and several others started out as monthly instalments or lessons of a
correspondence course which, after a year, were collected and issued in a single volume. So
we find titles like Fourteen Lessons in Yogi Philosophy and Oriental Occultism (1903), its
Advanced Course (1904) companion, and A Series of Lessons in Raja Yoga (1906), the same
in Gnani Yoga (1906). It appears that Atkinson acquired a taste for Indian philosophy around
the time he moved to Chicago, undoubtedly through his association with New Thought, which
was heavily influenced by what today is called Neo-Vedanta. Some YR aficionados believe
Atkinson was tutored in the finer points of Indian philosophy by Baba Bharati, or that he
traveled to India and studied with YR, neither of which seems likely. Others believe that
Atkinsons Baba was Swami Vivekananda, and while the two might have been in the same
general vicinity in Chicago or Baltimore, theres no concrete evidence that the two ever met
or corresponded. One other possible teacher who Ive never seen mentioned before is an
Indian scholar by the name of Manilal Dvivedi who, like Vivekananda was a delegate to the
1893 World Parliament. In the Preface to The Spirit of the Upanishads (1907) YR
acknowledges his appreciation of the work of Dr. Manil N. Dvivedi ... the original
translator [5] of many of the approximately 420 aphorisms. I wasnt able to find out anything
more about this relationship, if thats the right word, and we probably will never know if
Atkinson had a live tutor.

But Atkinson really didnt need one, or at least he could get by without one. By 1900 he could
draw on several scholarly and a host of popular books for background material, though much
of what was found in the latter was either ill-informed or misinformed about India and
Indians. He seems though to have stuck with relatively reliable sources, since here and there
in YRs books we come across quotes from 19th century Indologists like the well-known
German scholar Max Muller (who also addressed the WPR on Greek Philosophy and the
Christian Religion), fellow German Paul Deussen, American Sanskrit scholar Edward
Washburn Hopkins, and Englishman Monier Monier-Williams.

YR retired in 1909, but Atkinson created two more Hindu personas between 1911 and
1916, Swamis Panchadasi and Bhakta Vishita. Neither, oddly enough, wrote about Indian
philosophy or yoga. Panchadasi (Sanskrit for 15, a reference to a book of 15 chapters of the
same title, written in the 14th century as a kind of Vedanta primer) wrote three books between
1912 and 1916, The Human Aura (True occult knowledge gives you practical power and
strength), The Astral World (subtitled Its Scenery, Dwellers and Phenomenon) and A Course
of Advanced Lessons in Clairvoyance and Occult Powers (315 pages, clothbound edition
$2.00). According to reports none of these books sold very well. Vishita thought did well with
a handful of pamphlets (topics included Can We Talk to Spirit Friends? How Is It Possible
to Foretell the Future? The Mystic Sixth Sense.) and a pair of books, Genuine Mediumship
or The Invisible Powers (1911), and The Development of Seership: Hindoo and Oriental
Methods (1915). Its not clear why Atkinson used Hindu sounding pseudonyms with these
books, since Panchadasi and Vishita wrote on occult subjectsclairvoyance and telepathy,
crystal gazing, spirit communication and automatic writingnot exactly commonly found in
yoga books.


YR deemed what he called the Yogi Complete Breath the fundamental breath of the entire
Yogi Science of Breath. [33] In essentials its similar to our modern practice of Conqueror
Breath (Ujjayi Pranayama). Try the exercise for yourself:

(1) Stand or sit erect. Breathing through the nostrils, inhale steadily, first filling the
lower part of the lungs, which is accomplished by bringing into play the diaphragm ... The fill
the middle part of the lungs, pushing out the lower ribs, breast-bone and chest. Then fill the
higher portion of the lungs, protruding the upper chest ... In the final movement, the lower
part of the abdomen will be slightly drawn in, which movement gives the lungs a support and
also helps fill the highest part of the lungs.
(2) Retain the breath a few seconds.
(3) Exhale quite slowly, holding the chest in a firm position, and drawing the abdomen
in a little and lifting it upward slowly as the air leaves the lungs. When the air is entirely
exhaled, relax the chest and abdomen. [34-5]

And remember, a little practice makes perfect. [35]

What was Hatha Yoga like at the dawn of the 20th century, at least YRs version? Not much
like we find it today. YR spends most of his time on the care and feeding of the bodydiet and
elimination, correct breathing, the yogi bath, sleepand hardly any on whats the focus of
most contemporary books, asana or posture. Because of this Georg Feuerstein concluded that
the secularization of yoga in the West seems to have started with a mysterious writer who
called himself Ramacharaka. ... Atkinsons publications set the stage for physical culture.
But this is clearly a misunderstanding. Indeed in his early book on Hatha Yoga, YR plainly
describes it as the branch of the Yoga Philosophy which deals with the physical body, [9]
stressing that its a splendid foundation upon which the student may build, as a sound, strong
body is necessary for one to do his best work. [6] But he also warns by adding certain
abnormal and revolting physical methods and practices, including the terrible excesses of
ascetic self-torture, posture, etc., which are still more reprehensible that even the lower forms
of the false Raja Yoga as favored and practiced by the Fakirs of India, posing as Yogis and
Masters ... [p and R of India 138]

Want to try what passes for a yogi exercise in 1904?

(1) Extend the arms straight out in front of you, on the level of the shoulder, with the palms of
the hands touching each other; (2) Swing back the hands until the arms stand out straight,
sideways, from the shoulders ... return briskly to Position 1, and repeat several times. The
arms should be swung with a rapid movement, and with animation and life. Do not go to sleep
over the work, or rather play. This exercise is most useful in the developing the chest, muscles
of the shoulders, etc. ... The repeated movements should be rhythmical, backward and
forward, like the swinging of a quick pendulum.

We usually identify the term Raja Yoga with Patanjali and the Yoga Sutra, but for YR it
consists of a series of lessons in activities like the expansion of the Self, Mental Control,
the cultivation of attention and perception, and something called Sub-Conscious Character
Building, which apparently involves the intelligent use of the sub-conscious faculties of the
mind to modify, change, or completely alter our character. Heres an exercise in the
cultivation of attention:

Begin by taking some familiar object and placing it before you, try to get as many impressions
regarding it as is possible for you. Study its shape, its color, its size, and the thousand and
one little peculiarities about it that present themselves to your attention. In doing this, reduce
the thing to its simplest partsanalyze it as far as is possibledissect it, mentally, and
study its parts in detail. The more simple and small the part to be considered, the more
clearly will the impression be received, and the more vividly will it be recalled. Reduce the
thing to the smallest possible proportions, and then examine each portion, and mastering
that, then pass on to the next part, and so on, until you have covered the entire field. Then,
when you have exhausted the object, take a pencil and paper and put down as nearly as
possible all the things or details of the object examined. When you have done this, compare
the written description with the object itself, and see how many things you have failed to note.