What does yoga owe The Beatles?

A magnificent band with yoga in their vein

Yoga’s growth in the 1960s

This article is not just about The Beatles and yoga. It’s about the exponential social, economic and cultural changes that enveloped the late 1950s and 1960s, when growth in yoga started to take root.

Hitherto, yoga was primarily the domain of intellectuals, plus some other people – but by no means all – who were properly considered as eccentrics. To a certain extent that perception lives on, having probably been exacerbated by the pejorative associations of the Sixties’ hippie culture and its embracement of yoga.

Now, to be honest, I quietly approve of hippies and their ideals. I wouldn’t have minded being one myself but, hey, I was too darned young. But, here’s the thing: because of those negative stereotypes, I constantly feel that I now have to tell potential students that yoga is definitely not a cult or a religion. It is much more accurately viewed a scientific method, or if you prefer, physical and mental practice for integrating and strengthening the mind, body and self.

The Beatles themselves quickly dispensed with the postulations of their guru, the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, when it became evident after spending three months at his retreat in Rishikesh in India, that he was not what he purported to be. Only George Harrison maintained his devotion to Indian mysticism. The others moved on, but they did continue to practise yoga and, in particular, meditation.

A rapidly shifting Britain

The significance of The Beatles in all of this is that they were unwitting ambassadors for a generation of young people. Many of these young people’s parents had fought, died, been injured, damaged, survived, and suffered austerity, loss and deprivation during and beyond the Second World War, which we can barely imagine. The Beatles’ generation played and grew up amongst bombsites and rationing. But Britain was changing fast – from black and white to colour. The Beatles were at the forefront of that social and cultural change: something we find hard to get our heads around today.

Newly educated young people with money, from lower middle-class backgrounds, had noticeably less respect for authority. They demanded a fairer society without the strictures of the Ancien Régime. They were the vanguards of fashion for their generation – not their parents. Their use of the contraceptive pill with its so-called liberation of sexual behaviour played havoc with previous norms. 1965, by the way, was the first year the French women’s clothing industry produced more trousers than skirts.

Times were a-changin’ for The Beatles

The Beatles had everything one would think any heterosexual young man would want: immense talent, charisma, wealth, fame and female company. Yet, one has to assume they knew they were lacking something fundamental in their lives, or needed to find an alternative way to help them to cope with who they’d become, particularly as a growing vacuum tragically entered their lives following the success of their most famous recording.

In 1967 The Beatles launched probably the most talked about and seminal rock album ever made, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. They also developed an interest in yoga, particularly after the death of their manager Brian Epstein, who produced and safeguarded their success from a business, rather than a musical, perspective. To paraphrase John Lennon, interviewed later about that time in their career, “We knew we were fucked then. We didn’t have a clue”.

One thing is certain: although musically they did continue to produce (in my view) much better albums, they changed enormously as people, and started to disintegrate as a rock group, possibly because they no longer had Brian Epstein’s stewardship. Even before his death, The Beatles were growing away from Epstein and their lack of need for him might well have contributed to his growing dependence on alcohol and drugs. He needed The Beatles probably more – emotionally speaking – than they needed him!

Heroes just for one day?

Another certainty is that hippie fashions, bohemian attitudes and Eastern mysticism owed much of their popularity to The Beatles’ endorsement. Literature kept pace: a brilliant theatrical critic brought the word ‘fuck’ to public radio. Lady Chatterley’s Lover was published. But The Beatles weren’t universally popular. One opponent of their changing mindset was the Daily Mail:

“What’s happened to the Beatles? It’s now around four years since [they] happened, and, since the early days of 1963, the Beatles have changed completely. They rose as heroes of a social revolution. They were everybody’s next-door neighbours. The boys whom everybody could identify with. Now four years later, they have isolated themselves, not only personally, but also musically. They have become contemplative, secretive, exclusive and excluded.”

Thank you for the music

Lest one forgets: people of The Beatles’ generation (mostly black) were being drafted and slaughtered in Vietnam. The Cuban Missile Crisis had brought the world to the brink of nuclear decimation. Politicians trying to do the right thing – the Kennedys and Martin Luther King – were being assassinated and murdered. To be a homosexual was illegal.

Conversely, The Beatles’ association with the hippie counterculture is easily overstated. Far from dropping out, they continued to work extremely hard in the studio. The Beatles were tough and smart. They continued to develop their music more than anything else. They quickly tired of the Swinging Sixties of London, recognising that ostensibly it was about the privileged lifestyle of about 2,000 well educated and affluent people who could afford it, probably because their parents paid for their keep.

To most people, I suggest, that was not their experience of the Sixties. There was still a lot of poverty and hardship. But by common consent it was a good time to be young, when people did start to enjoy themselves more. Furthermore, the music and the clothes were great.

The Beatles: making yoga cool!

To conclude, let me take this right back to my experience as a young boy of 11, in 1967. I was a boarding school pupil and, although I got a lot from it, I hated much of what public school represented. The great thing was that I was amongst other older boys who fully embraced the music and values of the Sixties, albeit naively. The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, Crosby Stills & Nash, Neil Young – you name it, they played it. I got to hear all that music and admired their defiance, long hair and attitude. It was not quite as in Lindsay Anderson’s film If, but there certainly were shades of that aplenty, especially against the pejorative, sometimes cruel and brutal, aspects of public school life.

The fact that The Beatles did yoga gave it credence and gravitas. It still does. If they did yoga, then it had to be cool! The fact that they were not deceived by the esoteric and mystical aspects of yoga added veracity to that belief.

I’m not claiming that The Beatles by themselves brought yoga to the West, but I do believe they were very instrumental in doing so. Which is yet another reason why so many people appreciate the great joy in their music, personalities and capacity as role-models for change and self-development. They taught us to be happy, good to others, cheeky, irreverent, bold, have a sense of humour and be prepared to try new things, which for many of us included yoga.

How The Beatles drew people to yoga

The most yogic thing about The Beatles is their music. All of their songs were about being happy and kind, about life and love. Their song Revolution was against violence. Their working class roots made them exceptionally grounded. Their (grammar school) education, upbringing, intelligence and wit safeguarded their autonomy. Whilst I might extol the schoolboy politics of films like If, I think The Beatles would have been quite disparaging about that sort of behaviour because, at the end of the day, films like If are extremely middle class, but they do make a fair observation about the failings of society. If is about Vietnam more than anything else, and the shifting sands of class discrimination.

Yoga of course is about doing no harm and having respect for oneself, other people and the world we live in. Recognising that we are part of a whole and that everything is connected. Recognising the importance of Karma which is “cause and effect”. Do good, get good; do bad, get bad.

I believe The Beatles drew people to yoga not just because they practised it themselves, but because they represented yogic values and were protagonists for positive social and cultural change.

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