SOAS University of London

Centre of Yoga Studies

From Raj to Reich to Refuge: Selvarajan Yesudian & Modern Yoga

Cathryn Keller

Date: 1 July 2019Time: 6:30 PM

Finishes: 1 July 2019Time: 7:30 PM

Venue: Russell Square: College Buildings Room: Khalili Lecture Theatre

Type of Event: Talk

The Indian author and teacher Selvarajan Yesudian (1916 Madras -1998 Zurich) played a significant role in making yoga modern — visible, accessible, open to women — in mid-twentieth-century Europe. As a medical student trapped in Budapest in the 1940s, he drew on the practice that saved his life as a child to save his life again and help others cope with terror and trauma. In the shadow of war, he lectured to large audiences on “yoga in the life-struggles of today”; taught hatha yoga classes in an art studio; and published a photo-illustrated yoga manual that eventually sold three million copies in 20 languages. Yesudian survived the Siege of Budapest and captivity as a Russian POW. He escaped from Soviet-controlled Hungary to Switzerland, co-founding a multi-site yoga school in partnership with the Hungarian sculptor Elisabeth Haich (1897-1994). Yet despite long, successful careers as model modern yoga entrepreneurs, Yesudian and Haich have almost disappeared from history.

This presentation draws on new and previously unavailable primary sources, including a rich visual archive, to map this missing chapter in the history of transnational modern yoga. Interdisciplinary approaches to yoga studies, combined with the investigative, corrective and commemorative functions of biographical methods, are used to locate the roots of Yesudian’s yogic and other influences, from Scouting and bodybuilding to medical science and Theosophy, and to trace the impact of his innovative pedagogy and partnership with Haich.

Today a yoga body may be a refugee’s body, an immigrant’s body, or the traumatically stressed body of a soldier, veteran, or other survivor of violence. The story of Yesudian’s dramatic odyssey from Raj to Reich to refuge shows the power of yoga as a source of strength, healing, meaning, and hope in precarious times, suggesting historic antecedent and reasons for yoga’s current global popularity.


This event is free but booking is required. Book via the Eventbrite page.

Speaker biography

Cathryn Keller began studying yoga as a child with her great-aunt, a Hungarian-American (by way of London) survivor of Auschwitz and slave labour factories who studied with Yesudian in Budapest. A Washington, D.C.-based writer, former filmmaker and museum and university communications executive, Keller served as Senior Advisor for External Affairs for the Smithsonian Institution’s exhibition Yoga: The Art of Transformation. Currently working on the first biography of Yesudian, she has presented her research at academic conferences and informally in Krakow, Budapest, and the U.S. She studied the history of photography with Eugenia Parry Janis at the University of New Mexico and earned a B.A., Highest Honors in Sociology, focusing on religious studies and the social history of art, at the University of California Santa Cruz, and an MFA at Antioch University Los Angeles.