The history of yoga has a rich and diverse past that can be both fascinating and overwhelming. While some claim that yoga is around 5000 years old, the general consensus is that yoga history can be traced to about 2500 years old.
Finding out how we got to the yoga we practice today can illuminate and develop your practice.
From Indian renunciates to global yoga, this practice has a vast offering that is steeped in philosophy and tradition. To find our way back to the present day, in this article, we’ll look at the following:
- Key historical periods within the history of yoga
- Why Patanjali set the stage for yoga history and the yoga we know today
- Some key texts that have influenced yoga history
- Influential yogis within the history of yoga
- Modern yoga as we know it now
We don’t have a specific answer as to how old yoga and its practices are, but we do know when it crops up in texts. What is problematic here is that although we find usage of the word “yoga”, it only sometimes means yoga as we know it now.
Yoga has one of the most extensive entries in the Monier-Williams Sanskrit dictionary. Let’s take a look at some of the interpretations.
Yoga – योग
“union” “yoke” “remedy” “method” “trick” “business” “opportunity” “profit” “junction” “application”
So, even though we may find the word in early texts, it only sometimes relates to what we consider yoga.
The first mention of yoga in this context is in the Katha Upanishad, but we are going to jump straight to 400CE and take a look at where for many people, yoga begins. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.
The classical period is often defined by The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, also known as the Patanjalayogasastra. Patanjali was an Indian sage who likely compiled both the sutras and the bhasya (commentary) of the text. He is often considered the father of yoga, but he certainly didn’t invent it.The text’s 195 aphorisms (threads) provide a path to Raja yoga (royal yoga). With such pithy aphorisms, the sutras only really make sense when combined with the commentary, which provides the reader with tools to understand the text.
The dualistic philosophy of the text, which is influenced by Samkhya, says that “yoga is the stilling of the mind” (Yoga Sutra 1.2).
Arguably one of the reasons why Patanjali’s yoga has stood the test of time is because it uses a systematic method called Ashtanga yoga.
The eight-limbed path provides the basis for living well, practicing, discipline, and the path to enlightenment. Importantly, for Patanjali, yoga was both the practice and the goal.
The Eight Limbs Of Classical Yoga
The eight limbs provide the dos and don’ts of how to act in the world before we get into some of the more familiar practices associated with yoga. They are:
- Yamas – There are five Yamas: Ahimsa (non-violence), Satya ( truthfulness), Asteya (non-stealing), Brahmacharya (correct use of energy), Aparigraha (non-greed)
- Niyamas – There are five Niyamas: Saucha (cleanliness), Santosha (contentment), Tapas (discipline), Svadhyaya (self-study), Isvara Pranidhana (contemplation of the divine)
- Asana (seated postures)
- Pranayama (breathing techniques)
- Pratyahara (sense withdrawal)
- Dharana (concentration)
- Dhyana (meditation)
- Samadhi (absorption)
What about yoga poses? “Posture should be steady and comfortable” (2.46).
This is about as much as we get on postures from Patanjali, although the original commentary lists twelve poses, all of which are seated postures. Undoubtedly asana was an essential part of the system but with significantly less focus than we see in modern yoga.
Post-classical Yoga – The middle ages
Around 350- 500 CE, the first emergence of Tantra came about.
It encompassed a combination of ritual practices and meditations to attain siddhis (powers) and moksha (liberation/freedom).
There was a new emphasis on the yogic body and the use of chakras, nadis, and kundalini as psychophysical visualization and meditation practices.
Texts on hatha yoga can be seen from around the 11th century C.E. Now we begin to see even more focus on the body, with asana, pranayama, and mudra becoming more overt practices.
Asana is now seen not just as a tool for seated meditation but to keep the body purified and healthy.
Yogis begin to view the physical body as the way to reach enlightenment.
This can be seen in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, which describes yoga asanas in detail. The text was written by Swami Swatmarama in the 15th century and is the first manual to describe asanas that are not seated.
Ultimately the aims of Hatha and Tantra are the same as Patanjali’s “liberation,” but arguably, these traditions set in motion many of the practices that have evolved to become some of the yoga practices we know today.
At the turn of the 1900s, global travel became more readily available, and gurus traveled from India to the West as a way to disseminate the teachings of yoga.
Yoga at this time was in the process of being repackaged for western audiences.
That meant that, for the main part, it was stripped of anything too esoteric, and meditation became a focus. Let’s take a look at some of the most influential teachers of the time:
- Swami Vivekananda: 1863-1902
He visited the U.S. in 1893 and spoke at the World’s Parliament in Chicago to disseminate yoga teachings. He toured the U.S. and wrote many books about yoga.
- Swami Sivananda: 1887-1963
A guru and writer, he also founded the Divine Life Society in 1936.
- Maharishi Mahesh Yogi: 1918-2008
Also known as the ‘giggling guru,’ was famous for creating Transcendental Meditation, which is practiced globally and continues to be a popular form of meditation.
Yoga history steps into the modern age and sees postural yoga taking the forefront.
In the 1920s and 1930s, Yoga was popularized in India with the work of T.K.V. Krishnamacharya. Krishnamacharya became the guru of three influential students who changed the face of yoga: B.K.S. Iyengar, T.K.V. Desikachar, and Pattabhi Jois.
His notable students were influenced by the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, and its philosophy is woven into their teachings. Who were these important historical teachers?
- T.K.V. Krishnamacharya: 1888 – 1989
Krishnamacharya was known as the father of modern yoga. It was his role as a teacher that created his legacy, which modern yogis can find in studios globally today. He is known for creating a balance of yoga for health and well-being with the sun salutation practice/flow yoga or vinyasa practice.
- B.K.S. Iyengar: 1918-2014
He was a sickly child who used yoga to heal himself. Known for taking the concepts of yoga developed by Krishnamacharya, he created a brand of yoga, “Iyengar Yoga,” that focused on discipline and strict alignment. Iyengar wrote “Light on Yoga” in 1966, which is considered a “modern yoga bible”.
- T.K.V. Desikachar: 1938-2016
Krishnamacharya’s son took the healing aspects of his father’s yoga and packaged it as Viniyoga. It is a therapeutic style that focuses on teaching the individual, not the pose. It continues to be popular and has significantly influenced yoga therapy.
- Pattabhi Jois: 1915-2009
He took on the elements of yoga flow established by Krishnamacharya and developed the five series of Ashtanga Yoga. Arguably one of the most popular and, at one time, most practiced styles in the world, it is a dynamic, rhythmic, and rigorous practice.
Mark Singleton’s book Yoga Body (2010) is an influential text in the modern period. This is one of the first accounts to examine the influence of other modalities, such as bodybuilding and gymnastics, in yoga.
Met with some resistance, the book accounts for how yoga is not a product of a single lineage or tradition, and neither can modern yoga be fully accredited to Hindu origins.
In recent years yoga has once again transformed itself with the innovation of yoga brands, increased scholarship, and the internet.
Yoga has moved away from a 1-2-1 medium where the student would reside with a guru often for life. Now we have an abundance of styles and sub-styles to choose from as well as classes, workshops, retreats, and teacher trainings.
In more current times, the internet has made teachers readily available anytime in the comfort of the practitioner’s own homes. Most people now take on a yoga practice not for transformation but for wellness and self-care.
While yoga has evolved from a practice of renunciation, ritual, and meditation, some might argue that its essence has been lost. Others will conclude that yoga has always been a malleable and shifting concept that does not have a single origin point and is influenced by culture and society.
What we do know is that historical texts and scholarship into yoga history provide a rich and valuable source of tradition.
For many, yoga is a vital and helpful part of life, and learning more about its history, traditions, and context can only serve to enrich our practice.
Ready to learn more?
If you want to know more about the history of yoga, then why not check out some pre-Patanjali yoga and explore the Upanishads?