How old is yoga?
We know that yoga is an ancient practice, however, its exact date and origins are difficult to pin down. It’s common to hear the tradition dated at 5000 years old, yet research has identified postural yoga as we know it to be more recent than perhaps we had once believed.
For a more precise answer, we may need to define exactly what we mean by ‘yoga’. What we now practice in class may be very different to what is described as yoga in early texts. Naturally, yoga has evolved over time and through various cultural influences.
This article will take us through a timeline of yoga, from its earliest texts up to today. We’ll explore:
- where it began
- significant evolutions
- and prominent influences
to explore the complex question of ‘how old is yoga?’
What do we know about the Earliest Yogic Texts?
The Vedas | 4000-1000 BCE
The earliest mention of yoga is found in the Rig Veda, considered to be one of the oldest surviving sacred texts.
This text is particularly difficult to date as it may well have been compiled over different time periods, also due to the fact it was likely to be an oral tradition before it was recorded in writing.
Some sources have suggested it to be as old as 4000 BCE, however, recent scholarship leans towards periods between 1000-1500 BCE (see Roots of Yoga by Mallinson & Singleton, 2017).
A common translation of the word yoga is ‘to yoke’. This appears in the Vedas when referring to ‘yoking’ oneself to their chariot or animal in preparation for fighting. Fighting may seem unusual to associate with yoga as we know it today, although Vedic hymns and texts are famously poetic and metaphorical.
The Upanishads | 7th Century BCE-5th Century CE
The Upanishads cover a wide range of texts. Some are dated as early as the 7th- 1st centuries BCE and others are dated to the 4th and 5th centuries CE. There are 12 or 13 ‘Early’ Upanishads believed to be part of the Vedic traditions of revealed knowledge. It is thought that there are 108 in total, an auspicious number within Hindu and Buddhist traditions.
The Sanskrit word ‘Upanishads’ translates to upa= near to, ni=down, shad= to sit, which may be understood as to sit at a teacher, or guru’s feet. This creates an image in one’s mind, implying the importance of guidance and the ritual of passing down knowledge from teacher to student.
The Upanishads bring forward teachings from the Vedas, translating them into more practical teachings. They are varied in content, however, it is within these texts that traditions of self-enquiry and mental discipline are introduced, as well as concepts of karma.
The Bhagavad Gita | 300 BCE
The Bhagavad Gita, written in around 300 BCE is part of the great Sanskrit epic, The Mahabharata.
It is essentially a conversation between Krishna and prince Arjuna on a battlefield. Here Krishna is consulting Arjuna through the dilemmas of battling with his family, throughout this process several yogic paths and teachings are explored.
Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras | 325 CE
Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras were written in approximately 325 CE. This is where the well-known ‘eight limbs of yoga’ first emerge:
1. Yama- attitudes towards our environment
2. Niyama- positive duties
3. Asana– posture
4. Pranayama– breathing techniques
5. Pratyahara- turning the senses inward
6. Dharana- focused attention
7. Dhyana- meditation perfected
8. Samadhi- bliss/enlightenment.
The text is laid out for one to follow and master these practices as described, ultimately ending in Samadhi, or enlightenment. The Yoga Sutras (sutra, meaning ‘thread’) could be considered one of the earliest yoga manuals.
However, asana (postural yoga) is only briefly mentioned as one of the eight limbs. Amongst many other sources, this text appears to be influenced by the Buddha’s ‘eightfold path’. Pattabhi Jois’s Astanga yoga, which is highly popular today is highly influenced by Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras.
Although these texts are still considered to be intrinsic teachings for modern yoga practitioners, they contain no (or very little) instructions on the yoga postures we associate with yoga classes today.
So, where and when does postural yoga come in?
The Hathapradipika | 15th Century CE
The Hathapradipika, written during the 15th century CE, is one of the most widely known and referenced texts for early postural yoga. It is the first text to describe asanas which are not only variations of seated postures.
The Gheranda Samhita | 18th Century CE
The Gheranda Samhita (18th century CE) gives instructions for thirty-two postures and describes specific health benefits for each. It is also unique in that a whole chapter is devoted to purificatory practices for the body. This is an interesting observation when considering today’s connection between health and yoga.
When was yoga introduced to the West? 4 Key Teachers
Swami Vivekananda (1862- 1902) is well-known for his influential speech in 1893 at the Parliament of Religions, Chicago which sparked an interest in Indian religions. As a spiritual teacher, he believed that yoga would be the most productive way to teach spirituality to the west.
Vivekananda’s teachings suggested that some physical practice was beneficial to access the higher states of mental awareness needed for enlightenment. However, the implications were
that he recommended this in order to prepare the body for long periods of sitting still and comfortably for meditation.
It’s likely that his work set up the path for future teachers of yoga to be welcomed and created the momentum for its upcoming popularity.
The 20th century was a busy period of evolution for yoga. Once introduced to Europe and America it quickly grew in popularity. There were several prominent figures during this time who gained followers and set up schools.
Their teachings appeared to ‘demystify’ yoga’s reputation and made them accessible to people of western culture. This took away the notion that yoga was only for ascetics, those who abstain from worldly comforts and indulgences for a simple contemplative life. Instead, yoga was now being taught in a way that people could practise alongside their modern lives.
Krishnamacarya was a hugely influential figure for modern postural yoga with a career spanning almost 70 years. He taught rigorous postural sequences that were connected by repetitive movements.
His legacy is evident in his students, who are well-recognised names in today’s yoga classes: K. Pattabhi Jois, B. K. S. Iyengar, Indra Devi and T. K. V. Desikachar (Krishnamacarya’s son).
Each continued to teach yoga with a fast-growing following of students in the west. Although students of the same teacher, they went on to develop very different styles of practice and ways of teaching.
Paramahansa Yogananda, author of Autobiography of a Yogi (first published in 1946) is known for his teachings of kriya yoga.
He first came to America in 1920 and in 1925 founded the Self-Realisation Fellowship, an organisation that continues today.
Yogananda brought the idea of ‘oneness’ to American society, which was a profound and welcomed concept at this time. He was also open and respectful of other religions, which added to his popularity.
His brother, Bishnu Charan Ghosh was the teacher of Bikram Choudhury. Choudhury had studied under Ghosh in Calcutta.
He came to America during the 1970s and began to teach what would become ‘Bikram Yoga’, a sequence of 26 postures and 2 breathing exercises practiced in a heated room.
How is yoga practiced today?
Today, postural yoga is practiced by millions of people worldwide. A broad range of class styles can be found at yoga studios, gyms, community halls, festivals and more. Generally, yoga is considered a health and wellness practice that benefits both the mind and body.
As we can see through the timeline above, yoga has continuously evolved in relation to time and culture and continues to do so.
Vinyasa and Power yoga emulate elements of Pattabhi Jois’s Astanga sequences, various uses of props and chairs continue to develop with similarities to Iyengar’s teachings, and experimental hot yoga classes emerge which borrow elements of a Bikram yoga class.
Additionally, slow and restorative classes are growing, perhaps in response to a continuously growing culture of hyper-productivity. The need for stillness and meditative practice is acknowledged and Yoga Therapy has recently begun to be prescribed by the NHS in the UK.
How Old Is Yoga?
In conclusion, to answer the question ‘how old is yoga?’ we need to, again, consider what we define as yoga.
Overall, it is clear that early textual sources describe yoga as a practice of the mind. It was later that the focus was brought to the body. The fundamental teachings in yoga that separate it from being purely a physical practice are undeniably ancient.
However, the postural yoga/ asanas we now practice in class, such as those in the Hathapradipika (15th century CE) may be surprisingly more recent than expected, based on the evidence that we have.
In today’s yoga classes it is generally accepted that through practice to control the body, we can then learn to control the mind and that it is from there that transformation occurs. Amongst varying approaches to partake in the practice, the common goal within yoga appears to be self-realisation.
Roots of Yoga by James Mallinson and Mark Singleton
Yoga Body by Mark Singleton
Yoga in Britain by Suzanne Newcombe