The roots of yoga are an often debated topic in the yoga sphere.
While it is widely agreed that the roots of yoga are Indian in origin, timeframes often vary wildly.
5,000 years, 1,000 years, and 100 years are all common answers to the question “When and where did yoga originate?”.
Depending on what you interpret as ‘yoga’, all of these answers can be correct.
Although we can trace the first recorded mention of the word ‘yoga’ all the way back to the Rig Veda in 1500BC, modern postural yoga as we know is barely 100 years old.
This article will explore five distinct evolutions in yogic history that will help you form your own opinion on the origins of yoga:
As we move through the history of yoga, it is important to remember that yogic practices were passed down verbally for thousands of years within a guru-to-student relationship.
Its long and rich history is therefore hard to define.
To help us to wrap our minds around the vast and complex evolution of the practice, yoga history has been divided into ‘periods’.These are not to be interpreted as stand-alone chunks of time but more as an evolution with cross-overs, twists, and turns.
Let’s get into it!
What Do You See?
Here’s something fun to debate amongst your peers …
Some say that yoga’s roots can be traced back to one of the oldest civilizations on the planet dating back to the agricultural revolution, the Indus Valley Civilization1 Mark, J. J. (2020, October 7). Indus Valley Civilization. World History Encyclopedia. https://www.worldhistory.org/Indus_Valley_Civilization/ in Central Asia.
Archaeological findings from this civilization revealed a 4,000-year-old carving known as the Pashupati Seal which depicts the image of a person seated in a cross-legged position surrounded by animals.
Some yoga scholars believe this is the first portrait of a Yogi meditating in a seated asana, many more believe the image could just be a guy sitting on a rock!
Check out this wonderful article by Dr. Arathi Menon to form your own opinion!
#1: The Vedic Period
The Vedic Period in ancient India dates back to 1500-500BCE as is defined by the recording of The Vedas2 Doniger, W. (2023, August 14). Veda | Sanskrit text. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Veda.
Considered the oldest religious texts in the world, the Vedas, are a series of hymns that provide the foundational concepts of yoga.
‘Vedas’ meaning ‘channeled wisdom’ were transmitted orally for thousands of years, and were originally used by priests for prayer, ritual, and sacrifice in an effort to keep the natural order.
While the following terms were not specifically named as ‘yoga’, they laid the groundwork for the physical, philosophical and spiritual principles that later evolved into what we now recognize as the practice of yoga.
Which do you recognize?
- Meditation (dhyana)
- Breath control (pranayama)
- The self (atman)
- The ultimate truth (brahman)
- The Gayatri Mantra
- Inner Fire (agni)
- The sound of all creation (om)
Interestingly, there were no physical postures (asana) whatsoever mentioned in The Vedas.
#2: The Upanishadic Period
Over thousands of years, these concepts were further developed in texts like the Upanishads.
The word ‘Upanishad’ literally means to ‘sit down near’ one’s guru. It describes the shift towards a teacher-student relationship. They are central to many hindu practices.
The Upanishadic period marks a distinct departure from the Vedic way of thinking.
Where the Vedas were concerned with externalized ‘heat’ in the form of ritual and sacrifice, the Upanishadic period taught Tapas (internal ‘fire) in the form of asceticism and discipline via practical teachings.
Rather than sacrificing animals, the path was now to go inward to live a life of renunciation, sacrificing ego, illusions, patterns, and habits to be free from the constant wheel of karma (cause and effect) that leads to suffering.
Meditation therefore became the key yogic tool of the Upanishadic era.
#3: The Classical Period: Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras
During this time, the lessons of yoga were still reserved for priests and wealthy individuals belonging to the upper castes. Intellectual debates were common as groups began to form their own ideas of ‘what yoga was’.
Around the same time, the Buddha was traveling and teaching a new buddhist philosophy called ‘Buddhism‘, which was available to all people regardless of caste, status, or background.
This period in yoga history is defined by The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali c.400CE, born out of the need to create a framework for yoga that was accessible to all seekers.
The Yoga Sutras are comprised of eight limbs outlining a clear system for attaining enlightenment and self realization:
- Yamas (external observances)
- Niyamas (personal observances)
- Asana (posture / seat for meditation)
- Pranayama (breath control)
- Pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses)
- Dharana (concentration)
- Dhyana (one-pointed focus)
- Samadhi (union / oneness)
The second of Patanjali’s 52 Yoga Sutras outlines the ultimate goal of yoga:
Yogas Chitta Vrtti Nirodha (Sutra 1:2)
“Yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind”
Each of the eight limbs of Patanjali’s path to yoga was outlined as a way to ‘go inward’ to understand one’s true essence.
It is worth noting that the ‘asana’ practice outlined in the third limb describes a handful of seated postures in which to practice meditation. The athletic asana practice as we know it now came much later.
#4: Post Classical Period
The post-classical period marked a big shift in the development of yoga.
New systems of practices emerged that embraced the physical body as a means to move toward enlightenment. As yoga moved away from the ancient Vedic ideas of renunciation and ascetic practices, Tantra yoga emerged.
In this radical new way of thinking, the physical world and consciousness were not viewed as separate but the opposite side of the same coin.
Rather than something to reject and punish with harsh practices, the body was now embraced as a manifestation of divinity itself.
With Tantra, yoga became more of an embodied practice where the world around us and within us becomes a pathway to enlightenment.
Tantra was influential because it was one of the first spiritual traditions that also allowed women and lower-class practitioners.
It embraced all aspects of a householder’s life (work, home, family, desire, and even a sex life!) and aimed to merge the material and the spiritual realms —this was a radical and new way of thinking!
Tantra was a practical system of spirituality that utilized the whole human being (the breath, the body, the attention, and the imagination) to free the practitioner from ignorance and suffering.
Rather than punishing and discarding the body to get to ‘what is real’, Tantra believed that the body was an essential part of that journey and therefore opened the door to more ‘body-centered’ practices.
Out of this new way of thinking, the basis of ‘hatha yoga‘ and what we primarily think of as ‘yoga’ in the West today was formed.
Hatha yoga took the precepts of Tantric philosophies and developed them into physical practices including asana, pranayama, and control of the bandhas (energy locks) to strengthen and purify the body in preparation for deeper spiritual work.
#5: The Modern Period
During the late 1800s and early 1900s, Indian yoga masters began to travel to the Western world attracting attention and followers.
The first and most notable was at the 1893 Parliament of Religions in Chicago, America, when Swami Vivekananda presented a series of lectures on yoga and the universality of world religions.
This ushered in exchanges of ideas between the continents and opened the doors for yoga to come from the east and be adopted in ‘the West’.
At the same time, back in India, postural yoga asana was developing, notably with the work of Swami Vivekananda who created the first set sequence of yoga poses linked together with breath and movement.
This is what we now know as Ashtanga yoga … the basis for the power yoga and vinyasa types of yoga we practice today.
Krishnamacharya’s student Pattabhi Jois, was instrumental in popularizing Ashtanga yoga, establishing the Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute in Mysore, India in 1948.
To this day, the Institute attracts thousands of practitioners from all over the world to take Ashtanga class with Jois’ grandson Sharath.
So where did yoga originate?
The roots of yoga can be traced back to around 5,000 years ago, although some say some ancient practices could date back 10,000 years.
For thousands of years, yoga was transmitted orally from guru (teacher) to student and the sacred texts were for but a few selected to learn them.
Yoga was a practice that centered around meditation, ritual, and renunciation.
The modern postural yoga and group yoga classes that are widely practiced now can be traced back to the work of Krishnamacharya and Pattabhi Jois from the 1930s onwards.
From its early beginnings to the present day, yoga has evolved exponentially, yet even the most modern yoga practices are still steeped in history with many yoga teachers using ancient Sanskrit words and sharing the values of the earliest yogis.
The beauty is that we are part of the living tradition of yoga.
By understanding the roots of our practice, we can make mindful decisions (both as practitioners and teachers) about how we wish to carry these traditions forward.
For more insight into the history of yoga read: A History of Yoga: Visualise The Evolution Of Yoga