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History of Yoga

“From joy all beings have come, by joy they all live and unto joy they all return.”
Taittiriya Upanishad

However, scholars have reason to believe that Yoga existed long before and have traced its lineage back to Stone Age Shamanism in the pre-Indus Valley circa 5000 BCE.  The Shaman is considered a precursor to the Yogi by many historical experts.  Similar to the yogic culture, the shamanistic culture revered the sacred art of altering one’s awareness or consciousness in order to enter non-ordinary realms of reality.  Like Yoga, Shamanism aimed to heal practitioners and alleviate human suffering.  The biggest difference between Shamanism and Yoga is that Yoga is for the most part perceived to be an inwardly focused practice, while Shamanism was more of a community oriented practice where practitioners also acted as religious mediators.  Also, unlike most historical and contemporary Yogis, Shamans used rituals of loud drumming and practices of sacrifice and psychotropic drugs to create shifts in their perceptual field in  order to communicate with the spirit world.

In an effort to simplify our discussion of the history of Yoga, we will divide it into four periods: the Pre-Vedic Period, Vedic Period, the Pre-classical period and the Post-classical period.

Pre-Vedic Period (2500-1800 BCE)

Circa 2500 – 1800 BCE there was a great Indus River Valley civilization (now known as Pakistan) that showed evidence of a goddess culture in the form of a terra-cotta seal showing a deity and surrounding animals with Lord Shiva, a well-recognized yogic God, depicted as Lord of the beasts.  The two main cities of this area were Harappa and Mohenjo-daro.

Vedic Period (1800-1000 BCE)

Circa 1800 – 1000 BCE the Sanskrit speaking Aryan people from southern Russia are believed to have invaded the Indus valley of northern India.  They are said to have brought with them the tradition of Yoga.

The Rig Veda is the first book of this culture’s scripture and is a collection of hymns which praise a divine power.  This first book of the Vedas describes the practice of meditation, rituals and ceremonies that are meant to help the practitioner surpass the limitations of the mind.  Early Rig Veda scriptures also describe tapas as a voluntary form of self-discipline. However, while later scriptures such as the Bhagavad-Gita warned against extreme tapas, practitioners at the time of the Rig Veda would practice very intense and sometimes harmful tapas such as holding one arm overhead for prolonged periods of time or standing in the hot sun past endurance.

The four Vedic books are the sacred scripture of Brahmanism and the basis of modern-day Hinduism. The second Veda (Yahur Veda) consists mostly of astrology, astronomy and prayers, the third Veda (Sama) is a book of hymns and the fourth Veda (Atharva Veda) consists of principles of atomic energy and formulas.  Like Yoga all four books include elements of concentration, regulation of the breath, surrender of the ego and the quest for a reality beyond the limitations of the ego personality.  Significantly, it speaks of “yoking the mind and creating insight to the sun of truth”.

Vedic people relied on rishis (dedicated Vedic yogis) to give them advice on how to reduce their suffering and live in divine harmony.  These rishis were considered to be gifted in their ability to see ultimate reality and had a rigorous spiritual practice.  They were said to “see” the hymn (mantra) before composing it.  Even today, the word rishi is an honorific title bestowed on people considered to be saints.

Generations of teachers and students orally passed along the knowledge documented in the Vedas. These practitioners and mystics were scattered throughout India, often living in ashrams, forests or caves.  Over time, these generations of yogis began to develop different interpretations and followers and it is out of these different interpretations that the many varying practices of Yoga evolved.  For instance, Ayurveda is just one of the Upavedas or sub Vedas that sprang out of the fourth Vedic book.

During the Vedic times, Vratyas (nomads in eastern India) are said to have been the forerunners of the Jains and are credited with being the first culture to design pranayama, the use of breath control as a vehicle to life force.  Vratyas were considered outcasts during the Vedic times.

Preclassical Yoga (800 to 100 BCE)

The creation of the Upanishads marks the pre-classical Yoga period (ca 800 to 100 BCE). It is during this period that the ideas of uniting the mind, body and soul with the cosmic one are delineated using concepts and terminology of a clear and purposefully explanatory nature. The Upanishads took Vedic rituals of sacrifice and transformed them into rituals of contemplation and meditation. In the Maitrayaniya Upanishad (circa 200 to 300 BCE) the uniting discipline of Yoga is divided into six limbs: (1) breath control (pranayama), (2) sensory inhibition (pratyahara), (3) meditation (dhyana), (4) concentration (dharana), (5) examination (tarka) and (6) ecstasy (samadhi).

The 200 scriptures of the Upanishads teach that the transcendental ground of the world is identical to the transcendental essence of a human being.  One’s inner vision of reality results from devotion to Brahman.  The Upanishads explain three subjects: the ultimate reality (Brahman), the transcendental Self (Atman) and the relationship between the two.  Brahman equals Atman which equals Self.

This absolute reality, Self, can only be realized, not described.  According to the Upanishads, Self is said to be realized with intense contemplation and renunciation of the body as well as the world.  The Upanishads also brought back the idea of karma, the cycle of birth and death and the idea of moral causation from past actions.  These ideas were not present in the Rig Vedas.

Yoga shares some characteristics not only with Hinduism but also with Buddhism. During the sixth century BCE, the first Buddha started teaching Buddhism, which stresses the importance of meditation and the practice of physical postures. This founder of Buddhism was Siddhartha Gautama (500 BCE). He rejected the Hindu convention of social hierarchy (caste system). During the 45 years of his teachings, he inspired a middle ground between the ascetic self-torture of the Jains and the self-indulgence of the more worldly individual. He spoke against extreme breath retention as being a violence to oneself and instead encouraged concentration on unrestricted breath (anapatisati) as an essential core practice in combination with mindfulness (satipatthana). For Siddhartha Gautama, Yoga was the practice of self-inquiry, not ritual. The Buddha saw all suffering (duhkha) as a state borne of our misguided efforts to maintain a separate ego (asmita) and our belief that we are separate from the cosmic one. Our refusal to acknowledge the impermanence (anicca) of all things adds to this suffering since it gives rise to a never-ending search for happiness as well as a vicious cycle of desire, greed and illusion.

Vardhamana Mahavira, founder of Jainism, was a contemporary of Siddhartha Gautama.  Mahavira is said to have reached enlightenment 12 years after renouncing all worldly roles and possessions and engaging in rigorous austerities.  He had many followers who followed his way of viewing the world. The Jains are known for their moral code of non-harming (ahimsa).  Ironically, however their Yoga involved extreme practices of fasting, breath control and postures in order to transcend the body, not cultivate it.  Today, this principle of non-harming continues to be a central component of Yoga, but it is of ultimate importance that one practice ahimsa in regard to oneself as well as others.

Epic Yoga (circa 500 BCE – 200 CE)

Later in the preclassical period, the Bhagavad-Gita or Lord’s song was created.  The Bhagavad-Gita is entirely devoted to Yoga and refers to Yoga as an old discipline that has been practiced for a very long time.  The focal point of the Bhagavad-Gita is to understand that being alive entails being active and in order to avoid difficulties in our lives, our actions need to be benign and exceed our egos.  Just as the Upanishads build on the Vedas, the Gita builds on and incorporates the doctrines found in the Upanishads.  In the Bhagavad-Gita, three facets must be brought together in our lifestyle: Bhakti Yoga (the Yoga of loving devotion), Jnana Yoga (the Yoga of knowledge or contemplation) and Karma Yoga (the Yoga of selfless actions).  It is this attempt by the Bhagavad-Gita to unify these three types of Yoga that has given it such great importance.  The Bhagavad-Gita is essentially a conversation between Prince Arjuna and the god man Krishna and it stresses the importance of opposing evil.

Just before the classical period began one of the longest poems ever, the Mahabharata was written.  It reflects the generally non-dualistic nature of the religion and culture of its time.  In its scope, the Mahabharata is more than simply a story of kings and princes, sages and wise men, demons and gods. One of its aims is to elucidate the four goals of life: Dharma (righteousness), Artha (wealth), Kama (pleasure) and Moksha (liberation).  The narrative culminates in Moksha, believed by Hindus to be the ultimate goal of human beings.  Karma and Dharma play an integral role in the Mahabharata.

Classical Period (circa 4th century CE to 6th century CE)

Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra’s, written by Patanjali in the second century CE provide the classical format of Yoga teachings.  The Yoga Sutras are composed of 195 aphorisms or sutras (Sanskrit word meaning thread) that discuss in detail the components of Raja Yoga and its underlying principles.  The Yoga sutras are also called Patanjali’s eightfold path or the eight limbs of classical Yoga.  The eight limbs are as follows:

  1. Yama, which means social restraints or ethical values;
  2. Niyama, which means personal observance of purity, tolerance and study;
  3. Asanas or physical exercises;
  4. Pranayama, which means breath control or regulation;
  5. Pratyahara or sense withdrawal in preparation for meditation;
  6. Dharana, which is about concentration;
  7. Dhyana, which means meditation; and
  8. Samadhi, which means ecstasy.

Patanjali believed that each individual is a composite of matter (prakriti) and spirit (purusha).  He also believed that the two must be separated in order to cleanse the spirit.  This is in stark contrast to the Vedic and preclassical Yoga that emphasizes the union of body and spirit.  Patanjali’s concept of separation was so dominant that for many centuries strict followers focused exclusively on meditation and neglected their asanas.  Patanjali’s beliefs are often described as philosophical dualism and are contrary to most Indian philosophy before and after his time, which is of a decidedly non-dualistic nature.

Post-Classical Era (800 CE to 1350 CE)

Post-classical Yoga is very different from Patanjali’s in that it returns to the non-dualistic philosophies of the Vedic tradition.  However, post-classical Yoga differs from all others in its focus on teaching the individual to concentrate more on the present and the potential of the physical body.  Instead of trying to liberate the individual from physical reality, we are taught to accept it and live in the moment. Tantrism (circa 800 CE) is an example of this type of Yoga; it sees the body as a vehicle to liberation. Instead of leaving this world or killing one’s natural impulses, it becomes important to integrate the self with the Self, cultivating body, mind and Spirit.  This liberalism is in direct response to the orthodoxy of Hinduism and Buddhism.

With Tantrism, physical postures, deep breathing and meditation is meant to help keep the body young and prolong life.  The human body is considered the temple of the mortal soul and not just a meaningless vessel to be abandoned at the first opportunity.  It is through the body that one watches the process of the mind.  Tantric yogis believe there are subtle planes of existence that are hidden to our ordinary perceptions.  Tantric yogis call these the subtle body or the annamayakosa.  The Upanishads first mentioned the Koshas (sheaths).  There are four subtle bodies beyond the physical body.

During the 10th century A.D., an offshoot of Tantric Yoga began and this is the foundation for Hatha Yoga as we know it today.  Goraksha and his teacher, Matsyendra, are considered to be the founders of Hatha Yoga.  There are many legends about Goraksha and Matsyendra.  They were said to possess many siddhas (magical Yoga powers) and were considered to be enlightened.

It was with Goraksha and Matsyendra that many of the fundamental components of hatha yoga are said to have developed a definable structure. But what are some of these definable characteristics? To start with, “Ha” means Sun and “tha” means moon.  Yogis believe that the practice of Hatha Yoga opens the central energy channel (sushumna) moving between the root chakra (muladhara) and the chakra at the crown of the head (sahasrara) thus diminishing and ultimately eliminating all physical and emotional ailments.  This type of Yoga is also meant to stabilize and balance the two opposing forces of life/energy (prana).  Through the practice of Hatha Yoga postures, the positive heating solar energy through the pingala channel is said to come into balance with the negative cooling lunar energy of the ida channel.  The ida and pingala rise along the sushumna, intertwining with the seven chakras or energy centres. Through the various postures (asanas) and breathing techniques (pranayama), the Yogi can awaken the dormant kundalini (energy) in the base of the spine and move it upwards through the energy channels and chakras, all the way from the root to the crown.  This is considered to be a means to enlightenment through the Tantric vehicle of the body/mind.

Among the many ancient writings about Hatha Yoga, the Hatha Yoga Pradipika is considered to be the classic manual.  It was written in 1350 A.D by Svatmarama, but describes only 15 asanas.  The Hatha Yoga Pradipika teaches us to purify the body first through six cleansing practices (shatkarma), then to discipline the body with Yoga postures and use the breath as a tool of purification.  Many of these postures are specifically meditation poses, so it would have been impossible to develop an asana practice based on these postures.

In 1650A.D the Gheranda Samhita lists 102 Yoga practices including 21 hygienic practices, 25 mudras as well as pranayama and asanas.

Modern Yoga (circa 1900 CE)

in 1893, modern Yoga is said to hve begun at the Parliament of Religions held in Chicago. During this meeting the young Swami Vivekananda from India made a deep impression on the American public as
he introduced them to Yoga. Vivekananda became very popular and subsequently toured the US giving lectures on Yoga. Many Yoga masters would later cross the ocean and follow in his footsteps, spreading Yoga to all corners of the continent. Yoga schools were founded and increasing numbers of people fell in love with yogic forms of exercise. Many masters also went to Europe where the reception for some reason wasn’t quite as warm.

Paramahansa Yogananda is credited by some with introducing Yoga to the US in 1920.  He designed his own series of body exercises and his Yoga was a combination of meditation, concentration and various methods for energizing the body.

However, much of today’s Hatha Yoga is said to have its roots in Mysore, India.  The reign of Krishnaraja Wodeyar supported the practice of Yoga and produced the Sritattvanidhi, illustrations of 122 postures.

In 1924, Krishnamacharya was assigned by the Mysore Palace to start a Yoga school in an old English gymnasium.  Three of Krishnamacharya’s most famous students -TKB Desikachar, K Pattabhi Jois and BKS Iyengar have passed down much of the Hatha Yoga that is practiced today.

Russian born Indra Devi, often called “the first lady of Yoga”” assisted in introducing Hatha Yoga to the American masses by opening a Yoga studio in Hollywood in 1947.  She taught movie stars like Gloria Swanson, Robert Bryant and Jennifer Jones and educated hundreds of Yoga teachers.

Another influential Yoga teacher was Maharishi Mahesh, the Yogi who popularized transcendental meditation.  Another prominent teacher is Yoga Guru Swami Sivananda, a doctor in Malaysia who later opened schools in America and Europe.  Sivananda wrote more than 200 books on Yoga philosophy and had many disciples who furthered Yoga. These disciples included Swami Satchitananda (introduced chanting and Yoga at Woodstock), Swami Sivananda Radha (explored the connection between psychology and Yoga) and Yogi Bhajan (started teaching kundalini Yoga in the 70s).

Of course, one of the great yogis from Tibet, the Dalai Lama, has also inspired many Westerners to learn more about Buddhism and Yoga.  He was recently awarded the Nobel peace prize and represents Buddhist and Tibetan Yoga.

As you can see, Yoga has a rich and varied background that varied from century to century, school to school and teacher to teacher.  It might be fair to say that the main focus of Yoga in the West has changed from spiritual inquiry to a means of therapy or fitness.  Through skillful, conscious and bio-mechanically correct movement and breathing, Yoga is now helping people to more effectively reduce their stress and cope with musculoskeletal dysfunctions.

Whatever the case may be, Yoga continues to evolve and spread its teachings, crossing the boundaries of culture and language.

“There is a light that shines beyond all things on earth, beyond us all, beyond the heavens, beyond the highest, at the very highest heavens. This is the light that shines in our hearts.”
Chandogya Upanishad