The History of Yoga

history of yoga

Yoga is a huge practice that focuses on flexibility and strength to boost mental health. It has a long history with lots of different teachings and practices.

The word yoga first appeared in written text in the oldest sacred books, the Vedas. Later, Patanjali’s “eight limbs” systematized yoga. Swami Vivekananda brought yoga to America at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago.

The Pre-Classical Period

The first recorded references to yoga come from the Rig Veda, the oldest holy book in the world. It references a practice of “yoking” or regulation without specifying a technique, and there is no mention of a physical form.

Yoga’s next appearance comes in the Upanishads, a collection of Hindu texts that philosophize about the union between the human self and the divine. It is during this period that the concept of karma, reincarnation and god enter into the equation.

It was also during this period that the yogi Goraksha, thought to be the founder of hatha yoga, penned his teachings. He was a man of mystery, but it is speculated that he may have been a member of the weaver caste and lived in the ninth or tenth century. He focused on the idea that suffering began when a person attempted to make a distinction between Self and no-Self, and that only through a complete release of the body could one find peace.

The Classical Period

It wasn’t until the Classical Period that yoga really began to take form. The first reference to it is found in the Rig Veda and later in other sacred texts such as the Upanishads which promote ceremonies and rituals that encourage a greater understanding of oneself and a connection to a higher power.

In the second century Patanjali wrote the Yoga Sutras which introduced a more systematic presentation of yogic teachings. He outlined the path of raja yoga or “classical yoga” that continues to strongly influence most forms of modern yoga.

The post-classical era saw the development of hatha yoga which focuses on physical postures called asanas. This version of yoga is very popular today. Interestingly, this form of yoga was a heretical sect among some Hindus during its infancy. It incorporated elements of tantra yoga and also drew on philosophies like alchemy, Buddhism, and Shaivism (worship of the transcendental Shiva). It wasn’t until global travel became easier that the yoga poses we know so well were adapted for western audiences.

The Post-Classical Period

After the Vedas, the next significant era in yoga was the Upanishads. These religious texts discuss Hinduism’s philosophy and spiritual teachings. It was during this time that the idea of ritual sacrifice was turned inward and became the philosophy of self-sacrifice through self-knowledge, action, and wisdom.

This period taught yogis how to lead a life of selfless service, something that is still a central element in modern-day yoga practices, especially karma yoga. It also created the understanding that the physical body is important, leading to practices like hatha yoga.

In this era, the Hatha Yoga Pradipika was written and describes yoga asanas in detail for the first time. Tantra yoga was developed during this era and focused on balancing opposites to change the biochemistry of the body. It was also during this time that yoga teachers like Baba Ramdev, Swami Sivananda, and Ramakrishna Paramhansa traveled to the West, starting the modern yoga revolution.

The Modern Period

Yoga is widely practiced in the world today and has been influenced by many other modalities. According to Mark Singleton, it would be “going too far to say that modern postural yoga is not the outcome of a direct and unbroken lineage of hatha yoga”.

The first wave of Modern yoga gurus like Swami Vivekananda and Ramana Maharishi from Arunachala did not put much emphasis on physical postures and instead promoted the advaitic vedanta tradition and its non-dualistic philosophy. Another contemporary was Sri Yogendra who promoted yoga as a system for householders and emphasized the use of science to validate ancient Sanskrit texts.

In this period, the word ‘yoga’ became more commonly used and a deeper relationship between yoga and Samkhya (one of the six Indian philosophies) was explored. Also, the concept of yoga as a system for attaining siddhis and moksha was explored further. The development of the nd system and nata dances drew heavily on techniques found in the yoga sutras.