The History of Yoga

Yoga is a discipline that dates back over 5,000 years. We know this because of ancient soapstone seals that depict various yoga poses.

Yogic lore says that Lord Shiva was the first yogi, or Adiyogi. He taught his yogic ways to seven sages who spread them worldwide.

The word “yoga” first appears in writing in the Vedas, a collection of four ancient sacred texts. These include the Rig Veda, Sama Veda, Yajur Veda and the Upanishads.


The word “yoga” comes from the Sanskrit text, Rig Veda, which dates back to around 1500 B.C. These ancient texts were a collection of songs, mantras and rituals used by Brahmans, the priestly caste.

The practice of yoga experienced a resurgence in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, led by teachers like Vivekananda and Paramahansa Yogananda. The resurgence was partially due to the popularity of European ideas of physical culture, such as German, Danish and Swedish gymnastics.

Yogic lore tells us that yoga has existed since the dawn of civilization. The story says that Lord Shiva imparted his yogic knowledge to seven saptarishis (or “sages”) who spread it throughout Asia, the Middle East, Northern Africa and South America. However, there is no proper evidence to support this lore.


The term yoga is derived from the Sanskrit word yuj, meaning “to join” or “to unite”. The practice of yoga creates union between body and mind and between individual consciousness and universal consciousness. It promotes healthy and balanced living.

The goals of yogic practices include stilling the mind and recognizing a detached witness consciousness aloof from the ego and ordinary suffering, and liberation (Moksha) from the cycle of death and rebirth called samsara. The ultimate goal of yoga is to realize oneness with God or the Self.

The earliest reference to yoga comes from the Rig Veda, one of the four ancient sacred texts of Hinduism. Later, sages refined the practice and documented it in the Upanishads. During this pre-classical period, the knowledge of yoga spread to many regions of India and was passed on from teacher to student.


Yoga’s unique combination of philosophy and practice creates a powerful interplay. The philosophy explains the “why” behind the practices, and the practice sharpens the philosophy and helps to forge a unification of body, mind and spirit.

Initially, the physical discipline of hatha yoga focused on extreme bodily challenges and breathing techniques. However, this evolved into a synthesis of postures and relaxation.

The first systematic presentation of yoga was documented in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, which established an eight-fold path to Samadhi or enlightenment. This is considered the classical era of yogic practice. However, pre-classical yogic teachings were a mix of ideas, beliefs and techniques that contradicted and conflicted with each other. The resulting confusion was what Singleton describes as a “disharmonic gymnastics”.


The word “yoga” first appeared in written form in ancient sacred texts called the Rig Veda. This was the beginning of a long period that lasted over 5,000 years.

This era is when yoga’s philosophy started to take shape. It was influenced by the Samkhya school of thought which holds that life is a progression of experiences, and that spiritual release can be achieved by liberating yourself from matter through a series of identifiable steps.

This era also brought about the Yoga Sutras. This text outlined the eight limbs of yoga, and it was during this time that physical asanas started to gain popularity. Yoga is a practice of self-discovery and the eight limbs were meant to help practitioners reach enlightenment. Mantras were used as tools to help them along this path.

Influence in the West

Yoga’s journey into the West has had a number of significant milestones. The first major one is often credited to Swami Vivekananda, who traveled to the United States in 1883 and started organizing world conferences by describing yoga as a science of the mind and translating Yogic texts into English.

His lecture tours drew interest, though not necessarily admiration. He promoted Hinduism and yoga as a path to spiritual freedom, which was not well received by the Theosophical Society, whose founder, Madame Blavatsky, claimed yoga was a part of Western esotericism.

Krishnamacharya also brought a more vigorous form of yoga to the West, which eventually morphed into the Ashtanga practice that many practitioners today are familiar with. The 1960s saw a flower child movement that turned to Eastern mysticism and yoga, planting the seeds for the widespread popularity of yoga that exists today.