The history of yoga is a complex mashup of Hindu theological texts, popular Western occultism and European ideas of physical culture. But let’s start with the pre-classical era.
The earliest Sanskrit texts like the Rig Veda and the Upanishads describe yoga as a spiritual practice. They also teach yogis how to live selflessly.
Many yoga practices have roots that predate Hinduism, Sikhism and Jainism by thousands of years. Moreover, yoga’s philosophy has been practiced for so long that its expositions can be found in Hindu texts from the first millennium BCE and in Buddhist and Jain writings.
Mircea Eliade, an important 19th-century Romanian historian of religion, recorded a holistic understanding of yoga in his Le Yoga: Immortalite et Liberté. He noted that the yogi’s objective was to harmonize bodily energy, prana, with mental state, jnana, to achieve ultimate liberation of the soul.
The modern yoga that emerged in the West at the end of the 19th century was shaped through a fusion of Indian nationalism, Western occultism and European physical culture. As such, it is difficult to conceive of yoga as a timeless, ancient tradition. Nevertheless, the popularity of the Indian guru Swami Vivekananda lent credence to the idea that postures are essential to yoga. The Theosophical Society endorsed him and he set up an ashram in Chicago.
Most historians agree that the first yoga teachers were Brahmin priests who were able to use their religious privilege to skirt discriminatory laws and travel to other cities to give public lectures on spiritual philosophy, fortune-telling, diet and physical exercise. These early teachers, often called swamis or gurus, had little consensus on what yoga meant. It could encompass anything from chanting to meditative practice and even magic.
Scholars also point to a period of great yoga innovation in the late 1700s when Maharshi Patanjali systematized the existing practices and teachings into the Yoga Sutras. This was a time when yogis began to take a more holistic view of the body, including the need to purify and revitalize it. This led to the development of hatha yoga.
The late 19th century saw a plethora of yoga teachers from India, many of whom were able to work around restrictive immigration laws. Their influence on American ideas of health, fitness and body culture was profound.
In the 19th century a fervor for physical culture gripped India. People believed building better bodies would make for stronger nations and improve the chances of success in a struggle against colonialism. This prompted the development of a wide variety of exercise systems that incorporated both Western gymnastic techniques and Indian practices from disciplines like wrestling.
Many of these instructors travelled abroad, bringing yoga with them. One, TM Krishnamacharya of Mysore, blended Scandinavian gymnastic exercises into his Hatha yoga, which became the basis for modern Yoga. He took it to America and Europe. He also instructed K Pattabhi Jois and BKS Iyengar, who developed more vigorous forms of Yoga that are still practiced today.
The spread of yoga accelerated after World War II when the White Australia policy was abolished, opening up a number of countries to large numbers of Indian migrants. As a movement, it became increasingly pluralistic, reflecting long-term interdependency processes and the ever-widening figuration of human networks.
In the 20th century, yoga’s popularity grew in America. Some of TM Krishnamacharya’s students like K Pattabhi Jois and BKS Iyengar helped bring vigorous, physically demanding forms of yoga to the West, while Yogi Bhajan created a powerful brand of Kundalini yoga that is still popular today. The 1960s saw many flower children seeking higher consciousness, and a growing interest in Eastern spiritual traditions. This helped yoga’s resurgence, as ashrams sprung up and meditation became popular in Western culture.
Paramahansa Yogananda toured the world preaching the spiritual benefits of yoga. And Sivananda brought the physical practices of Hatha Yoga to the West, combining four schools into one practice for all. He also took a female disciple, because he recognised that the future of yoga lay with women. And that has proven to be the case, as modern yoga is 90% female. It’s an amazing turnaround in just a few decades. The resurgence has helped yoga become part of mainstream life and is continuing to evolve in new directions.