The History of Yoga

history of yoga

The history of yoga began with the Vedas, India’s ancient religious texts. Bronze seals and sculptures found from that era show people in what look like lotus postures.

Later, a nationalist physical culture reformer named Manick Rao blended modern European gymnastics and strength-resistance exercises with revived Indian techniques for combat and strength. His students included Kuvalayananda, who developed a system of yoga that melded asana with the ethos of physical culture.


The earliest shreds of evidence of yoga date back more than 5,000 years to the Indus-Sarasvati Civilization. Later, scriptures referenced yogic postures as part of a spiritual practice. A yogi was someone who dedicated themselves to reaching an altered state of consciousness, a state known as samadhi, or union with the universe. This was an elusive goal, as expert yogis had to be experts in Hindu philosophy and be able to detach themselves from their families and personal possessions.

Shearer notes that in the 1920s, yoga experienced a revival in India amid an unprecedented fervor for physical culture, tied to the country’s struggle for independence from British colonial rule. A wide variety of exercise systems developed, blending Indian practices with European naturopathy and gymnastics. Some teachers, such as Tiruka (Raghavendra Rao), traveled throughout the country disguised as yogis, teaching strength and combat techniques to prepare the nation for an uprising against the British. These new concepts helped hatha yoga become more physically oriented, a change reflected in the yoga that is most popular today.


Yoga is a physical, mental, and spiritual discipline that originated in India and is now practiced worldwide. It is a great stress reliever and helps improve concentration, flexibility, strength, and endurance. It also lowers blood pressure and slows the heart rate, which benefits people with high blood pressure, heart disease, or a stroke. It has even been shown to reduce inflammation and boost the immune system.

Many people think of yoga as a set of stretching exercises, but it includes much more than that. It is a holistic health and wellness practice that incorporates breath work, meditation, and the use of mantras. It is a great way to relax and re-energize, and it has been linked with improved mood, higher levels of serotonin and cortisol, better hand-eye coordination, and reduced depression. It can also help to release tense muscles and strengthen weak ones. It has even been used in the rehabilitation of musculoskeletal problems and in the treatment of traumatic brain injury.


Yoga’s philosophy and practice are interwoven and create a powerful union of body, mind and spirit. It’s a practice that is meant to neutralize ego-driven thought and behavior and create a sense of unity with the universe.

The philosophical and spiritual aspects of yoga are considered raja yoga, while the physical postures or “asana” are called hatha yoga. The practice of raja yoga is believed to be more advanced and has been largely left behind as the popularity of hatha yoga has grown.

In the late 19th century and early 20th century, yogis like Swami Vivekananda helped yoga gain acceptance in the West. He stunned the audience at the Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893 and is widely credited with spreading Hinduism and yoga. Yoga was also influenced by Scandinavian systems of physical culture, the [bodybuilding] teachings of Sandow and the methods of the YMCA. These forms of yoga, Singleton notes, resemble today’s yoga more than the esoteric posture work that was traditionally referred to as yoga in India.


In ancient India, yoga was primarily taught in the guru-shishya (teacher-student) tradition. The guru would live with his students and devote himself to teaching them for years or even decades, fostering a sense of spiritual intimacy. This system also allowed a holistic approach to yoga, which may have included chanting, meditation and other practices.

In late 19th century America, a handful of Indian yoga masters traveled to the US to bring yogic teachings to Americans. One of the most influential was Swami Vivekananda, who lectured on yoga and authored many books that promoted yoga as a means to Self-Realization.

A Baltimore attorney named William Walker Atkinson was another influential early American yogi who wrote 13 books on yoga from 1903 to 1909. He founded the New Thought school of yoga, an eclectic mix of positive thinking, health advice and theosophy. He also incorporated aspects of Hindu philosophy into his practice, such as belief in karma and the law of attraction.