The History of Yoga

Yoga has a long and varied history, but it really took off in the West during the late 19th century. This can be largely credited to Hindu spiritual teacher Swami Vivekananda.

Unlike most of the Indian yogis that came before him, Vivekananda had little interest in postures. He thought that yoga was more about cultivating physical strength and health than gaining enlightenment.


In ancient India, where yoga originated, the leadership was largely in the hands of men — this is known as patriarchy. Women practiced and taught yoga, but in smaller numbers and less visible than their male counterparts.

The oral tradition of yoga began to take shape around 1500 BCE, and by 500 BCE a synthesis had developed into a 2,000-year-old treatise on yogic philosophy called the Patanjali Yoga Sutras (patan-jah-LOO-sa). The Upanishads — a series of Hindu philosophical-religious sacred scriptures — also contain references to yoga.

It is thought that this is the period when Samsara and Karma yoga first emerged – the concept of living a life selflessly to reach spiritual enlightenment. This is still a key element of yoga today. Krishnamacharya passed his teachings on to students like BKS Iyengar and Pattabhi Jois, who helped develop the hatha yoga styles of Iyengar and Ashtanga yoga respectively.


Yoga’s development has been influenced by many different people and texts over the years. The oldest documented yoga practice comes from the Hindu books of scripture known as the Vedas and Upanishads. These early Sanskrit text explain and explore yoga as a means to connect the earthly form with the spiritual form.

The sage Patanjali later created the Yoga Sutras, which became the earliest organized representation of yoga. This form of yoga focuses on philosophy, worship and meditation.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, Indian religious teacher Swami Vivekananda introduced yoga to America. His influential book, Autobiography of a Yogi, continues to inspire people today. This period in yoga’s history saw a shift in view as yoginis, or practitioners of yoga, began to focus more on the body and breathing techniques, called kriyas and pranayama.


During yoga’s spread in the 19th and 20th centuries, many different styles developed. Some have specific names, like Iyengar, Bikram or Ashtanga, and others carry the name of their founders, such as Krishnamacharya or Sivananda.

For example, Bikram yoga, named after its founder, Bikram Choudhury, requires students to attend daily classes for two months, a regimen some liken to a yoga boot camp. The Bikram style is a form of hatha yoga that focuses on physical techniques, particularly asana.

Other forms of hatha yoga include the dynamic Ashtanga series, which was introduced to the West by Pattabhi Jois. This vigorous practice is often strenuous, and requires the student to move rapidly from one pose to another without stopping. Other hatha styles, like Iyengar, are more gentle and slow-paced.


The ancient sages developed a holistic practice to help people experience a more meaningful life. These sages called it yoga. Its roots can be traced back 10,000 years due to the in-depth study and meditative practices that were used by these sages to connect with their higher self.

Early Sanskrit texts such as the Vedas (1500BCE) and Upanishads (500 BCE) mention yoga techniques and explore ways of connecting the earthly form with the spiritual form. These texts were primarily oral until around 400 CE when Sage Patanjali first collated the philosophy and practice into the Yoga Sutra, a compendium of 196 aphorisms.

In the late 19th century India yoga masters began traveling to Europe and America bringing yoga’s spiritual teachings with them. Swami Vivekananda’s lectures on yoga at the 1893 Parliament of Religions in Chicago and Paramahansa Yogananda’s subsequent tours of America spread yoga as a non-religious path to Self-realization.


In the Pre-Classical period, yogis learned how to live selflessly in order to reach spiritual enlightenment. This is still a central principle in yoga today, especially through karma yoga which involves doing acts for the benefit of others without any personal gain.

This era saw the development of different schools of yoga and the use of written records, such as the Rig Veda, one of the oldest sacred texts. The Upanishads are also significant in describing yogic beliefs and practices.

The Theosophists, such as Blavatsky, promoted Hinduism and yogic religious spirituality in the late 1800s, and this helped yoga gain popularity in the West. Influential teachers such as B.K.S. Iyengar developed a style of hatha yoga with a focus on precise physical alignment.