The History of Yoga

Originally, the word yoga was first mentioned in the Vedas, an ancient collection of sacred texts. Over time, this oral knowledge was refined and documented by rishis (mystic seers).

These rishis compiled their yogic teachings into the Upanishads, a series of Hindu philosophical-religious scriptures. From there, the yogic tradition spread throughout the world.


Yoga is a collection of physical, mental and spiritual practices that originated in ancient India. Its goal is to control and still the mind, recognizing a detached witness-consciousness untouched by the mind’s turmoil and the pain of the mundane world. There are many things to know about the history of yoga, and understanding its progression is essential to a deeper practice.

The first mention of yoga comes from the Rig Veda, an ancient scripture in Brahmanism that dates back to about 1500 – 1000 BCE. The yogis of this time were called rishis, and they were said to live in seclusion and be close to nature. The idea behind this was that being in a natural environment is the best way to focus on one’s inner practice.

These early Indian texts mention a series of rituals and spiritual practices that include stretches, meditation, breath work and mantras. These are known as pranayama. During this time, the idea of yoga as a meditative practice began to evolve.

As the yoga philosophy developed, it merged with other religious traditions such as Buddhism and Jainism. This is known as the post-classical period, and a more physical approach to yoga was established, including kriyas, which are exercises and breathing techniques to cleanse the body and unlock energy.

Early yogis

Throughout most of yoga’s history, men have predominated the discipline. The reasons are complicated. Patriarchy is part of India’s culture, but even in yoga’s earliest days, women were not encouraged to practice as openly or as publicly as men.

In the Katha Upanishad (composed between the fifth and third centuries BCE), and in the Maitrayaniya Upanishad a century or so later, yoga is defined as “steady control of senses and cessation of mental activity leading to absorption/intense spiritual union.”

From 200 BCE, Patanjali (author of the Yoga Sutras) developed yoga as an organized system through a number of techniques, including kriya yoga, which combines exercise, breathing techniques and mantras to purify the body, hatha yoga, which uses postures and breathwork to build strength, and raja yoga, which incorporates meditation and study of sacred texts. These systems are a precursor to modern yoga, and many of the techniques used in these ancient yogic practices can still be found today, though they have been simplified to fit a busy lifestyle.

Yoga first made its way to the West in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, largely thanks to religious teacher Swami Vivekananda’s speeches at the Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893. The autobiography of Paramahansa Yogananda also helped bring yoga into the mainstream of Western consciousness.

Preclassical yogis

The earliest shreds of yoga history come from the Indus-Sarasvati civilization. A seal from around 1500 BC shows a man lying on a mat, suggesting that this was a common activity at the time. It was around this time that the word ‘yoga’ first appeared in writing, but only as part of a larger religious text called the Rig Veda. This book contained hymns and mantras that praised a higher being but made no mention of any specific practice or techniques.

This period also saw the emergence of key yogic texts such as the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita. These are still revered today and form the basis of many yoga teachings.

Pre-classical yogis were nondualists, believing that the universe and everything in it was one. They believed that the self was an aspect or expression of this singular reality, known as Brahman.

This era was marked by a variety of yogic practices such as kriyas and pranayama, which are used for cleansing the body and mind. The creation of the eight limbs of yoga by Patanjali was another milestone in this era. This was a road map to enlightenment and is often quoted in modern yoga classes.