The History of Yoga

Yoga is a discipline with an amazing history. Its rich development is the result of who knows how many generations of yogis trying, developing and passing on their knowledge.

Interestingly, until the late 19th century very few people outside of India knew about yoga. Its arrival on the Western scene is generally attributed to Swami Vivekananda at the Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893.


The earliest known texts that reference yoga are found in the Hindu Vedas, dating back to 1500BCE. While the earliest Upanishads don’t explicitly map out a fully developed system of practice, they do discuss techniques for interiorisation. Gyana yoga, which focuses on awakening direct insight into the fundamental nature of reality is the oldest of these paths and forms the core of classical yoga as taught by Patanjali.

The ancient Indian Rishis (mystic seers) refined these teachings, and documented them in the Upanishads – a series of 2000 Hindu philosophical-religious scriptures. Around 500BCE, the Bhagavad Gita was written, which outlines karma yoga (action), jnana yoga (wisdom) and self-study as pathways to Self-realisation. Yoga philosophy was introduced to the West in the 19th century by figures such as Swami Vivekananda and Tirumalai Krishnamacharya, but its arrival in the physical realm came much later.


Yoga has developed from an ecstatic mystical tradition practiced at the margins of Vedic society to a complex system of spiritual philosophy and practice. Its emergence as a global wellness phenomenon has been fueled by many gurus and teachers but two are particularly important: Shri Yogendra and Swami Vivekananda.

The word “yoga” first appeared in written form in the Rig Veda around 1500BCE and later in the Upanishads, which delve into spiritual practices and theories of Self-realization. One of the most famous yogic scriptures is the Bhagavad Gita, which teaches lessons about life’s challenges such as desire, doubt, and purpose.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, yoga grew in popularity in the West. BKS Iyengar developed Iyengar yoga, which emphasizes therapeutic application and precise alignment, while Pattabhi Jois formulated the Ashtanga yoga system based on a set sequence of postures. His son TKV Desikachar has played an essential role in sharing yoga with Westerners.


Yoga is a comprehensive philosophy and practice. It is a holistic system that addresses every aspect of our lives, including body, mind, heart, and soul.

The first evidence of yogic practice appears in the Vedic texts around 1000 BCE. The earliest Upanishads don’t specifically map out a unified yoga system, but contain many references to ecstatic experiences and insights as well as lucid logical reasoning about ineffable mystical states and realities.

When yogic philosophers like Swami Vivekananda arrived in the West in the late 19th century, they found audiences eager for Indian spirituality. Changes in immigration policy helped yoga spread, and by the 1970s there were countless yoga studios and books. Yoga’s popularity has grown ever since, and its influence on modern science is undeniable.


Throughout the centuries, yoga was largely a male-dominated tradition. This was due in part to the patriarchy of Indian society, but also to the fact that it is a deeply meditative and spiritual practice.

Around 500 BCE, the sages developed and refined the system of classical yoga. They also created one of the most renowned scriptures in history, the Baghavad Gita. This scripture outlines the lessons of human existence, focusing on desires, doubt and purpose.

Interest in yoga in the West began to grow in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Swami Vivekananda’s famous lectures at the Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893 and Paramahansa Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi both helped spread yoga philosophy. Krishnamacharya passed on his knowledge of yoga to several students who were instrumental in bringing the practice to Western audiences, including B.K.S. Iyengar, TKV Desikachar and Indra Devi. A plethora of yoga schools that focused on Hatha Yoga and more gymnastic physical forms became popular in India and North America.


Yoga developed from an ecstatic mystical tradition on the fringes of Vedic culture into a highly organized spiritual path. In the late 19th century it began to spread into Europe and North America when Swami Vivekananda presented a lecture on Yoga at the Parliament of Religions in Chicago, and Paramahansa Yogananda toured promoting his autobiography and yoga teaching.

The word “yoga” was first mentioned in the Rig Veda, an ancient collection of Sanskrit sacred texts containing songs and mantras for use by Brahmin priests. These chants and rituals were eventually refined by mystic seers (rishis) who documented their philosophy and practices in the Upanishads, a series of Hindu religious-philosophical scriptures. The Katha and Maitrayaniya Upanishads, composed in the sixth and seventh centuries BCE, describe a sixfold path of yoga including breath control (pranayama), introspective withdrawal of the senses (pratyahara), meditation, mind concentration (dharana) and absorption/intense spiritual union (samadhi). Yoga is not considered a religion and it can be practiced by people from all faith traditions, as well as by atheists and agnostics.