The History of Yoga

Yoga is a form of physical, mental and spiritual practice that originated in India thousands of years ago. It gained popularity in the 19th century thanks to influential Indian yoga teachers such as Swami Vivekananda.

The word yoga appears in India’s oldest scripture, the Rg Veda (1500-1000 BCE). In this text, it refers to a chariot that holds horses.


The word “yoga” appears for the first time in the Rig Veda, one of India’s oldest scriptures. The Vedas are a collection of hymns composed in an archaic form of Sanskrit and transmitted orally for generations. They reference a variety of yoga techniques as ways to connect the body with the soul and to delve deeper into spirituality.

The Upanishads, another set of yogic texts, also make mention of yoga and its practices. These gnostic teachings emphasize the dismantling of the ego through self-study and the practice of karma yoga (action) and jnana yoga (wisdom).

The sage Patanjali systematized the then existing Yoga practices, its meaning and related knowledge in his Yoga Sutras. The Sutras became the foundation of Classical Yoga.

Early Masters

Throughout most of yoga’s history, it was taught primarily to men. This is a result of India’s long-held patriarchy, in which leadership and power were firmly held by men. Despite this, women did practice yoga and many were able to advance the discipline by opening studios and spreading the teachings of their teachers.

Yoga’s pre-classical stage was characterized by a mishmash of practices, beliefs and techniques that were often confusing. The classical phase was marked by the emergence of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, which provided a clear framework for the Eight Limbs of Yoga. He also developed the yogic philosophy of Advaita, which emphasizes non-duality and universality. Later, the Bhagavad Gita and the Upanishads expanded on yoga’s philosophy and offered guidance on how to achieve spiritual liberation through yogic practices. Yoga experienced a resurgence in the 19th and early 20th centuries, spearheaded by Swami Vivekananda and Paramahansa Yogananda. Their disciples paved the way for modern hatha yoga in the West, including BKS Iyengar, TKV Desikachar and Indra Devi.

Western Influence

In the early 20th century, yoga gained a broad following in the West thanks to the Theosophical Society and figures like Helena Petrovna Blavatsky and Annie Besant. They promoted Eastern philosophies and spiritual practices in a culture that was increasingly interested in health, wellness, and spiritual growth.

It’s important to note that yogic texts like the Hatha Yoga Pradipika emphasize that the physical practice is a means to achieve spiritual liberation. This holistic understanding of yoga was later popularized by Romanian scholar Mircea Eliade, who wrote Le Yoga: Immortalite et Liberte in 1954.

The late 19th and early 20th centuries saw a significant boom in the American economy, accompanied by a heightened interest in spirituality and physical fitness. In this era, science was seen as the pinnacle of human achievement and America became enamored with ideas of progress and civilization that were tied to strength and endurance. These cultural attitudes may have influenced the development of modern postural yoga.


In the nineteenth century, Indian nationalists such as Vivekananda reconstructed hatha yoga to fit modern views of India. They emphasized the meditative aspects of the practice and omitted poses that had been associated with mystico-erotic dimensions, asceticism, magic, and sexual obscenity.

Vivekananda marketed his version of yoga in the West and used proceeds to support India’s nationalist mission for independence. He and his followers blended ideas of European physical culture, such as gymnastics and weight-resistance exercises, with revived Indian techniques for strength and combat.

Some scholars have criticised yoga’s corporatisation, arguing that using ancient religious symbols, art, texts, chants and philosophies (often with little or no understanding of their true meaning) for corporate profit is exploitative. Moreover, many people from a South Asian background have expressed discomfort and outrage at the ways in which the discipline has been appropriated for Western fitness industries. This is especially troubling to them when gurus have been implicated in sex scandals.