Yoga has a rich history, and understanding its background can help you deepen your practice. Learn more about the key milestones in the history of yoga:
The earliest Sanskrit (the spiritual language) texts, such as the Vedas and Upanishads, explored yoga as a means to connect the physical world with the spirit.
The word yoga is first found in the ancient Sanskrit texts of the Rig Veda, dating from around 1500 BC. These old texts mainly spoke of rituals and mantras for Brahmans, or Hindu priests.
Parvati, the wife of the God Shiva, is said to have learned this secret art from her guru, and kept it hidden until she died, at which time she passed it on to Brahma. From there it spread through the rishis, or wise men of India. By the late 19th century, it had reached a period of Indian renaissance that coincided with a popular era for Western esotericism and occult practices in general. This was largely due to the Theosophist movement and its famous members such as Blavatsky, who encouraged interest in Eastern spiritual knowledge systems and Hinduism, including yoga.
The practice of yoga involves a series of techniques for stilling the mind and gaining insight. The ultimate goal is moksha, liberation from the cycle of death and rebirth. The practices of yoga are described in the Rig Veda, Mahabharata, and Upanishads.
Patanjali compiled the Yoga Sutras around 200 BCE and systematized yoga into a philosophy of physical, mental, and spiritual development. This philosophy was passed down from teacher to student for generations.
Swami Vivekananda introduced American yoga practitioners to the philosophical side of the practice by addressing the World’s Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893. The modern postural yoga we practice today developed from TM Krishnamacharya’s synthesis of Hindu and Swedish gymnastic exercises. This fusion of fitness, health, and spirituality continues to drive yoga as we know it.
Yoga has its earliest roots in esoteric Hindu scripture known as the Vedas. However, the credit for creating a systematic representation of yoga goes to sage Patanjali who wrote the Yoga Sutras between 500 BCE and 400 CE.
According to yogic lore, the first yogi was Shiva and he passed on his knowledge to the legendary Saptarishis who took it to different parts of the world. Those who practiced yogic disciplines were usually renunciants detached from worldly things and relationships.
The yogic philosophy gained acceptance in the West when Paramahansa Yogananda founded the Self-Realization Fellowship in 1920. His 1946 autobiography, The Autobiography of a Yogi, continues to inspire seekers of Eastern spirituality. The boom in interest in physical exercise in the early 1900s helped to fuel yoga’s growth as it was adapted to incorporate Western gymnastics popularized by the YMCA.
The word yoga has a lot of baggage attached to it, but the core yogic practice is a simple one. It is a matter of honoring the big message, and the underlying structure that provides stability and continuity.
Historically, the practice was taught exclusively by rishis or saptarishis to select disciples who were willing to devote themselves to the study of scripture and the practice of yoga. This was largely because it was difficult to master the esoteric postures, and attain the level of concentration necessary to experience the state of samadhi.
Swami Vivekananda introduced yoga to the West when he came to America in 1883, and popularized it by describing it as an art and science for healthy living. He also translated and taught yogic texts into English.
Yoga is a holistic fitness practice, with benefits that span from improved strength and balance to stress relief and better sleep. Its ancient roots have evolved into a modern discipline that has been adapted for all ages and physical abilities.
Yoga has been adopted by various religions, including Buddhism and Jainism. It was Swami Vivekananda who introduced the United States to yoga during the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, presenting it as a way to achieve peace of mind and self-knowledge.
The first modern yoga teachers to take the practice abroad were TM Krishnamacharya’s students K Pattabhi Jois and B.K.S. Iyengar. They brought vigorous styles of yoga to America and Europe, emphasizing posture work and using props. Yoga has since become a multi-billion-dollar wellness industry.