Look up yoga in your area and you’ll see plenty of options like hatha yoga, power yoga or restorative yoga. And although a new yoga studio may have just opened up near your home, the practice is far from unique or the latest trend in wellness.
Yoga has an incredibly rich culture with strong spiritual meaning. However, over the years, the westernization of yoga has diluted this, and in some cases yoga has become something entirely different. Though called yoga, these intense workout classes, that feature goats or craft beers are a significant departure from the true meaning of this ancient practice.
Fortunately, as of late, there has been an increased demand in the Western world to honor and respect yoga for what it truly is. This includes honoring its origin, history, and proper terminology. Keep reading if you have felt called to understand yoga and its rich history.
What is yoga? If you were to go around a room asking this question, you would get different answers. Some believe it’s a type of acrobatic stretching, others think it is synonymous with meditation and there are those who believe it is a gentle form of exercise. Though all of these elements exist within yoga, yoga is so much more!
Yoga is a spiritual practice and way of life. The word comes from the Sanskrit root ‘Yuj,” meaning “to join” or “to unite”. This way of being joins the mind and body together, creating harmony. This harmony leads to greater Universal Consciousness, which can lead to a state of freedom known as Nirvana, Moksha, or Mukti.
Sadhguru says yoga is not a simple practice, all about postures, nor a philosophy. Yoga is a path. It breaks the cycle of life and liberates you. There are many different styles of yoga emphasizing physical postures known as asanas, breathing techniques known as pranayama, and meditation known as dyana. To truly understand what yoga is, you must understand its history.
Yoga has existed for thousands of years, long before the creation of religions as we know them today. Yoga originated in Northern India and was first mentioned over 5000 years ago in sacred texts known as the Rig Veda. These Vedas are a set of four texts written in ancient Sanskrit, with the Rig Veda being the first. Within the ancient text is a collection of mantras and hymns, which form ten chapters knowns as mandalas that were used by Vedic priests.
The remaining three books that make up “The Vedas” are the Sama Veda, Yajur Veda, and Atharva Veda. Traditionally, these were passed down orally, but early written recordings were made. In The Vedas, there are ritual practices and sacrifices as well we many of the elements we know in yoga today, such as mindfulness, breathing techniques, and bodily postures.
The Shri Yogendra Museum of Classical Yoga is the first museum dedicated to yoga and its origins. According to the documents and research obtained by the museum, the chronology of yoga began with the Vedas in 3000 B.C. and then with the earliest experiences of Aryan Rishis between 1500 – 600 B.C.
Yoga was refined and evolved by Rishis (sages). They created new documents called Upanishads, which outlined their beliefs and practices within 200 scriptures. The Upanishads, also known as the Vedanta, is the highest purpose of the Veda and is considered the most important in Indian culture. To receive the Upanishad, which translates to “sit close to” or “secret doctrine,” a student would sit near the teacher. The guru would need to deem the student worthy and would only then pass on the secret teachings.
The Katha Upanishad recommends a path to self-knowledge called yoga. This is why Sadhguru currently defines yoga as a path or journey. The following translation of the Katha Upanishad, 2.6.10-11, highlights this beautifully.
Only when Manas (mind) with thoughts and the five senses standstill,
And when Buddhi (intellect, power to reason) does not waver, that they call
The highest path.
That is what one calls yoga, the stillness of the senses, the concentration of the mind,
It is not thoughtless heedless sluggishness, yoga is creation and dissolution.
Yoga also has origins in Hinduism, as it is among the six schools of philosophy. It can also be traced back to Buddhist scriptures.
Many historians believe that Buddha (Prince Siddharta Gautama) used the teachings of different yogis and developed his own form of yoga around 600 BCE. The Pali Canon scriptures that provide the Word of Buddha detail physical and mental practices needed to attain spiritual liberation. Buddhists carefully preserved these teachings for generations, which is why many historians believe that this scripture is the first complete collection of Yoga practices.
According to researchers, the Hindu god Shiva, the Lord of Yoga, was found depicted on a seal in the Indus Valley Civilization. Found in 1928, this seal shows a seated figure surrounded by animals. This seal is known as the Pashupati Seal and is believed to be between 4000 to 4500 years old. Some look to the seal as the depiction of religious practices and beliefs at the time, and historians view this person as sitting in a meditation pose known as Mulabandhasana.
Fast forward to 400 – 300 BCE, and we have the Mahabharata and Bhagavad Gita. These texts are the most famous and still widely referenced in yoga today. The Mahabharata is often referred to as the longest poem to exist, consisting of 200,000 verses and 1.8 million words. This “poem” tells the story of a family divided by war while sharing many spiritual and philosophical lessons. It is considered the foundation of Indian culture and has been a source of influence for other spiritual texts like The Quran and The Bible. One of the spiritual and philosophical lessons within is yoga. It describes the purpose of yoga as uniting individuals with “Brahman.” Bhagavad Gita is a section within the Mahabharta that is now printed on its own.
This section provides an in-depth look at yoga through the conversations of Arjuna, a warrior prince, and Krishna, his charioteer.
The pair discuss three types of yoga: Karma yoga which is the yoga of action, Bhakti yoga, and Jnana yoga which is the yoga. Further, Arjuna shares the advice that you must do what is right (Dharma) in order to achieve Moksha.
Following the pre-classical era of yoga came the classical era. This was marked by Pantanjali. Patanjali, a great sage, also shared yoga teachings through the Yoga Sutras. Like the Bhagavad Gita, the Yoga Sutras are widely recognized as ancient yoga teachings written around 400 CE. Patanjali shared the purpose of yoga, which is often interpreted as the way to tame our scattered energy and thinking to achieve a higher state of consciousness. He also defines the eightfold path or the eight limbs of yoga. These include Yama (abstinences), niyama (observances), asana (postures), pranayama (breath), pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses), Dharana (concentration), dhyana (meditation), and samadhi (absorption). By mastering each limb, one will reach a higher state of consciousness.
Despite the Yoga Sutras being so well-known, it is essential to note they are not universally accepted. Some disagree with them, as was written by Hamsavilasa in the 18th century, who told his wife, “Dear lade, Patanjali’s teaching is nonsense because there is nothing agreeable in anything achieved by force.”
These early forms of yoga required a great deal of dedication and commitment and weren’t as widely practiced and followed. It wasn’t until 1100 – 1500 CE, when Hatha yoga was born, that it became more widely practiced. Unlike other forms, those who practiced Hatha yoga were not required to renounce anything or commit to a lifelong spiritual path. These early Hatha philosophies were aimed at preserving one’s nectar of immortality.
Centuries later, during the modern era of yoga, Svatmarama wrote the Hatha Yoga Pradipika. This laid the foundation and is also still referenced today. In it, you will also find asana (postures), meditation and pranayama (breathing), as well as shatkaram (self-purification), kumbhaka (breath retention), and mudras (energetic practices), chakras (centers of energy) and kundalini. Hatha also introduced the use of props like blocks and straps that are still used today. Yoga students could enhance their practice and become stronger, more mobile, and more stable by using these. This form of yoga is considered the most popular style of yoga practiced today, specifically in the Western world.
Another book, written in the 1800s, was found at Mysore Palace, known as the Sritattvanidhi. This text covered topics on music and yoga and outlined 122 different postures along with illustrations. Many of these asanas are still commonly taught and used in yoga today.
Today in yoga classes, you will learn that yoga is much more than these asanas. It also includes a way of living. This yoga philosophy was furthered by renowned Indian surgeon and scientist Nobin Chunder Paul. Nobin Chunder Paul is credited with being the first to write on the ancient practice of yoga from a Western medical perspective. His Treatise on Yoga Philosophy, written in 1851, covered the health benefits of asanas and breathing techniques, yoga diets, and the chemistry of pranayama.
For example, though it was known that yogis would often sit on a meditation pillow or floor and look to the tip of their nose, it wasn’t known why. In the Treatise on Yoga Philosophy, he shared a scientific perspective. He wrote, “When the mind is abstracted from its functions, that amount of carbonic acid is lessened. Hence the Yogis are recommended to fix their sight on the tip of the nose or upon the space between the eyebrows. These peculiar turns of axes of vision suspend the respiratory movements and generally produce hypnotism. This process is termed Trataka in Sanskrit.”
Yoga and The Western World.
Although yoga has existed in India for centuries, it didn’t become popular in the West until the 19th century. Yogis from India and teachers who traveled to yoga schools in India brought back the teachings that helped it gain popularity.
Yoga has made a significant impact on the western world, and Swami Vivekananda is said to be responsible for this. On January 12th each year, India celebrates the teachings of Swami Vivekananda. Before becoming Swami Vivekananda, he was Narendranath Dutta, an incredibly inquisitive and intelligent young boy who spent his free time learning about spirituality, meditating, or studying monks. The yoga Swami Vivekananda believed in wasn’t focused on asana and poses but placed importance on pranayama, positive thinking, and meditation. In fact, Swami Vivekananda rejected hatha yoga, which was gaining momentum in the United States. His sentiments were shared by many others who came from India to practice yoga in the U.S. It is believed that this negative perception was influenced by prejudices held by those in a higher class. Yogins or “fakirs” were low-caste merchants who would perform rigorous and severe postures for money. By the 1920s, a middle ground was reached, and asana became a key part of yoga.
Through his twenties, Swami Vivekananda wandered through India on foot before traveling abroad to Europe and the United States. In 1893, he spoke about yoga and the teachings of Hinduism at The Parliament of the World’s Religions, where he received a standing ovation. He continued to speak and grow a following. He was a famous spiritual teacher who gave lectures across the U.S. before dying at the age of 39, in 1902, during his evening meditation.
In just 39 years, Swami Vivekananda had made a lasting impression on the world. His passion for yoga continued through his followers, which resulted in the modern yoga renaissance. The period between 1920 and 1960 is known as the modern yoga renaissance, starting in India and spreading outwards.
With this came more poses, and more people started to view yoga as a type of exercise. The yogis and gurus at this time were inspired by Western gymnastics, and more advanced and complex poses came to be. This is also the time vinyasas gained traction. Vinyasas are a sequence of poses that flow together and are usually repeated. For example, the famous Sun Salutation vinyasa. The Surya Namaskar (Sun Salutation) was established in the 1920s by yogi Balahaseb Pant Prantinidhi in the 1902s and remains a staple in yoga classes.
A man named Tirumalai Krishnamacharya of Mysore is also accredited for making yoga as mainstream as it is today. Called the “father of modern yoga,” he spent most of his career promoting yoga to a larger audience. He got attention by displaying his unique abilities like suspending his heart rate or lifting objects with his teeth. The Palace of Mysore sponsored his trips to promote yoga across India and eventually sponsored his yoga school at the Royal Palace. Through his school, he taught techniques to students from around the world and encouraged his pupils to leave their own legacy.
One of his students was Pattabhi Jois, who created one of the most popular forms of yoga today, known as Ashtanga Vinyasa. Another one of his students was BKS Iyengar, who created Iyengar Yoga and wrote the book Light on Yoga which documents over 200 postures (asanas). Indra Devi was also one of his students who went on to teach many Hollywood film stars yoga. Some say it was through these A-list teachings that yoga became so popular in the U.S. in the 1990s.
Yoga has impacted the world. With origins in India, it is now practiced worldwide. Because of its global impact, the United Nations declared June 21st the International Day of Yoga. The current Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, had proposed the day, which received the highest number of endorsements from 175 countries.
Yoga has had a substantial impact on the world. First, it has positive benefits for the person practicing yoga. Yoga has been found to improve mood, reduce headaches, heart palpitations, and even treat PTSD. It can also enhance sleep (read more on our blog post, The Benefits of Yoga for Sleep).
It has also had a substantial economic impact. Yoga has ballooned into a hundred-billion-dollar industry, with a wide range of offerings, including apparel, teacher certifications, equipment, and events. It is estimated that there are over 300 million practitioners globally, with over $27 billion spent in the U.S. alone.
Yoga continues to be more mainstream and represented in the media. For example, the New York Times mentioned the word “yoga” significantly more in the past decade than it did decades before. Online, yoga is estimated to be discussed once every two seconds!
Yoga is an ancient, rich practice with roots in India. It can help you sleep better on your buckwheat pillow each night or be more mindful. If you are new to yoga, look for a teacher or studio that focuses on alignment and the history of yoga. Using the Sanskrit names for the asanas will help deepen your connection on this path. So many traditions of the past have been lost over time, but yoga has stood the test of time and become a beloved practice worldwide.