A History or Yoga

Yoga is often viewed in the West as a series of stretching exercises that appear almost gymnastic to a general onlooker.  Popularised as a way toward health and fitness for all. However, the postures are only a tiny fragment of the psychological philosophy that is Yoga.

Yoga has a rich history, and is multifaceted practice, which has in the past intertwined with religion, philosophy and of course exercise. It’s important to note the references to yoga here are vastly different, almost unrecognisable to what many may think of as yoga today.

Yoga is believed to be as old as civilisation itself – first traced with originates from the Indus Valley in Northern India, possibly as early as 3300–1900 BCE.

The people of the Indus valley are said to have been invaded by a group of nomadic tribes called Aryans.  The Aryans brought with them their own spiritual practises, sacred rites and Gods. These merged with the beliefs of the Indus peoples, giving rise to the beginning of the Vedic period. Evidence of yoga poses have been found on stone drawings.  Archaeological findings from the Indus Valley Civilization revealed a portrait of a Yogi meditating in what looks like an asana.

The word ‘yoga’ comes from the Sanskrit root ‘yuj’ which literally means “to unite.”  The general meaning of yoga is union. As a spiritual discipline, it’s primarily intended to help create a union of our mind, emotions, body, and energy. 

Yoga is a ‘state of being’ rather than something that we ‘do’.  There are yogic practises that we do that take us to the state of yoga. These practices can include mindful body movement, meditation, contemplation, breathwork, and sensory withdrawal. 

The Vedic Period 3000 BC to 800 BC

The yoga journey begins with the Vedic Period. This period relates to the creation of the Vedas, four ancient Hindu scriptures, hymns and rituals (Rigveda, Yajurveda, Samaveda and Atharvaveda), written by the ‘Brahmans’, the dominant priesthood in ancient India, dating back to approximately 1,500BCE

It’s this collection of writings that contain the oldest known teachings about yoga available, and are centered around transcending the visible material world and the limitations of the mind. The Sanskrit word ‘Veda’ means “knowledge”.   

During this time, the Vedic people relied on rishis (prophets) to teach them how to live in divine harmony and understanding of the world of the Veda. It’s widely understood that the first mention of the Sanskrit word “Yuj”, which is the root of the word ‘yoga’, first occurred in the Rigveda Teachings in the ‘Vedas’ giving rise to ‘Vedic Yoga’.

Around 1500BC a group of people known as ‘forest dwellers’ broke away from the main Vedic society and developed their own spiritual lifestyle based on living in harmony with nature, and practised meditation and contemplation. They were concerned with spiritual goals and the evolution of human life, passing their teachings to worthy students by word of mouth.  Their findings were eventually written down many years later (around 800BC) giving rise to the classis Hindu texts of the Upanishads. Vedic yogis felt that living in seclusion, close to nature, was the most conducive environment to practice. The Rishis (Hindu sages) favoured dwellings in forests, but it’s easy to see why many modern-day yoga retreats favour being away from civilisation.

Pre-Classic Period 800 BC to 250 BC

Following the Vedic period came the pre-classical period covering an extensive era of approximately 2,000 years.
Defined by the creation of the Upanishads, a collection of 200 Vedic texts. which describes the idea of karma, the cycle of birth and death and explain three subjects:    1) The ultimate reality (Brahman), 2) The transcendental self (Atman), 3) The relationship between the the two.   Both the Vedas and Upanishads are said to form the basis of religious concepts for Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism.

The pre-classical period culminated in the creation of the 700-verse Bhagavad Gita, at around 500BCE. It is credited as the oldest known yoga scripture and is the most famous of Hindu texts. While the ‘Gita’ is dedicated entirely to yoga as it existed at the time, very little is actually devoted to the practical elements of the practice that we know so well today. It’s a beautiful story of a conversation between the God-man Krishna and the soldier Prince Arjuna.  In the Bhagavad-Gita three aspects must be brought mutually into our existence:    1) Bhakti (devotion) 2) Jnana (knowledge),  3) Karma (cause and effect)   

The Gita unifies the Yogic traditions of Bhakti Yoga, Jnana Yoga, and Karma Yoga through a common thread:  Sacrificing the ego through self-knowledge, humility, and reverence leads to higher states of consciousness and self-realization. During this time Yoga found its way into Buddhism too. The Buddha saw that suffering is caused by desire, greed, and delusion.  Also recognised in Yogic Philosophy. 

The Classic Period 184 BC to 148 BC

Defined by the Yoga Sutras, believed to be composed by sage Patanjali sometime between 500 BCE and 400 CE.

In Patanjali’s Sutras, Yoga is presented in a standardized and approachable way. The word ‘Sutra’ comes from the word ‘ a thread’ and so the 195 Yoga Sutras are known as threads of wisdom. Patanjali believed that every individual can achieve the “stilling of the ripples of the mind” and so composed the Sutras based on an 8-step system for mental and emotional purification and self-transcendence. This 8-step system and 8-fold yogic path are also known as Raja Yoga: 

Yama – ethical rules relating to conduct towards others or social discipline.
Niyama – correct conduct towards oneself, a means of aiding personal growth.
Asana – the practice of physical postures (undoubtedly the most well known of the eight limbs).
Pranayama – controlling of the breath.
Pratyahara – controlling the senses.
Dharana – concentration, the process of drawing the senses inward.
Dhyana – meditation.
Samadhi – A state of calm balance, the transcendence of the lower self, and the union with the higher self. 

Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras have been credited as the very foundation of classic yoga. In the Sutras, guidance is offered to help the reader create peace and achieve fulfilment. A small but important note to make at this stage is that there were several authors by the name of Patanjali and work continues to determine who is the actual author of the Yoga Sutras.

Post Classic Period 800 AD to 1700 AD

Because of the Yoga Sutras’ focus on the mind, yogis of the past hadn’t paid as much attention to the physical body as they were focused on meditation and contemplation.  A few centuries after Patanjali, Yoga took a turn. The new generation of yoga masters began to probe the hidden powers of the human body and developed a system where different exercises, in conjunction with deep breathing and meditation, would help to rejuvenate the physical body, prolong life and achieve transcendence.  The human body was regarded as the temple of the immortal soul.

Modern Yoga From 1863 AD onwards

Yoga was introduced to the rest of the world by Swami Vivekananda when he mentioned it in his historic speech at the Parliament of Religions in Chicago. Many yogis like Maharishi Mahesh, Paramahamsa Yogananda, Ramana Maharishi, etc., influenced the western world profoundly through their spiritual accomplishments and gradually yoga was accepted throughout the world as a secular spiritual practice rather than a ritual-based religious doctrine.

In recent times, T Krishnamacharya trained three disciples, BKS Iyengar, Pattabhi Jois and TVK Desikachar. These yoga masters popularized yoga globally.

The form of yoga we practice today, may be different from the original form of yoga, but is based on the same classical concepts propounded by Patanjali. The only difference seems to be that today, we work on our bodies before we begin working on our minds.

There are 4 commonly accepted Pillars of Yoga:  Raja Yoga (the Yoga of the mind and emotions) Bhakti Yoga (the Yoga of love and devotion) Karma Yoga (the Yoga of inspired action and service) and Jnana Yoga (the Yoga of inner wisdom and knowledge)   

There is also Hatha Yoga, which has become the most widely known form of yoga practice in the West today.  Hatha Yoga’s focus is on the body and mainly on the physical postures or asanas. 

The word “hatha” can be translated as “willful” or “forceful,” but also as “sun” (ha) and “moon” (tha) creating internal physical balance. 

Today there are many styles and derivatives of yoga taught and practised and many different interpretations of each of those styles.  

Other styles of asana-based yoga include: – Vinyasa, Ashtanga, Hot Yoga, Iyengar yoga, Restorative yoga, Yin yoga, Kudalini Yoga, Prenatal yoga  and many more. See the ’21st Century styles of Yoga’ page for more information on these styles.