History of Yoga
History of Yoga
The understanding of yoga has evolved in many directions since its origin, thousands of years ago, making the history of yoga fascinating to examine.
Today, our collective understanding of yoga is based on the fact that we find a studio on nearly every block. It’s based on the love of yoga wear and gear, which often has nothing to do with the physical practice itself. Perhaps more than anything, it’s based on the fact that the culture of modern yoga has taken a strong turn toward social media.
All of these facets just indicate how far modern yoga has ventured into a completely different direction, compared to its true north. It’s not that modern yoga is “right” or “wrong” — but without a doubt, it is different from the way it was historically intended.
When we talk about yoga in the West, what we’re really talking about is asana, or physical postures.
But to experts in the East, asana is only a fraction of the full experience of “yoga.”
To them, yoga is far more than just physical practice. It’s a wholesome way of life. Actually, yoga is life — a comprehensive ideology that offers teachings on how to live fully.
While physical postures are much less relevant in the larger scope of yoga, they are still a necessary piece of the yoga puzzle. These postures address the health of our physical body, our vehicle…. Which must be smooth-operating if we want to access the other aspects of human experience (mental, emotional, spiritual).
In this post we explore a glimpse at the history of yoga, with a particular focus on the physical practices of yoga. As yoga practitioners, it can be fulfilling to understand the roots of the practice; the origins of the “yoga” concept; and how it’s all so much grander than we could have possibly imagined.
Since yoga does have such an extensive history — we can break it down into eras to see more clearly the phases of yoga evolution.
History of Yoga:
The Pre-Classical Era of Yoga
Yoga as a very large ideology is considered to be founded 5,000 (but probably more) years ago in Northern India by the Indus-Sarasvati civilization. The first time in the history of yoga that we see the actual word “yoga” is in the Vedas — a body of knowledge that is essentially considered the foundation of Hindu and Sanskrit literature.
Veda, in Sanskrit, translates to knowledge. Knowledge of life. There are four Vedas making up this collection of sacred texts. And the world “yoga” appears first in the Rig Veda. The Rig Veda gives the first known definition of yoga.
Yoga means “to yoke,” referring to the yoke which hitches an animal to a plow or cart, like a harness or collar. In this sense, we arrive at a primary definition of yoga — to join.
We could refer to this time as the Vedic era, taking place around 3300-1500 BCE. The philosophy of yoga at this time was in the hands of the Brahmans and Rishis (sacred sages), but “yoga” was still incredibly vague. It could have meant anything from God to breath technique.
A more refined understanding of yoga appears in later sacred texts, known as the Upanishads and Bhagavad-Gîtâ, around 500 BCE.
The Classical Era of Yoga
The shift into the classical era of yoga derives from the creation of the Yoga Sutras, by Patanjali — a brilliant Hindu sage. This time is estimated to be around 200 CE.
Prior to the Yoga Sutras, yoga was the receptacle of many different ideas and techniques. Patanjali essentially organized the philosophy through his Yoga Sutras. Sutras are like lessons, and Patanjali composed 196 of them.
Patanjali presented classical yoga in the structure of an Eight Limbed Path. Practicing all components of this path simultaneously is intended to be the path toward enlightenment.
We tend to hear components of the Eight Limbed Path in our yoga asana practice, depending on the teacher. The yamas and niyamas, for example, are commonly woven into class — this all originated from Patanjali.
The Post Classical Era of Yoga
The next iteration in the history of yoga begins a few centuries after Patanjali and the Yoga Sutras. Up to this era, we see yoga as a method to transcend reality.
With this era, yoga emerges as more of a life practice — as a means to deal with reality and the physicality of this human experience. Notably, this is also the era when yoga begins to travel around the world through certain acclaimed teachers (the early 1800’s). Yoga does not reach the U.S. until 1890’s.
The Modern Era of Yoga
In 1785, the Bhagavad Gita was translated to English by Charles Wilkins, thus initiating a global interest in yoga. Throughout this era, we see the concepts and philosophies of yoga travel internationally through a couple key figures.
Swami Vivekananda, a Hindu monk, is known as the individual who brought yoga and Vedanta (knowledge of the Vedas) to the Western half of the world. Swami Vivekananda reached America in 1893, bringing the East to the West through lectures on the Hindu philosophy. The knowledge that Swami Vivekananda spread did not address asana (physical postures) all all, and instead focused on the practices of pranayama (breathwork), meditation, and transcendental thinking.
T. Krishnamacharya, though he never visited the West himself, had a major influence on modern yoga — and the way we understand it as a physical practice. He was responsible for the surge of Hatha yoga around 1920, both in the West and the East. T. Krishnamacharya established the first Hatha yoga school in Mysore in 1924. He educated some of the teachers who continued to popularize Hatha Yoga in the West, including: BKS Iyengar, Pattabhi Jois, TVS Desikachar (son of Pattabhi Jois), and Indra Devi (his first female student).
Compared to his yogi predecessors, Krishnamacharya was innovative in developing an asana practice that responded to the “needs of the time.” He actually developed his yoga style in Tibet, ultimately creating something that blended Hatha yoga, British military training exercises, and southwest Indian gymnastics/wrestling.
His innovations led to a dynamic asana practice now understood as Ashtanga Yoga. His teachings have been extremely influential also in the creation of Vinyasa and Power Yoga.