When I did my Yoga Teacher Training back in 2020, I had to do some research into the history of Yoga and I thought I’d share that here. It’s quite fascinating how far back yoga dates and how it has evolved over time.
Yoga comes from the word yug which means ‘to yoke’ meaning to unite; uniting the body, mind and spirit which opens the path to your true self.
It’s difficult to gauge exactly how old yoga is, but many legends suggest it was somewhere around 5000 B.C. The writings of those times suggest that Lord Shiva was the first Yogi, and the first to reach enlightenment; the ultimate goal of yoga. Lord Shiva is a key part of the Hindu religion and is said to be one of the three Hindu Gods, the other two being Brahma and Vishnu. In Hinduism, the three form a sort of “triangle of existence”; Brahma the Creator, Vishnu the Preserver and Shiva the Destroyer. Hindus believe that Shiva’s role was to destroy the universe in order to create a new one, a better one.
The first traces of Yoga are believed to be mentioned in the Rig Vedas from around 1500 B.C.E. The Vedas (veda meaning knowledge) are mantras and rituals that were said to be used by Brahmans (the vedic priests), they are written in the sacred Hindu language of Sanskrit, hence the use of Sanskrit names for the various Yoga poses we know now through our Yoga teachers. The Vedas were used to explain how one might control their breathing, and were used to invoke many emotions & positive states & situations, including; courage, happiness, health, peace, wisdom and success. This is the essence of the yogic way of thinking, without the Asanas that we use in modern yoga today to help us reach peace & clarity. It was mainly about spirituality in this time and how to achieve enlightenment through a deeper understanding & controlling of the mind and the patterns of thought.
The Upanisads first began to crop up around 500 B.C.E, however, these being texts from ancient India, no one knows who wrote these; it is said to have been passed on through teachings from the Vedas. These short, ancient texts, are similar to short stories, teaching sacrifice of the ego through awareness & understanding of the self, thoughtful action and wisdom. Some of the teachings have great life lessons in them, while others have aged. Some of these texts do not suit modern life at all, and wouldn’t, or couldn’t, be practiced nowadays. However, some do still contain some great practices for reaching enlightenment, and describe a way to live a more contented yogic lifestyle through spirituality. They include some insightful lessons on how to make a positive change in your life and your lifestyle, and methods of achieving peace in your self through introspection & reflection upon the self.
Around 300 B.C.E, the Bhagavad Gita was first mentioned, offering a handbook for self realization. Like the other texts, the original author has sadly been lost to time. In my own study, I found this book easier to read than the Upanisads, allowing me to better relate to it, as such I was able to understand much more of it. The Bhagavad Gita is primarily told through a spiritual story where Lord Krishna (a God like figure) and Arjuna (a “mere” human) stand in the middle of a battlefield talking about the meaning of existence and what path Arjuna should take in his life. He is presented with a challenging choice which all of us have to face at some point in our lives. Many say the battlefield represents the battle with your inner self; searching within to challenge your Avidya, or ignorance. In the story, Arjuna is given three paths:
- Bhakti Yoga – the path of true devotion, the path of your heart; following your one true god.
- Jnana Yoga – knowledge and wisdom, the study of the self; realizing we are one, God is within.
- Karmic Yoga – selfless service, devoting yourself to your work and serving your community to find the peace & wisdom of selflessness.
These options are considered to be the routes by which one might reach enlightenment, the ultimate goal of Yoga. To reach enlightenment one simply needs to understand oneself; the reason or purpose for one’s existence, in so doing, you learn to be the best, most content & balanced version of yourself, enabling you to help others in the process. You don’t have to believe in a higher being, but instead believe that you can be a higher being through a life well lived, with integrity, doing the right thing throughout, & so achieving peace in this life.
200 B.C.E – 200 C.E is where we see Patanjalis Yoga Sutras. This is the first systematic presentation of yoga & a philosophical guidebook for dealing with the challenges of human existence through Raja Yoga. Raja yoga is also known as Ashtanga Yoga, though not the physical Ashtanga we know today (at this time yoga was still primarily a spiritual path). Patanjali organised these Sutras into an eight limbed path; eight steps to obtain Samadhi (enlightenment). These steps are:
Yama – abstinence
Niyama – observations
Asana – postures
Pranayama – breathing techniques
Pratyahara – withdrawal from senses
Dharana – concentration
Dhyana – meditation
Samadhi – absorption
The Sutras influenced most styles of modern Yoga, and gave us a list, a more organised path, to obtain the goal of Yoga, Samadhi. We concentrate a lot nowadays on the Asanas and Pranayama, but these are just a small portion of what Yoga used to be and how it was practiced.
Around 500 – 1500 C.E, Hatha Yoga began to become popular. Yoga practices became more physical to rejuvenate and prolong our bodies. As most people couldn’t sit for over ten hours to meditate in the lotus position, we found a solution; movement. The practices of the Vedas were adapted to fit the lifestyles that were contemporary at the time. I’ve heard stories which suggest this is because we no longer found ourselves running from predators; as some began to live easier, more comfortable lives, they also began to have people to help & take care of menial tasks, which meant that for some, there was less need for physical movement in their lives so we needed an output for this energy so that these fortunate individuals could sit still to meditate for a longer time. Movement began to be used to cleanse the body and break down knots in our Chakras (energy centres in the body) allowing our Prana to flow more freely, allowing for more clarity and peace.
This crosses into Tantric Yoga which also become popular at this time. Tantric Yoga is said to connect the universe, ourselves, everything and everyone. It is more about the spiritual side of Yoga with less movement than other styles of Yoga. With Yoga becoming more physical, Tantric Yoga was a way of recapturing Yoga’s spiritualism.
Now we come more into the modern era of Yoga; in 1893 Yoga travelled west with Swami Vivekananda. Attending the Parliament of Religions in Chicago, he wowed the attendees with his talk on Hinduism and Yoga. This gained him international students and kick started Yoga in the west. The concepts of enlightenment and becoming more peaceful were incredibly popular, so that word of Yoga quickly spread far & wide.
Because of this popularity, the 1800s are when Yoga Mats were first developed, although these Mats bore little similarity to those we are familiar with; instead, these were woven fabrics, more like carpets. As more Asanas were introduced, better Mats were produced, leading into the 1960s, where we see the yoga Mats we’re familiar with (although significant improvements have also been made in the last few years). During the 60’s, Yoga become very popular, in no small part, this was likely due to Hippies. In my studies, I have encountered stories of Hippies trying to find their spiritual side. Though they were close, they were missing some pieces of the puzzle that Yoga might provide. A Yogi saw this and, appreciative of their efforts & beliefs, revealed his ancient practice with them, although it was forbidden as it was believed that some forms of yoga should only be passed down through familial generations, and not shared with the wider world. It was believed by some that many people weren’t fit to carry the knowledge of Yoga & its paths to enlightenment. However, he shared his Yoga practice with them, ensuring that Yoga would become extremely popular, in so doing, he ensured that Yoga would be shared with anyone who sought it. However, there are so many different stories and conflicting dates, that it is difficult to know the exact timeline and history of Yoga, but I really enjoyed this version of events. Unfortunately, the very next paragraph suggests that yoga was already introduced and becoming popular (as did the introduction at the Parliament of Religions in 1893) so it’s very difficult to speak to the story’s authenticity, or the nature of what may, or may not, have actually been shared!
Returning to 1924, Krishna Machargo opened the first school of Yoga, his students being B.K.S Iyengar, his son T.K.V Deskichar and Pattabhi Jois. These Yogis would become famous for their teachings, writing many books, and their particular style of Yoga. Pattabhi Jois is known for developing Ashtanga as we practice it today;the same set of Asanas repeated, flowing with one’s breath.
In 1947 Indra Devi opened a school in Hollywood, she was to be known as the first lady of Yoga, which I consider a turning point for women in the Yoga industry. In ancient times, Yoga was only practiced by men, but with Indra Devi, Yoga continued to adapt to the changing world. She had became very popular and had many celebrity students, which gave her reputation a significant boost and once again helped to spread Yoga further into the world.
In 1974 Iyengar opened a school where he developed Hatha Yoga, the most popular style of Yoga there is today. Following his death in 2014, his son and daughter now run the school and carry on his teachings. They engage heavily with the use of props to help get the right alignment for the Asanas they teach. Iyengar used Hatha Yoga to help students get the right alignment in poses as he believed (as do I) that alignment is extremely important and it is the only way to practice Yoga correctly and safely.
Also in the 1970s Bikram became popular, creating a sequence of twenty six Asanas practiced in a heated room of forty one degrees celsius, with a humidity of forty percent in an effort to recreate the climate of India. It has recently come to light that Bikram actually stole this concept from his Guru. Further, he and a few other well known Yogis have now had claims of sexual made against them, which forces us to look inside ourselves and ask the question; were they truly teaching Yoga, or instead using it as a means to extort their students, can one truly study Yoga & behave in such a way? It seems to me that this is entirely incompatible with the very essence of Yoga, and I find such a twisting of Yoga saddening.. These are Yogis that a lot of people have looked up to, and these events have shook the world of Yoga, causing a lot of people to question their Gurus and their teachings. People often want someone to follow, and it’s easy to see how yoga Gurus can leverage Yoga to hold sway over impressionable people. This is not teaching yoga. Yoga is to come into self realisation, you cannot do this by following others blindly and obeying, or by harming or extorting others. Yet it is apparent that there are many students who might not have travelled their path so far as they have, without these same teachers. Perhaps they could have found other teachers, but I hope that for all the harm such people may have caused, there may still have been some students who were not harmed & who instead travelled their paths to enlightenment, in spite of these negative events.
When it comes to modern day yoga we often see it as presented to us by Social Media; extremely flexible people posting the perfect photo,sometimes pushing Yoga as a way to keep the body fit, yet it seems in these instances to be more to do with the way it looks! Unfortunately, this can have the effect of leading some to believe that they cannot possibly practice Yoga or go to a class unless they are incredibly flexible. Obviously this is not true; Yoga is about the mind, not how the body looks, but it’s easy to see why people believe otherwise when all they see are perfect poses on their phones & computers. I have often seen this quote on social media which I think is great; “Yoga is not about touching your toes; it’s about what you learn on the way down”.
Yoga online has become popular, now you can do it wherever you are in the world! It’s a great way to spread the message of Yoga and you don’t even have to meet up with a Yoga teacher face to face, which can have its issues, but also means Yoga is open to anyone and everyone who wants to practice, even those who might be put off by groups & classrooms. I’m sure ancient Yogis would be quite amazed at the paths Yoga has taken & may be quite perturbed at the notion of students practicing without a teacher present!. Likewise, I do believe that going to classes is extremely important as it’s critical to achieve proper alignment due to the fact that each of us possess a body that is unique and requiring of different things; if you are just doing it online no one can correct you to ensure that you form is correct & not in danger of causing you actual harm. However, it is a fantastic starting point and it’s wonderful for anyone who can’t get to classes. Ultimately, everything adapts; the world changed and that means Yoga had to change to some extent too. Sanskrit names are used less in classes now as we teach people who have no idea of the history of Yoga or the Sanskrit language, but we still want to share the practice. It’s important to use the language so that we can appreciate Yoga’s roots and feel the texture of its original form. We also have to appeal to the students that have been practicing for a while and are ready to learn more. Of course, there are many ways to reach enlightenment and we need to search for the one that suits us best; there are so many different styles and teachers, and so many different ways to practice Yoga, it could never be a one size fits all and it’s important, & very enjoyable, to experience the way that best suits you and your life in the moment.
Yoga is an ever changing practice and I’m embracing what Yoga is in my own life, and how its known in our time and I’m excited to see the paths down which Yoga itself may travel & change in the future.
In the end we must remember ‘Moksha’; freedom from all bondage, all that drives us away from peace in our life’s journey. Yoga is a way of life no matter the era in which it is experienced, and the goal remains the same now as it did more than seven thousand years ago, hopefully, that essence will never be lost, as long as we have compassionate, wise teachers, I am sure it never will be.
Want to deepen your journey into the physical side of yoga? Check out Lakora Beginners. A yoga course designed for beginner yogis to learn more about the practice and start understanding some yoga terms. This course includes your first 6 yoga classes, some meditations and a pose alignment workshop. Click the link below for more details.