A brief guide to the history of Yoga

With International Yoga Day coming up on the 21st June I thought that it was a good time to look at a very brief history of Yoga.

The origins of Yoga are uncertain due to the oral transmission of sacred texts and the secretive nature of its teachings. The development of yoga can be traced back to approximately 3000 BCE however some researchers believe that it could be up to 10,000 years old. Yoga’s history can be divided into roughly four periods – pre-classical, classical, post-classical and modern.

Pre-Classical Yoga

The practice of Yoga originated in the Indus Valley at least 5,000 years ago – the word Yoga was first mentioned in the Rig Veda (the Vedas are sacred texts containing songs, mantras and rituals to be used by Brahmans, the Vedic priests). Yoga was refined and developed by Brahmans and Rishis (mystic seers) who documented their practices and beliefs in the Upanishads (a huge work containing over 200 scriptures). The most well known of the Yogic scriptures is the Bhagavad Gita which was composed around 500 BCE. The Upanishads teach the sacrifice of the ego through self knowledge, action and wisdom.

Stone carved pictures of yoga found in the Indus Valley

Classical Yoga

The Classical Period is defined by Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, a text written some time during the 2nd century CE. Patanjali described the “eight limbed path” (you can read more about the eight limbed path here) and is considered the father of modern yoga. The eight limbed path is also known as Raja (Royal) Yoga and the purpose is to train the mind to escape the happiness, pain and suffering cycle. Raja yoga teaches us to slow the mind until it is calm and we can see our True Nature as peace, happiness and bliss. The Yoga Sutras continue to strongly influence most styles of modern yoga.

Statue of Patanjali

Post-Classical Yoga

A few centuries after Patanjali yoga masters created a series of practices designed to re-energise the body and prolong life. They embraced the physical body as the means to enlightenment and developed Tantra Yoga with techniques to cleanse body and mind and break the knots that bind us to our physical existence. The exploration of the body-spirit connection and physical practices led to the creation of Hatha Yoga. Hatha Yoga focuses on the subtle energy flow in the body known as Prana.

Modern Yoga

In the late 1800s and early 1900s yoga masters began to travel west attracting attention and followers. In the 1920s and 30s Hatha Yoga was heavily promoted in India with the work of T Krishnamacharya, Swami Sivananda and others. Krishnamacharya opened the first Hatha Yoga School in Mysore in 1924 and in 1936 Sivananda founded the Divine Life Society on the banks of the River Ganges. Krishnamacharya produced three students that would continue his legacy and increase the popularity of yoga in the West – BKS Iyengar, TKV Desikachar and Pattabhi Jois. Sivananda wrote over 200 texts and established ashrams and yoga centres around the world. The import of Yoga to the West continued slowly until Indra Devi opened her studio in Hollywood in 1947. Hatha Yoga now has many different schools and styles all emphasizing different aspects of the practice.


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