A Brief History Of Yoga
Posted on June 08 2018
So you do yoga regularly, you know the names of almost all of the asana, you’ve nearly mastered shoulder stand and you’ve completely mastered shavasana (the first post you fell in love with!)…
But have you ever wondered about where yoga started and how it developed?
It can be tricky to trace back the development of yoga as it’s such an ancient discipline and so much of it was passed on orally or transcribed on palm leaves, which aren’t exactly durable.
We know it was around at least 5,000 years ago but some think it could be up to 10,000 years old.
Nowadays there are whole libraries full of texts on yoga’s origins, but to save you time we’ve put together a brief guide to help you understand more about yoga’s history, divided into four main periods.
Yoga first concretely appears in history in northern India 5000 years ago during the Indus-Sarasvati civilisation. Even before this the sacred Rig Vedas texts in 1500 BCE had mentions of yoga in terms of finding a path to connecting our spiritual and earthly forms.
This definitely doesn’t mean that everyone then was doing Sun Salutations, but just that the concept existed.
‘Concept’ is the key word here, as what we know as yoga now is a million miles and a few millennia away from what was discussed then. Yoga was not a physical practice at all: it was a way of preparing the body for meditation and reaching ‘the divine’.
The Katha Upanishad contains the first known use of the word ‘yoga’ to describe this process.
Teachers might have told you that ‘yoga’ means ‘union’, which is true, although the direct Sanskrit translation is ‘yoke’, carrying with it this image of attaching or joining something together.
Spiritual union was the goal all those years ago and the Upanishad discussed methods like breathing, meditation and withdrawing your senses to help reach this goal.
In the comparatively recent era of 200 BCE to 500 CE (I know, so contemporary!) there were increasing numbers of texts discussing the philosophical system of yoga. Many of these texts came from the schools of Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism.
One of these is Patanjali’s 150 BCE Yoga Sutras – no, not connected with the famous Kama Sutra, although we’d argue just as important! The Yoga Sutras acted as a kind of manual to guide the habits and lifestyles of those trying to achieve wisdom through yoga. An early self-help book, perhaps?
This also outlined the eight limbs of yoga – ‘Ashtanga Yoga’. This is wasn’t the sweaty and dynamic ashtanga we know today: in fact, the physical postures (asana) are only one limb or branch of the practice.
Incidentally, asana literally translates as ‘seat’ – how great would it be if all of the asana we worked through now were seats? The only other limb we’d recognise today is the fourth: pranayama, or breath control.
Yoga was the path to enlightenment, not to a strong core.
As a few more centuries passed, various systems and practices of yoga were developing, forming satellite philosophies orbiting the original idea of union.
Unity was still the core concept, but there was more exploration of the relationship between the physical and spiritual; this led to a move towards using the body to achieve enlightenment. Techniques were developed to cleanse the body and mind, known as Tantra.
This exploration resulted in hatha yoga, which is what we’re really talking about when we talk about yoga today.
The word hatha means ‘force’ so you can see what a shift there was away from the teaching of the Yoga Sutras, although these teachings were still very much integrated into hatha yoga.
This more ‘forceful’ form of yoga was supported by the royal family in Mysore, which was the cultural and spiritual hub in India in the 1800s.
A prince compiled the Sritattvanidhi, which was the first document to only focus on asana practice (and not just the seating posture).
It actually detailed 122 yoga poses – a full-on workout!
As the world began to shrink and travel became easier, an important period in yoga’s history began: from the late 19th century yoga teachers started to travel to the West.
One of the most significant of these was Swami Vivekananda, who amazed audiences with his lectures on yoga at the 1893 Parliament of Religions in Chicago.
As you can imagine, the intellectuals of the day took a great deal of interest (whether any of them jumped into a downward dog is unknown) and word spread.
Another ‘big name’ was T. Krishnamacharya, who promoted hatha yoga in the 1920s and 30s, and three of his students: B.K.S. Iyengar (advocate of Iyengar yoga), surprisingly enough, T.K.V. Desikachar and Pattabhi Jois.
Krishnamacharya developed what we know as Ashtanga (Vinyasa) yoga as a workout for male students at his school to improve their strength and stamina. There was also a bit of back-and-forth here as while yoga was influencing thinking in the West, the popularity of gymnastics in Britain at the time influenced this new, more rigorous style of yoga.
In the 1950s yoga came to Hollywood. Russian-born Indra Devi, a disciple of Krishnamacharya, brought hatha and asana to USA by opening studios in Hollywood.
The Swinging Sixties with their culture of self-realisation encouraged further interest in spirituality; this was helped in no small measure by the Beatles broadcasting their interest in Transcendental Meditation and travelling to India.
From spirituality to legwarmers, yoga got its next boost from the fitness craze in the1980s. People had more free time and more money to spend on exercise; they also had more awareness of their health. Once yoga was connected to heart health it boomed even further.
And why is it so popular now? Well, you’ll know that as well as us. We want time for us, an activity away from a screen, a way of managing stress and an excuse to wear leggings. The health benefits don’t hurt either!
This is just a snapshot of how yoga developed, but hopefully means that next time someone asks you about it you can wow them with your knowledge!