The History of Yoga (2020)

Our humble attempt at packing 5000+ years of the rich history of yoga into one article

Vinyasa Yoga School
Updated over a week ago19 minute read

Welcome to your crash course on the history of yoga!

What you’ll learn:

  • You’ll be getting a short high-level overview of the history of yoga.
    • Feel free to stop here if that’s all you need!
  • You’ll learn about some of the early traces of yoga’s development.
  • You’ll learn about how yoga arrived at where it is today.

What might surprise you:

  • While many people associate yoga with Hinduism, yogic tradition has been influenced by Buddhism, ritual sacrifice, gymnastics, and many other practices.
  • Although yoga has been around for millennia, the focus of yoga as exercise blossomed only in the last two hundred years.

We should start by saying history can be subjective. Attempting to represent the complete history of yoga would be almost impossible, especially in one article. (For context, we spend a month or two guiding our students through yoga philosophy and history in our yoga teacher training in Rishikesh, India, and even that only scratches the surface.)

There is still debate on the origins of yoga, and it's pretty clear that there is no single fixed yogic tradition.

However, here’s what we can all agree on:

  • Yoga is a group of spiritual, mental, and physical practices that began in ancient India.
  • Historically, yogic tradition primarily focused on how to cultivate spiritual liberation.
  • Today, most of the world views yoga as a physical practice of asanas (yoga poses) and vinyasas (movement between a series of poses).

We've divided our article into a few sections:

Chapter 1 - A Short & Sweet SummaryChapter 2 - Seeds are SownChapter 3 - Roots Take HoldChapter 4 - Pollen SpreadsChapter 5 - The Present Moment

Without further ado, let’s dive in.

Chapter 1
A Short & Sweet Summary

For a quick summary on the history of yoga, look no further!

Feel free to skip the rest if this is all you need 🙌

The history of yoga is complex, but here's a quick summary:

  • Traces of yogic practice started appearing around 5000 years ago in India.
  • Yoga began within a subset of larger religious and spiritual traditions. We can track its development in several key Hindu and Buddhist scriptures and stories.
    • In ancient times, yoga was primarily practiced to cultivate spiritual harmony and enlightenment.
  • In the late 1800s, yoga spread West, gaining momentum amongst its new practitioners as a path to inner peace and better health.
  • In the 1920s, the “Modern Yoga Renaissance” began, where the physical practice of yoga evolved dramatically.
    • Up to this point, traditional yoga contained very few standing poses.
    • Yogis began to pioneer yoga as exercise, infusing Hatha Yoga poses with Western gymnastics, wrestling, and other practices.
    • Several popular forms of asana practice came out of this period, including Ashtanga Vinyasa and Iyengar.
  • Today, yoga is a staple of holistic health and has grown into a massive industry, with an estimated 300 million practitioners worldwide and counting!

If you want to get into the nitty-gritty details, read on!

Chapter 2
Seeds are Sown

How did yoga begin?

It’s hard to know exactly how people lived thousands of years ago. All we can do is speculate based on what we've find in the ground or in writing.

The Pashupati Seal (~6000 - 2000 BCE)

In 1928, archaeologists uncovered a seal in the Indus Valley Civilization, which depicts a seated figure surrounded by animals.

Estimated to be about 4000-4500 years old, the seal was named “pashupati”, or “lord of animals”, and some say that this is one of the earliest depictions of the Hindu god Shiva, the Lord of Yoga.

Most efforts in determining the religious practices & beliefs of the Indus Valley center around the Pashupati seal.

Some historians speculate that the central figure is sitting in Mulabandhasana, a common meditation pose described as a “squatting position with joined heels”.

Further reading:
National Museum of India - Pashupati Seal
Amazon Books - From the Vedas to Vinyasa: An Introduction to the History of Yoga

The Vedas (4500-1200 BCE)

Known by some as the "Vedic period", the Sanskrit word "Veda" means "knowledge". In this period came some of the world's oldest sacred texts.

These four books, collectively called “The Vedas”, formed a core part of traditional Indian culture:

  • Rig Veda, the “Knowledge of Praise”
  • Sama Veda, the “Knowledge of Songs”
  • Yajur Veda, the “Knowledge of Sacrifice”
  • Atharva Veda, the “Knowledge of Procedures for Everyday Life”

Generally speaking, knowledge of The Vedas was passed down orally across generations of Brahmin (the priestly class).

Oral tradition was important, as early writings and attempts to record The Vedas on paper were often overshadowed by frequent warfare and wet tropical weather.

While early Vedic spiritual practices focused primarily on ritual sacrifices, they describe several precursors to yoga (as it pertained to performing sacrifices properly):

  • bodily postures
  • breathing techniques
  • concentration techniques

Further reading:
Wikipedia - Vedas
Amazon Books - The Holy Vedas

The Upanishads (900-500 BCE)

Also known as the Vedanta, the “highest purpose of the Veda”, these texts are among the most important in Indian culture.

For context, "Upanishad" roughly translates to “secret doctrine” or “to sit close to”, in part because this is how the lessons of Upanishads were taught, with the student sitting near the teacher.

In order to receive this knowledge:

  • You’d have to renunciate your life and walk away from everything.
  • You’d have to find a guru.
  • Your guru would need to deem you worthy.
  • Only then would you be able to start learning these secret teachings.

While the Rig Veda mentions “yoga”, it does not describe Yoga philosophy with the same meaning or context as we see in medieval or modern times.

The Upanishad scriptures begin to describe pranayama (breath control) and pratyahara (concentration), practices that later became core parts of Yoga philosophy.

To give you a taste of some of its beautiful prose, the Katha Upanishad recommends a path to Self-knowledge called “Yoga.”

यदा पञ्चावतिष्ठन्ते ज्ञानानि मनसा सह ।
बुद्धिश्च न विचेष्टते तामाहुः परमां गतिम् ॥ १० ॥
तां योगमिति मन्यन्ते स्थिरामिन्द्रियधारणाम् ।
अप्रमत्तस्तदा भवति योगो हि प्रभवाप्ययौ ॥ ११ ॥

Only when Manas (mind) with thoughts and the five senses stand still,
and when Buddhi (intellect, power to reason) does not waver, that they call the highest path.
That is what one calls Yoga, the stillness of the senses, concentration of the mind,
It is not thoughtless heedless sluggishness, Yoga is creation and dissolution.

— Katha Upanishad, 2.6.10-11

Further reading:
Vedic Heritage - The Upanishads
Amazon Books - The Upanishads, 2nd Edition (2007)

Chapter 3
Roots Take Hold

Yoga as we know it today starts to take shape, as ancient sages start to define what it means to practice yoga.

We can see evidence of Yoga developing as a complete system of practice in early Buddhist and Hindu texts.

Let’s start in Greece:

  • Alexander the Great, the infamous conqueror, explored India around 400 BCE. Onesicritus, one of Alexander’s noble scholars, was sent to learn more about the people and customs, describing Indian yogis in their “undisturbed calmness” and “mindfulness through balance”.

Buddha’s Yoga (~600 BCE)

Some historians suggest that Prince Siddharta Gautama (aka Buddha) synthesized teachings from various contemporary yogis and developed his own system of yogic practices.

We can see evidence of this in the Pali Canon, the collection of scriptures eternalizing the “Word of the Buddha.” It details a system of physical and mental practices aimed at the goal of attaining spiritual liberation.

The Buddhists took great care in preserving their teachings, word for word, across many centuries and generations. Because of this, some historians say that the Pali Canon is the first and oldest complete collection of a Yoga practice that we’re able to examine in its entirety.

Centuries later, Buddhists would formalize a practice known as “Yogachara” through the comprehensive work “Yogacarabhumi-sastra”, or the “Treatise on the Foundation for Yoga Practitioners”.

This treatise is said to have been a major influence on the great sage Patanjali as he compiled his “Yoga Sutras”, perhaps the most important Yogic text of all time.

Further reading:
Brittanica - Yogachara
Amazon Books - Inside Vasabandhu's Yogacara

Mahabharata and Bhagavad Gita (400 BCE - 300 CE)

Heralded as one of the world’s greatest stories, the Mahabharata tells the epic tale of a family divided by war, interwoven with a myriad of philosophical and spiritual lessons.

It’s sometimes referred to as the “longest poem ever written”, at about 1.8 million words in total and 200,000 individual verse lines.

It’s a bedrock of Indian culture and history. Some compare its influence with the likes of the Bible, the Quran, Shakespeare, and other great works.

According to the Mahabharata, the purpose of yoga is the experience of uniting the individual with the universal “Brahman.” It explores yoga in more depth in one of its most famous sections, the “Bhagavad Gita” (or “Gita” for short).

The Gita details the conversations between warrior prince Arjuna and his charioteer Krishna. Arjuna is conflicted with despair and moral dilemmas about waging war, and Krishna calls upon him to uphold his Dharma, or duty.

In their rich dialogue, we’re introduced to three types of yoga:

  • Karma yoga: The yoga of action
  • Bhakti yoga: The yoga of devotion
  • Jnana yoga: The yoga of knowledge

One of the primary messages for Arjuna (and its millions of readers) is to uphold one's Dharma (duty to do what’s right) to achieve Moksha (liberation through action, devotion, and knowledge).

In modern times, The Gita has served as inspiration to many.

  • Gandhi, the leader of the nonviolent movement for India’s independence, leaned on The Gita in dark times for comfort and strength.
  • Narendra Modi, the Prime Minister of India, praises The Gita as “India’s biggest gift to the world.”

Further reading:
Amazon Books - The Bhagavad Gita, 2nd Edition

Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras (~400 CE)

Patanjali, one of India’s great sages, distilled everything he learned about yogic teachings from the masters of his time into a masterpiece known as the Yoga Sutras, a collection of 196 verses (or “sutras”) on the philosophy and practice of yoga.

Straight to the point, Patanjali defines the purpose of yoga in Sutra 1.2:

योगश्चित्तवृत्तिनिरोधः ॥२॥
yogaś citta-vṛtti-nirodhaḥ

This has several interpretations, but most agree that the sutra implies that the practice of yoga is meant to tame our mind’s scattered energy and thinking (so that we might attain a higher state of consciousness)

Patanjali later defines the eight limbs of yoga (or the eightfold path):

  • yama (abstinences, the “don’ts”)
  • niyama (observances, the “dos”)
  • asana (yoga postures)
  • pranayama (breath control)
  • pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses)
  • dharana (concentration)
  • dhyana (meditation)
  • samadhi (absorption)

Mastery of each limb would take a practitioner closer and closer to Samadhi, a state of consciousness where the mind is completely absorbed in oneness.

It’s important to highlight here that although most of the world sees yoga as a physical practice of asanas (postures), Patanjali doesn’t mention any specific type of asanas in the Yoga Sutras. Only in his later commentary, Bhasya, does he mention twelve seated meditation postures. Asana practice as we know it matured much later, in the 1800s and 1900s.

Further reading:
Wikipedia - Yog Sutras of Patanjali
Amazon Books - Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, by B.K.S. Iyengar

Hatha Yoga (~1100 - 1500 CE)

Unlike most other forms of yoga, Hatha yoga was one of the first to welcome all with open arms.

It didn’t ask its practitioners to renounce anything, or follow a certain spiritual path - all you had to do was practice with intention and success would follow.

In part, Hatha’s openness is what eventually led to its spread to the West in the 20th century.

Core concepts within Hatha yoga can be traced back to early Hindu and Buddhist texts around 800-1100 CE. Early Hatha philosophy and practice centered around preserving one’s amrta (semen for men, or menstrual fluid for women, otherwise known as the “nectar of immortality”).

Centuries later, the great sage Svatmarama would write the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, a landmark text on Hatha Yoga. Building on previous knowledge, the influential manual laid out a foundation of yoga, including:

  • Shatkarma (self purification)
  • Asana (15 postures)
  • Pranayama (breathing)
  • Kumbhaka (breath retention)
  • Mudras (energetic practices)
  • Meditation
  • Chakras (centers of energy)
  • Kundalini

Further reading:
Amazon Books - Hatha Yoga Pradipika

Chapter 4
Pollen Spreads

As the world became more connected, people everywhere started learning about the benefits of yoga.

At the same time, great sages in India drew inspiration from the West, leaving their mark and changing yoga forever.

Information technology exploded in the 1800s and early 1900s, introducing the world to photography, the microphone, typewriting, the telephone, transatlantic flight, and making it incredibly easy to spread ideas.

Within a relatively short amount of time, the floodgates of knowledge and culture opened, and a flood of ideas previously confined to continental borders spread across the world.

From this vantage point, it was only a matter of time before Yoga infused itself with Western culture.

Sritattvanidhi (~1800 CE)

In the 1980s, a scholar named N.E. Sjoman discovered the Sritattvanidhi, a curious text hidden deep within the private libraries of the Mysore Palace.

The book dated back to the 1800s, written by a prince who covered an array of topics from music, games, to yoga. It contained an elaborate compilation of 122 asanas (physical postures), along with illustrations and explanations for many poses we recognize and practice today.

This is the first known text on yoga that is devoted entirely to the physical practice of yoga, suggesting that yoga as a form of exercise was already underway in the 1700s and 1800s.

Further reading:
Yoga Journal - New Light on Yoga
Amazon Books - The Yoga Tradition of the Mysore Palace

Treatise on Yoga Philosophy (1851 CE)

Nobin Chunder Paul, a renowned Indian surgeon and scientist, is credited with being the first person to write about the science of yoga - examining ancient Yogic practices through the lens of Western medical science. He spent many decades studying and following the lives of practiced Yogis.

Among many things, he goes into great specificity about the Yogic diet, the chemistry of Pranayama, why Yogis prefer meditating in caves, and the health benefits of asanas and breathing techniques.

The 65 page book was first published in London in 1851.

Further reading:
Google Books - Treatise on Yoga Philosophy

Swami Vivekananda (1890s CE)

India reserves January 12th for National Youth Day, a holiday celebrating the birth, life, and teachings of Swami Vivekananda. He was a revered teacher and spiritual leader, largely responsible for introducing Yoga and Vedanta to the Western world, and vaulting Hinduism into the company of major world religions.

As a boy, Narendranath Dutta (or Naren, before he became Swami Vivekananda) was naughty and restless, yet remarkably curious and passionate about a wide array of activities, like wrestling, singing, religion, and western philosophy. He was incredibly intelligent, often impressing his teachers and professors with his photographic-like memory and wit. He was fascinated by spirituality from a young age, spending his free time in meditation and studying the lives of wandering monks.

At age 18, with a rebellious spark and a hunger for truth, Naren questioned everyone from his parents to prominent spiritual leaders, asking them if they have seen God. Unsatisfied with their answers, he wandered through a spiritual crisis of belief systems, leading him through Agnosticism, Christianity, Western esotericism, and eventually back to a more accessible brand of Hinduism through his teacher, Sri Ramakrishna (of whom Naren was skeptical of for years).

Naren’s early twenties were marred by the sudden loss of his father (the sole breadwinner in his family) and bankruptcy, and the death of his beloved spiritual teacher Ramakrishna. Fueled by extreme hardship, Naren dove deeper into his spirituality, eventually taking vows of monkhood, emerging as Vivekananda (“the bliss of discerning wisdom”).

Swami Vivekananda toured India on foot for years before setting his sights internationally, embarking on several influential trips to the United States and Europe. With great conviction, he spoke about the teachings of Hinduism and Yoga at The Parliament of the World’s Religions in 1893, a gathering of over 200 religious and spiritual leaders, receiving a two-minute standing ovation from a crowd of 7000 attendees.

From there, his popularity and following grew at home and abroad as he became known as a talented orator and spiritual teacher. He embarked on a series of lectures in the United States and UK, and established several Vedanta Societies in major US cities. He spoke all across India about its rich spiritual heritage and its complex social issues, encouraging the end of colonial rule and eliminating the caste system.

After 39 rich years of life, on July 4th, 1902, Swami Vivekananda passed away during his evening meditation. His legacy lives on forever, continuing to influence the lives of millions of people, cultivating a deeper appreciation for Hinduism, yoga, and spiritual self-improvement around the world.

Further reading:
Amazon Books - The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda

The Modern Yoga Renaissance (1920 - 1960s)

While it’s easy to visualize the spread of yoga as something that started in India and fanned outwards, Western practices also had a profound effect on many of the spiritual leaders and pioneers of yoga in the 1920s.

Traditional yoga contained very few standing poses prior to the 1900s, as its primary purpose was not exercise. As the world became more connected and ideas were more accessible, many yogis and gurus were inspired by Western gymnastics and sought to breathe new life into Hatha yoga as a form of physical exercise.

Vinyasas, or sequences of asanas strung together in a “flow”, grew in popularity and in practice in this Renaissance period. The famous Sun Salutation (Surya Namaskar), which is now a staple of most yogasana classes, was popularized in the 1920s by Balahaseb Pant Pratinidhi.

Tirumalai Krishnamacharya of Mysore, often called the “father of modern yoga”, devoted much of his life and career to pushing the boundaries of yoga and promoting it to a broader audience. He was a great showman with superhuman abilities, able to lift heavy objects with his teeth and suspend his heart rate on a whim.

He quickly caught the attention of the Palace of Mysore, who regularly sponsored trips for Krishnamacharya to promote yoga all across India. They eventually asked Krishnamacharya to open his own yoga school in a wing of the Royal Palace. There, he refined his own yoga techniques and inspired others to do the same.

He was known as a tough, militant teacher and a brilliant student of yoga. Several of his pupils would carry on to leave their own legacies on the practice of yoga:

  • Pattabhi Jois developed Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga, one of the most popular forms of yoga today.
  • BKS Iyengar (Krishnamacharya’s brother-in-law) developed Iyengar Yoga and wrote the influential book “Light on Yoga”, documenting over 200 asanas.
  • Indra Devi shared and taught what she learned with many film stars in Hollywood, and many say she helped spur its mass adoption and popularity in the United States in the 1990s.

Ashtanga and Iyengar yoga are both incredibly precise and athletically demanding forms of yogasana, and they have had a profound impact on contemporary yoga.

Further reading:
NPR - Indra Devi
Amazon Books - Krisnamacharya: His Life and Teachings
Amazon Books - Yoga Mala: The Original Teachings of Pattabhi Jois
Amazon Books - Light on Yoga

Chapter 5
The Present Moment

Yoga has become a worldwide phenomenon, a rare unicorn that sits at the intersection of physical fitness, mindfulness, and spiritual liberation.

International Recognition

The United Nations declared June 21st as the International Day of Yoga, as proposed by the Narendra Modi, the current Prime Minister of India:

Yoga is an invaluable gift of India's ancient tradition. It embodies unity of mind and body; thought and action; restraint and fulfillment; harmony between man and nature; a holistic approach to health and well-being.

It is not about exercise but to discover the sense of oneness with yourself, the world and the nature.

By changing our lifestyle and creating consciousness, it can help in well being. Let us work towards adopting an International Yoga Day.

— Narendra Modi, UN General Assembly

Fun fact - the resolution for the International Day of Yoga holds a record in the UN for the highest number of endorsements, with support from 175 countries.

UNESCO, a branch of the United Nations that (among its many objectives) seeks to protect our world’s great history and culture, cemented Yoga as an Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH).

Not that Yoga is at risk of fading into obscurity any time soon, but the ICH designation means that the world’s leaders have officially made a legal and financial commitment to preserve the rich heritage of Yoga.

Further reading:
United Nations - Resolution for the International Day of Yoga

Economic Impact

In the span of a few decades, Yoga has ballooned into nearly a hundred-billion dollar industry. It’s a rich economy filled with its own ecosystem of offerings, from apparel, classes, yoga studios, teacher certifications, events, gear, and events.

By some estimates, there are over 300 million yoga practitioners worldwide, and $27 billion spent annually in the U.S. alone on yoga products & services.

lululemon athletica, now among the world’s top 100 apparel and fitness brands, started its humble beginnings in 1998 selling its first pair of yoga pants. After becoming the first major yoga-centric company to file for an initial public offering on the stock markets in 2007, they’ve managed to sell over $3 billion of product in 2018. In 2019, Forbes ranked them #300 in their Forbes’ Global 2000 list, which is impressive considering the caliber of other global companies in that list.

In the Media

Public interest in yoga has been quietly exploding over the past 200 years.

Google’s Ngram Viewer is a fascinating tool that allows us to search for mentions of a word in books they’ve digitized since 1500. When we plug in the English word “Yoga” into the tool, we see almost no mentions before 1800, and an exponential trend of mentions of “Yoga” in books since then.

New York Times has a similar tool that allows us to search for appearances of a word or phrase in their articles. Here’s what we get with “Yoga”:

The Internet

According to Keyhole Analytics, “yoga” is mentioned about once every two seconds in online articles and social media posts.

  • For comparison: "yoga" has 900,000 mentions per month, “fitness” comes in at 1,500,000 mentions per month, and “meditation” at 450,000 mentions per month.
  • This doesn't include Facebook, and it only includes English mentions of the word yoga.

Yoga videos started appearing on YouTube just a year after its birth in 2006. Here’s the first one we could find:

Yoga With Adriene, one of the most successful YouTube channels of all time, focuses on sharing high quality asana flows that practitioners can follow in the comfort of their own home.

  • As of 2020, Adriene has over 6 million subscribers, over 500 million all time video views, and about 18 million views per month.

According to Ahrefs, a popular Google search analytics tool, “yoga” is searched for over 1.1 million times a month globally (as of 2020).

This may vary for you, but when we tried searching for “yoga” on Google, we got over 1.9 billion search results!

Without question, yoga would not be as popular as it is today without the rise of the internet and social media.

Now It's Your Turn

Digging through the history, it’s abundantly clear that there is no one single canon or definition of Yoga, but millions of deeply personal journeys. For thousands of years, people have incorporated Yoga into their daily lives and spiritual practices in their own unique ways.

We liken it to a Banyan tree, with a thousand intertwining roots and infinitely more branches, very much alive, breathing, and evolving as we speak.

Now we'd like to turn it over to you:

What stuck out to you about the history of yoga?

How has yoga impacted you?

Maybe you have a question about something you read.

Either way, let us know by leaving a comment below right now.

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