The History and Origins of Yoga. A Guide.
Have you ever wondered about the history of yoga and where it originated? Where yoga comes from and how old it is? Let us guide you through the many eras of yoga, in our history of it’s evolution. From ancient carvings to Marilyn Monroe, we explain how the past is present in the practice of yoga today, yoga pants and all.
Where did yoga originate?
People often ask, where did yoga begin? Where does yoga come from?
Some say it goes back over 4,000 years to the Indus Valley– a very sophisticated Bronze Age civilisation that spanned Afghanistan, Pakistan and North-West India. According to ancient carvings, the five million inhabitants of this expansive region enjoyed public baths, a very sophisticated sewage system, and meditation.
Others put its roots in Hinduism, though it does also have roots in the Sramanas tradition, which gave rise to Buddhism and Jainism.
As getting to the roots of this debate might take a few books we're keeping it simple; marking yoga's evolution through the milestone texts, and popular culture.
The history and origins of yoga
How old is yoga?
The first written mention of yoga is in The Upanishads, an anonymous collection of texts written c. 800-500 BCE. This collection of more than 200 Hindu scriptures is the basis of many meditation techniques we use today, guiding yogis on ways to strip away the layers, or obstacles, that separate us from our own true Self. Hindus practice yoga to be at one with Atman, their true Self, which is equal to Brahman, the creator of their universe.
The word yoga comes from the Sanskrit word ‘yuj’. There are quite a few variations in translation for this, including ‘to put to use’, or ‘to attach and hitch’. However, the translation that centres on the idea of ‘union’ is the most commonly used.
The idea is that yoga brings into union the mind, body, breath and spirit, helping us unwind and get some perspective on our lives – something that’s as valuable now as it was several thousand years ago. Arguably more so.
Yoga as daily life
After The Upanishads, the next major citing of yoga is in The Bhagavad Gita or ‘Lord’s Song’, which was written c. 300-200 BCE. The Gita advocates living in the real world, putting yoga into action on a daily basis, through self-knowledge, selfless action and love and devotion.
Yoga as a still mind
The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, c. 200 BCE, feature Patanjali's second sutra, that yoga is 'chitta vritti nirodhah', which means that 'yoga ceases the whirring mind'. This has become one of the standard definitions of yoga, and where we first got the idea that yoga and meditation is about having a still mind.
The most significant development of the next millennium was the interest in rejuvenating the body as an additional means of discovering the true Self.
Yoga as therapy
Yoga Rahasya, or the ‘Secrets of Yoga’, was written in the 9th century by Saint Nathamuni. This text summed up thousands of years of teaching, documented more poses than ever before and remains the basis for using yoga as a therapeutic tool.
Yoga as the physical body
The Hatha Yoga Pradapika, c. 1300-1500 CE, focuses on the physicality of yoga, and states the purpose of Hatha Yoga as balancing the physical body, mind and energy. When this balance is achieved the central force – the sushumna nadi – is awakened, and with it the evolution of human consciousness. There’s talk of many terms that are familiar to us now – among them asana, chakras, bandhas and pranayama.
Modern day yoga
9th century Nathamuni's most distinguished student arrived a thousand years later. He was Sri Tirumalai Krishnamacharya, who’s often called the founding father of modern yoga. Born in 1888 he brought this practice to a new and vast audience, mainly through his own, most distinguished, students. Iyengar, Pattabhi Jois, Desikachar and Indra Devi went on to light a touch paper under the evolution of modern day yoga – sky rocketing its appeal from a few postures to many, from East to West, from sectarian to lay practitioners, and from men to women.
Yoga as thought leadership
Yoga also got a massive boost when it was adopted by Western philosophers and thinkers. In the late 1920s the elegant, charismatic Krishnamurti began drawing the leading thinkers of the day to Theosophical Society gatherings. Aldous Huxley, Bernard Shaw and Christopher Isherwood were amongst interested in the Society’s desire to unite practitioners of all faiths together in search of truth. Charlie Chaplin and Greta Garbo were also followers.
Paul Brunton was the first Westerner to write about his own encounters with the Indian sage Ramana Maharshi. His book, A Search in Secret India, was first published in the 1930s, sold over a quarter of a million copies, and is still in print today, inspiring many seekers – including my own visit to the peacock strewn Tiruvannamalai ashram in southern India.
Yoga as Hollywood
By the late 40s, Paramahansa Yogananda's compelling, miracle-driven Autobiography of a Yogi, had become a best seller, and inevitably yoga hit Hollywood. Indra Devi is often referred to as the First Lady of Yoga. A true pioneer, and feminist icon, she was the first ever female pupil of famous yogi Nathamuni’s student Tirumalai Krishnamacharya. With its focus on the physical practice rather than the spiritual, it’s the type of yoga we practice in the West today.
She taught global starlets like Greta Garbo and Marilyn Monroe and even brought out LP records that guided yoga workouts at home – the YouTube yogi of her day? It’s funny to think that yoga was a magnet to the rich and famous long before the days of Instagram.
Yoga as TV
Iyengar's Light on Yoga was published in the West in 1966, and Kundalini arrived in California in 1969 in the form of Yogi Bhajan.
Richard Hittleman's Yoga For Health TV series, first aired in the US in 1961, marking the official entry of yoga into popular culture. Lilias Folan, a Sivananda devotee, owned yoga TV in the seventies, following the lead of Swami Sivananda’s diaspora who had spent the previous decade founding schools in Europe, Canada and the US. Ashtanga also arrived in the US in that decade, along with Bikram yoga, followed by David Life and Sharon Gannon's Jivamukti yoga in 1984.
Since then, yoga has gone truly global, as a workout and exercise as well as a meditative tool, practiced everywhere from gyms, to parks and fittingly, given its history, in museums.
A note from us…
If you want to practice yoga with history in mind, try looking at your left foot as rooted in the past – saluting the teachers who created yoga in order that we may all dissolve our ego and merge with universal bliss.
See your right foot as rooted in the future – a future in which, whatever style of yoga you practice and whoever teaches you, you also get there – if not merging with the big pool of cosmic bliss that is the universe, at least creating a sense of peace and calm in your life.
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is a yoga advocate and writer with three yoga books to her name, including the beloved travel memoir Yoga School Dropout. She writes regularly for the national press, has authored over 150 guides to types of yoga and yoga poses, discovered nearly 250 proven health benefits of yoga through her painstaking classification of 300 clinical studies, and collected more than 500 personal testimonials to the real life benefits of yoga. She is also the creator of our yoga shop – YogaClicks.Store – handpicking yoga brands that are beautifully made by yogis committed to environmental and social sustainability.