A Brief History Of Yoga
The history of yoga begins around 3000 years ago in the days of the Vedic culture that flourished in north-western India from 1500 – 500 BCE.
Due to the absence of any historical or archaeological evidence, it is difficult to say precisely how and when yoga originated within this ancient culture.
However, we do know that descriptions of yogis, yogic-like practices, and the central philosophical themes of yoga started to appear in Vedic scriptures from around 1000BCE. So, this date is taken as the beginning of the known history of yoga.
From 1000BCE onward we can chart the evolution of yoga through a series of developments that have taken it from an ecstatic mystical tradition practised at the fringes of Vedic society through to a sophisticated system of spiritual philosophy and practice and on to the global wellness phenomenon it is today!
Below is an outline of this evolution, looking at the early origins of yoga and the main phases of the history of yoga to date.
Yoga’s Early Development
The first ancient text to mention the word yoga is the Rig Vega, the oldest of the Vedic scriptures.
And it’s there also that we find the first descriptions of long-haired ascetic mystics living on the fringes of society and performing yogic-like practices – proto-yogis if you like.
But it is only in the slightly later philosophical works known as the Upanishads that the ideas which form the core of the yogic worldview were first expounded.
The Upanishads are a startling collection of philosophical texts dating from between 800BCE and 500CE.
They present a diversity of ideas and insights covering a wide field of spiritual enquiry, but at their heart they are concerned with exploring and articulating the essence of mystical experience – the unity of the Self with the Absolute.
The earliest Upanishads don’t specifically map out anything like a system of yoga.
Instead, they are an assortment of philosophical, mystical, psychological, and religious expositions, often expressing ecstatic experiences and insights, using anecdotes, dialogues, hymns as well as clear logical reasoning to point towards ineffable mystical states and realities.
While these early Upanishads fully expound the system known as Vedanta (literally ‘the culmination of the Vedas’ or ‘the culmination of knowledge’), is only in the later Upanishads that we find the first references to a coordinated system of practices clearly recognizable as early yoga.
In the Katha Upanishad, for example, probably composed between the fifth and third century BCE, yoga is defined as the steady control of the senses, along with cessation of mental activity, leading to a supreme state.
The Maitrayaniya Upanishad, composed a century or so later, goes further, outlining a sixfold path of yoga – breath control (pranayama), introspective withdrawal of senses (pratyahara), meditation (dhyana), mind concentration (dharana), philosophical inquiry/creative reasoning (tarka), and absorption/intense spiritual union (samadhi).
So, we can see that during the middle centuries of the first Millennia BCE yoga underwent a significant evolution from its early ecstatic mysticism into an organised spiritual path.
It’s wonderful to think of generation after generation of yogis quietly refining and developing the ideas, insights, and techniques found in the early Upanishads into a carefully structured system of spiritual practice.
But this process didn’t occur in isolation, nor was yoga the only spiritual system to emerge from the Vedic background. The Indian sub-continent seems to have always been the rich spiritual environment it is today, home to a colourful array of philosophies, paths, and practices.
Buddhism, Jainism, and many other spiritual paths were arising at the same time from the same root-stock, and it’s generally accepted that these paths all influenced each other as they developed side by side before diverging into their more differentiated forms.
The fully developed system of yoga which emerged from the melting-pot of spiritual exploration and development in the centuries between 800BCE and 500CE is generally known as Classical Yoga.
As already noted, the central feature that distinguishes classical yoga from its pre-classical roots is its highly systematised approach to spiritual practice.
We can say that the essential goal of classical yoga is the progressive interiorisation of the mind: awareness is systematically withdrawn from physical sensations then from feelings and thoughts and inward through increasingly subtle inner states until the innermost self, purusha, is finally realized.
Classical yoga presents a very sophisticated process of facilitating this interiorisation.
One of the best-known early articulations of this process is the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, widely regarded as the first full compilation of the formal yoga philosophy and practice.
Written sometime between 200BCE and 200CE, the Yoga Sutras became such a core text of classical yoga that its author Patanjali is commonly known as the Grandfather of Yoga.
The text presents Patanjali’s famous Ashtanga Yoga – ‘the yoga of eight limbs’ – a comprehensive, integrated system covering moral, physical, and psychospiritual practices culminating in Samadhi – realisation or enlightenment.
Patanjali’s system is also known as Raja Yoga, or Patanjali Yoga, and is still one of the main paths of yoga practiced today.
Interestingly though, the Yoga Sutras contains only a few short verses about asana and pranayama, in stark contrast to the emphasis given to these aspects of yoga today.
Most of the book is taken up with the higher practices of concentration and meditation, and the inner attainments that come with mastery of these practices.
This is probably for two reasons:
1) the text is not intended for beginners, but assumes that the student has already been guided through the preliminary practices by a competent teacher; and
2) yoga was at that time much less concerned with body-based practices, and more with meditation and the deeply introspective practices aimed directly at realisation or enlightenment.
In any case, the 8 ‘limbs’ or stages of Raja Yoga follow the fundamental yogic trajectory of progressive interiorisation.
The first two of these stages concern the outward-oriented level of moral behaviour as well as our inner attitudes towards the external world (yama and niyama), which support the development of the psychological harmony, equanimity and tranquillity required to successfully turn inwards.
The next stage is the quieting and stabilising of the body in a comfortable posture (asana), creating a firm foundation for the inward journey.
Breathing exercises (pranayama) come next, the breath occupying a place on the borderline between the physical body and the more subtle energy body as well as being closely connected to the mind and emotions, such that by working with the breath the subtle energy system and the mind can be regulated.
At this point the practitioner is ripe for the higher stages of interiorisation starting with the withdrawal of the awareness from the external and then the internal senses (pratyahara). If attempted without proper preparation this withdrawal can be a frustrating struggle against the exteriorising tendencies of the mind, but when approached skilfully after the preparatory stages of asana and pranayama, it can be a natural and beautiful process that feels like relaxing into a loving embrace.
The next stage is concentration of the by now smooth, relaxed, interiorised awareness, by fixing the attention on a single internal object to the exclusion of all other mental activities (dharana).
This process of concentration gathers and unifies the energies of the mind, which are usually scattered, fragmented, and therefore dissipated.
When concentrated in this way the mind’s energies become incredibly powerful, ultimately gathering enough intensity to penetrate the extremely subtle veils of deep conditioning that keep us trapped in a limited self-consciousness and separated from our innermost essence.
The radical intensification of dharana and the penetration of the subtle inner veils constitutes the penultimate stage of interiorisation, technically termed ‘meditation’ (dhyana), a state of intense absorption in which a deeper and boundless Awareness arises of its own accord and supersedes the normal, limited, subject/object-based awareness, revealing its unlimited presence as both innermost Self and primordial ground of Being (samadhi).
This culmination of the entire yogic process is actually indescribable, and also, according to the sages, indescribably blissful. But it can be experienced by anyone willing to take the systematic steps outlined by Patanjali and other great yogis like him.
What an elegant process and an incredible gift to the world! The rare fruit of who knows how many generations of yogis experimenting, developing, refining, preserving and passing on the system of classical yoga.
And so far in our overview of the history of yoga it is only 500CE!
The Post-Classical Period
The next phase in the historical development of yoga – known as the Post-Classical period – saw the emergence and crystallisation of various forms of yoga which shared the same essential goal and conceptual framework as classical yoga but diverged in method.
Hatha Yoga was one of these forms, emphasising complete mastery and ultimate transcendence of the body through intensive body purification practices and often extreme renunciation, radicalising the already strong ascetic element found in yoga from its earliest origins.
Other forms of yoga that arose around this time sought to make yoga more accessible to people living normal lives, and to appeal to a variety of temperaments.
The famous sacred text known as the Bhagavad Gita presents yoga as a less austere and a less systematised practice, one that can and in fact should be integrated into daily life in a normal social milieu. It introduces three main paths of yoga compatible with worldly activity: Karma Yoga, Bhakti Yoga, and Gyana Yoga.
Karma Yoga (‘the yoga of action’) consists essentially of acting in the world in accordance with one’s own deepest nature (one’s dharma) and in the spirit of selfless service – that is, not attaching to the personal consequences of our actions. This path of yoga leads to a gradual surrendering of the experience of separation that arises from nurturing a strong sense of personal agency – and so can be seen to be an alternative route to the common goal of all yogic paths: the union of the self and the absolute.
Bhakti Yoga is the yoga of the heart, the yogic path of living one’s life with a sense of love and devotion towards the underlying reality that manifests the universe and all the fleeting wonders and challenges of our lives within it. It is an ideal path for people who have a naturally heart-centred approach to life, allowing them to channel and focus the heart’s energies towards the divine in the same way that concentration in raja yoga focuses the mind’s energies – and with the same ultimate effect.
Gyana Yoga is the yoga of wisdom or insight, a path suited to more reflective, philosophically oriented personality types. In many ways it is the oldest path of yoga, concerned with awakening direct insight into the fundamental nature of reality, linking back directly to the philosophical nature of the early Upanishads.
So, we can see that all these paths emerged from the same source and point towards the same goal but developed in different ways to suit different types of personality.
And between around 500CE and the late 19th century these paths continued to branch, evolve, and recombine in a myriad of ways, forming innumerable schools and systems of yoga scattered across the Indian spiritual landscape.
This process was influenced internally by the creative spiritual genius of countless saints and sages and externally by the troubled stream of India’s history of invasion by foreign powers.
These two powerful influences continue to combine to shape the development of yoga to this day, albeit now on a global stage.
The 19th and 20th Centuries saw the arrival of yoga in the West and its subsequent flourishing into a global wellness phenomenon that has moved quite far indeed from its mystical origins, classical systematisation, and post-classical emphasis on spiritual liberation (moksha).
There are three main phases in the development of what we can call ‘Modern Yoga’:
- The impact of Western influences on yoga in India
- The revival and elaboration of hatha yoga and classical yoga in India in the early 20th century
- The arrival of yoga in the West and its subsequent transformation into a practice focused more on individual wellbeing than on spiritual liberation
These three phases did not occur one after the other, however. Rather, they overlapped and interwove, and continue to do so to this day.
But for the sake of clarity let’s start our look at the development of modern yoga by taking each phase in turn in the general order of their occurrence.
The Western Influence
The mainstream of Hindu spiritual life has throughout its long history focused on ritual devotion to the myriad gods and goddesses of the Indian pantheon, underpinned by the philosophical foundations laid down in the ancient Vedic scriptures.
For the whole of this history yoga was a somewhat exclusive pursuit, practiced only by the few, unknown to most.
Nowadays of course everyone in India – and virtually the rest of the world for that matter – knows about yoga, but, strange to say, in the late 19th century very few people in yoga’s own homeland knew of its existence, let alone practiced it.
So, what changed? When did word about yoga get out and interest start to pick up? And why?
Well, there were of course a number of factors, one of which was the dissatisfaction of Western-educated Indians with what they saw as the backwards state of Indian society compared with the scientifically progressive West.
These often prominent figures saw blind ritualism, idol worship, the rigid and often inhumane caste system, and the backwards-looking mentality of Indian artists and intellectuals as symptoms of a cultural malaise that needed to be remedied by deep religious and social reform.
There arose a movement that sought to pare away the elements of Hindu religion and society that were considered without a basis in the core doctrines of the Vedas, and return to a more philosophically pure cultural expression that combined the wisdom of the Upanishadic sages with the rationalism of the Western ideal.
This reformist current, while never to experience anything like a full flowering, laid a ground for what was soon to be yoga’s revival as a ‘spiritual science.’
The Yoga Revival in India
The great Swami Vivekananda, who we will meet again a little later in this story, was one of the most vigorous proponents of the kind of cultural reform that sought to synthesise the deepest elements of Hindu spirituality with the best of Western rationalism; so too was Rabindranath Tagore.
But as far as the history of yoga goes, two great yogis feature prominently in the story of yoga’s revival in India in the early 20th century and subsequent emergence into a global movement.
One is Shri Yogendra (1897 – 1989), and the other is Swami Sivananda (1887-1963), both of whom were themselves coloured by Western influence.
Shri Yogendra is often referred to as the Father of the Modern Yoga Renaissance. In 1918, aged 25, he founded The Yoga Institute, the oldest organized yoga centre in the world, which was to become a major influence on the subsequent development of yoga, especially in the West.
The institute was innovative in blending traditional hatha yoga poses with Western styles of gymnastics to create a hybrid form of yoga directed as much at physical health and development as at the traditional yogic goal of spiritual illumination and liberation. It laid the foundation for the emphasis on asana that we find in yoga today.
This shift in trajectory was taken even further by one of Shri Yogendra’s foremost students, T. Krishnamacharya, who founded the Mysore School of Yoga, invented Vinyasa-style yoga, and was the guru of many of modern yoga's most renowned and influential teachers:
- Indra Devi
- Pattabhi Jois
- K. S. Iyengar
- K. V. Desikachar
- G. Mohan
And so, we see that Shri Yogendra’s blending of traditional yoga with Western gymnastics at the Institute of Yoga was a decisive moment in the emergence of yoga as a global phenomenon.
Swami Sivananda (1887-1963) was another of the great influential yogis of the 20th century.
He and his disciples featured prominently in the modernisation, systematisation and popularisation of yoga over the last 100 years or so, but in a way that retained more of an explicit emphasis on the spiritual dimension of yoga than Sri Yogendra and his disciples.
Interestingly, Swami Sivananda received a western education and trained as a physician, serving as a doctor in British Malaysia for 10 years before returning to India and taking up yoga.
This gave him a thorough grounding in western thought and exposed him to a modern outlook which surely influenced his later approach to yoga.
It certainly influenced his methods of promoting yoga – in 21st century terms we could say that he was the first yogi to publicly position himself as an international ‘thought-leader’ on the subject of yoga. He was even nicknamed "Swami Propagandananda" for his propagation of yoga on a grand scale to the general public!
In the course of his life, he authored over 200 books on yoga, and lectured extensively in India and worldwide.
1936 he founded the Divine Life Society on the banks of the Ganges in Rishikesh as a centre of yogic studies. In 1945, he created the Sivananda Ayurvedic Pharmacy, and organised the All-world Religions Federation. He established the All-world Sadhus Federation in 1947 and the Yoga-Vedanta Forest Academy in 1948.
Today the Divine Life Society has over 300 branches worldwide.
And many of his leading disciples also went on to found schools and organisations that popularised yoga as much as he did, or more.
- Chinmayananda Saraswati, founder of the Chinmaya Mission which flourished from 1953 onwards and today has over 300 centres in India and internationally.
- Satchidananda Saraswati, founder of the Integral Yoga Institute, who opened the Woodstock festival in 1969, founded many ashrams and yoga centres across America, established one of the first yoga teacher training certification programs and, in 1999, joined with other US-based Yoga lineages to form the Yoga Alliance.
- Satyananda Saraswati, founder of the Bihar School of Yoga, the International Yoga Fellowship, and the Yoga Research Foundation, was another hugely influential yogi who from 1963 onwards popularised yoga both in India and the West. (Note: Swami Satyananda was the teacher of Swami Nishchalananda who founded Mandala Yoga Ashram.)
- Vishnudevananda Saraswati, founder of the Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Centres, who from 1959 established yoga centres worldwide and taught Sivananda Yoga in the name of his guru.
So, we can see that during the 20th century yoga went from being little known even in its own homeland, to being widely known on an international level. And central to this revival were the key figures of Shi Yogendra and Swami Sivananda, followed by their respective lineages (though there were of course many other influential yogis involved who are not mentioned here).
Yoga arrives in the West
Having looked at the yoga revival in India and its subsequent global spread, let’s backtrack a little in this history of yoga and cover the initial arrival of yoga in the West, before the various disciples of Shri Yogendra, Swami Sivananda, and others came on the scene.
This arrival is generally considered to begin with Swami Vivekananda’s famous series of lectures on yoga at the Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893, where he wowed audiences with his depth of understanding, intellectual clarity and personal charisma.
But Vivekananda was not the first to introduce yoga philosophy to the West. Indian spirituality had been arriving on Western shores for over a hundred years before Swami Vivekananda captured the American public’s imagination in Chicago.
In 1785, Charles Wilkins (later Sir) produced the first English translation of the Bhagavad Gita from the original Sanskrit. There is clear evidence that William Blake, Wordsworth, Yeats, Coleridge, Shelley and Keats were all influenced by this text. The Romantic movement (Wordsworth etc.) started just after this date.
The Bhagavad Gita also influenced the American Transcendentalists – Thoreau, Emerson etc. where there was open recognition of their debt to the yogic teachings of the Bhagavad Gita.
The philosopher Schopenhauer engaged with Indian thought in the early part of the 19th century. Upon receiving a copy of the very first European translation of the major Upanishads, he soon understood the great value of what he read.
He wrote of the Upanishads that “from every sentence deep original and sublime thoughts arise, and the whole is pervaded by a high and holy and earnest spirit. In the whole world…there is no study…so beneficial and so elevating as that of the Upanishads.”
High praise indeed from one of Europe’s finest minds, and sentiments subsequently echoed by many others on both sides of the Atlantic.
In 1851 N. C. Paul authored the ‘Treatise on Yoga Philosophy’ – the first book of its kind published in the West.
And so, when in the late 1800s and early 1900s yoga masters such as Vivekananda began to arrive in the West there was already at least a small number of interested and somewhat knowledgeable people to receive them.
There were even influences of yogic philosophy in leading scientific thinkers. For example, Erwin Schrödinger (pioneering quantum physicist, 1887-1961), also strongly influenced by Schopenhauer, believed that the problem of free will and determination could only be understood through the mystical idea of Consciousness emphasised by the Upanishads and Indian thinking in general.
However, for the first half of the 20th century interest in yoga was to spread only slowly.
But then, in 1947, Indra Devi (one of Shri Yogendra’s disciples) opened her yoga studio in Hollywood and began to teach yoga to the stars, whose interest was quickly picked up by the press and passed on to the general public.
From that time on there was no stopping the flood of gurus and teachers arriving from India – many of whom were the disciples of Shri Yogendra and Swami Sivananda – who quickly gained enormous followings.
Soon these teachers were training western teachers, and, during the second half of the 20th century, yoga grew into the global wellness phenomenon that it is today.
In 2015, The United Nations General Assembly established 21 June as "International Day of Yoga", placing yoga firmly upon the world stage.
An estimated 300 million people now practise yoga worldwide, spending around 80 billion dollars per year on classes, certification of teachers, clothing, books, videos, equipment, and holidays.
How extraordinary that what began over 3000 years ago as an ecstatic mystical tradition on the fringes of Vedic society has grown into this global industry.
But of course, much of what goes by the name of yoga today would be virtually unrecognisable to yogis living before the beginning of the 20th century.
The original goal of yoga, expressed in the Upanishads as the union of the self and the absolute, has morphed into the goal of fitness and relaxation in the majority of yoga classes.
The spiritual science of yoga, taught in the Yoga Sutras as the systematic process of interiorisation culminating in Realisation or Enlightenment, has largely been replaced by ‘yoga as exercise’ – an asana-based practice with perhaps some gentle breathing exercises and relaxing meditation to finish off.
It’s quite a transformation!
But perhaps this is all well and good. Yoga as exercise is an effective practice offering many benefits, not least among which is a gentle way to reconnect with the body as a source of wellbeing and wisdom. In our world, this is a huge gift.
I’d like to think that the ancient yogis would be happy to know that the tradition they were part of creating was now bringing so much benefit to so many people worldwide.
And, in many cases, practitioners who begin their practice as simply a way to unwind and improve their health and wellbeing find themselves at some point becoming more receptive to the deeper gifts that yoga has to offer.
Thankfully, there are places where those deeper gifts are still cherished and nurtured, where the unbroken lineage of spiritual insight and wisdom passed down from ancient times through to the present day is still alive.
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