History of Yoga – Exploring Its Origins and the 6 Major Periods That Define It
Your body exists in the past and your mind exists in the future.
In yoga, they come together in the present.
– B.K.S. Iyengar, Yoga teacher & author of “Light On Yoga”
Most of us have gone to at least one yoga class as a way to do more physical exercise.
And many of us practice yoga on a regular basis now.
In fact, according to the United Nations, about 2 billion people worldwide practice yoga today. (1)
And you’ll find more than 20 million yogis in the United States alone. (2)
But what exactly is yoga?
Is yoga practice just about yoga poses?
Or is there more?
Here’s how this ancient timeless practice evolved into what it is today…
Yoga: A Definition
Yoga is the journey of the self,
through the self,
to the self.
– Bhagavad Gita
The word ‘yoga’ comes from the Sanskrit root ‘yuj’ which literally means “to unite.”
The general meaning of yoga is union.
Yoga is also a mental, physical, and spiritual discipline stemming from ancient India.
But despite its Indian roots, the benefits and gifts of this practice have now spread throughout the world.
Yoga: A Brief History of the Major Periods
Few people realize that the tree of Yoga has grown in the rich soil of three great cultural complexes or traditions—Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism.
These are not merely religions, as often thought, but entire and largely self-contained cultures which all have their cradle in India.
– Georg Feuerstein, Ph.D., Yogic philosophy scholar & historian
Think of the “Big Picture” of Yoga as a giant tree with many branches.
This huge tree was planted in fertile soil that contains elements and echoes of not just Hinduism as is commonly thought, but also Buddhist influence as well.
Yoga’s long rich history can be divided into six main periods: Pre-Vedic, Vedic, Pre-Classical Yoga, Classical Yoga, Post-Classical Yoga, and Modern Yoga.
Let’s discuss each one briefly.
1. Pre-Vedic Period:
Despite more than a century of research, we still don’t know much about the earliest beginnings of Yoga.
We do know, though, that it originated in India 5,000 or more years ago.
– Georg Feuerstein, Ph.D., Yogic philosophy scholar & historian
The exact history of Yoga is unknown.
The initial development of yoga can be traced to over 5,000 years ago, thanks to evidence of yoga poses found on stone drawings.
Archaeological findings from the Indus Valley Civilization revealed a portrait of a Yogi meditating in what looks like an asana. This is known as the Pashupati seal.
The Indus Valley Civilization has also been attributed to indirectly give rise to Buddhism and Jainism as well.
2. Vedic Period:
The Vedas are the most ancient Hindu scriptures and are a group of hymns and rituals.
The Sanskrit word ‘Veda’ means “knowledge”.
The Vedas contain the oldest known Yogic teachings (Vedic Yoga) and are centered around transcending the visible material world and the limitations of the mind.
During this time, the Vedic people relied on rishis (prophets) to teach them how to live in divine harmony and understanding of the world.
Later, texts known as the Brahmanas were written as commentaries explaining the hymns of the Vedas.
The actual word “Yoga” was first mentioned in the Rigveda.
The Rigveda is a collection of hymns describing the practice and discipline of meditation dating back to approximately 1,500 Before the Common Era (B.C.E).
3. Pre-Classical Yoga Period:
From ignorance, lead me to truth.
From darkness, lead me to light.
From death, lead me to immortality.
– Upanishads chant
The Pre-Classical Yoga period covers an extensive period of approximately 2,000 years.
The creation of the Upanishads marks the beginning of this period.
The Upanishads contain over 200 scriptures which describes the idea of karma, the cycle of birth and death and explain three subjects:
1) The ultimate reality (Brahman)
2) The transcendental self (Atman)
3) The relationship between the two
The self is a friend for him who masters himself by the Self;
but for him who is not self mastered, the self is the cruelest foe.
– Bhagavad-Gita 6:6
Around 500 B.C.E. (Before the Common Era), the Bhagavad-Gita was created.
It’s a beautiful story of a conversation between the God-man Krishna and the soldier Prince Arjuna.
In the Bhagavad-Gita (or simply “Gita” as it’s often referred to as), three aspects must be brought mutually in our existence:
1) Bhakti (devotion)
2) Jnana (knowledge),
3) Karma (cause and effect)
The Gita unifies the Yogic traditions of Bhakti Yoga, Jnana Yoga, and Karma Yoga through a common thread:
Sacrificing the ego through self-knowledge, humility, and reverence leads to higher states of consciousness and self-realization.
During this time Yoga found its way into Buddhism too.
The Buddha saw that suffering is caused by desire, greed, and delusion.
This is also the case in Yogic Philosophy.
4. Classical Yoga Period:
The stilling of the ripples of the mind is Yoga.
– Sutra 1.2, Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras
The classical Yoga period is defined by the Yoga Sutras, composed by sage Patanjali.
In Patanjali’s Sutras; Yoga is presented in a standardized and approachable way.
The word ‘sutra’ comes from the word ‘a thread’ and so the 195 Yoga Sutras are known as threads of wisdom.
Patanjali believed that every individual can achieve the “stilling of the ripples of the mind” and so composed the Sutras based on an 8-step system for mental and emotional purification and self-transcendence.
This 8-step system and 8-fold yogic path are also known as Raja Yoga:
1- Yamas – Self-regulating behaviors
Ahimsa – Benevolence
Satya – Truthfulness
Asteya – Even-exchange
Aparigraha – Detachment
Brahmacharya – Self-control
2- Niyamas – Personal observances
Saucha – Cleanliness
Santosha – Appreciation
Tapas – Self-discipline
Svadhyaya – Self-study
Ishvara Pranidhana – Surrender
3- Asana – Mindful body movement & meditational postures
5- Pratyahara – Withdrawing the senses from the outer world and directing them to the internal world.
6- Dharana – One-pointed focus and sustained concentration
7- Dhyana – Meditation
8- Samadhi – A state of calm balance, the transcendence of the lower self, and the union with the higher self.
5. Post-Classical Yoga Period:
When the breath wanders the mind is also unsteady.
But when the breath is calmed the mind too will be still and the yogi achieves long life.
– Yogi Svatmarama, The Hatha Yoga Pradipika
Because of the Yoga Sutras’ focus on the mind, yogis of the past hadn’t paid as much attention to the physical body as they were focused on meditation and contemplation.
A few centuries after Patanjali, Yoga took a turn.
The new generation of yoga masters began to probe the hidden powers of the human body and developed a system where different exercises, in conjunction with deep breathing and meditation, would help to rejuvenate the physical body, prolong life and achieve transcendence.
The human body was regarded as the temple of the immortal soul.
The body is your temple.
Keep it pure and clean for your soul to reside in.
– B.K.S. Iyengar, Yoga teacher & author of “Light on Yoga”
The Post-Classical Yoga period brought with it big changes to the Yoga scene.
It was during this period that Tantra Yoga and Hatha Yoga were developed.
The Hatha Yoga Pradipika is a Sanskrit manual considered to be the most influential surviving text on Hatha Yoga.
It was written in the 15th century.
6. Modern Yoga (Western Yoga):
Yoga is a way to freedom. By its constant practice, we can free ourselves from fear, anguish, and loneliness.
– Indra Devi, Yoga teacher who helped bring yogic practices & yoga tradition to the U.S. by way of her yoga studio in Hollywood, CA.
Yoga arrived in the West during the late 19th century.
The history of the modern yoga era is said to begin with the 1893 Parliament of Religions in Chicago.
It was here that Swami Vivekananda left a lasting impression on the American people.
Vivekananda was prompted by his teacher Ramakrishna to travel to America to share the message of Yoga.
Without knowing anyone in the U.S. he began to attract students who were eager to learn from him.
There were other Yogic teachers before Vivekananda who left India for Europe but their influence hadn’t taken off as much as his.
Paramahansa Yogananda came to the U.S. after Vivekananda, in the early 20th century (1920.)
Yogananda’s influence on the West was most notable, and five years after his arrival he established the Self-Realization Leadership in Los Angeles, CA where it still remains today.
His teachings mainly centered around Kriya Yoga, which we will discuss a bit further ahead.
In 1946 he published his famous book “Autobiography of a Yogi.”
The book has impacted countless people around the world but perhaps most notably the late Apple CEO Steve Jobs.
So much so that when Jobs planned every detail of his own funeral he made sure that each attendee received a copy of the book as his last message and gift. (3)
Other important Modern Yogis include:
Sri Tirumalai Krishnamacharya:
Also known as the “Father of Modern Yoga.”
He’s widely regarded as one of the most influential figures in the Modern Yoga period of the 20th century.
He’s also attributed to helping develop the practice of Vinyasa Yoga – combining breath with movement.
He called this style of Yoga Viniyoga/ Vinyasa Krama Yoga.
Krishnamacharya’s main teaching principle was this: “Teach what is appropriate for the individual.”
He taught many students who then moved on to become influential teachers themselves: Indra Devi, K. Pattabhi Jois (founder of modern Ashtanga yoga), B.K.S. Iyengar (founder of Iyengar Yoga and his own brother-in-law), and his son T.K.V. Desikachar.
Swami Sivananda Saraswati:
This physician turned Yoga master taught many students who then carried the torch of Yogic knowledge to the West. He founded the Divine Life Society in Rishikesh, India where he taught the Five Points of Yoga:
- Proper Relaxation (Savasana)
- Proper Exercise (Asanas)
- Proper Breathing (Pranayama)
- Proper Nutrition
- Proper Thinking and Meditation (Dhyana)
Founder of the Himalayan Institute.
He is best known for his incredible bodily command.
When he came to the U.S. he became a research test subject and it was documented that he voluntarily stopped his heart from pumping the blood for 17 seconds by increasing its speed to about 300 beats per minute. (4)
In another experiment, he was found to create a temperature difference of ten degrees between the two sides of his palm. (4)
These amazing results led to there being an increased interest in his teachings.
Yoga practice is like an obstacle race; many obstructions are purposefully put on the way for us to pass through.
They are there to make us understand and express our own capacities.
We all have that strength but we don’t seem to know it.
We seem to need to be challenged and tested in order to understand our own capacities.
– Swami Satchidananda
Founder of Integral Yoga and the author and translator of one of the most-read versions of The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.
Maharishi Mahesh Yogi:
Popularized Transcendental Meditation and mantra chanting in the 1960s.
Brought his version of Kundalini Yoga to the West in the late 1960s. He founded the 3HO (Happy Healthy Holy Organization), and is also the founder of the popular tea brand Yogi Tea. His appearance at Woodstock Festival in 1969 helped his teachings spread throughout the hippie era in the U.S.
His Holiness the Dalai Lama:
Although you many not initially consider the Dalai Lama a yoga teacher, his teachings and message are indeed Yoga in practice. This great yogi from Tibet who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and has inspired many westerners to learn more about Buddhism and the Yogic Path.
What are the different types of Yoga?
Yoga is an internal practice. The rest is just a circus.
– Pattabhi Jois, Ashtanga yoga teacher
There are 4 commonly accepted Pillars of Yoga:
Raja Yoga (the Yoga of the mind and emotions)
Bhakti Yoga (the Yoga of love and devotion)
Karma Yoga (the Yoga of inspired action and service)
Jnana Yoga (the Yoga of inner wisdom and knowledge)
Of course, there is also Hatha Yoga, which has become the most widely known form of yoga practice in the West today.
Hatha Yoga’s focus is on the body and mainly on the physical postures or asanas.
The word “hatha” can be translated as “willful” or “forceful,” but also as “sun” (ha) and “moon” (tha) creating internal physical balance.
Other styles of asana-based yoga include:
– Iyengar yoga
– Restorative yoga
– Prenatal yoga
– Yin yoga
Yin yoga is peculiar in that it’s a modern multi-layered practice based on ancient traditions.
Yin yoga is influenced by Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), Buddhist mindfulness practice, and Hindu Hatha Yoga.
Unlike most other physical styles of Yoga, in Yin Yoga poses are held in stillness for a prolonged period of time.
Also unlike other physical styles, Yin Yoga focuses on connective tissues such as ligaments and tendons and not on activating muscles.
Two other styles of Yoga:
Tantra Yoga arose as a response to the denial of the body and a denial of the feminine in yogic practice long, long ago.
This type of yogic practice honors the feminine (shakti) and masculine (shiva) energies within us all and aims to unite them once more through the tools such as pranayama (breathwork), mantra (sounds or syllables of vibrational power), mudra (symbolic hand gestures), yantra (geometrical visual mantras used in meditation).
Kriya yoga was made popular by Paramahansa Yogananda.
As per the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, Kriya means action.
Kriya Yoga is also known as the Yoga of Action.
It’s practiced by observing three out of the five of the Niyamas (remember this is the 2nd limb of yoga, Personal Observances):
- Tapas – Acceptance of pain as a means of purification & self-discipline
- Svadhyaya – Self-study, introspection, mindfulness, & self-observation
- Ishvara Pranidhana – Surrender and devotion to a higher power and a higher cause
What’s the difference between Raja Yoga and Hatha Yoga?
Raja Yoga is known as the Yoga of the Mind and Emotions. Its focus is on introspection and contemplation more so than the physical aspect of asanas (poses).
The main text of Raja Yoga are the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali which outlines the 8-limbed Yogic Path.
Raja Yoga has been around longer, so think of it as the grandparent of Hatha Yoga.
Hatha Yoga is the Yoga of the Body. Its focus is on creating balance in the body and all its bio-energetic parts.
The main text of Hatha Yoga is the Hatha Yoga Pradipika.
Asana (poses) practice is the main focal point here.
Hatha Yoga is an integral part of the Raja Yoga because asana is the third limb in Patanjali’s 8-fold path.
Recommended Yoga Books:
- The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali by Swami Satchidananda
- The Bhagavad Gita by Stephen Mitchell
- Hatha Yoga Pradipika by Svatmarana
- The Heart of Yoga by T.K.V. Desikachar
- Light On Yoga by B.K.S. Iyengar
- Light on Life by B.K.S. Iyengar
Recommended Yoga Documentaries:
- Yogic Paths by Gaia
- Awake: The Life of Yogananda
- Fierce Grace with Ram Dass
- Titans of Yoga