Yoga is considered to be India’s gift to the world. It is an ancient practice that has crossed borders and is currently practiced by millions of people all around the world. As a yoga teacher, my students often ask me how old yoga is and what a yoga history timeline looks like.
Yoga can be traced back some 5000 years. It was developed and practiced by Indian philosophical and spiritual geniuses incorporating spiritual and physical practices. Naturally, the practice has evolved and changed a lot over the years.
Most people who practice yoga may not be aware that it is part of a spiritual tradition. Indeed, without tapping into yoga’s rich history, our practice may feel more like a fitness routine. And so this article may help shed light on what the yoga practice actually is and maybe even help you feel like a part of the wonderfully rich lineage.
To embark on this journey in time, we are going to have a look at the yoga history timeline and divide the history of yoga into four periods:
- Pre-Classical Yoga 4500 – 2500 BC
- Classical Yoga 100 BC – 500 AD
- Post-Classical Yoga 500 – 1300 AD
- Modern Yoga 1700 AD – now
I will now explain each period in greater detail. I will also discuss some of the most important moments that defined these periods in time.
1. Pre-Classical yoga
In our yoga history timeline, the Pre-Classical yoga period was 6500 – 2400 years ago.
The Pre-Classical yoga period refers to the historical evolution of yoga, which spans from the Shamanic era all the way to the beginning of the Classical Yoga era, just before the composition of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras.
The earliest known reference to yoga was found in the Indus-Sarasvati civilization more than 3000 years ago.
What was actually found was the Pashupati seals, which show people in yoga-like poses. The two poses are Baddhka Konasana and Mulabhandasana.
Vedic Age (2500 – 1500 BC)
Fast-forwarding several years, we are now in the Vedic Age.
The Vedas are India’s oldest spiritual texts and contain the wisdom of ancient Indian culture. They comprised over 20,000 verses and were a collection of texts containing songs, mantras and rituals. These formed practical guidelines for attaining metaphysical experience. It was in these texts that the word yoga was first found.
The Vedas form the bedrock of Hinduism and also most Indian culture and spirituality. There are 4 Vedas:
- Rig Veda | Knowledge of Praise. This Veda gives a picture into the sacrificial mysticism of ancient India. The hymns in this Veda are all dedicated to Soma. God Soma is associated with the soma plant, the extract of which was offered in sacrifices.
- Yajur Veda |Knowledge of Sacrifice. This Veda contains the sacrificial formulas used in Vedic rituals.
- Sama Veda |Knowledge of Chant. This Veda is the textbook for the priest responsible for chanting the sama verses.
- Atharva Veda |The term atharva is understood in the sense of white magic and the Atharva Veda is considered to be the source of ideas related to Tantra.
It was the Atharva Veda Samhita (1500 BC) that contained the term asana as well as myths about ascetics sitting in lotus posture (padmasana)
Upanishadic Age (1500 – 1000 BC)
Moving through our yoga history timeline and we are now in the Upanishadic Age.
The Upanishads are a collection of texts, containing over 200 scriptures, that are an evolution from the Vedas. They are the conclusion of the Vedic revelation.
The Upanishads focus on discovering the truth behind reality and how to attain liberation from suffering.
The Upanishadic teachings focus on the following 4 concepts:
- Karma | or moral causality
- Reincarnation | punar-janman
- Liberation | moksha
- Equivalence of brahman and atman
There are over 200 existing Upanishads, and 2 of these are important documents for the historical evolution of yoga:
Here, yoga is defined as the yoking of the senses.
When the five senses are stilled, and so is the mind, and even intellect does not stir, they call it the highest state. This state, the steady control of the senses, is considered to be yoga.Kaṭha Upaniṣad
Here, posture, breath control, and binding of senses are important aspects of the yogic path.
The wise who perceive Him dwelling within their self, to them belongs eternal happiness and serenity, not to others.
He who knows this God as primal cause, through Sāṁkhya (reason, reflection) and Yoga (self-discipline), achieves Mukti (freedom).Shvetashvatara Upanishad
The Mahabharata (300 BC)
The Mahabharata is one of the two major Sanskrit epic texts of ancient India (the other is the Rāmāyaṇa). Both are considered to be the longest poems ever written.
In the Mahabarata, we find out about an epic battle between good and evil, in the form of a dialogue between King Dhirtarashtra and Danjaya.
The most commonly known section of the Mahabharata is the Bhagavad Gita which is a dialogue between Krishna and the warrior-prince Arjuna before a battle.
The Bhagavad Gita
The Bhagavad Gita is a famous text amongst more experienced practitioners as it explains the concept of yoga. Indeed, if we were to look up the meaning of the Sanskrit word yoga, we would find out that it means to yoke, to link, to connect. But then the next question is, what are we connecting? What are these two separate entities that we want to connect?
And this is where the beauty of the Bhagavad Gita, this ancient Vedic text, comes as it explains that the two entities we want to connect are individual consciousness and the universal Supreme consciousness.
It goes on to explain that there is prevailing universal energy but there is also a possessor, or controller of this energy.
Our individual energy is a part of the Supreme Energy (or Being) and so the purpose of yoga is the connect the individual energy with the universal energy.
In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna represents the Supreme Being and Arjuna represents an ordinary being, like us. Through a dialogue, between the two, we find out how to follow the process of yoga, as Krishna teaches Arjuna about the yoga of perfect actions, the yoga of perfect devotion, the yoga of perfect knowledge.
2. Classical yoga
In our yoga history timeline, the Classical Yoga period was 2100 – 1500 years ago.
Estimated around 200 BC, Patanjali compiled the Yoga Sutras. Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras are what define the Classical Period, as they are the first systematic presentation of yoga. The Sutras are divided into four chapters. These chapters discuss the aims and practice of yoga, the development of yogic powers and in the end, liberation.
The main points Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras cover are:
Yoga is the concentration of the mind on a single point of attention
In the first few sutras, Patanjali gives us the essence of the spiritual practice:
“Yoga is the progressive settling of the mind into silence”
“When the mind is settled, we are established in our own essential state,
which is unbounded consciousness”
The causes of suffering
The causes of suffering are listed as forgetting who you really are, living from the ego, clinging to pleasure and pain, fearing death.
The eight-limbed path of Ashtanga yoga
Patanjali organized the practice of yoga into an “eight-limbed path” containing the steps and stages towards obtaining Samadhi or enlightenment. These eight limbs are:
|First limb||Yama||Attitudes towards our environment|
|Second limb||Niyama||Positive duties|
|Fourth limb||Pranayama||Breathing techniques|
|Fifth limb||Pratyahara||Turning the senses inward|
|Sixth limb||Dharana||Focused attention|
|Seventh limb||Dhyana||Meditation perfected|
|Eight limb||Samadhi||Bliss or Enlightenment|
There are five Yamas: Ahimsa (non-violence), Satya (truthfulness), Asteya (non-stealing), Brahmacharya (not wasting energy/right use of energy), Aparigraha (non-greed)
There are five Niyamas: Saucha (cleanliness/ purity), Santosha (contentment), Tapas (discipline or spiritual observances), Svadhyaya (Study), Isvara prinidaha (devotion/ surrender)
Despite the body-centric yoga we practice nowadays, you may have noticed that asana is the third limb of this eight-fold path.
Indeed, of the 196 aphorisms in the yoga sutras, only three mention the physical practice of yoga. The most famous is perhaps:
Posture (asana) is to sit in a position that is firm but relaxed.
One explanation for the lack of attention to asana is that asana was either considered inferior to the philosophical aspects of this spiritual practice, or that asana was seen as preparatory to yoga’s spiritual journey.
3. Post-classical yoga
In our yoga history timeline, the Post Classical Yoga period was 1500 – 700 years ago.
Fast-forwarding many years after Patanjali, there is now a new focus on asana. Here we see the physical body as a means to reach enlightenment.
In the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, we see a focus on the physical body. It is the most influential text to come from this period. It outlines a variety of yoga asanas and provides detailed descriptions of each.
Swami Swatmarama believed final liberation from the cycles of suffering could be achieved by practicing yoga asanas whilst doing breathing practice and concentrating on a single point of attention.
The Hatha Yoga Pradipika is split into 4 chapters. The first chapter focuses on asana, the second explores pranayama practices, the third looks at mudra and bandhas and the fourth discusses samadhi (enlightenment).
This stronger focus on body-centered practices is what with time evolved into what we consider nowadays to be yoga.
4. Modern yoga
In our yoga history timeline, this began just 300 years ago.
Perhaps the most notable moment in history and which actually brought yoga to the USA was Swami Vivekananda’s talk in 1893.
Swami Vivekananda (1863 – 1902)
Swami Vivekananda was invited to speak at the Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893. He discussed yoga, mentioned the Bhagavad Gita, further discussed the universality of the world’s religions, and managed to impress the attendees of his lectures.
The present convention, which is one of the most august assemblies ever held, is in itself a vindication, a declaration to the world of the wonderful doctrine preached in the Gita: “Whosoever comes to Me, through whatsoever form, I reach him; all men are struggling through paths which in the end lead to me.” Sectarianism, bigotry, and its horrible descendant, fanaticism, have long possessed this beautiful earth. They have filled the earth with violence, drenched it often and often with human blood, destroyed civilization and sent whole nations to despair. Had it not been for these horrible demons, human society would be far more advanced than it is now. But their time is come; and I fervently hope that the bell that tolled this morning in honor of this convention may be the death-knell of all fanaticism, of all persecutions with the sword or with the pen, and of all uncharitable feelings between persons wending their way to the same goal.Vivekananda’s speech, 1893, taken from here: www.artic.edu/swami-vivekananda-and-his-1893-speech
Following Vivekanada came Krishnamacharya, also known as the father of modern yoga.
Tirumalai Krishnamacharya (1888 – 1989)
Krishnamacharya is regarded as one of the most influential yoga teachers of the 20th century and is considered to have contributed to the revival of Hatha yoga.
In 1931, the Sanskrit College in Mysore invited Krishnamacharya to teach.
He is considered to be one of the most influential yoga teachers of the 20th century. He taught four of the world’s most influential yoga teachers of the 20th century, who each went on to shape yoga as we now know it.
Indra Devi (1899–2002)
Inda Devi opened the first yoga studio in California and went on to make yoga popular in the US.
K. Pattabhi Jois (1915–2009)
K. Pattabhi Jois established the Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute in Mysore in 1948 and developed and taught Ashtanga Yoga.
B.K.S. Iyengar (1918-2014)
B.K.S. Iyengar was the founder of the style of yoga as exercise known as Iyengar Yoga. He is considered to be one of the foremost yoga teachers in the world.
T.K.V. Desikachar (1938-2016)
T.K.V. Desikachar was Krishnamacharya’s son. He developed Viniyoga, an approach that is claimed to be aligned with the Yoga Sutras.
And so starting this yoga history timeline almost 5000 years ago we are now in the modern yoga era, or also considered to be the contemporary yoga era. Nowadays yoga is more body-centered but it does have strong roots in this ancient practice.
It is up to us to study more, educate ourselves, continue to practice and find inspirational teachers that can guide us along the yoga path.
How many types of yoga are there?
The main focus of yoga is bliss and enlightenment. And yet, there are many ways to practice yoga. These are grouped into four different types:
- Karma yoga, which is the path of service though selfless action.
- Bhakti yoga, which is cultivates love of the Divine through devotional rituals.
- Jnana yoga, which is the path of intellect and wisdom.
- Raja yoga, consists of balancing the three other types. Hatha yoga is a body centred practice and is represented as a combination of the third and fourth limbs of the eight-limbed royal path (asana and pranayama).
Most modern-day yoga classes that are movement-based are most likely a type of Hatha yoga. For example, Ashtanga yoga is a dynamic form of Hatha yoga.
Who is the father of yoga?
Patanjali is often considered the father of yoga as his Yoga Sutras still strongly influence our modern-day yoga practice. Krishnamacharya on the other hand is considered the father of modern yoga.
What books would you recommend for learning more about the Yoga Sutras?
The Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali by BKS Iyengar is a rather well-known book on the yoga sutras.
It includes translation and commentary on the sutras and it has been described as the “bible” of yoga.
The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali by Edwin F. Bryant is also a book worth looking into. Bryant offers clear and direct translation as well as commentary on each sutra.
What books would you recommend for learning more about the history of yoga?
I would recommend the most comprehensive guide there is on yoga history, written by yoga scholar Georg Feuerstein, The Yoga Tradition: Its History, Literature, Philosophy, and Practice.
This book is considered the classic text on yoga practice and history.
Another book I could recommend which most people may find easier to read is Roots of Yoga (Penguin Classics).
One reviewer mentioned that this book is a great book as it provides the reader with many excerpts from classical yoga works by many yoga schools.