History of Yoga

The history of yoga reaches back thousands of years, although its exact dating is still debated. There is some evidence to indicate that early forms of Yoga may have existed as far back as 4500 – 2500 B.C., in the Indus Valley region of India. Sculptures of figures seated in what look like lotus postures have been found from this era, but because the script accompanying the figures is unknown, it is not possible to determine with any certainty if the sculptures are representations of a Yoga posture, or simply one way of sitting on the floor. What is clear is that since earliest times, there has existed an understanding that human consciousness is vast, can be explored, and from the exploration insights unfold as revealed wisdom about the human condition, the universe, and our place in it.

The word yoga was first mentioned in one of four Vedas, the Rig Veda (‘Veda’ means knowledge in Sanskrit). The four Vedas comprise the oldest scriptural texts of the Hindu faith, containing revealed wisdom, or ‘what is heard from a higher source’. They are poems and hymns praising the higher power, based on mystical visions  and insights.  During the Vedic yoga rituals, sacrifices and ceremonies were very common, as they were considered a means of connection to the spirit world.

Next in line, are the Upanishads, commonly referred to as ‘Vedanta’ meaning the end or culmination of the Vedic literature. The Upanishads were essentially commentaries on the Vedas, as the four Vedas were written in cryptic short-hand. Upanishad literally means ‘to sit down near’; this gives a clue as to how this wisdom was transmitted, from teacher to student in close proximity. The concepts of Brahman (Universal Consciousness) and Atman (Individual Consciousness, Soul) are central ideas in all of the Upanishads. Arthur Schopenhauer called it ‘the production of the highest human wisdom’.

’The Song of the Lord’ as it is also know, the Bhagavad Gita is part of one of the two great Hindu epics, the Mahabharata (the other one being Ramayana). A text of great importance in the Hindu culture, it represents a strong reference in the west and was mentioned by many great personalities including Mahatma Ghandi who said of the text: ‘When doubts haunt me, when disappointments stare me in the face and I see no one ray of hope on the horizon, I turn to Bhagavad Gita and find a verse to comfort me; and I immediately begin to smile in the midst of overwhelming sorrow. Those who meditate on the Gita, will derive fresh joy and new meanings from it every day.’

The classical yoga period is defined by Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. The Yoga Sutras contain 195/6 Aphorisms and represent the first systematic presentation of yoga. There are controversial opinions on when they were written (500 B.C. – 400 C.E.). The text describes the path of Ashtanga Yoga, an organization of yoga into an eight limbed path, containing the steps and stages toward obtaining Samadhi or enlightenment. Patanjali is hence often considered the father of Yoga.

A few centuries after Patanjali, yoga masters moved their focus from the teachings of the ancient Vedas and embraced the physical body as the means to achieve enlightenment. They developed Tantra Yoga, a path of rituals and mantra or mystic syllables. Amongst its procedures there were techniques designed to cleanse and rejuvenate the body, prolong life or even conquer the human limitations of our mortal condition.

Out of Tantra Yoga developed Hatha Yoga, the type of yoga that we primarily think of yoga in the west. Hatha Yoga broadly consists of asanas (body postures), pranayama (breathing techniques), relaxation and cleansing techniques. The main goal of Hatha Yoga is to facilitate concentration and meditation, which is actually a preparation for achieving the final stage of yoga, called Samadhi. A representative text for this period is Hatha Yoga Pradipika, written around 1400 C.E. By Swami Svatmarama.

Modern yoga is marked by the repeated visits of Indian yoga masters traveling to the west in the last 1800s and early 1900s. It oversees the developments of yoga both in India and in the west. These developments are concerning all the transformations, evolution and the multiples facets (styles and paths) that Yoga presents nowadays.

To start with, Swami Vivekananda attracted many students to yoga though his words at the congress called The Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893. Paramahansa Yogananda arrived in the U.S. in Boston in 1920 and is known, amongst others, for his book ‘Autobiography of a Yogi’. Tirumalai Krishnamacharya opened the first Hatha Yoga school in Mysore in 1924. He produced numerous prominent students that would continue his legacy including Pattabhi Jois and B.K.S. Iyengar. Swami Sivananda founded the Divine Life Society in 1936 on the banks of the holy Ganges river in Rishikesh. Sivananda was a prolific author, writing over 200 books on yoga, and established nine ashrams and numerous yoga centres located around the world. Jiddu Krishnamurty who was active between the early 1930s and late 1980s is known for his philosophical speeches, called Jnana Yoga. In the mid 1960s, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi introduced Transcendental Meditation (TM) to the west; he was associated with the Beatles. Bikram Choudhuri opened his first hot yoga studio in the early 1970s and is know for ‘Bikram Yoga’, a strict sequence of Hatha Yoga postures. Acharya Rajneesh, better know as Osho, was a very controversial figure active in the U.S. during the 1970s, 80s and 90s. Jaggi Vasudev, better known as Sadhguru, is an extremely active personality in the yoga world nowadays both in India and abroad through his ISHA foundation.