An Overview of the History of Yoga

If you want to understand the heart of yoga, it helps to understand its history.

Without understanding the rich history of yoga, it can be easy to mistake yoga for a simple form of exercise, instead of the rich tradition it truly is.

What Exactly Do We Mean When We Say Yoga?

What is yoga anyway? Is it a form of group exercise that doesn't have any connection to religion?

Is it is a spiritual practice?

Or a practice for health?

What exactly is yoga?

Yoga: An Evolving Discipline

What yoga is will depend on who you ask. And yoga is going through a lot of changes these days. 

Some of these changes aren't necessarily for the good. However, change and evolution are integral parts of yoga.

Yoga can be described as a set of practices, including movement, breathwork, and meditation, which are designed to achieve specific goals. 

Traditionally, these goals were spiritual in nature. Today, these goals might be spiritual or more mundane, such as having a fit and flexible body.

Yoga has never remained static. As a discipline and practice, yoga has evolved over many thousands of years. Today's yoga is not the same as yoga 100 years ago, which was not the same as yoga 500 years before that, which was not the same as yoga 5,000 years ago.

To further complicate matters, many schools of yoga exist, along with various philosophies and ways of looking at life. You can be a theist, atheist, dualist, or non-dualist in yoga. You can focus on Bhakti Yoga, which is the yoga of devotion, Jnana Yoga (the yoga of knowledge), or a more materialistic type of yoga.

Yoga is diverse and vast. And that's what you might expect from an ancient discipline that has been around perhaps as long as human civilization. 

The Different Eras of Yoga

Here is a brief look at some of the different eras of yoga. Note that dates and timelines are not exact, and many different sources have varying dates.

Yoga in Ancient Times

Evidence exists that yoga in some form may have been around as far back as 10,000 years or more. We don't have much in the way of actual texts from this era, so we don't know much about why or how yoga was used back then.

Vedic Yoga

For thousands of years before Christ, the era of Vedic Yoga was more about spirituality than physicality. This was the era of the development of classical Hinduism, when great sages and thinkers spent their lives meditating and learning about the mysteries of the universe.

This wisdom has been codified in the great spiritual works of the Indian civilization, including the Rig Veda, the Upanishads, and the Mahabarata, of which the Bhagavad-Gita is the most famous book.

Classical Yoga

Classical yoga start from around the time of Christ to the Middle Ages. Patanjali was credited with writing the Yoga Sutras, a philosophical text that outlines the basic philosophy of yoga. Asana was only a small part of the Yoga Sutras.

The main focus of the Yoga Sutras was "citta vritti nirodha" or how to calm the fluctuations of the mind to achieve a higher state of consciousness and connect with "Ishvara Pranidhana," which some might translate as "surrendering to God."

Hatha Yoga (Tantra-Influenced)

The exact time of origin of Tantra is unclear. It is a philosophy that may have been around as long as the Vedic texts. What is clear is that after Patanjali's Yoga Sutras, sometime during the Middle Ages, Tantra started influencing yoga. 

Prior to Tantra's influence, yoga was about transcending the body. Tantra was more about embracing the physical - often to the point of excess. This is why Tantra is often associated with sexual practices, even though that was not the ultimate point or goal of Tantra, which was still spiritual liberation.

During this time, asana, the physical aspect of yoga, started to be codified and became a more prominent part of yoga.

Modern Yoga

Since the late 1800s, yoga broke out of the geographic boundaries of India and the East. 

The West first came to yoga with the British colonization of India. Thus, British gymnastic exercises had some influence on modern yoga.

Then, yogis left India and came to the West to share yoga with the world. Eventually, the modern group yoga class was born.

Yoga, which has been male dominated, became female-dominated in the West as women started practicing and teaching yoga far more than males.

Yoga also became more of an exercise than a means towards a spiritual end for many of its practitioners. 

However, the spirit of yoga lives on, with many finding that yoga is not just helpful for health and stress relief, but for finding deeper meaning in life.

Where Will Yoga Go Next?

While Western yoga is often criticized as not being "real" yoga, the fact is, over the thousands of years of yoga history, yoga has changed and evolved with the times. It is likely that after a period of focus on the physical, the next big wave of yoga will return more to its spiritual roots. 

Ironically, this is happening in some surprising areas, such as Christian Yoga, which combines prayer and asana and refuses to focus solely on postures as physical exercises. Christianity, which had heavily rejected yoga, is now using yoga as a means to greater spiritual connection.

Some of these Christian yoga spin-offs even make the asanas themselves into a form of prayer or worship. This is a form of Bhakti Yoga.

Christian yoga has been criticized as stealing the yoga tradition, but that is simply not in line with how yoga has always had various philosophical branches, schools of thought, and even competing philosophies throughout history.

Yoga Will Continue to Evolve

Yoga is big enough to hold the teachings of Patanjali, the Tantric focus on asana form, the modern yoga studio, Christian yoga spin-offs, and the wisdom of the Vedas. It can even survive trendy, overpriced yoga fashion companies that sometimes take the worst of materialistic Western culture and apply it to yoga workout clothes.

While it may be easy to lament the appropriation of yoga by commercial forces or materialistic Western culture, yoga is resilient. It has been around for 10,000 years and will likely be around for 10,000 more - provided we still have a civilization at that point.