A Brief History Of Yoga

Yoga is practiced by a lot of people these days, all with different – and very valid – reasons why they begin their first class. Some want to get more flexible or strong, some want to improve their general health, some have asthma, old injuries, postural problems, mental health problems, even drop a dress size, etc. And Yoga can help them all in some way, if practiced regularly, intelligently and with awareness. But for whatever reason anyone begins their Yoga journey, soon enough they find that it works on many levels, that there is much more to it. Students sometimes ask: “Is Yoga a spiritual practice? Is it for the mind or for the body? What is the difference between this or that Yoga” I think it helps to understand the background and history of Yoga a bit better, to know where it comes from and how it developed.


Even though most experts agree that the evidence of Yoga practice can be found as early as about 5000 years ago (some think even much earlier), the actual origins of Yoga are unknown. They go back a long time, possibly longer than we can imagine… Some even believe that it was passed on from the Satya Yuga, the golden age of humanity, where humans were peaceful and pleasant, never sick, grew to an enormous size and lived to 100 000 years. They did not kill, fight or even mine or plough the earth, as the earth provided freely and the weather was always nice and humans were aware of their divine origin. According to Hindu cosmology, over the Aeons this awareness began to diminish and problems occurred. During the second Aeon, Treta Yuga, divine awareness and with it Dharma was forgotten by a third and so people began to be divided by languages, class and culture and wars began to happen. Agriculture and mining introduced the concept of greed. Even land was divided by the sea. During the third Age, Dwapara Yuga, Dharma was diminished by half. Fighting and disease increased, spiritual blindness began to take a hold of people. Lifespan is only a couple of hundred years. Jealousy and fear become more predominant and religious differences lead to wars.

The fourth and final age of the cycle is Kali Yuga, the age of darkness, where Dharma and awareness are reduced to only a small percentage present in the people of this age. Slavery, lying, killing and stealing become the norm. This is the age we live in now.

But remnants from knowledge and awareness of the people from the previous ages have been preserved by oral transmission (often in form of chanting) for a long long time. When the ability to retain this oral knowledge also diminished, some great and wise sages began to, over time, write it down.


These scriptures are known as the Vedas (Veda = Knowledge) and are the oldest existing scriptures today. But this knowledge was written down in bits and pieces, according to whatever the direct experience of the seer at the time was (much of this knowledge was gained through direct experience, in meditation or other states of hightened awareness) or as it was passed on orally, and didn’t necessarily follow a “logical” thread as we would
understand now. So, to better access the knowledge they were categorised.

First they were divided into four sets of texts: The Rigveda, which is the oldest of them (written about 1500 BC), is a collection of ten books of hymns and verses about deities, mythologies ad rituals. The Samaveda contains chants and songs, Yajurveda contains detailed descriptions of rituals and is one of the base scriptures of Hinduism and the Atharveda, with it’s incantations and metaphysical descriptions, also a later addition to the hindu texts. Based on the Vedas, indian philosophy was then split into 6 different viewpoints (darshana):

Nyaya, founded by Gautama Rishi, focuses on “correct knowledge” and how to find it. It explores the rules and laws of the universe based on logic and methodology. Vaiseshika, the practical “partner” school of Nyaya, applies this logic and explores the natural world It contains one of the earliest descriptions of atoms. Sankhya (also called Samkhya), founded by Kapila, is a dualistic metaphysical philosophy, describing the universe as born from two dualistic forces (Purusha, or consciousness and Prakriti, or nature). It is atheistic, not theistic and it’s system of
elements and gunas (constitutions of nature) forms the basis for eastern medicine (ayurveda). Yoga is the practical path to liberation based on Sankhya (and also Vedanta) philosophy. It provides very practical guidelines to increasing consciousness and preparing body and mind for the event of enlightenment. Mimansa (sister school to Vedanta and later integrated into it) concerns itself with the reflecting on the knowledge contained in the vedas and how to implement it in life (Dharma).

Finally, Vedanta (meaning “the end of the Vedas”) summarizes the teachings of the Vedas, contains reflections and commentaries (Upanishads), the Brahma Sutras and the Bhagavad Gita.

So, to sum it up, Yoga is one of 6 schools of thought of indian philosophy and has been practiced in various forms for a long time (about 5000 years or more) with the aim to connect to our true self . The word Yoga comes from sanskrit Yuj – to yolk and is mostly translated as “to unite” or “to connect”. This aim, to become completely aware and realize our own true divinity is still the same but practices have changed a lot since these early days.

Forms of Yoga
Yoga in it’s traditional form concerns itself with practical ways on how to achieve self realization. Taking into account the differences in people’s personalities, it is divided again into four main branches:

Karma Yoga (Karma = Action) for those of an active constitution. Using our actions to serve the higher good with constant awareness, elevates us to a state of higher consciousness.

Bhakti Yoga, for the emotionally inclined, this is a path of love and devotion, usually using religious deities to connect to higher states of consciousness.

Jnana Yoga – the path of Knowledge, for those who are intellectually minded. Studying the scriptures to evolve our mind to higher states of consciousness.

Raja Yoga, the royal path, uses forms of meditation to connect to our true self and realize our own true nature.

Classical Yoga
Raja Yoga also is often called classical Yoga (as it follows the teachings from the classical period of indian philosophy), or Ashtanga Yoga (the eight limbed path of Yoga). In this period, a sage called Patanjali wrote down 196 short aphorisms, divided into 4 chapters (The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali) describing the path of yoga according to older scriptures. In it, he gives a concise description of Yoga and how to practice it.

Styles of Yoga
Out of Raja Yoga developed several other styles of Yoga, focusing on aspects of the path to enlightenment, like preparing the body, working with internal energies, etc, like Hatha Yoga, Kriya Yoga, Tantra Yoga, Kundalini Yoga.

Hatha (Ha=Sun, Ta=Moon) is the “forceful” Yoga which uses physical postures, pranayama and cleansing techniques to prepare our bodies for prolonged meditation. It’s main text is the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, which was written sometime in the 15th century and describes physical practices like Asanas (postures), Pranayama (breathing techniques) Bhandas (Energy locks), Mudras (Hand gestures) and Shatkarmas (cleansing practices). It is noteable that the Hatha Yoga Pradipika mainly describes seated postures with only a few additional asanas, so it was still very different to the kind of practice we do today in the West.

Given the aim of Hatha Yoga (and all other forms of Yoga) – to achieve enlightenment – it was practiced mainly by those who really devoted their lives to this goal. They lived in forests and in mountain caves and performed their daily practices as a means to support their long hours of meditation. As ascetic they lived “off the grid” of society, often with long dreadlocks and very simple clothing.

Modern Yoga
This image did not appeal to the British when they began their occupation of Indian in 1773 and they did their best to ban it’s practice and raise a negative image of Yogis. This worked well (supported by wealthier indians) for a while. Yogis were shunned and wandering Yogis were banned in the cities. However near the end of the 18th century the British introduced a new policy in which they encouraged the celebration of indian traditions. This in turn encouraged Indian intellectuals to give some traditions – including Hatha Yoga – a make over. Inspired by western practices like gymnastics and body building, postures were added and combined with more traditional methods and so a new era of Yoga was born.

In 1893 an indian monk – Swami Vivekananda – came to the US and presented Yoga demonstrations to the public, which was probably the first time big western audiences have seen and heard about Hatha Yoga. In the early part of the 1900’s two teachers in particular raised the profile of Hatha Yoga in India and became probably the two most influential Yoga teachers in the world today: Swami Sivananda He later wrote almost 300 books on yoga and related subjects and founded the divine life society. His teachings form the basis of Bihar school of Yoga.

Sri Tirumalai Krishnamacharya
Krishnamacharya (born in 1888) was a brahmin who had studied all six darshanas and was well respected. He learned Yoga from his father and some other teachers until in 1919 he sought out a Yogi called Ramamohana Brahmachari who lived in the himalayan mountains. He spent 7 years with him, intensively studying Yoga Asanas, Pranayama and the Yoga Sutras as well as the Yoga Kuruntha, (a book on that has not been found yet but is said to describe the Vinyasa way of posture practice). As it was custom, at the end of the 7 years, when he finished his studies, his teacher had the right to ask him anything he wanted in return and Krishnamacharya was obliged to give it to him. What Ramamohana Brahmachari had asked of him was that he was to raise a family and become a yoga teacher to spread yoga to the world. So Krishnamacharia eventually married, moved to Mysore and taught Yoga to the Maharaja’s family. As the Maharaja was so impressed with Krishnamacharyas skills, (he felt he had healed him of several conditions) he provided him with premises for a Yoga Shala (Yoga Centre). Four of his students during that time were later to become the most influential teachers of Yoga in the western world: Indra Devi, Desikachar (Krishnamacharyas son), Iyengar and Pattabhi Jois.

Indra Devi
Her real name was Eugenie Peterson, she was originally from Russia but lived in Berlin as a dancer and actress. She traveled to India for acting and dance reasons. Her family was aquainted with the Maharaja of Mysore and it was only because of pressure from the Maharaja that Krishnamacharya reluctantly accepted her as a student (being a western woman was not in her favor in the traditions of that time). Later on she taught in China, the US and in Mexico, spreading Yoga in particular among actresses and celebrities, significantly raising the profile of Yoga in the west.

TKV Desikachar
As Krishnamacharyas son, he studied with him for all his life. Watching his father teaching Yoga in different ways to different people, according to their needs, and seeing the results, he stresses the therapeutic effects of Yoga and teaches, as his father did, a Yoga that can be adapted to each individuals needs.

B.K.S. Iyengar
Iyengar was Krishnamacharyas brother in law. When he was very young he had many health problems, struggled with a lot of illnesses and was generally of a very weak constitution. When he was 15, Krishnamacharya invited him to Mysore to learn Yoga to improve on his health. His health did begin to improve but Iyengar struggled a lot with achieving difficult postures and also seemed to have a difficult relationship with his very strict teacher. Later on he also injured his spine in an accident, making asana practice even harder. His determination to achieve success lead him to spend a lot of time in analysing each posture and finding new ways on how to master them. He used props like bricks, straps, chairs and blocks and was eventually encouraged by Krishnamacharya to teach in his methods to the public. His method became very popular and known as Iyengar Yoga.

Pattabhi Jois
Pattabhi Jois was attracted to Yoga practice from a very early age, when as a child he watched one of Krishnamacharyas Yoga demonstrations. He began to practice daily in secret (as his family were not supportive of Yoga practice) from the age of 12. Eventually, he ran away from home to Mysore where he studied sanskrit and yoga. He studied with Krishnamacharya for a long time and became one of his assistant teachers.

In 1948 he opened the Ashtanga Yoga Research 791tttto learn about Yoga. Later he wrote a book about Yoga which had Pattabhi Jois’s address in it. After the book became known, more westerners began to travel to India to learn Yoga from him and brought it to Europe and America.

His method of teaching is (according to Jois) almost identical to the way he was taught by Krishnamacharya, with only few adaptations. It became known world wide as Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga (or in short referred to as Ashtanga Yoga). If you feel like finding out more about this vast subject, there are some very interesting books I could recommend for you:
“The Heart of Yoga” by Desikachar
“Light on Life” by Iyengar (one of my favorite ever yoga books)
“The Bhagavad Gita” translated by Eknath Easwaran (another favorite)
“Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali” by Iyengar (there are many translations of the
Sutras. I have read 3 and this was my favorite).
“Light on Yoga” by Iyengar (on Yoga posture & practice)
“Yoga Mala” by Pattabhi Jois (a description of the original Ashtanga Yoga Primary
“Guruji: A portrait of Sri K. Pattabhi Jois” by Guy Donahaye (a selection of interview
with Jois’s different students. I found it very interesting to read)
“Health, Healong and Beyond” by Krishnamacharya
“Wholeness or Transcendence?” by Georg Feuerstein
“The Yoga Tradition” by Georg Feuerstein
“The Hatha Yoga Pradipika” by Swami Muktibodhananda

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