A Brief History of Yoga

By Dr Benjamin Major

So, I’ve seen lots of pictures of very flexible people getting into very difficult postures. Is that yoga?

In the modern world we have a tendency to see yoga as a largely physical practice, which one does to keep fit, build strength, stay healthy, relax or a combination of these things. However, though these certainly can be wonderful and beneficial effects of sustained yoga practice, excessively focusing on such things can actually make us miss the central aim of yoga. Yoga is in fact a mostly internal process. It is the process of cultivating a full and present awareness of reality in which all the energies of the body, senses and mind are brought to a single point of tranquil focus. Over time, many methods were devised to attain such a state. Below you will find a very brief, condensed version of this history.

Pashupati Seal from the Indus Valley

It is possible that people were practicing yoga in some form for hundreds or thousands of years before our earliest written records, and we have archaeological finds in the form of pictures on clay tablets such as the one to the right that have been interpreted as evidence in favour of this. However, this evidence is inconclusive and so we must look to the written records of the Upaniṣads, foundational Vedic texts, composed from about 800 BCE onwards, to find real evidence that people were engaging in the kinds of practices which came to be called yoga. At this time there is no indication that any of the physical postures many people know as yoga today even existed.

Moving further along in time we find the great sage Patañjali, whose birthdate and very existence is contested but who seems to have lived some time around 200 - 500 CE and who was the first known systematiser and compiler of yogic practices. A well-known part of his Yoga Sūtras is his description of the eight aids to yoga, which provides us with a very helpful framework for our yoga practice. But note that, even here, physical postures occupy a very small space and even when they do appear they consist simply of seated postures that enable one’s body to open up to the more introverted practices that follow. Also at around this same time we see the emergence of bhakti and karma yoga, the yoga of devotion, the most well known text of which is the Bhagavad Gītā, an amazing and beautiful text outlining the path of selfless action.

A group of Hatha yogis

In later times, from about 500 to 1200CE, Tantrik yoga added a whole new complex and intricate suite of techniques that could help the seeker to achieve the state of yoga. These included various methods of visualization, mantra, working with the ‘subtle body’ or cakras and kuṇḍalinī energy and bodily postures and mudras. It appears that it was only at this time that standing and inverted postures were added to the yogic repertoire. Next came Haṭha yoga, which is essentially the root of all modern postural yoga. Haṭha was in part an outgrowth of Tantra and it retained many of its practices. These were joined by a proliferation of āsanas (postures) and prāṇāyāma (breathing practices) designed to strengthen and empower the body, and to awaken the kuṇḍalinī . Let us note, then, that even though physical practices were now beginning to increase in importance, they were still performed as an aid to spiritual liberation, the ultimate goal of yoga.

Finally, in the 20th century we see the birth of what has been coined ‘Modern Postural Yoga’. Krishnamacharya is often credited as being the founder of modern yoga in early 1930s Mysore. It seems he and his students drew on Haṭha yoga and Tantra, but also upon harmonic gymnastics and other Western traditions. This probably explains why so many popular modern yoga styles that can be traced back to Krishnamacharya can often feel somewhat gymnastic. This is a far cry from the kind of yoga depicted in the Upaniṣads or Yoga Sūtras. However, it is very important to stress that this fact does not make these styles necessarily unyogic. As we mentioned earlier, the method of yoga requires a point of focus, and it may well be that, for some individuals, such vigorous physical practice may well provide that point of focus, as long as the ultimate aim of yoga is kept in sight and the practice does not descend to the level of mere exercise, which unfortunately ones sees more and more.

Finding Out More

If you want to find out more why not come along to one of our Satsangs where we discuss various aspects of the history and philosophy of yoga, whilst sharing good food, cakes and company? Or why not join one of Ben's courses on yoga history entitled In Search of the Essence of Yoga? Check here for when the next course is running.

Below is a list of further resources for finding out more about the history and philosophy of yoga:

For an academic approach from the perspective of a social anthropologist see The Origins of Yoga and Tantra by Geoffrey Samuel. Be warned though, it can be a rather dry read!

For a comprehensive overview check out The Yoga Tradition or any other work by Georg Feuerstein. Please note, however, Feuerstein subscribes to some questionable theories in my view, in particular with regards to his dating of early yoga history.

Another excellent source for the philosophy and history of yoga, this time with a focus on Tantra, is scholar-practitioner Chistopher Hareesh Wallace. His book entitled Tantra Illuminated is, in my opinion, one of the best out there. His translation of the Recognition Sutras is literally my ‘desert island’ book!

For the history of Hatha Yoga check out the work of the Hatha Yoga Project at SOAS in London. The book Roots of Yoga is a must buy for anyone seriously interested in yoga history, and many more publications, translations of important texts, are set to follow.

For an alternative and more feminist perspective on yoga and Tantra you could try Uma Dinsmore-Tuli who has published an excellent book called Yoni Shakti, a women’s guide to power and freedom through yoga and Tantra.

There are many translations of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras on the market. This one by Edwin Bryant is probably the best out there from a scholarly point of view. This one by Sri Swami Satchidananda is very popular and loved by many people around the world, despite academic shortcomings.

Swami Nishchalananda Saraswati is the director and spiritual head of Mandala Ashram in Wales. He has a deep knowledge of the yoga tradition. Find out about him and his writings at the Mandala Ashram site.

In addition to the above, almost any book published by the Bihar school of yoga is usually full of great insight and wisdom. Most of them are stocked by the Sheffield Satyananda School.

If you can get hold of them, we also highly recommend the set of 6 DVDs by Carlos Pomeda called 'The Wisdom of Yoga'. Although the production values may be low, and the price quite high, the content itself is excellent. These DVDs are full of insights about the historical development of yoga.

Finally, please feel free to ask Ben or Jo about more advice on what to watch or read!