In honor of International Yoga Day, I am offering you a brief history of Yoga and how it has developed throughout the centuries. Although yoga began as a Hindu practice in India, it is now considered unrelated to any religion in particular. It is thought of as more of a science of overall health and well being that has a spiritual component. Spiritually, Yoga enables you to begin to understand and create deeper connection with the true self, or Atman, with the freedom to embrace any religious or spiritual approach you may follow.  

Yoga may be a relatively new practice and way of life to the Western World, being introduced in the last century by great sages such as Swami Yogananda, Swami Satchitananda, and Swami Vishnu Devananda, but it has been a familiar practice in the East, where it originated. The exact origin of Yoga is still a matter of debate, but many people believe the practice of Yoga began some 5,000 years ago in India. Historians have discovered archaeological proof showing that the teachings and community practices of Shamanism during the Stone Age bear a striking resemblance to Yoga, which would date the practice to 15,000 years ago, maybe more. Some historians claim that the practice developed during the Vedic Period between 500 to 200 B.C.E. when Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism as philosophy and religion were still taking form. Yoga can be found not only in ancient Hindu practice but also in Buddhism.

Yoga is perhaps as ancient as the human desire for peace and wellbeing. The benefits of Yoga have, indeed, given it it’s rightful place in the development of society.  

Four Main Periods In Yoga History

Vedic Period (1500 to 500 B.C.E.) - The earliest known textual reference to yogic teachings was inscribed in the Vedas, the sacred text of Brahmanism, which form the basis of contemporary Hinduism.

The mantras, or individual verses contained in the Rig Veda, the first canonical collection of the Vedas, relate to the earliest Yogic teachings characterized by the performance of ceremonies and rituals in order to exceed the confines of the mind. During this time, the hotar (priest) leads the Vedic people in performing rituals and also teaches them how to live in divine harmony.

It is generally believed that ascetic practices, meditation and bodily poses or postures performed by Vedic priests introduced what we now know as the Yoga practice.

Vedic texts are rich in descriptions of performing contemplation, breathing control, stimulation of vital body energies and specific bodily positions, which may have evolved into the Yogic asana (obtaining certain postures to maintain suppleness, strength and flexibility in the body in order to master the skill of sitting still for extended periods in meditation). The chanting of sacred hymns during Vedic rituals in order to create vibrations or mantras was also realized. These Yogic practices to attain a certain state of body, mind and spirit are considered fundamentally important in being able to obtain self realization or enlightenment. 

Pre-Classical Era (500 to 200 B.C.E.) - The Pre-Classical Era is marked by the emergence of the Upanishads, a collection of 200 texts revealing truths on the nature of ultimate reality and human salvation through a devotion to the unknowable, infinite, eternal Brahman, or, God. The Upanishads is also known as the end of the Vedas.

The Katha Upanishad offers the first known definition of the term “Yoga,” which is said to be the exercise of control over the senses, including ending mental activity, to reach a supreme state of being or the transcendental Self.

Other Upanishads, meanwhile, refer to Yogic teachings of meditation, the five vital energies (prana), the relationship between thought and breath, control of mind, breath channels, Om meditation and the hierarchies of chakras. For this reason, the Upanishads are considered to be the earliest text outlining the fundamental principles and techniques of Yoga.

Several hundreds of years later, the Bhagavad Gita, a 700-verse Hindu scripture, was written as part of the epic Mahabharata. The Bhagavad Gita is known as the oldest written scripture entirely dedicated to the practice of Yoga. Written as a conversation between the God-man Krisna and Prince Arjuna, the verses describe traditional Yoga practice and the essence of Yoga as a way of life.

The Bhagavad Gita built on the yoga teachings of the Vedas and the Upanishads and introduced the unity of three practices that must be integrated in daily life:

Bhakti Yoga: (devotional practice based on emotional connection and unconditional love for God)

Jnana Yoga: (focusing on an intellectual mental understanding and knowledge of the sacred scriptures and yoga practices to become closer to realization)

Karma Yoga: (selfless service or the giving of one’s time with no thought of what one gets in return)

Classical Period (200 B.C.E to 500 C.E.) - This period in yoga’s history is marked by the creation of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali in the second century. The text is an attempt to outline a standardized and formal teaching of Classical Yoga.

Patanjali believed that each human being is composed of two elements, matter (prakriti) and spirit (purusha), which must be separated to purify the spirit, a belief that diverges from Vedic and Pre-Classical Yoga’s teachings on the unity of body and spirit. 

The Yoga Sutras - The Yoga Sutras are composed of 195 aphorisms (sutras) and outlines Patanjali’s Eight Limbs of Yoga which are called Ashtanga Yoga. These are: 

1. Yamas – Abstaining from violence, lying, stealing, sexual indecency and possessiveness 

2. Niyamas – Personal observance of purity, contentment, austerity, study and surrender to God 

3.   Asanas – Keeping to a seated position in meditation and performing physical exercises

4.   Pranayama – Suspending breath and controlling the life force

5.   Pratyahara – Withdrawal of senses

6.   Dharana – Strong concentration

7.   Dhyana –  Meditation

8.   Samadhi– Liberation and realization of Union with all

9.   Patanjali’s Eight Limbs will form the basis of what is now known as Ashtanga Yoga and Raja Yoga. 

Post-Classical Period (500 C.E. to the present) - This period in Yoga history saw the development of several schools of Yoga which were based on earlier teachings but also integrated unique practices that cater to specific periods and milieu. During this period, however, Yoga schools taught both liberation from suffering but also how to embrace life and live freely.

In the centuries immediately following the Classic Period, various yoga traditions and schools emerged following both Hindu and Buddhist strands of Yoga, such as the Bhakti, Vajrayana or Tantric and Hatha Yoga.

It was not until the 20th century when Yoga was brought to the West initially as a subsection of the study of Eastern Philosophy. In the 1930s, yoga was introduced as a social practice, particularly as a movement for healthy lifestyle and vegetarianism. Beginning in the 1960s, however, yoga was introduced by expatriates and yoga gurus from India as a practice of meditation, exercise and breathing techniques and has since gained a steady stream of followers in the West. Among the most prominent Western Yoga schools are, the Sivananda Yoga Organization, Bhajan’s Kundalini Yoga, Satchitananada’s Integral Yoga and Maharishi Mahesh’s Transcendental Meditation. Several other schools of Yoga, each offering specific techniques and goals, have gained equal or even greater popularity in the West and throughout the world.

The proven benefits of Yoga have indeed helped this ancient practice grow in popularity in leaps and bounds especially in today’s society where hazardous lifestyles and stress levels are hitting the roof. Yoga Journal’s latest Yoga in America Survey shows that 8.7 percent of Americans are practicing Yoga- that’s 20.4 million Americans, up from 15.8 in 2004. Yoga is no longer considered esoteric or strange by Western culture. In this survey, even 44 percent of those who don’t currently practice Yoga said they aspire to begin a practice. More and more people are striving to breathe, strike a pose, contemplate and feel balanced. And Yoga is simply making that a reality.