Brief history of YOGA

Brief history of YOGA

“A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.” – Marcus Garvey

Many people practice yoga today with little (or no) knowledge of its history. Unfortunately, the westernization of yoga means glossing over the history of different forms and traditions, and the cultural significance of yoga in India.

If we look at yoga within the larger Indian tradition, it’s clear we must familiarize ourselves with the history of yoga and our yoga lineage. As yoga practitioners, if we wish to be an upright tree, we must first establish substantial roots.

A Brief History of Yoga

According to The Yoga Sutras of Patañjali: A New Edition, Translation, and Commentary, the first evidence of yogic activities comes in the form of carved stone tablets. They were found in ruins of the ancient city of Harappa, circa 3000-1900 BCE, in what is now Eastern Pakistan.

The stone tablets from Harappa contain various images, and one image is a subject in a seated meditation posture. This suggests that yogic practices already existed when these tablets were created! As noted in Teaching Yoga, Essential Foundations and Techniques, these tablets come from the Vedic period of India, and are accompanied by the more recent religious texts of the Vedas, circa 1700-1100 BCE.

The Vedas

You may or may not have heard of the Rig Veda. Written entirely in Sanskrit, it’s the largest of several books of hymns that comprise the Vedas, composed in India around 1500 BCE. Other sacred texts, such as the Upanishads, contain explanations of meditative yogic techniques, possibly as early as 900 BCE.

Light on Life: an Introduction to the Astrology of India describes how these disciplines were traditionally taught (and are still taught today). . . through “oral transmission via memorization, prosodic recitation, and discussion.” In this oral tradition, you can really see the importance of a guru/student relationship.

Classical Texts in the History of Yoga

Skipping ahead 500 hundred years in the history of yoga, we come to the Bhagavad Gita. This text documents the conversation between Krishna and Arjuna before an epic battle.

Around 200 CE we have The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, the pivotal text of Dhyana Yoga. Without a qualified teacher to explain them, the Yoga Sutras can be difficult to understand. It’s likely the sutras were composed in accordance with the tradition of a guru guiding a student.

Want to learn more about the Yoga Sutras? Read 20 Yoga Sutras Explained.

The Medieval Roots of Hatha Yoga

More than 1,000 years after the Yoga Sutras comes the Hatha Yoga Pradipika. This 14th century manual by Swatmarama details a handful of Asanas and several Pranayamas, Mudras, and Bandhas – all attributed to primordial guru Sri Adinath.

The Guru/Student Relationship

In the history of yoga, the guru/student relationship cannot be understated. After all, without a guru before you, there can be no students. The direct transmission of knowledge and technique from teacher to student is critical to the history of yoga because:

  • Hatha yoga cannot be learned from books or videos alone
  • Many aspects of yoga are to be accompanied by the guidance of a qualified teacher
  • A book cannot correct your misinterpretation of what is written in it, just as a video cannot correct or assist your posture or technique

A prominent holy text of India, the Bhagavad Gita (400 BCE), is a fantastic example of this relationship. In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna plays the part of guru to his student Arjuna, and guides him through the battlefield of life and spirituality.

A Prominent Guru, Sri T. Krishnamacharya

Sri T. Krishnamacharya (1888-1989) is considered the source of westernized yoga. According to The Power of Ashtanga Yoga, Krishnamacharya spent seven years with his Hatha Yoga guru, Rama Mohan Brahmachari, learning traditional methods of Asana and Pranayama.

His disciples included B.K.S Iyengar, Pattabhi Jois, T. K. V. Desikachar, A. G. Mohan, and Indra Devi.

Paying Homage to the Teacher in Text

You may notice yogic texts with specific dedications at the beginning. Swatmarama pays homage to the teachers and masters who came before him at the beginning of Hatha Yoga Pradipika, laying the groundwork for other modern texts.

Following this example, B.K.S. Iyengar begins Light on Yoga with a dedication to his guru, Krishnamacharya. This dedication is followed by prayers to Patanjali and Adisvara, the first teacher of Hatha Yoga.

Why the History of Yoga Matters

When we take time to know and understand our place within the history of yoga, we appreciate the practice so much more. We explore different types of yoga, their origins, and why one style or teacher might be a better fit than another.

All spiritual traditions evolve to fit the current era over time, but that does not mean we should dismiss the past. We must use the past to better understand the teachings of yoga today.