Exploring the origin and history of Yoga

A people without the knowledge of their history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots- Marcus Garvey.
So, as a part of the community of Yoga, let us explore the history and origin of Yoga. Although Yoga did not develop into parts or different eras, it is loosely divided into following timelines:

1. Pre-Vedic (5000-3000 BC)
The origin of Yoga is not clear even after a century of research work but it believed to be more than 5000 years old. The earliest proof of Yoga is found in the archaeological diggings of Mohenjo-Daro or what is popularly know as the Indus Valley civilization. Indus valley civilization or Indus- Sarasvati civilization as it is now called is the bronze age civilization that flourished in the regions of what is now the North India and Pakistan on the banks of two rivers, Indus and Saraswati. It was a highly developed and advanced civilization with multi storey buildings, sewage systems, art, culture, trade, baked bricks, and roads. They are believed to be destroyed because of the tectonic events or climate changes that caused the drying up of the Sarasvati river. It was here during the study of this civilization that we found the earliest seal depicting a “Yogi” siting in Padmasana (Image 1). This civilization flourished from 3500 – 1500 BC.

Image 1: A stone seal from the Indus Valley civilization depicting a yogi in padmasana.

2. Vedic (3000-800 BC)
Vedas are the oldest surviving books in the history of mankind. These were initially transmitted orally from a teacher to his disciple and the first written account was only during 3200 BC by a sage named Vyasa. It is here, in this ancient textbook that the word yoga is first mentioned. Even some of the famous chants in yoga today, like the gayatri mantra or the maha mrityunjya mantra are direct verses from the Vedas.
We meditate on the glory of the Creator; who has created the universe; who is worthy of worship; who is embodiment of knowledge and light; who is the remover of all sin and ignorance; May he enlighten our intellect- Rig Veda”

3. Pre-classical (800-250 BC)
Yoga was then slowly refined and developed by Brahmins and seers who documented their practices in Upanishads, a huge work containing over 200 scriptures. One of the most renowned scriptures is the Bhagvad Gita (meaning the song of the absolute) composed around 500 BC. The Bhagavad Gita mentions may forms of yoga: Jnana yoga (path of knowledge), Bhakti yoga (path of devotion), Karma yoga (path of action). During this period yoga was more of a lifestyle than about the postures and breathing that it is today. The original purpose of this Yoga was to connect one’s consciousness to the Supreme consciousness by controlling one’s body, mind and senses

Yoga is a journey of the self, through the self, to the self- Bhagvad Gita”

4. Classical (200 BC- 200 AD)
This label applies to the ashtanga or eight limbed yoga also known as the Raja Yoga and is defined by Patanjali in his Yoga Sutras. It is the first systematic presentation of Yoga where Patanjali organized the practice of yoga into eight limbed paths to reach the goal of samadhi or enlightenment. Hence, Patanjali is considered as the father of Yoga and his yoga sutras influence most modern styles of Yoga.
It is only when the correct practice is followed for a long time, without interruptions and with a quality of positive attitude and eagerness, that it can succeed – Patanjali, Yoga-Sutras”

5. Post Classical (200 AD – 1700 AD)
This is again a very comprehensive category, which refers to all those many types and schools of Yoga that have sprung up in the period after Patanjali’s Yoga-Sutra and that are independent of this seminal work. Because of the Yoga Sutras’ focus on the mind, yogis in the past had not paid as much attention to the physical practice and they were more focused on meditation and contemplation. A few centuries after Patanjali, Yoga took a turn. The new generation of yoga masters began to probe the hidden powers of the human body and developed a system where different exercises, in conjunction with deep breathing and meditation, would help to rejuvenate the physical body, prolong life and achieve transcendence. The human body was regarded as the temple of the immortal soul. The Post-Classical Yoga period brought with it big changes to the Yoga scene. It was during this period that Tantra Yoga and Hatha Yoga were developed. The Hatha Yoga Pradipika is a Sanskrit manual considered to be the most influential surviving text on Hatha Yoga. It was written in the 15th century.

6. Modern (1800 AD -)
The modern phase of Yoga is described as the phase during the 1800s and 1900s when Yoga was introduced to the west and it started to become popular. The first “Yoga influencer” in the west was Swami Vivekananda who earned adoration from Americans because of his electrical speech in Chicago in the Parliament of religions on Hinduism and its tolerance and Universal acceptance in 1983. He later introduced Yoga in a way that separated it from religion to make it attractive to the Christianity practicing Americans.
In his own words “Each soul is potentially divine. The goal is to manifest this Divinity within by controlling nature, external and internal. Do this either by work, or worship, or mental discipline, or philosophy—by one, or more, or all of these—and be free.
Many Indian Yogis travelled to America in 1920s and wrote various books like “An Autobiography of a Yogi” (By Yogananda). During the same period in India the likes of T. Krishnamacharya and Swami Sivananda strongly promoted Hatha Yoga. T. Krishnamacharya opened the first Hatha Yoga school in Mysore in 1924. The practice of Hatha was later popularised by his students B.K.S. Iyengar, T.K.V. Desikachar and Pattabhi Jois and Indira Devi. Indira Devi opened a Yoga school in Hollywood in 1947, which made it more popular.

It is upto us now, the new Yogis and Yoginis to explore and learn from the old texts and scriptures and find our own truth of Yoga through the guidance of old sages and gurus.