History of yoga: origin and tradition

Do you know about the history of yoga? From its Eastern origins in the Indus Valley, the teachings of yoga have travelled far and wide, and have achieved transnational and transcultural acceptance throughout the world. However, this sacred practice has gone through quite a few transformations. It is quite possible that the yoga we know, love and practice today is not even real yoga, but rather an auxiliary practice that has been redesigned, repackaged and redistributed to satisfy all.

Origin of the word “yoga”

Even though there seem to be more styles, schools and methods for yoga than real yogis, Patanjali’s classical definition of yoga from the 4th-5th century CE remains at the core of all: to control the mind and its ever-changing states. The word yoga stems from the Sanskrit word ‘yuj’, which means “to join”, or union, referring to the merging of the two selves: the individual and supreme. You become a true yogi when you learn how to balance your mind and body to better deal with problems and shortcomings life always throws your way.

The first written use of the word yoga can be traced to the Rig Veda, one of the oldest sacred texts, which were a collection of writings that included rituals, mantras and songs for the Brahmans, the Vedic priests. In these ancient texts, yoga was often portrayed as the death of a warrior who would ascend towards higher powers in heaven in his chariot.

Yoga birth

The history of yoga is thought to have started way before organized religions and belief systems, alongside the beginning of civilization, around 3300-1500 BCE. Back then, the spiritual element of yoga was very important and was usually practiced under the tutelage of a guru. 

Shiva is considered to have been the first yogi and guru who, according to yogic lore, passed on his knowledge into the Saptarishis, or “seven sages”, who were in charge of spreading his teachings throughout the world.

According to some authors and scholars, however, modern yoga, which tends to focus more on yoga asana, or posture execution, may actually be just a century old invention.

History of yoga along the years 

There is still historical debate and speculation as to yoga’s first official manifestation. According to lore, it was Agastya, one of the travelling sages, who was responsible for making the yogic system achieve its fullest potential in India by cultivating it as a way of life. Yet it was Maharshi Patanjali who figured out how to systemize and codify the existing meaning, practices, and related knowledge of yoga through the Yoga Sutras, after which many erudites, including Mahavir and Buddha, were able to contribute to the development and preservation of yoga through their detailed logs and records of their literature and practices, such as the Five Great Vows (Pancha Mahavrata) and the Eightfold Path (Ashta Magga).

The history of yoga seems to diverge from its basic structure once it is exported to the West during late 19th century, where it receives widespread acceptance in the East Coast of the United States. One of the first yogis to cross the ocean was English-educated Swami Vivekananda, who openly rejected asana because of its association with the low caste yogins, who would practice these postures on the streets for money. Vivekananda chose to focus mostly on pranayama (breathing), positive thinking and meditation.

Fueled by an unprecedented interest in physical culture in the 1920s in India, which seems to be closely linked to its national struggle for independence from Britain, asana rapidly found its way to permeate Eastern conceptions of yoga. This “new yoga” was a blend of asanas, European naturopathy and gymnastics, and was actually part of a hidden agenda to train potential revolutionaries for an uprising against Britain. Backed up by the Indian government, these new concepts quickly spread, and the previously shunned asanas popularized and gained wide acceptance. Some teachers like Tiruka (Raghavendra Rao) would disguise themselves as yogis to teach combat and strengthening techniques while avoiding the scrutinizing eyes of British authorities. 

Soon after, postural yoga was shipped to the West, reaching the shores of the United States and successfully finds great acceptance for its attention on physical wellbeing. Since then, asana has become the base and main focus of most yoga practices we know today.

Yoga nowadays

Although it has been tremendously successful in infiltrating the United States of America, this Westernized yoga is a far cry from its ancient, esoteric predecessor. Ironically, if you go to India today, it is very likely that you will find a yoga that is oriented towards a Western audience. 

The speed in which yoga has grown and churned out a $10 billion dollar industry was probably unexpected or even unintended, but it has raised a lot of legal and political debates regarding cultural and religious appropriation through its Westernization. 

The first International Yoga Day was celebrated for the first time on June 21, 2015. Led by Narendra Mondri, the Indian Prime Minister, who has taken great interest in the yogic discourses, aims to promote and position yoga as the sacred Hindu and Indian yoga tradition it has been known for.

Wanting to achieve a state of nirvana is a worthy goal, but the path to becoming a yogi is quite difficult. To gain mastery of ones impulses, thoughts and behaviors takes discipline, time, patience, and perseverance (and certainly less selfies). 

The true yogis tend to choose anonymity, always crediting their predecessors for their wisdom. So although that hot yoga class makes you sweat, improve your flexibility and your social media feeds (and hopefully your eating habits as well), it is highly likely that your teacher is not a real yogi and your practice is not really yoga but rather a workout tailored to satisfy physical fitness needs.

If you enjoyed this article, you should read Benefits of meditation.