A Brief History of Yoga


Yoga has a long history, it is very ancient. Yoga evolved on the Indian continent over a period of 5000 years. It has its roots in the Hinduism and Brahmanism, yet our contemporary western approach to yoga has little to do with any particular belief or religion. However, it can be said that our contemporary western approach to yoga is only a very small portion of what yoga is all about. Yoga is a deep well of knowledge which helps quell our thirst for the truth. Yoga contains several branches of learning which includes, Hatha Yoga, the physical branch of yoga everyone in the west is most familiar with. Yoga, Harappan Yoga, History of Yoga was developed by ascetics living primarily in the southern portions of India. These ascetics led very disciplined lives, they were vegetarians and they adhered to a nonviolent philosophy. They lived close to the earth, they observed nature, the animals and themselves. The first photo to the right is of Sri Yukteswar, Yogananda's teacher, he was an enlightened master ascetic.

These ascetics would imitate many of the animals they observed, their postures and habits, in order to emulate their strength, grace and wisdom. The ascetics lived in harmony with nature, exhibiting extraordinary health and endurance. Throughout ages, these ascetics or monks would continue to add to their growing body of knowledge about exercise and health as they tried to master their own bodies in an effort to produce the energy for the realization of truth.

The word yoga is derived from Sanskrit, and in it's simplicity means 'to bind together' and 'to reunite'. Over time there has been a steady effort by many great Indian seers to develop and perfect specific techniques with which they could unite the lower mind with the higher mind or with what they called Universal Consciousness. Yoga is India's greatest gifts to the world, and we here in the west have only recently come to know and appreciate its many wonders.

Hinduism developed in India in the same historical period that yoga did and these two rich and profound philosophies have had great influence on each other, so much so, that until the beginning of the twentieth century all yogis were devout Hindu priests.

Then in the early part of the twentieth century, Hindu yoga masters or swamis, Harappan Yoga, History of Yoga traveled to the west in order to share their religious beliefs and practices. Yoga at this point was to undergo another profound change as it's light was about to be filtered through the prism of western existentialism and rational scientific materialism. These teachers brought a new spiritual awareness to the west. To the right is a photo of Yogananda one of the most influencial spiritual masters to come to America .Harappan 
 Yoga, History of Yoga Our modern approaches to yoga have created a clear delineations between the Hindu religion and the practice of yoga. Yoga as it has been developed in the west is largely concerned with the physical exercises and health promoting breathing exercises of yoga, it has moved away from it's original religiosity. Yoga as practiced in the west is largely non-religious because the needs of America's large culture of health and exercise which used it for its own purposes. The most popular forms of yoga being taught today are combinations of yoga exercises and breath control, these practices are known as Hatha Yoga or just Yoga. Many styles of yoga have evolved over the last century, such as, Power Yoga, Bikrams, and Iyengar just to name a few, there are now more that 10 major styles of yoga. These styles all vary in how much they still embody the Hindu faith and it's symbols and ideologies. The styles are also quite different in structure as they range from being quiet, slow, and restorative, to some which offer the most extreme forms of pysical exercise you can find. Yoga, is much more than exercise though, and with time, the deeper aspects of yoga will eventually touch western culture and change it forever, as Yoga itself will change because of western cultural influences.


Yoga was developed in India, it has it's roots may be found in an ancient Indian civilization know as the Harappan, (Ancient Harappan is depicted in this picture to the left).Harappan Yoga, History of Yoga It was located in the Indus Valley of India. The Harappan civilization dates back 5 thousand years, and has only recently been unearthed and archeological evaluated. This culture possed very high levels of technology for it's time, such as, sewer systems, toilets, and indoor pluming, they had sophisticated art, jewelry, and beautiful pottery. They suffered a very rapid demise which began in 1500 B.C.E, this is when the first sign of the word 'yoga' appeared. Their decline was prompted by the invading Aryan barbarians who quickly destroyed the Harappan culture. The barbarians, for all their destructiveness also brought with them, Brahmanism, a complex religious tradition Harappan Yoga, History of Yoga based on sacrifice and ritual, this tradition formed the basis of modern-day Hinduism.

( To the right, is the oldest yoga image ever found, it is 4000 years old, from Harappan)

The sacred scriptures of Brahmanism, known as the Vedas, contain a mixture of incantations and instructions that are written in both poetry and prose. The first three books are, Rig Veda, Sama Veda, Yajur Veda. these were used exclusively by the priestly class of Brahmins; later, a fourth book was developed called 'Atharva Veda' which provided the average person with spells and incantations they could use for everyday life. You can see this Veda in practice in the streets of India today.

The word yoga was first mentioned in the Rig Vada, the oldest of the texts. Here yoga is defined as 'yoking' or 'discipline' but unfortunately the text offers no systematic practice of yoga as yet, though there is archeological evidence of yoga postures on artifacts that are 4000 to 5000 years old. These practices could have existed in the destroyed Harappan culture as a separate body of knowledge but this knowledge was not outlined in this text. The word yoga appears again only later in the �Atharva Veda� where it is again referred to as 'yoking' or 'discipline' but this time it does mention breath control as a vital part of it's practice. The Vratya Kanda introduces a group of men called the vratyas, these were fertility priests who worshipped Rudra, the god of the wind. In their worship they would attempt to imitate the sound of the wind as they sang beautiful songs of devotion. These priests found that they could sing more effectively if they controlled their breathing, and from thier research was born the science of breath control called pranayama.

This then is all we know of the origins of yoga. Roughly 800 years will pass before we receive any more information about the progress of the yoga.

Yoga was more prominently mention in the Upanishads which are the sacred revelations of ancient Hinduism the earliest mention dates back to 800 to 500 B.C.E. In the Upanishads yoga is referred to as a path by which the student could achieve liberation from suffering. Two yoga disciplines gained popularity at this time, one was called karma yoga, the path of action or ritual, and jnana yoga, the path of knowledge or intense study of the scriptures. Both paths were developed to lead the student to liberation from suffering and eventual enlightenment.

The secret teaching contained in the Upanishads differ in important ways from their Vedic parent text. In the Vedas the art of sacrifice consisted of external offerings to the gods in exchange for a peaceful and an abundant life. In the Upanishads karma yoga demanded an internal sacrifice of the ego, and and the lower mind, in order to appease the gods and achieve liberation from suffering. This pursuit turned the practitioners attention onto the qualities of the inner mind. Gurus or priests taught that it was the sacrifice of the ego (not crops or animals) which ensured liberation and freedom from suffering and privation. This idea was a major philosophical turning point in the evolution of yoga

The Indian culture functioned under the province of a very strict caste system, the idea of lower and higher casts or of men and women permeated all they're social and religious beliefs. So in the early development of yoga the caste system played an important role in yogic philosophy. In Karma yoga it was believed that if you preformed good deeds (good deeds were defined by the cultural norms of the times) then you would be reborn into the womb of a woman from a high caste. If you did bad things, you could find yourself in the womb of a woman of low caste or even in a dog or a pig. Reincarnation was and is an important part of Hindu religion, but the concept was deliberately distorted and used to control social behavior. Reincarnation was a concept thata was used to maintain and reinforced a system of social order which has kept the Indian civilization running smoothly to the present day. The idea of castes is so ingrained in the Indian psyche that it persists even in this day of institutional democracy.

The theme of renunciation and sacrifice was inherited by yoga and hinduism from their forbearers the primitive Aryan barbarians. Sacrifice of animals and crops are behaviors you can see practiced in many primitive cultures even in our present day world. This practice was later transferred into the psychological realms, it was transmuted into a more subtle type of internal renunciation and sacrifice which allowed you to offer up the fruits of your actions (karma) and to renounce any actions which may have been fueled by desire or passion. Thus yoga became know as the path of renunciation.

The Maitrayaniya Upanishads

This text dates from the second or third century B.C.E. In this upanishad yoga is defined as a means of binding or controlling the breath and the mind using the syllable Om. This Upanishad states that The oneness of the breath and the mind, and likewise the senses, and the relinquishment of all conditions of existence -- this is designated as yoga. In this text yoga took a giant step forward in that it gave people an actual method or discipline for joining the universal brahman with the hidden Atman within all beings. It prescribed the six fold yoga path which included, breath control (pranayama) , withdrawal of the senses (pratyahara), meditation (dhyana), concentration (dharana), contemplation (tarka), and absorption (samadhi). These are the first vital elements of yoga and they would be expanded later in the second century C.E., in Patanjali's Yoga Sutra.

The Bhagavada Gita

In about the third century A.D. a new text evolved from the Upanishads it was called the Bhagavad Gita this text is the most popular and well loved of all the religious text in India. It provided one of he most comprehensive descriptions of yoga available at the time. It combined the canons of the Mahabharata, which is an India epic tale much like the tales of the greek Odysseys. Complete with moral teachings and an enchanting folk tale, in the form of Lord Krishna who instructs his pupil Arjuna on the ways of the world. The Gita proposed a more simple approach to enlightenment conveyed dramatically through a saga which was much more understandable and interesting to the masses. It proposes a three prong approach to liberation consisting of: karma yoga, the path of service; jnana yoga, the path of wisdom or knowledge; and bhakti yoga, the path of devotion. The Bhagavada Gita was more easily assimilated into everyday Indian culture and is still very popular to this day.


Towards the middle of the pre-classical period, a new school appeared called, which was considered to be a very radical metaphysical school, it was called Samkhya (renunciation). It existed somewhere between 400 and 200 B.C.E. and was begun by a sage named Kapila. Kapila's teachings would eventually lead to more modern yogic world views. What made Kapilas philosophy so radical is that he believed that the visible world was not a manifestation of the Devine. According to Kapila, nature and all that existed within the universe was separate and completely distinct from the universal consciousness, though Kapila did allow the world or visible reality to be effected by the light of universal consciousness (purusha). Suffering, occurred when one became attached to things that were not the self. Samkhya philosophy came to believe that within each being is access to this universal consciousness and so everything else was below or less than universal consciousness This set up a radical dualism similar to what occurred in the west with the birth of science. The Samkhya tradition also created a sophisticated cosmology that explained the difference between the seer (purusha) and that which is seen. As it turns out the Samkhya school eventually failed but later schools did borrow from it�s larger world view.

What got passed on from Samkhyan's school was the idea that there are two separate forms of reality, one called (purusha) and the other called (prakriti). Purusha is all-knowing, without beginning and without ending, it has no features or characteristics and it is thought to exist without motion or form as pure consciousness, and it was considered to be male. Praktriti, on the other hand, was thought to be female and in constant motion, active, distinct, creative and formative, but entirely unconscious. These are the qualities that were assigned to all of nature and the material world. Praktri was the female principle which created everything through the manifestations of her nature. These manifestations of her nature are called gunas.

The Three Gunas

Sattva: The guna of the mind and the cognitive senses (skin, tongue, nose, eyes and ears) The cognitive senses keep us connected to the external world and the mind coordinates all biological and psychic activities.

Rajas: The guna of gross motor responses and physical experience in general. The hands, feet, anus, genitals, and the voice are thought to be the senses of yearning, these would become active when this guna predominated. Rajas make physical experience possible as it controlled the activity of the body.

Tamas: The guna of darkness and inertia, it gives rise to the structure of existence. It activates the potential of the five subtle elements or senses which are, sight, sound, smell, taste and touch.

In the early history of Samkyhan system these gunas were thought to be neutral manifestations pf prakriti: only later did the gunas take on more definite qualities. The idea of gunas was adopted by both the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita, for instance, the Gita began to teach that a sattvic nature was illuminating and immaculate.The Gita saw only one down side to the rattvic energy, that a yogi could easily be distracted by the joyful energy that it produced In the Gita it was thought that being rajasic meant that you would be bound by and attached to action and form. Rajas energy is though to be dynamic and passionate. Later in the Upanishads rajas deteriorated into the idea of greed and lustfulness possessiveness,unbridled passion and a clinging to material things. The Tamas also deteriorated as a concept it eventually became thought of as an obstacle that would bind the yoga to a life of sloth and heedlessness and despondency. Its energy came to be thought of as slow heavy very viscous.

Yoga then borrowed it's dualistic cosmological system from the Samkhya tradition, they began to believe that Prakriti dynamically creates everything material and Purusha passively illuminates it all. This is hauntingly close to the Christian idea that God and Nature are separate and distinct and God is thought to be the male force and nature is thought to be the female force.

Later schools of yoga began to believe that the only way out of this erroneous attachment to objects and desire for sensual gratification was for the yogi or adept to completely renounce the world. The yogi would have to renounce all attachment to (pratriti) or the natural world if he wanted to experience the ultimate state of universal consciousness or (purusha). This again has parallels to western religions where many priests and monks and saints became ascetics who renounced the world in favor of a life of worship, prayer and contemplation.


Patanjali was an Indian philosopher who lived in the second century c.e., he is credited for authoring the first systematic presentation of yoga called the Yoga Sutra, it therefore reverses it's author to be the father of modern yoga. Patanjali succeeded in bringing together all the written and oral knowledge of his time into a collection of 195 sutras (aphorisms or 'terse statements') which included information on everything a yoga teacher needed to teach yoga, from how to conduct oneself in society to final enlightenment.These sutras were meant to assist the guru or teacher in his task of teaching spiritual liberation. Patanjali was a follower of the Samkhya school before him, and so took a dualist view of reality. In his teachings (purusha) was the omnicent, omnipresent, universal consciousness, which made up of countless Atmans, or ascended individuals, who would simply passively watch the cosmos or three dimensional reality unfold before them. (purusha) was for Patanjali, male, formless and un-manifest energy. It was equivalent to the Judeo Christian God who is male and physically un-manifest.( Purusha) attaches to nothing, it is both immobile and pervasive, it sees all and knows all. Again a remarkable similarity to how we in the west have conceived of God.

The female aspect or (Prakriti) according to Patanjali is visible, dynamic, creative, changing and created the manifest world the equivalent of what in the west we call Nature. In the west we consider nature to be a blind force without any consciousness overall nature to the western man is a result of random forces working over a long period of time. Taking the female analogy further Patanjali believed that (prakriti) was completely subservient to (purusha) and was unconscious and sentient.

Nature or (prakriti), according to Patanjali and the Samkhyan philosophy, is made manifest through a subtle interplay among the three gunas, which are the visible aspects of her character. These three gunas were characterized with human emotion and each was seen to be vying for dominance in an individuals psyche.

When the energy of sattva is predominent in the psyche there are feelings are joy and harmony. A predominance of rajas produce passion and desire with feelings of deep yearning. Rajas are primarily responsible for feelings of greed and attachment to worldly things. When Tapas predominate then feelings of sloth or laziness over come the psyche and great despondency is felt, it's energy is slow, thick and heavy.

Patanjali believed, like the Samkhya philosophers before him, that human suffering was the result of becoming attached to external phenomenon. He believed that desire and passion kept mans psyche enslaved and distracted by the phenomenal world and that only by renouncing that world could he ultimately attain enlightenment. Suffering was thought to be produced by the conflict between the gunas within the human psyche. Patanjali believed though that there was a way out of this suffering, that through hard work (karma yoga) and deep meditation (jnana yoga) suffering could be relieved and liberation or enlightenment could take place, Patanjali devised a system called the eight -limbed path of yoga (ashtanga yoga) to bring the gunas back into balance. In his Yoga Sutras presented a version of kriya yoga, kriya yoga is an internal form of karma yoga. That is by perfecting niyamas (self disciplines) of the eight limbed path, particularly the tapas (austerity), svadhyaya (self-study), isvara pranidhana (devotion to the Lord) a yogi could erase samskara (subliminal activators) from his subconscious mind. it was believed that samskara were like karma scares that resulted from good or bad behavior.

Although later Yogis eventually rejected Patanjalis Samkhya dualism entirely they did retain his eight-limbed yoga path. The combination of practices and beliefs associated with them still serve as a blueprint for living in the world and as a means of enlightenment.

Namaste Ava

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