Yoga is a mystifying tradition from India. It involves physical poses (asanas), breathing exercises (pranayama), philosophy and forms of meditation, which are not only used to reach transcendent states of awareness, but to take care of one’s body and health as well. It holds a special place in the heart and culture of India and is a manifestation of Indian history and beliefs. Unfortunately, the development of yoga began over 5,000 years ago (possibly longer) and much of it’s early history was lost due to oral transmission and the poor writing mechanisms available at the time. Despite it’s early history being shrouded in mystery, there is still much we can learn about this ancient practice.
The history of yoga is often sectioned into four periods, pre-classical, classical, post-classical, and modern.
The earliest mention of Yoga is found in an ancient religious text, the Rig Veda. The Vedas were a collection of religious texts, including songs, mantras, and rituals, to be used by Brahmans, who were local priests of the time. Over time, yoga was developed even further and the Brahmans and seers who were using these practices wrote a further composition known as the Upanishads. The Upanishads contained over 200 various scriptures and further refined the original practices and rituals from the Vedas. The most well-known Yogic text from this time is probably the Bhagavad-Gîtâ, written around 500 B.C, and remains widely read today. It was through these later texts that the practices of awareness, karma, and wisdom were developed.
The pre-classical period was fragmented in nature and consisted of a wide variety of ideas, beliefs, and practices. The people of India were relatively tribal at this time and it was difficult to form any unified systems. The classical period is where Patanjali released his famous sutras which described the ‘eight-limbed path’, which contained direct steps to obtaining enlightenment. This was the first time yogic traditions were formed into a formal system. The yogic traditions of Patanjali consider to have a mesmerizing hold upon yoga and continues to shape it’s formation even in modern times.
Several hundred years later, we reach the post-classical period of Yoga. Many practitioners of this time began to reject Vedic traditions. They became more concerned with fueling the body, and remaining in good health. It was around this time that Tantra Yoga was developed. Tantra Yoga incorporated many unique practices to cleanse the body and mind. It was believed that the body was a tool in and of itself, and could be used to further one’s development along the path to samadhi. This deep connection between body and mind led to Hatha Yoga, which is one of the more popular forms still practiced today, particularly in the West.
Yoga began to travel to the West between the late 1800s and the early 1900s. Yogis began traveling to Europe and America to give talks and introduce people to their culture and way of life. A notable example is when Swami Vivekananda gave talks in 1893 at the Parliament of Religions in Chicago. Other prominent figures such as Swami Sivananda and T. Krishnamacharya also began promoting Hatha Yoga around this time. Sivananda wrote extensively on Yoga and his books formed much of the foundation for modern yoga. In 1924 Krishnamacharya opened the first Hatha Yoga school in Mysore. Some of his students included B.K.S. Iyengar, Pattabhi Jois, and T.K.V. Desikachar.
The development of yoga in the West grew slowly until 1947 when Indra Devi opened a yoga studio in Hollywood. Since then, yoga became quite popular and has remained so since.