History of Yoga

One of India’s greatest gifts to the world is undoubtedly Yoga, as the need of the day is a society where all are united underlying the principle of ‘Vasudaiva Kutumbakam’   or’ the whole world is one single family’. Yoga helps in developing a universal consciousness to appreciate the fact that we are all connected to each other, are a part of each other and regardless of cultural and natural differences the same life force flows through us all. This shift in consciousness in these troubled times can be achieved through yoga. This desire for universal well being is the root of the practice of yoga. It leads to a journey of transformation and self discovery. The truth seekers of India from time immemorial have used the laboratory of the human self to explore the inner world of consciousness and have left innumerable treasures of wisdom to enable mankind to transform itself and secure peace and happiness which is the goal of all human life. One of these treasures is the Study of Yoga. According to the temperament of the person whether intellectual, devotional or energy conscious, there are different kinds of yoga suiting all temperaments like Jnana Yoga, Bhakti Yoga, Hatha Yoga, Kundalini Yoga etc.

History of Yoga

Yoga is a practice or discipline which originated in Ancient India around 3000 BC to bring about a holistic well being-physical, mental and spiritual well being of an individual by connecting himself with his True Self and attaining peace of mind.

With the discovery of the Indus valley civilisation, it was found that there was nothing primitive about it. The civilisation’s population had multi-storey buildings, brick roads laid out geometrically with the bricks being measured and baked for convenient construction, an unparalleled sewage system until the Roman Empire came into existence, a huge public bath with bitumen used to water proof the walls of the bath etc. The few pieces of art discovered showed exquisite craftsmanship. The city was also a maritime nation and they used the sea to export goods to Mesopotamia and other countries.

In the Mohenjo-daro and Harappa ruins, archaeologists were surprised to find soapstone seals which had depictions resembling yogi-like figures engraved on them. This in turn indicates the maturity and intelligence of the people of the Indus Valley civilisation.

The term yoga is derived from ‘yuj’ to yoke, unite, join, bind or attach. Yoga is found in various religions like Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism. In Hinduism Yoga refers to six Asthika or orthodox schools of Hindu philosophy.

The history of Yoga can be divided broadly into four categories-Vedic Period, Preclassical Yoga, Classical Yoga and Post Classical Yoga.

Vedic Period

Vedas are collection of hymns and it is the basis of modern day Hinduism and its most sacred scripture. The teachings found in the Vedas are generally referred to as Vedic Yoga and they contain the oldest known teachings. To surpass the limitations of the mind, these are characterised by ceremonies and rituals. The rishis or saints performed penances and austerities along with rituals and had the ability to see the Ultimate Reality. These Vedic yogis then taught the people the way to live in Divine harmony.

The Vedas are of four types-The Rig Veda, The Yajur Veda, Sama Veda and the Atharva Veda. The word Veda means knowledge and the term Rig derived from the Sanskrit term ‘Ric’ means praise. Thus the Rig Veda is a collection of hymns in praise of a Divine power. It is considered the fountainhead of Hinduism. The Yajur Veda gives knowledge of Sacrifice and Sacrificial formulas used by the Vedic priests, the Sama Veda gives Knowledge of chants and mantras accompanying these sacrifices, and the Atharva Veda gives knowledge of magical rituals and powerful philosophical hymns. Thus Vedic Yoga comprised of the Rishis focusing their mind for a long period of time on exacting rituals and using the idea of sacrifices and rituals as a means to join the invisible world of spirit with the material world. This one pointed focus internally thus transcending the mind and its limitations is the root of Yoga. Connecting internally to their true Self, they developed their intuitive powers and were able to see the entire fabric of existence which are reflected in their hymns.

Pre Classical Yoga

Until the second century AD for a period of approximately 2000 years is said to cover the Pre classical Yoga period. Philosophical speculations of the yoga began to be expressed in various sacred scriptures like Brahmanas, Aranyakas, Bhagavad Gita, Upanishads and Mahabharata. All these preclassical schools developed various techniques for transcending mental distractions and connecting ultimately with the Divine Source. The Upanishads defined yoga as the control of sensory and mental distractions leading to the path of liberation. Yoga was defined as a clear process and some of the texts defined the ways and means to practice it. The Bhagavad Gita has an entire chapter dedicated to yoga and meditation and explains about Bhakti Yoga (the path of devotion), karma yoga(path of action) and Jnana yoga(path of knowledge). The Shanti parva part of the Mahabharata explained mokshadharma in which terms of Yoga and meditation as defined by Patanjali earlier were present.

Classical Yoga

The period between 200BCE and 500BCE saw the emergence of schools of Buddhism, Jainism and Hinduism and a structured system of yoga began to take form. The Buddhist texts taught the practice of the different states of meditation and yoga to achieve Nirvana or liberation.

Patanjali’s system of Yoga

Patanjali unfolded the Raja Yoga with the ashtanga or eight limbed system of Yoga to achieve enlightenment. Focusing on the mind and its fluctuations and mastering it is the aim of this Yoga. They were made up of around 200 Sutras or aphorisms which were generally cryptic in form and difficult to understand. Sage Vyasa gave his Sanskrit commentaries on them to facilitate better understanding in his Vyasa Bhashya. The eight limbs of this yoga are –

1. Yama- Ethical values like Sathya or truth, Ahimsa or non violence, Aparigraha or non possessiveness, Asteya or non covetousness and Brahmacharya or celibacy.

2. Niyama-To practice Saucha or cleanliness, Tapas or austerities, Santosha or contentment, Svadhyaya or to study the scriptures and Ishvara Pranidhana or to surrender to God.

3. Asana-Practise of the various postures which helps in concentration, focus and discipline.

4. Pranayama- Breath control to control life forces as there is a connection between the breath, mind and emotions.

5. Pratyahara-Withdrawing the sense organs from the external world of objects thus helping to direct attention internally.

6. Dharana- Concentration and one pointed attention.

7. Dhyana-deep and undisturbed meditation.

8. Samadhi-Merging consciousness or the state of ecstasy wherein we realise the oneness of all beings.

Yoga Yajnavalkya

It is a classical treatise in the form of a dialogue between Sage Yajnavalkya and his wife Gargi containing 12 chapters. It provides information on various types of meditation used in the Vedic period and the methods of using the Saguna Brahman (God with Form) to finally reach Nirguna Brahman (God without form). It also explains the concept of Kundalini. It also discusses pranayama as a therapy and its role in Ayurveda.

Yoga In Jainism

According to Jain philosophy the soul is ideally in a pure state but due to impurities of karma of countless lifetimes, the qualities of infinite perception and bliss has been obstructed or defiled. They explain this human predicament and ways to provide solutions for it. The principle of non violence or ahimsa is the most distinctive feature of the Jains religious practice. Their yogic principles are

1. Ahimsa or Non violence.

2. Satya or Truth.

3. Asteya or non covetousness

4. Brahmacharya or celibacy

5. Aparigraha or non possessiveness.

They practise meditation and have strict monastic rules and principles of yoga to follow.

Bhakti Movement

The Middle ages saw the development of the Bhakti Movement with its concept of a personal God. Bhakti Yoga was the union of the Lord and the devotee through Bhakti or one pointed devotion.

Post Classical Yoga

In this period, there was a new section of masters who felt that since the body was the temple of the immortal spirit, methods to keep it healthy and strong, rejuvenate it and improve the quality and length of life was of primary aim which would onward lead to achieving Divine enlightenment. This led to the emergence of the Hatha Yoga and was basically the practice of asanas along with Pranayama or breathing techniques. This is generally referred to as Yoga these days.

Modern Yoga

In the year 1893, in the Parliament of Religions held in Chicago, Swami Vivekananda addressed the gathering and created a huge impact on them. He introduced the American public to Yoga and Vedanta. There have been a number of realised souls from India like Paramahansa Yoganada, Sage Aurobindo, Ramana Maharishi, J.Krishnamurti, Srila Prabhupada, Swami Shivananda etc who have spread different forms of Yoga to millions of seekers worldwide.

The Dalai Lama is one of the greatest Yogis of Tibet and many Westerners are great followers of Tibetan Buddhism.

The greatest exponent of Yoga in recent times is Shri Krishnamacharya whose student BKS Iyengar spread yoga all over the globe.

In modern times Yoga is divided into many types-

1.   Iyengar Yoga

Shri BKS Iyengar learnt yoga from Shri T. Krishnamacharya. He settled down in Pune and decided to simplify Yoga for the masses. His yoga is called ‘Iyengar Yoga’ and it uses chairs, blocks straps, cushions, benches, sand bags and belts as props or aids in performing the various postures. He has trained thousands of teachers and the centre of his yoga institute is located at Pune, Maharashta.

2. Anusara Yoga-The term ‘Anusara’ means going with the flow and its practice is characterised by attitude, action and alignment. It unifies Tantric philosophy with Patanjali’s form of yoga.

3. Restorative Yoga-The main focus is ‘active relaxation’ by performing yoga with the help of props and is a derivative of the Iyengar yoga tradition.

4. Integral Yoga-It was developed by Swami Aurobindo and has as its basis the teachings of Aurobindo which is uniting all parts of one being with the divine. It is metaphysical in nature and

very tough and long drawn.

5. Kripalu Yoga– Its basis is Patanjali Yoga involving three stages, the first stage being body alignment, basic postures and coordination of breath. The second stage involves deep mental concentration to enable prolonged holding of the poses and the third stage involves tuning in to the individual’s internal energy and awareness with a spontaneous moving meditation.

6. Kundalini Yoga-This Yoga is to tap the Kundalini or the untapped energy at the base of the spine and involves intense and deep meditation to awaken all the seven chakras culminating in enlightenment.

7. Vini Yoga-It was developed by Shri T Krishnamacharya, the Guru of BKS Iyengar and is a softer approach to yoga to practice asanas as per individual needs and capacities with emphasis on Pranayama and coordination of movement and breath.

8. Bikram Yoga-It is made up of 26 yoga postures designed to be performed in a particular sequence and has to be practised ideally in a room which is maintained at 40.5C or 105F. Participants need to carry water bottles and towels, hence it is also referred to as ‘hot yoga’.

9. Power Yoga-It is modelled on Patanjali’s ashtanga yoga with a particular breathing technique (whoosh, whoosh) known as Ujjayi. They are fitness based yogas so the individual has to be very fit before he can attempt the twisting and weight bearing moves.

10. Shivananda Yoga-It was devised by Swami Shivananda and consists of pranayama, asanas, relaxing poses, diet, positive thinking and meditation. Surya Namaskar exercises are a must and this yoga is generally said to be easy especially for beginners.

11. Sahaj Yoga-It was invented by Mata Nirmala Devi and the term ’sahaj’ means spontaneous. It is a kundalini form of yoga, balancing of the chakras for a harmonious living and recommends balancing the right and left hand Artery or Nadi or energy pathway.

12. Somantic Yoga-It emphasises on contraction and relaxation of particular muscle groups. The asanas are done very slowly followed by breathing, pranayam and relaxation techniques followed by meditation.

13. Artistic Yoga-It was developed by Bharat Thakur and it includes warm up, stretching and asanas concentrating on the specific body part which requires healing. Its emphasis is on passive stretching with the help of a partner.

14. Hatha Yoga-The traditional Hatha Yoga emphasises on asanas, pranayama and meditation. Its main aim is to balance the different energy flows in the body. It is a holistic path with its basis being the eight limbed path of Patanjali.

15. Natya or dance Yoga-It emphasises on 108 dance steps or karanas along with asanas, pranayama and meditation involving visualisation leading to the internalisation of the dance. It was said to have been practised by Devadasis and is included in Bharatnatyam and Odissi styles. The dancer learns to link the physical, emotional and mental bodies.

16. Anahata Yoga-It focuses on opening of the Anahata Chakra or the heart centre, correcting wrong posture and allowing the life force to flow into the body without obstruction. It includes asanas, postures and short periods of meditation and is said to be gentle and not physical taxing.


Thus Yoga contributes to the general good health and longevity of the individual. It is a science which affects the conscious as well as the subconscious level and lifts man from the mundane to the supra level. It is an embracing way of life which can be practised irrespective of caste, creed, religion or gender. If practised sincerely, it is beneficial to all whether believer or non believer, old or young, ignorant or wise. Its practicality and methodical approach is what makes it appealing to all and its healing powers have made it an important and essential tool for holistic living all over the world. This is India’s lasting contribution to the world.

1.   Wikipedia.com
2.    Swamij.com
3.   Medindia.net
4.   Fitnessforworld.com
5.   Hinduism.about.com
6.   Esamskriti.com
7.   Yogajournal.com