The History of Yoga
History of Yoga is a very debatable topic. It does not provide sound clarity about the idea and at the same time there are so many opinions from different schools of thought. In the modern time we have got specific way to loo at this study which bring some intellectual satisfaction only but the evidence based clarity is still unavailable. Therefore the blog is also filled with elements of unclarity however we have tried out best to keep a balance between the ancient resources and modern sayings. Hope the readers might study it as one of the opinions instead of final conclusion about history of Yoga.
Yoga is believed to have originated with the very dawn of civilization. Its antiquity is untraceable. According to some Yogic lore, God Shiva is the first protagonist of Yoga and the great Guru. Nevertheless, we look into the facts about Yoga in some of the ancient scriptures. For the purpose, we begin with the knowledge of the everlasting presence of Yoga and truth. The great scripture Bhagavad Gita says –
Bhagavad Gita (Chapter 2, Verse 16) –
नासतो विद्यते भावो नाभावो विद्यते सत: |
उभयोरपि दृष्टोऽन्तस्त्वनयोस्तत्त्वदर्शिभि: || 2.16||
nasato vidyate bhavo nabhavo vidyate sataḥ
ubhayorapi dṛiṣhṭo nta stvanayos tattva darshibhih (2.16)
Translation – Of the transient there is no endurance, and of the eternal there is no cessation. This has verily been observed by the seers of the truth, after studying the nature of both.
By the above-mentioned verse, we see that truth/knowledge never gets lost. It is ever present. Hence the life, existence and evolution are a continuous process. It goes through transition but it never gets lost. So is the knowledge of Yoga.
Antiquity of Yoga
With the continuous evolutionary process, knowledge also evolves. At certain stage of life, there is a requirement of specific knowledge for ultimate satisfaction and this is Yoga alone. There is a great controversy about how and when Yoga evolved. Nevertheless, there are some substantial proofs which can form some basis to study history of Yoga. The history of Yoga can conveniently be divided into the following broad categories –
- Pre -Vedic/Ancient Period
- Vedic Period (5000 BC – 7000 Years BC)
- Pre – classical Period (3000 BC – 4000 BC)
- Classical Period (2000 BC)
- Post – classical Period (500 BC – 1700 AD)
- Modern Period (1800 AD)
- Present Period (1970 AD)
1. Pre-Vedic/Ancient Period (First verse of Sanskrit) – Valmiki (an ancient sage) was going to the river Ganges for his daily ablutions. A disciple by the name Bharadwaja was carrying his clothes. On the way, they came across the Tamasa Stream. Looking at the stream, Valmiki said to his disciple, “Look, how clear is this water, like the mind of a good man! I will bathe here today.” When he was looking for a suitable place to step into the stream, he saw a crane couple mating. Valmiki felt very pleased on seeing the happy birds. Suddenly, hit by an arrow, the male bird died on the spot. Filled by grief, its mate screamed in agony and died of shock. Valmiki’s heart melted at this pitiful sight. He looked around to find out who had shot the bird. Nearby, He saw a hunter with a bow and arrows. Valmiki became very angry with him. Suddenly His lips opened and he cried out in Sanskrit –
मा निषाद प्रतिष्ठां त्वमगमः शाश्वतीः समाः।
ma niaada pratiatha tvamagamaḥ sasvatih samah
yat kraunchamithunadekam avadhuḥ kamamohitam
Translation – O Nisada! You will find no rest for the long years of Eternity. For you killed a bird in love and unsuspecting.
Birth of the first Epic of the world – Emerging spontaneously from Valmiki’s rage and grief, this is considered to be the first shloka in Sanskrit literature. Valmiki later composed the entire Ramayana with the blessings of Lord Brahma in the same meter that issued forth from him as the first shloka. The Ramayana is the first poem or Adi Kavya. The verse in Ramayama goes as follows –
इक्ष्वाकु वंश प्रभवो रामो नाम जनैः श्रुतः |
नियत आत्मा महावीर्यो द्युतिमान् धृतिमान् वशी ||1.1.8||
Transliteration – Ikshavaaku vamsha prabhavo raamo naama janaih shrutah |
niyata aatmaa mahaaviiryo dyutimaan dhritimaan vashi || (1.1.8)
Translation – “One emerged from Ikshvaku dynasty and known to people as Rama by his name, and he is conscientious, highly valorous, resplendent, steadfast and a controller of vice and vile and his own senses, as well. (1.1.8)
Another Text Yoga Vashistha – Yoga Vasistha is a philosophical text attributed to Valmiki, although the real author is unknown. The complete text contains over 29,000 verses. The short version of the text is called Laghu Yogavasistha and contains 6,000 verses. The text is structured as a discourse of sage Vashistha to Prince Ram. The text consists of six books.
The 1st book presents Rama’s frustration with the nature of life, human suffering and disdain for the world.
The 2nd describes, through the character of Rama, the desire for liberation and the nature of those who seek such liberation.
The 3rd and 4th books assert that liberation comes through a spiritual life, one that requires self-effort, and present cosmology and metaphysical theories of existence embedded in stories. These two books are known for emphasizing free will and human creative power.
The 5th book discusses meditation and its powers in liberating the individual.
The 6th book describes the state of enlightened and blissful God Ram.
Tantra – During the Pre-Vedic time period Tantra also was a parallel system. According to some legends, several Thousand years ago, on the banks of the lake Kantisarovar in the Himalayas, Adiyogi Shiva poured granted the knowledge to Saptarishis or “seven sages”. The sages brought this Yogic science to different parts of the world, including Asia, the Middle East, Northern Africa and South America. Modern scholars have found so many things like statues which are parallel to those existing in the past across the globe. The conversation between God Shiva and Goddess Parvati mostly form the main works on Tantra. The lineage is that the Tantrik knowledge was revealed to first Goddess Parvati and then to other 7 sages and so on.
Scriptures in Tantra – Agama and Nigama. Agamas are spoken by Shiva to Parvati and Nigamas are spoken by Parvati to Shiva. Shiva, Shakti, Visnu, Surya and Ganesh are the main deities of Tantra. Nigama is also another name of Vedas.
2. Vedic (5000 BC to 7000 BC) – The Sanskrit word Veda means “knowledge”. Vedas are considered the highest order of scriptures. They are the most authoritative. Vedas contains all kinds of knowledges both for material fulfilment and spiritual illumination. The tradition of Vedic knowledge was oral which means it was heard from the knower and by hearted. Later the great Sage Veda Vyasa codified the Vedas into the form of Scriptures. There are four different Vedas. They are –
Rig Veda – It has hymns that are in praise of a higher power/deities.
Yajur Veda – It has knowledge of sacrifice/rituals/yajna
Sama Veda – It has knowledge of chants/songs/music
Atharva Veda – It has knowledge of spells, prayers, charms
These are followed by four Upavedas or sub-Vedas – Ayurveda, Arthaveda, Dhanurveda, and Gandharvaveda. Further down the line are six upangas or components – Shiksha, Kalpa, Vyakarana, Nirukta, Chandas, and Jyotisha. These are further classified into six sub-components – Nyaya, Vaiseshika, Sankhya, Mimansa, Vedanta, and Yoga. The earliest recorded mention of the word ‘Yoga’ is in the ancient Indian text, the Rig Veda – this body of knowledge. In the Atharva Veda, again there is a mention of the importance of the control of breath. It is difficult to pinpoint exact dates because in the beginning, the Vedas were, only, orally passed on from one generation to another. Written records came much later. However, even before this, in the Indus-Saraswati civilization (dating to 2700 BC), several seals and fossils have been found, with figures performing Yoga Sadhana. This suggests that Yoga was known and practiced even in those early stages of civilization. We look at some quotes from the Vedas hereunder –
A. Sa dya no Yoga aa bhuvat sa raye sa puram dhyay
Gamad vaaje bhira sa nah (Riga Samhita 1.5.3, Samveda 184.108.40.206, Atharvaveda 20.69.1)
Meaning – For perfection in Yoga grace of God is essential.
Further in Vedas
B. Hiranyagarbha samvart taagre, bhutasya jaatah patirek aasit
Sah daadhar prithvih dyam ulemam, kasmai devay havisa vidhema (Riga 10.121.1)
Meaning – Hiranyagarbha came first who is the father of all beings. He brought earth and heaven life planes. We worship that God who is beyond expression.
In the Mahabharata, it’s been confirmed that:
C. Samkhasya vakta Kapilah Paramarsi sa uccayate
Hiranya garbha Yogasya prokta Nanya puratanah (12.349.65)
Meaning – Kapil is the great speaker (knower) of Samkhya and Hiranyagarbha is the speaker (knower) of Yoga. There is no more ancient speaker.
“Yoga came from the embryo of Brahma, the Creator, who rose up from the navel of God Vishnu – and none others. Brahma himself came out of Vishnu and hence the first preceptor of Yoga is God Vishnu, who imparted it to Brahma.”
Gita (Chapter 4, Verse – 1.2.3) – These are very important verses to know how ancient Yoga is.
Verse 1 –
sri-bhagavan uvaca –
imam vivasvate yogam proktavan aham avyayam
vivasvan manave praha manur iksvakave ‘bravit
Translation – The Blessed Lord said: I instructed this imperishable science of Yoga to the sun-god Vivasvan and Vivasvan instructed it to Manu; the father of mankind and Manu in turn instructed it to Ikshavaku.
Balmiki Ramayana (Baal Kand – 1.1.8) –
Ikshvaku vandha prabhavo Ramau naam Janaih hrutah, Niyat atma mahaviryo dutimaan dhritimaan vashi ||
Translation – The Ikshvaku dynasty is a dynasty of the rulers of ancient India. They originated from the Suryavanshis. He was the king of ancient Kosala country and his capital was Ayodhya. Many famous rulers of these two dynasties are mentioned in Ramayana and Mahabharata.
In this millennium, the sun-god is known as Vivasvan, the king of the sun, which is the origin of all planets within the solar system.
In the Brahma-samhita it is stated:
yac-caksur esa savita sakala-grahanam
raja samasta-sura-murttir asesa-tejah
yasyajnaya bhramati sambhrta-kalacakro
govindam adi-purusam tam aham bhajami
Translation – “Let me worship,” Lord Brahma said, “the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Govinda (Krishna), who is the original person and under whose order the sun, which is the king of all planets, is assuming immense power and heat. The sun represents the eye of the Lord and traverses its orbit in obedience to His order.”
The sun is the king of the planets, and the sun-god (at present of the name Vivasvan) rules the sun planet, which is controlling all other planets by supplying heat and light. He is rotating under the order of Krishna and Lord Krishna originally made Vivasvan His first disciple to understand the science of Bhagavad-gita.
In the Mahabharata (Santi-parva 348.51-52) we can trace out the history of the Gita as follows:
treta-yugadau ca tato vivasvan manave dadau manus ca loka-bhrty-artham sutayeksvakave dadau iksvakuna ca kathito vyapya lokan avasthitah
Translation – “In the beginning of the Treta Yuga this science of the relationship with the Supreme was delivered by Vivasvan to Manu. Manu, being the father of mankind, gave it to his son Maharaja Iksvaku, the King of this earth planet and forefather of the Raghu dynasty in which Lord Ramachandra appeared. Therefore, Bhagavad Gita existed in the human society from the time of Maharaja Ikshavaku.”
At the present moment, we have just passed through six thousand years of the Kali Yuga, which lasts for 432,000 years. Prior to this was Dvapara Yuga (800,000 years) and before that there was Treta Yuga (1,200,000 years). Thus, some 2,005,000 years ago, Manu spoke the Bhagavad Gita to his disciple and son Maharaja lksvaku, the King of this planet earth. It was retold by Lord Krishna again to Arjuna about five thousand years ago.
Gita Chapter- 4, Verse – 2 –
imam rajarsayo viduh
sa kaleneha mahata
yogo nastah parantapa
Translation – This supreme science was thus received through the chain of disciple succession, and the saintly kings understood it in that way. But in course of time the succession was broken, and therefore the science as it is appears to be lost. Five thousand years ago it was detected by the Lord Himself that the disciple succession was broken, and therefore He declared that the purpose of the Gita appeared to be lost.
Gita Chapter- 4, Verse – 3 –
sa evayam maya te’dya
yogah proktah puratanah
bhakto’si me sakha ceti
rahasyam hyetad uttamam
Translation – That very ancient science of the relationship with the Supreme is today told by Me to you because you are My devotee as well as My friend; therefore, you can understand the transcendental mystery of this science. Lord Krishna confirms that the same eternal Yoga that had become lost and disappeared is being taught again in disciple succession to His friend Arjuna because he is His disciple and qualified to receive this yoga as this Yoga should not be revealed to those who have no faith and are unqualified.
3. Pre – classical Yoga (3000BC to 4000 BC) – The Upanishads took birth in this era. They explain the meaning hidden in the Vedas, elaborating on the workings of the mind and spirit through personal teachings. They espouse meditation and mantra recitation towards the ultimate goal of attaining enlightenment. Out of the 108 Upanishads, there are 20 Yoga Upanishads. These talk about different Yogic techniques, like Pranayama and Pratyahara, breathing exercises, sound, and meditation. Tantra evolved during these times….
Various Upanishads, 6 Darshanas – (Samkhya, Nyaya, Vaishesik, Yoga sutra of Patanjali, Poorva Mimamsa, Uttar Mimamsa) and Tantra flourished and became main practices.
4. Classical Yoga (2000 BC) – Samkhya philosophy and Yoga Sutra dominated still as the main practices. Maharshi Patanjali, considered the Father of Yoga, was the first one to systematize the practices of Yoga. Through his Yoga Sutras, he disseminated the meaning of Yoga, and the knowledge it has to offer. This Yoga was called Raja Yoga. He formulated the Astanga yogaor the eight limbs of Yoga, which included yamas, niyamas, asanas, pranayama, pratyahara, dharana, dhyan, and samadhi. The earliest available Sanskrit commentary on it is the Yoga-Bhāshya (“Speech on Yoga”) attributed to Vyāsa. During the same time period, Lord Mahavira and Lord Buddha emerged and his teachings formed the early basis for Yoga Sadhana. While Lord Mahavira spoke of attaining salvation and freedom through meditation, Lord Buddha spoke of specific postures and meditation to attain enlightenment.
5. Post – classical Yoga (500 BC to 1700 AD) – In this era, many sages and philosophers such as Adi Guru Shankaracharya contributed to the development and continuation of Raja Yoga and Jnana Yoga, adopting and building upon the teachings and techniques of Yoga. With his teachings, and yogic rituals, like the Jnana Yoga, one can achieve Nirvana or liberation. Additionally, meditation was also considered vital to help clear the mind. Tulsidasa, Surdas, Ravidas, Mirabai and Purandaradasa also contributed to the science of Yoga. Hatha Yoga was popularized in this period. Most of the asanas that we practice today are part of Hatha Yoga. It also led to the various branches and schools of Tantra-Yoga, of which Hatha Yoga is just one approach.
Emergence of some greats saints and Yogis during this time period is undermentioned –
Nath Order – The history of order of Nath goes way back to the past. Today it is almost impossible to determine when and how the followers of Gorakshanath appeared. Around 8 to 9 AD it began.
Main Guru in Nath Order – Matsyandranath, Gorakshanath, King Bhartrihari.
Other famous saints – Ramanandacharya, Ramanujacharya, Ballabhacharya, Samartha Ramdas, Kavir Das, Nanak, Narsimha Mehta, Chaitanya Mahaprabhu etc.
The geography of Order of Naths is very wide. We can find its representatives all over India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Burma and Sri-Lanka. The Tradition consists of 12 main directions and lots of smaller ones. The founders of each and every direction were the followers of Gorakshanath or himself. It is interesting that there were members of royal families of Nepal, Bengal and India among the followers and the missionaries. They renounced their titles in order to follow the Yogic Way and to develop the Yogic tradition. Their names are Bhartriharinath, Jalandharanath, Chauranginath and some others. Probably, there is no city in India where a temple of Naths couldn’t be found. The main temple is in Uttar- Pradesh state, in Gorakhpur, the city which got its name after Gorakshanath. During the time of its existence Nath Sampradaya accumulated a significant experience of implementation. All those facts can be found in the texts like – Siddha-Siddhanta-Paddhati, Hatha Yoga Pradipika, Goraksha-vacana-sangraha, Goraksha-upanishad, Yoga Bija, Shiva Samhita, Gheranda Samhita, Yoga Martanda and many others. Some of them are considered to be written by Gorakshanath. The total amount of texts is about 50, all of them are preserved and studied and still remain actual in our daily life.
6. Modern Period (1700 AD to 1900+ AD) – This is the era of Ramkrishna Paramhamsa, Maa Sharada and Swami Vivekananda. The history of modern Yoga is widely known to begin with the Parliament of Religions held in Chicago in 1893. It was at the congress that the great Swami Vivekananda made a huge and lasting impression on the American people and people from all parts of the world. He taught Vedanta and service to humanity as worship of God. After Swami Vivekananda, the most popular teacher was Paramahansa Yogananda, who arrived in America in 1920 who taught Kriya Yoga. Then Swami Rama Tirtha, a former mathematics teacher came to the United States in 1902 and inspired many people with the spirit of Yoga. Following him in 1919, Yogendra Mastamani came to America and demonstrated the power and elegance of Hatha Yoga. Other renowned modern Yogis of Indian origin are Sri Aurobindo (the father of Integral Yoga), Ramana Maharshi (an unparalleled master of Jnana-Yoga), Swami Ramdas (popularized Bhakti Yoga, Mantra Yoga and holy names of God), Swami Nityananda (Kundalini Yogi) and his disciple Swami Muktananda, who attracted attention of international seekers of truth. During 1960s and 1970s, many swamis trained by the great Himalayan master Swami Sivananda opened their schools in Europe and America. Among these disciples of him are Swami Vishnudevananda (author of The Complete Illustrated Book of Yoga), Swami Satchitananda (founder of Integral Yoga), Swami Sivananda Radha (founder of Yasodhara Ashram, Canada), Swami Satyananda (founder of Bihar School of Yoga) and Swami Chidananda (a saintly figure who directed the Sivananda Ashram in Rishikesh, India).
Since the early 1930s until his departure in 1986, Jiddu Krishnamurti delighted thousands of philosophically minded Westerners with his eloquent talks. Among his close circle of friends were Aldous Huxley, Christopher Isherwood, Charles Chaplin and Greta Garbo. Bernard Shaw described Krishnamurti as the most beautiful human being he ever saw.
In the mid-1960s, the Western Yoga movement boosted through Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, particularly because of his association with the world famous Beatles. Maharshi popularized Transcendental Meditation (TM). In 1965, Shrila Prabhupada arrived in New York and founded the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON). In 1969, Yogi Bhajan started teaching Kundalini Yoga to his Western students. In the 1970 and 1980s, Acharya Rajneesh (now known as Osho) taught a very new form of meditation called Dynamic meditation. Through his meditation techniques and speech, he made a very big impact on international people. Sri Krishnamacharya and his two students B.K.S. Iyengar and Patta Bhai Jois taught the Vinyasa system of Hatha Yoga and very physical form of asana practices. Swami Satyananda (a Tantra master who established the well-known Bihar School of Yoga) authored numerous books on practical aspects of Tantra and Yoga. There are also many other great people in Yoga, both famous and hidden, who represent Yoga in one form or another. They are also contributing to the growth and development of Yoga.
7. Present period (1970 AD) – Until around 1970 AD, Yoga was a means of cultivating virtues and spiritual evolution. Later people starting going stray from the spiritual goal and shifted to material fulfilment. Therefore certain aspects of Yoga became popular and were taught for physical health, relaxation and some form of preventive measures. Swami Sivananda was a pioneer to this approach as He wrote books on both levels – spiritual awakening and physical as well as mental health. Later Swami Ram and other Yogis taught Yoga for physical and mental health. In the long run when Yoga reached in the hands of western people, they made Yoga a product. This resulted into the business of Yoga and exercise as the most important part of Yoga. This approach boosted with the approach of B.K.S. Iyengar, Patta Bhai Jois and Vikram who mostly taught Asana and many form of exercise as Yoga. Eventually Yoga emerged as an industry and at present time Yoga is mostly a popular business. Because of this industrial approach, branding of Yoga also started. There are many modern brands of Yoga such as Iyengar Yoga, Ashtanga Yoga. Yin Yoga, Acro Yoga, Aerial Yoga, Hot Yoga, Sup Yoga, Naked Yoga, Flow Yoga and so on. At the present time, there are still some of the authorised institutions, ashrams, Yoga teachers and Yogis who are maintaining the purity of Yoga and its spirit.
Conclusion – The history of Yoga is a very complex topic. No opinion about it can be considered to be the final one. There are many points of view from which we can consider it as a very inspirational topic. Each point of view has its one beauty and truth. We have brought our own understanding based on the facts we have found useful. It has some similarities with other opinions and and some new information. The reader is requested to look at it as one of the many opinions. We hope that the topics on the history of Yoga bring some insight to those who come across this.
With Love and Gratefulness (Founder Rohit Kumar)
Source – Ancient scriptures, internet resources, lectures of Swami Satyananda and personal study.
Hari Om Tat Sat!