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The Beginning

Although Yoga's origin is difficult to pinpoint, evidence links the earliest Yoga tradition back at least 5000 years to the beginning of human civilization.   Scholars believe that Yoga grew out of Stone Age Shamanism.   Much of Hindu ideas, rituals and symbols of today appear to have their roots in shamanistic culture.

Early Yoga sought to transcend the human condition.   The primary goal of shamanism was to heal members of the community and act as religious mediators.   Archaic Yoga was also community oriented, as it attempted to discern the cosmic order through inner vision, then to apply that order to daily living.   Later, Yoga evolved into a more inward experience, and Yogis focused on their individual enlightenment and salvation.

The first archaeological evidence of Yoga's existence is found in stone seals excavated from the Indus valley.   These seals depict figures performing Yoga postures.   These artifacts officially put Yoga on the History books circa 3000 B.C., and more importantly link it to the great Indus-Sarasvati Civilization.

The Indus-Sarasvati was the largest civilization in the ancient world and exceptionally modern for its time.   Named after the two rivers that flowed through India, the Indus-Sarasvati was a maritime society, exporting goods throughout the Middle East and Africa.   They constructed multistory buildings, a sewage system, and laid out geometrical brick roads.


The Vedas

The Indus-Sarasvati civilization also gave birth to the ancient texts known as the Vedas, the oldest scriptures in the world.   The Vedas is a collection of hymns that praises a higher power; it contains the oldest recorded Yogic Teachings and is considered divine revelation.   Thus, the wisdom of the Vedas is known as Vedic or Pre-classical Yoga.   Vedic Yoga is characterized by ritualistic ceremonies from which the Yoga practice that requires Yoga practitioners to transcend the limitations of the mind originated.

Vedic literature is replete with references to prayerful contemplation'; (Brahman), higher vision; (dhi), and; the ideal harmony; (rita).   Vedic people relied on rishis (dedicated Vedic Yogis) to teach them how to live in divine harmony.   Through intensive spiritual practice, rishis were often gifted with visions of the ultimate reality.

Later, texts known as the Brahmanas were written to explain the rituals and the hymns of the Vedas.   The Aranyakas texts followed, detailing rituals for Yogis living in the seclusion of the forest.   This era also served as the beginning of India's medical tradition known as Ayurveda.

Around 1900 B.C., a tectonic shift caused the great Rasvati River to dry up, forcing the exodus of the Indus-Sarasvati civilization southward towards the Ganges River.

Pre-Classical Yoga

Sometime between 1800 and 1500 B.C., Gnostic texts called the Upanishads appeared.   The 200 or so scriptures comprising the Upanishads, explained the transcendental self; (atman) and its relation to the ultimate reality (Brahman).   The Karma doctrine is believed to have originated with the Upanishads as well.   Just as the New Testament rests upon but furthers the Old Testament, so too, the Upanishads further expounds upon the scriptures of the Vedas.   The teaching of the Upanishads dawned the era of Pre-classical Yoga.

Around 1400 B.C., a great sage named Vyasa, categorized the Vedic hymns into the 4 Vedic texts we know today: Rig Veda ("Knowledge of Praise"), Yajur-Veda ("Knowledge of Sacrifice"), Sama-Veda ("Knowledge of Chants"), and Atharva-Veda ("Knowledge of Atharvan").

In 1200 B.C., the great enlightened teacher Rishabha started the tradition known as Jainism which is also dedicated to the liberation of the spirit.   Then in 1000 B.C., a second urbanization began along the banks of the Ganges River (the former Indus-Sarasvati civilization).   Later, in the sixth century B.C., Lord Buddha spread the teaching of Buddhism which stresses the importance of Meditation and ethics over Physical Postures.

Buddhism had some similarities with Hinduism; however, Yoga sages saw the limitations of ignoring the physical purification process.   Siddhartha Gautama who is skilled in Meditation and is one of the first Buddhists who also studied Yoga attained enlightenment at the age of 35.

Today The Bhagavad-Gita has had perhaps, the most profound influence on Hindu culture and philosophy.   This ancient text was written about 500 B.C.   and is the first scripture devoted entirely to Yoga.

The Bhagavad-Gita confirms that Yoga was quite ancient by the time of its writing.   Only 700 verses long, the Gita is a conversation between Prince Arjuna and the God-man Krishna.   The Gita's message is to oppose evil in the world.   The Gita earned its relevance because of its attempt to blend Jnana-Yoga.Bhakati-Yoga and Karma-Yoga together unifying these various Yogic traditions.   Many schools during this era taught ways of reaching deep levels of Meditation in order to surpass the mind and body system to achieve one's true, limitless self.

Buddhism quickly grew, and in 480 B.C.   senior disciples of Buddha systematized the Buddhist teachings.   For the next few hundred years, the canonical scriptures of Buddhism were structured.

In 300 B.C., Jaimini composed the Mimamsa-Sutra, the first authoritative text of Hinduism.   Jaimini is regarded as a disciple of Vyasa.   Soon after this, Emperor Ashoka converted to Buddhism and extensively spread Buddhism.   This was the greatest era of Buddhist influence in India.

Classical Yoga

After the turn of the millennium, the spread of Yoga in its different forms gave rise to the need for standardization.   Thus in the second century C.E., Patanjali composed a seminal text, Yoga-Sutra and defined Classical Yoga.   The 195 aphorisms or sutras that comprise the Yoga Sutra, expound upon Raja-Yoga (the eightfold Yoga path).   The Yoga Sutra is meant to be memorized as a means of internalizing its wisdom.

The Eight Limbs of Classical Yoga are: 1) yama, or restraint, 2) niyama, or observance of purity, tolerance and study, 3) Asana, or Physical Exercises, 4) Pranayama or Breath control, 5) pratyahara, or preparation for Meditation 6) dharana, or concentration, 7) dhyana or Meditation and 8) samadhi or absorption in the sublime.

Patanjali advocates studying the sacred scriptures as part of the Yoga practice, which becomes Classical Yoga's distinct feature.

The real ground breaking characteristic of Yoga-Sutra however, is its precept of philosophical dualism.   Patanjali believed that separation of the matter (prakriti) and spirit (purusha) were necessary to cleanse the spirit to absolute purity.   This is in stark contrast to Pre-classical and Vedic Yoga, which adopts the unification of the body and the spirit.

The teachings of Patanjali represent a departure from traditional non-dualistic Yoga and laid the groundwork for Postclassical Yoga.   For centuries after Patanjali, the dualism of Yoga was predominant.   Yogis focused almost exclusively on Meditation and neglected the Asanas.   They were attempting to exit the mortal coil and merge with the ultimate reality through contemplation.  

But with the advent of alchemy, a precursor to chemistry, the Yoga masters rekindled their belief in the body as a temple.   Contemporary thought shifted to health, longevity and maintenance.   As such, the Yoga masters attempted to demonstrate that new Yoga techniques fundamentally alters the body's biochemistry and makes it immortal.   This led back to the Pre-classical and Vedic Yoga belief about the primacy of the Asana and to the beginning of Postclassical Yoga

Post-Classical Yoga

The era of Postclassical Yoga gave rise to prolific literature, the different branches of Yoga which includes the Hatha and the Tantra, and to many holistic schools for Yoga.   Postclassical Yoga can best be defined as an appreciation of the present moment.   Practitioners no longer aspired to liberation from this reality, rather to accept it and live at the moment.

Modern Yoga arrived in the United States during the late 1800's.   It can be attributed to many gurus, including Swami Vivekanada, and their apostolic works.   Vivekanada was a student of Ramakrishna, and was commissioned by his teacher to attend the Parliament of Religions in Chicago of 1893.   Vivekanada was well accepted and later traveled all around the U.S.   to spread the Yoga tradition.

Another Yoga guru, who is perhaps the most popular, was Swami Paramashansa Yogananda, who founded the Self-Realization Fellowship.   Yogananda wrote Autobiography of a Yogi and his teachings still enjoy immense popularity even today.   Other Yoga gurus include Krishnamurti and Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.   Krishnamurti traveled widely, drawing large crowds and expounded upon Jnana-Yoga.   People will mostly likely remember Maharishi Mahesh Yogi who popularized Transcendental Meditation (TM) in the 60's, because he was associated with the Beatles.

Recent Decades

One of the most prominent Yoga guru is Himalayan Swami Sivananda.   Swami Sivananda served as a doctor in Malaysia and opened schools in America and Europe in the 1960s and 1970s.

Among Sivanandi's works is the modified Five Principles of Yoga:
  1.   proper relaxation (savasana)
  2.   proper exercise (Asanas)
  3.   proper breathing (pranayama)
  4.   proper diet (vegetarian)
  5.   positive thinking and Meditation (dhyana)

He also wrote more than two hundred books about Yoga and Philosophy.   Swami Sivananda is the founder of the International Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Centers through his disciple, Swami Vishnu-devananada.   Swami Vishnu-devananada also wrote the Illustrated book of Yoga.

Swami Sivananda's other notable disciples include: Swami Satchitananda who introduced chanting and Yoga to Woodstock; Swami Sivananada Radha, the woman who explored the connection between psychology and Yoga, and; Yogi Bhajan who started teaching the controversial Kundalini Yoga in the 70's.   He also founded the 3HO organization (Healthy, Happy, Holy) which now has around 200 centers worldwide.

There was also the great Sri Krishnamacharya, who taught Viniyoga Hatha-Yoga.   The Viniyoga tradition is continued by his son, Desikachar.   Desikachar's brother-in-law, B.K.S. Iyengar, also continued teaching Viniyoga Hatha-Yoga and had quite a large number of followers.   Living Yoga masters today include Sathya Sai Baba who has millions of followers and Swami Satyananada, founder of the Bihar School of Yoga.

Yoga is the most diversified physical and spiritual practice in the world.   Crossing over many cultures (including Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and the West), Yoga also extends over multiple languages such as Hindi, Tibetan, Bengali, Sanskrit, Tamil, Prakit, Marathi and Pali.   The Yogic tradition continues to proliferate and spread its message of peace to this very day.

This section was compiled by using books, internet resources and the knowledge of teachers and Yogis.   We have tried to summarize Yoga History, which omits some details.

Despite the fact that thousands of scholars have studied Yoga History, many gaps still exist.   On the true history of the origins of Yoga there is surprisingly little known.