The practice of yoga is one that is deeply rooted in ancient history and tradition. People are often surprised to hear that the practice they have come to know and love began thousands of years ago, and was very different from your modern day Vinyasa class.
As a lover of yoga, and a yoga teacher, I believe that a firm understanding of the ancient yoga practice, and how the practice has evolved overtime, is important to learn about because it provides you with a deeper appreciation of yoga. It is also essential for better understanding the practice as a whole.
Below is an outline of the history of yoga and what you need to know about the ancient practice.
Although many yoga timelines won’t begin until the time of The Bhagavad-Gita or Patanajali, yoga was being practiced thousands of years earlier in the Indus Valley, which is where we have the first record of yoga.
It was during this time that the indigenous Dravidians and the Sanskrit speaking Aryans were part of the largest Bronze Age urban civilization known to date. They were known for their bronze seals and images that include depictions of a man sitting in lotus and appearing to meditate, and other common yoga spiritual symbols.
Jump forward a few thousand years and you come to the time of The Vedas. The Vedas, most ancient Hindu text, mentioned yoga by name as well as describing yoga as a way of life. In the Rig Veda, you not only get the first definition of the word yoga, but you also get a blueprint for how to use mantras to evoke happiness, courage, and peace.
Next, on the list of historical yoga texts is the Bhagavad-Gita. The Gita, is commonly assigned as reading in yoga teacher trainings because of its significance to the yoga practice, and its exploration of purpose and the meaning of yoga was a part of the larger Hindu text The Mahabarata.
The Gita, is considered one of the most important texts in the history of yoga and outlines the core principals of yoga, as well as defines different kinds of yoga such as karma, jnana, and bhakti yoga, or the yoga of action, knowledge, and devotion and tells the story of Krishna and his internal struggle to find fulfillment and purpose through yoga.
Yoga Sutras are written by Patanajali that lay out the eight-fold path of yoga. Patanjali is considered the grandfather of yoga. His teachings are the first written record of how to practice yoga, and the specific practices and steps one must take to achieve enlightenment, this is where your common day understanding of yoga as an eight-limbed path begins.
A few centuries after Patanjali, yoga masters continued to practice and moved away from the teachings of The Vedas and developed Tantra yoga. This style of yoga embraces the connection between physical and mental bodies to reach enlightenment.
Yogis during this time practiced this style to help prolong life and cleanse the physical body. This time is significant because of the shift from yoga being mostly mental and emotional, and a journey to mastering the mind to a more physical-based practice.
The Hatha Yoga Pradipika is written which beings to lay out the practice of yoga as you would recognize it with 16 yoga poses, meditation and pranayama techniques. This is the first time that you have poses others than easy seated. This is a text that is still widely studied by yogis and is considered the birth of Hatha yoga.
Yoga comes to America. It is most commonly reported that the late 1800s-1900s is when yoga comes to the West by way of Swami Vivekananda, a Hindu monk, who toured Europe and the United States to spread knowledge of yoga and the sutras.
It was after this that other gurus and teachers from the East began to spread their knowledge, and delight people with their physical practice that yoga truly began to spread to the U.S. This is where you begin to see a rise in Hatha yoga, and practices that are very physical.
By this time the popularity of yoga has spread and by 2011 there are nearly 20 million people practicing yoga in the U.S. It is also during this time that scientific studies about the mental, physical, and emotional benefits of yoga that only propel the practice’s popularity further.
Although today you can find yoga classes almost anywhere you look. It’s important to recognize the rich and ancient history that is behind the practice, and continue to study yoga from the past to enrich and fulfill your practice.
In order to seek deeper meaning and significance on your mats you must also have gratitude for the teachers that have shared and taught yoga for thousands of years and introduced you to the practice you have come to know and love.
If you’re interested in learning more about ancient roots of yoga, then I recommend you dive into the texts above and explore the writings of the ancient teachers to deepen your understanding of yoga.