The History of Yoga in India

It’s generally agreed that there are three main periods of yoga dissemination.

1. Prehistoric: The teachings were handed down from master to student orally, with no written record. These teachings were supposedly passed on by gurus who lived in forest hermitages
2. Historic: The practice of passing on teachings from gurus to disciples continued in forest retreats, but with a mixture of oral and written traditions
3. Modern: Bringing together of teachings from many sources, frequently making use of written sources without the need for a teacher to instruct students.

The Beginnings of Yoga
The beginnings of Yoga are shrouded in the mists of time. What’s not in doubt is the fact that yoga has been in existence for at least 2,500 years, but many experts also believe that it’s more likely to be around 5,000 or even 10,000 years. One of the difficulties with attempting to date the first awakenings of the yoga movement is that in the early days it was an oral tradition, passed down from teacher to student. Eventually, the theories and practices began to be recorded, but initially this was on fragile palm leaves, which have not stood the test of time. Only in later years were more permanent ways found to record the important aspects of this ancient practice.

The Main Periods of Yoga Development

Yoga historians generally recognise four main periods in the worldwide development of yoga.

The Pre-Classical period (over 5,000 years ago)

The supposed initial days of yoga development encompass the era of oral tradition and some the earliest known written texts that mentioned yoga.

The Pre-Vedic Era (before c3,000 BCE) 

So called because it pre-dates the first written texts called ‘Vedas’ . The Pre-Vedic era has its roots with the Indus-Sarasvati people of the Indus valley in northern India. This period of yoga history is also referred to as being in the ‘Indic’ tradition. Archaeologists have found evidence from this time, including statues and artwork, that appear to show the god Shiva adopting bodily poses that seems yogic in nature. These poses could be showing Shiva in meditation and using some asana poses.

The Vedic Era (c2,000 BCE)

The later stages of the Vedic era sees the first signs of yoga development as it began to be more disseminated and started to adopt a wider significance within the general population. However, researchers are still unsure as to whether yoga evolved really inside the Vedic culture or if it evolved prior to this time period. The following facts are significant;

1. It is known that the group, the Indo-Aryas , inhabited the Indus Valley at the time Yoga began to be more widely known.
2. it is not known if this group was originally from the Indian subcontinent or indo-european intruders.
3. If the Indo-Aryans were originally from the Indian subcontinent, Yoga could have evolved inside this culture and also in tension to the Vedic dominant religiosity*
4. If the Indo-Aryans were intruders, Yoga could be pre-vedic and part of a culture that declined around the same time Indo-Aryans arrived. If that is the case, the late dissemination of Yoga in the Vedic era would be the result of intertwined cultures and beliefs.

*It is important to note that the dominant religious expression in the early Vedics is believed to have a quite different (or opposite!)  focus than the one present in the Yoga tradition. In the first, rituals were done in pursue of worldly boons, as the indologist Edward F. Bryant describes it. “In Yoga, on the other hand, the focus relies on what is called the ultimate Reality, or, on a quest that requests followers to let go of any worldly boons search“.

In any case, as time went on, beliefs and practices began to be recorded, forming the very earliest sacred texts. These texts included meditations, songs, mantras and rituals, which were used by the Vedic priests (Brahmans), and the mystic seers (Rishis). Eventually, this body of texts and time itself led to the writing of the Upanishads at around 10b.c.e, a great  compilation of texts. The late upanishads would express a great change in focus: the rituals and the early vedic religiosity would be seen as a “lower religious expression” whereas the interest on knowing the ultimate reality (Yoga’s focus) would be more valued.

But, let’s understand a little more about the Vedas.

Veda texts (The Vedas)

Initially the Vedas (hymns) of the Rishis were passed on orally, from master to student, but in time these spiritual songs began to be recorded in written form, resulting in the very first efforts at formalising the previous oral practices. It’s interesting to know that the word yoga is mentioned in the earliest text, called Rg Veda.
As previously stated, the early Vedic culture focused on a large array of rituals and sacrifices performed for a great variety of Gods (generally related to forces of nature) in pursuit of prosperity, protection, etc. The early Vedas (text) thus expresses the dominant religion and its cultural perspectives through a compilation of texts that describes – though not definitively – rituals of chanting, magic and sacrificial formulas, prayers and melodies.
It is during this period that the term ‘yoga’ is first used, mostly when referring to Homas (fire ceremonies).
These Vedas were compiled by Ved Vyasa, who also wrote the Mahabharatha. There are four volumes: the Sama Veda, the Yajur Veda and the Atharva Veda, and the most famous of them all, the Rig Vida. Yoga as we know nowadays

Bhagavad-Gita Text (500 BCE)

The Mahabharatha (indian epic), its famous chapter (Bhagavad-Gita) and the late Upanishads as we stated before represent a clear change of focus from the sacrificial rites in persue of worldly gains predominant in the early vedic era to the understanding of the ultimate reality, of Bhraman. It is important to understand that this change echoes the development of yoga itself.
The Mahabharatha contains many sections and the Baghavad-Gîtâ (chapter of Mahabharata) is widely viewed as the sacred scripture of Hinduism. The text is also considered to be a corner stone in the yoga tradition – each of the 18 chapter titles contains the term ‘yoga’ . However, these yogas  don’t resemble the yoga practice prevalent in the west today as these paths do not focus on manipulating the body or breath as a way to experience the ultimate reality.

The Upanishads (800-300 BCE)

The Upanishads consist of around 200 separate texts that cover many aspects of the yogic way of life, including internal sacrifice of the ego by way of self-knowledge, action (karma yoga), and wisdom (jnana yoga). The name Upanishad derives from the practice of ‘sitting down near’ a teacher to receive wisdom and instruction. It implies the handing on of secret and holy teachings in a relationship of mutual trust, and respect of the student for the master.
The Upanishads are renowned as being mysterious and difficult to understand, emphasising the crucial concept of needing a master or guru to lead the student to a clear understanding of the important aspects of yoga.
The teachers who compiled the Upanishads placed great emphasis on the practice of meditation as the principle means of gaining transcendental knowledge. They gave voice to the idea, already well-established within the Vedic tradition, of a supreme Being overseeing the perpetually changing universe.
Again, the word ‘yoga’ makes some appearance in the Upanishads. It is possible to identify references to Yoga as a technique for realizing Brahman, the underlying reality. Yoga in this context refers to a varied set of techniques that may better fall into the category of meditations.This is still quite far from the modern western phenomena that places Yoga as a technique that predominantly manipulates the body.

The word yoga appears only in four of the early principal texts: the Taittiriya, Katha, Svetasvatara and Maitri.

For example:

Taittiriya Upanishad (c700 BCE)
Attributed to the master Titteri (meaning ‘partridge), this volume is one of the earliest Upanishads, and is renowned for its archaic style. It’s also considered difficult to access.
The word ‘yoga’ appears in the second of three Valli (chapters), in which each maya is depicted as a bird with a body, tail, wings and head. Its description of the Vijnanamaya attributes the characteristics of Sraddha (faith & trust), to the head and Mahat (the great beyond from which we have emerged), to the tail. The right wing is said to embody Rtam (absolute truth), and the left wing Satyam (how that truth is expressed).

Svetasvatara Upanishad (c500-400 BCE)
The Svetasvatara focuses on practical advice about the practice of yoga, including aspects such as how to find a suitable place to practise, advice about correct breathing, and which postures should be adopted. It also covers elements such as events which may occur when practising, how yoga brings great physical benefits, and how it ultimately allows freedom from the constraints of the physical world.

The Classical Period (200-400 CE)

The Classical period of yoga saw the rise of one of its most important figures: Patanjali.

This famous guru gained a significant influence over the development of yoga which has continued to this day. But surprisingly, little is known about his actual life and who he really was. No-one is even sure when he actually lived – probable dates range between the 5th and 2nd century BCE.
However, Patanjali is considered to be the ‘father of modern yoga’ because he drew together huge numbers of texts and sources into his iconic Yoga Sûtras, which lies at the heart of much yoga teaching and practice in modern times.
The term ‘sutra’ is a Sanskrit word meaning ‘thread’. Indian philosophers view a sutra as similar to a modern proverb or saying, where a simple phrase can contain a whole wealth of meaning.

Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras

Patanjali’s Yoga Sûtras outline an 8-limbed path towards Samadhi (enlightenment), encompassing much of the thought and teaching from previous works such as the Upanishads and the Bhagavad-Gîtâ. This ancient treatise on Indic philosophy is now viewed as the corner stone for the classical Yoga school of Indian philosophy. It is interesting to note that his Sutras focus on the psychological techniques and mechanisms surrounding the experience of the ultimate reality while the asanas (the postures) itself were mentioned only in three sutras. The word asana in those sutras are not associated with stretching techniques nor body manipulations as we understand it today: it mainly addresses the sitting posture.
The Yoga Sûtras were intended to be a definitive guide to the practice of yoga, and indeed they are still viewed as being the lynchpin of yogic philosophy and non postural practice today.

Post-Classical Yoga (400-1873)

As time went on, and yoga entered the post-classical phase, a greater emphasis came to be placed on the physical aspects of yoga.  However,  the focus on yoga’s  ability to rejuvenate the body,  contribute to a healthier life and be a complementary therapy came quite later (in the beginning of the 20th century). The post-classical yoga era saw the rise in popularity of Tantra Yoga. This branch of yoga was crucial to the development of modern yoga. Tantra Yoga practice stresses the importance of cleansing the mind and the body along with different practices to widen the consciousness  and go beyond social or individual tabus.

Matsyendranath and The Tantra Movement

The yogi guru Matsyendranath epitomised an approach which echoed the tantric movement. His school of Nath placed the spotlight firmly on the physical aspects of yoga. He believed that learning to control the mind was simply too difficult without first addressing the physical, so practices that focused on achieving a pure, clean and balanced body took precedence. Only when the body was properly balanced could we begin to achieve a balanced mind, and so achieve Samadhi. The asanas (yoga poses) along with breathing techniques (pranayama) became the principle focus rather than practices that directly addressed the mind e.g. meditation.
The great use of the manipulation of the body along with the breath and varied postures as techniques for realizing the ultimate reality arose along with the Tantric movement and its exploration of the relationship between the physical and the spiritual . Between the 10th and the late 17th century, scriptures connected to what we now call Hatha Yoga began to appear. The first set of these scriptures openly described the system and the techniques connected to Hatha Yoga.
All of these scriptures echoed the Tantric movement, for example; Goraksha Shataka (around the 10th century),Hatha Pradipika (around the 14th century) , Shiva Samhita (from the 15th to the 17th century) and Gheranda Samhita (late 17th century).
A couple of centuries later, in the modern era, the practice in persuit of enlightnment, ultimate freedom or realizing Brahman (or Shiva), would fall out of favour, and the emphasis, would shift firmly to the physical (at least, mostly in the west)

Swami Swatmarama and Hatha Pradipika.
Swami Swatmarama wrote the Hatha Yoga Pradipika (around 14th ce), a defining work that explained great varieties of the Hatha Yoga’s technique. These teachings focus on manipulating the body and breath through asanas, pranayama (breathing techniques) and other techniques . Hatha yoga takes the view that mental and spiritual enlightenment can not be achieved until the nadis (body’s energy channels ) were balanced and the main nadi (susumna nadi) was opened by a special energy that lies in the pelvic area (kundalini, our mother energy). Only once that had been achieved could the student achieve enlightenment.

The Modern Era (1873 – present day)

Yoga started to be widely valued due to the nationalist indian movement  as a way to build up pride and a national cultural identity (as a response to the British occupation). Institutions, powerful families and activists in India actively promoted Yoga till India became independent in 1947.

It is in great part due to the nationalist movement and the revival of Yoga that in the late 19th and early 20th century, yoga began to move out of its traditional stronghold in the east and migrate to the west. Several yogic teachers visited the west, sharing their ideas and practices, which fascinated many who heard them. These so-called ‘export yogis’ began to achieve significant interest and fame.

The defining moment that started this movement can be traced to a visit by Swami Vivekananda  to the US. It’s interesting to note that the Swami was also strongly connected to the indian nationalist movement. On September, 11 of 1893, he addressed the World Parliament of Religions and this brought yoga to the attentions of thousands in the US and beyond.


Swami Vivekananda (1863 – 1902)

Swami Vivekananda was born in India and studied yoga with the teacher Ramakrishna, taking on the mantle of teacher to his disciples after Ramakrishna’s death in 1885. He founded his own monastery, known as the ‘Ramakrishna Math at Baranagar, and took his formal vows as a monk in 1886. In 1888, he decided to leave his monastery and live as a wandering monk with no fixed dwelling, and for the next five years travelled India. He relied solely on the charity of others to support him, gradually increasing his reputation as time went on. Finally, in 1893, he set sail for the west.
He toured extensively on this journey, visiting countries such as Japan, China and Canada, before finally arriving in the US. Whilst there, he was invited to speak at the World Parliament of Religions by Professor John Henry Wright of Harvard University, and caused something of a sensation at the conference, receiving standing ovations and much praise. This occasions is generally agreed to be the first significant introduction of yoga to the west.
Vivekananda continued to enjoy great popularity, travelling widely and becoming extremely well-known. However, it’s important to point out that he rejected the perspective of Hatha Yoga, and especially its emphasis on the asanas, a view that was further endorsed by other yoga teachers who visited the west from India. Instead he embraced the idea of Jnâna-Yoga (the Yoga of discernment or knowledge)

The 1920s and 1930s

Nationalists and teachers in India still continued to promote Yoga, and over time Hatha Yoga schools were established in India. Ideas around the significance of the asanas and breathing techniques as the route to enlightenment developed, and eventually teachers from India began to promote this as the most important of English-language yogas in the west.

Some Influential Yoga Swamis and Yoga Teachers in the Modern Era (1873 – Present)

After Vivekananda, several other important yoga gurus rose to prominence, each with their own perspective about yoga and each attracting their own cohort of followers.

Swami Rama Tirtha (1873-1906)

Born in the Punjab area of Pakistan, Rama Tirtha was brought up by an elder brother when his mother died a few days after he was born. He gained a maths degree from the Government College of Lahore and became a maths teacher, but after meeting with Vivekananda in 1897, he made the momentous decision to leave his wife, children and career to follow spiritual pursuits.
In 1902 he went to the US, where he travelled and lectured about spiritual matters for two years, as well as founding a retreat centre at Mount Shasta in California. He spoke out strongly against issues such as the caste system, and promoted causes like education for women. Believing strongly in the importance of education for the young, he founded an organisation to support Indian students in American universities, together with several scholarships for this cause.
After two years in the US, Rama Tirtha returned to India, where he was widely venerate, and drew large crowds wherever he spoke, But in 1906, he withdrew from public life, retreating to the foothills of the Himalayas, where he devoted his time to writing a book. However, this book was never finished. Mystery surrounds his death at the young age of 33. He drowned in the River Ganges in 1906 – some believe he may have ‘given his body to the Ganges’.
But his writings live on. Some of Rama Tirtha’s speeches have been collected into a 5-volume work ‘In Woods of God-Realization’, which still give inspiration to many today. Paramahansa Yogananda translated many of his poems from Bengali into English, even setting some of them to music. And his ashram still remains at Uttarakhand in India.

Paramahansa Yogananda (1893-1952)

Paramahansa Yogananda is probably the most popular western yoga master after Vivekananda. He was born into a devout family in Uttar Pradesh, India, and showed an early interest in spiritual matters, displaying a keenness and understanding well beyond his years. Even as a youth, he spent time seeking out spiritual leaders to guide him, settling on Swami Yukteswar when he was 17 years old. He was well educated, gaining a degree, but his interest in spiritual matters never waned, and he became a monk in 1915. In 1917 he founded a school for boys, which combined standard educational subjects with yoga teaching.
In 1920, Yogananda travelled to the USA, representing India at the Congress of Religious Liberals in Boston. While there, he founded the Self-Realization Fellowship to disseminate his beliefs and ideas about yoga. He remained in the US for several years, initially teaching mainly on the east coast, but eventually travelling widely across the continent. Thousands came to hear him speak, and he attracted many celebrity followers, including the tenor Vladimir Rosing and Mark Twain’s daughter Clara Clemens Gabrilowitsch.
In later years, Yogananda entered into relative seclusion, preferring to communicate with his followers through his writings rather than with public appearances. He ‘left his body’ on 7 March 1952. However, he is still revered as a teacher, with a significant international following, and his Self-Realization Fellowship continues to thrive in Washington, as well as in other branches across the world.

Though Yogananda’s teachings focused on using breathing techniques his legacy  lies on the practice of Kriya Yoga which emphasizes also mantra chanting and mudras (symbolic gestures). Kriya Yoga does not value asanas (yoga postures) as Hatha Yoga does.

Yoginî Indra Devi (1899-2002)

Yoginî Indra Devi is credited with bringing Hatha Yoga to the mainstream. Perhaps surprisingly, she was born in Latvia, and first learned yoga when she travelled to India where her husband was posted. Her teacher, Sri Krishnamacharya, was at first reluctant to teach her, because she was a westerner and also a woman, but he was won over and taught her for a year. When he learned her husband was to be posted to China, he trained her as a teacher, and she is widely believed to have been the first person to teach yoga in modern China. She later returned to India, writing her own book about yoga , and again, becoming the first westerner to teach yoga in India
After her husband’s death, she travelled to the US, setting up her own yoga studio in Los Angeles in 1947. Commonly known as the ‘First Lady of Yoga’, she boasted famous students such as Gloria Swanson, Greta Garbo, Jennifer Jones and Robert Ryan. She also trained countless teachers, cementing her reputation as one of the foremost yoga masters of her time. She gained reputation as one of the foremost advocates of yoga, and was greatly instrumental in promoting it worldwide, followed by a whole generation of indian modern yogis.

Sri T. Krishnamacharya (1888-1989)

Many consider Sri T. Krishnamacharya to be the last great exponent of yoga in modern times or “the father of modern yoga”. Krishnamacharya architected a style of practice that combined movement and breath (vinyasa)  while also embracing a wide range of yoga ideas and practices that some defend to include even gymnastics . Krishnamacharya believed that yoga practices should take into account the needs of the student and also the situation around them – ‘starting from where one finds oneself’.
He was also a renowned yoga teacher, with students that includes Patthabi Jois (known due to Ashtanga Vinyasa style of yoga),  and Yoginî Indra Devi among their number. Another of his students who went on to achieve respect and fame of his own is his brother-in-law B.K.S.Iyengar ( founder of the Iyengar style of yoga) , who taught luminaries such as the world-famous violinist Yehudi Menuhin.
Sri T Krishnamacharya reached the grand old age of 101 before his death in 1989. Following his death, his son T. K. V. Desikachar has continued to carry the baton for his father’s teachings, and has now become a famous and revered teacher in his own right.

Yoga is one of the most ancient practices in the world. Throughout its long history, the ideas, beliefs and practices of yoga have changed and developed. It is a tradition but apparently quite an open one that has absorbed (or mixed) different practices and philosophies. Today there are many different branches of yoga, each with its own ideological system, ways of practising, and devoted followers.
But there can be no doubt that whichever particular kind of yoga is followed, it can bring many benefits including physical, mental and perhaps spiritual ones. And with the world around us seemingly becoming increasingly chaotic, demanding and frenetic, many people turn to yoga as a means of finding meaning for their lives and a way to manage the stresses and strains of everyday life.

Edwin F. Bryant The Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali: A New Edition, Translation, and Commentary with Insights from the Traditional Commentators. — 1st ed., illustrated. — New York: North Point Press, 2009

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Indra Devi, 102, Dies – Taught Yoga to Stars and Leaders –

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The Roots of Yoga: Ancient + Modern | History of Yoga – Yoga Journal

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Swami Vivekananda – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Paramahansa Yogananda – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Rama Tirtha – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Indra Devi – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Tirumalai Krishnamacharya – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia