A Brief History of Yoga

This is Ashutosh, he’s a bit of a showoff.

So we might as well dive in to my real motive for being in this place, which is to study yoga. To study it in the geographic environment where it originated, in a place where it is still a culturally significant force, in a way that is at least notionally committed to some kind of ancient tradition.

The question of tradition is a complicated one when it comes to yoga. Much of its value, and it’s identity as a product, has come to be associated with it’s deep links to the past and it’s deep links to Indian spirituality. However, the extent to which this is actually the case is hotly debated. The argument has been made that much of what a casual western observer would consider to be yoga, i.e. performing calisthenic postures linked to breath in a class led by a teacher on a sticky mat in a studio, has more of a connection to swedish gymnastics and military cadet drills then it does to any ancient Indian tradition. This point is grounded in some historical fact. But there’s a much bigger picture that this view seems to ignore.

I will attempt to provide some historical context.


The Bhagavad Gita, composed some time in the 4th or 5th century BC, has come to be considered the foundational text for a large proportion of the various non-abrahamic spiritual and mythological traditions of India which the British colonial class would eventually lump together under the umbrella definition “Hinduism” during the 18th century. In one section the god Krishna elucidates prince Arjuna, who is also a minor god in his own right, on the methods one may take to achieve union with the divine. This word “union” is the most common translation of the word yoga.

Krishna describes 3 paths: Karma Yoga, the path of action, of mindful work and selfless service; Jnana Yoga, the path of divine knowledge and spiritual understanding and Bhakti Yoga, the path of love and devotion to God.

Notice that at no point does exercise, or even meditation, enter into what yoga means in this context. It is possible that some of the practices of brahmin ascetics of that day may have borne a resemblance to certain modern yoga practices, but this is largely conjecture, and The Bhagavad-Gita was intended for a wider, popular audience.

The text that has become the centrepiece of what we would now call the philosophical school of yoga are the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, written around 400 AD. An incredibly dense treatise on a method of achieving this state of union known as Ashtanga, or the 8 limbs. They include ethical precepts, purification practices and progressively deeper forms of meditation eventually culminating in Samadhi, or spiritual liberation. The 3rd of the 8 limbs is Asana, or postures, physical exercises intended to focus the mind and prepare the body for long bouts of seated meditation. It is Asana which most people think of when they think of yoga. Included among these are all of the famous poses: Downward Dog, Upward Dog, Child’s Pose, Warrior etc. but even these are not mentioned in the Sutras at all and it is unclear if they would have been practiced in the same way.

The postures as practiced today don’t really come into focus until the Hatha Yoga Pradipika of the 15th century, although it is known to be a compilation of earlier works and cites a very long lineage of teachers it is in this form that the tradition of Hatha Yoga, which we can think of as the yoga of body and breath, is first handed down to us in what can be called a systematized way.

Many of these yogic texts fell into obscurity during the time of British rule in India. It wasn’t until the efforts of the charismatic guru Swami Vivekananda, and the growing interest in Asian mysticism of western theosophists, together with a growing tide of nationalism, that many of these texts, and their attendant practices began to reemerge around the end of the 19th century.

In 1926 a yogi named Tirumalai Krishnamacharya was installed by the Maharaja of Mysore to teach yoga in his palace. For the next 20 years he would regularly hold widely attended public demonstrations and travel extensively to promote yoga as a means of attaining health and spiritual well-being not just for renunciant brahmins, but for people of all walks of life. He gained a reputation as a gifted healer who could take an individual in any state, healthy or otherwise, and improve their condition. In his efforts to create a yoga practice that would be efficient and effective for working householders he created a system called Vinyasa, in which physical postures were combined with calisthenic movements that synced up with the breath and incorporated yogic techniques of concentration and energy control. In this way he sought to amalgamate the 3rd and 4th limbs of the Yoga Sutras, Asana and Pranayama and prepare a foundation for the pursuit of it’s more refined stages. This is the sort of yoga practice that the majority of westerners have become familiar with. Through his students; notably Shri K. Pattabhi Jois, B.K.S. Iyengar, Indra Devi and T.K.V. Desikachar, the practice was spread throughout the world as an exercise and wellness practice.

But what of its roots in spirituality? Anyone keen to probe the practices taught by Krishnamacharya or his students to any depth will realize that they are still present. Yoga in all its forms has always been about practice, about a direct inquiry into the nature of the self, the world and whatever lies beneath it. Yoga is not an ancient thing, it’s something that’s always there, and in this there is no special difference between people of different historical paradigms, cultural backgrounds, bodily configurations or life stages. The specific yogic systems that people have devised may have varying degrees of accessibility or appropriateness but these have only ever been means of attaining yoga. They themselves are not yoga. Yoga is what happens behind it all. There are many methods, many paths up the mountain, but they are all trying to get you to the same place. So what about someone with no interest in probing the murky depths of experience who just wants to attend yoga classes to tighten up their butt or fix their back pain. Are they doing yoga?

I think the trick answer is that we’re all, always doing yoga. So tighten away. If you do them regularly over a long enough period the practices will transform you, whether you accept the pronouncements of a big, blue, baby-faced prankster-god in a golden chariot or not.

Hare Om



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