Sometimes it’s good to take a look back at our history to see how we’ve gotten to where we are today. For yogis, a look at yoga history means turning our focus away from our designer clothes and trendy mats, our rock star teachers and luxury yoga retreats. It means going back to the origins of our beloved practice to discover its roots. Yoga history has evolved over the centuries for sure. In the West, our modern practice, amazing and life-changing as it is, bears little resemblance to the ancient tradition from which it originates.
To find yoga’s roots, we need to go back some 5000 years to the pre-classical period. According to some sources, the word yoga first appeared in ancient sacred texts of India at that time. Somewhat later, as described in the sacred texts known as the Upanishads, yoga was a set of practices that stressed letting go of ego through wisdom, self-study, and good works.
The Birth of Classical Yoga
The yoga we practice today is based on the philosophy of a Pantanjali, whose Yoga Sutras describe a path with eight limbs. Writing around 400 CE, Pantanjali organized the practice into ethical principles, physical practice (both asana and breathing techniques), and various stages of meditation. The goal of Pantanjali’s eight-limbed path is the enlightened state known as samadhi.
The eight steps of Pantanjali’s yoga are:
- The Yamas – ethical principles for relating to others
- The Niyamas – principles of self-conduct
- Pranayama – breathing exercises
- Asana – the physical postures
- Pratyahara – withdrawal of the senses
- Dharana – concentration
- Dhyana – meditation
- Samadhi – bliss
Emphasis on the Body
In more recent times, yoga masters began to emphasize the physical body, creating a system of yoga focused on longevity and health. Cleansing of the mind and body became more the goal of yoga, and it was around this time that the concept of tantra evolved.
Yoga continued to evolve, and in the 1800s, what we consider modern yoga began to develop. In 1893, Swami Vivekananda lectured on yoga in Chicago, and people in the West began to discover the practice.
The Modern Yoga Masters
In the early twentieth century, hatha yoga became prevalent in India under the guidance of teachers like T. Krishnamacharya and Swami Sivananda. Several of Krishnamacharya’s students—B.K.S. Iyengar (Iyengar Yoga), Pantabbi Jois (Asthanga Yoga), and T.K.V. Desikachar (Viniyoga)—spread the teachings of yoga further, particularly in India.
In the West, it was a woman—Indra Devi—who is widely credited with introducing yoga to the masses. Devi was a disciple of Krishnamacharya, though it’s said she did not easily convince him to allow her to practice; women were generally not allowed to practice yoga at the time. Indra Devi brought yoga to America, mainly by way of Hollywood, in 1947. Since then, dozens of other yoga schools have taken root in the West.
Are We Still Practicing Yoga?
Given this look at yoga history, you may wonder if you are truly practicing yoga when you roll out your mat in your home or at your local studio today. Perhaps the more important question, though, is why you practice. Yoga is a living, breathing practice, and it can take you as far as you want to go physically, mentally, and spiritually. And remember, it’s a practice. The most important thing is that you keep showing up!