A Short History of YogaA SHORT HISTORY OF YOGA
HISTORY FOR YOGINS AND YOGINIS
In Yoga, theory and practice, as well as left brain and right brain,
go hand in hand so to speak. Study (svâdhyâya) is in fact an important
aspect of many branches and schools of Yoga. This is another way in
which Yoga's balanced approach shows itself.
If you want to know where something is going, it is good to know where
it came from. "To be ignorant of what happened before one was born,"
said Cicero pointedly in his Orator, "is to remain ever a child."
History provides context and meaning, and Yoga is no exception to this
rule. If you are fond of history, you'll enjoy what follows. Many of
the facts and ideas presented here have not yet found their way into
the textbooks or even into most Yoga books. We put you in touch with
the leading edge of knowledge in this area. If you are not a history
buff, well, perhaps we can tempt you to suspend your preferences for a
few minutes and read on anyway.
THE ORIGIN OF YOGA
Despite more than a century of research, we still don't know much
about the earliest beginnings of Yoga. We do know, though, that it
originated in India 5,000 or more years ago. Until recently, many
Western scholars thought that Yoga originated much later, maybe around
500 B.C., which is the time of Gautama the Buddha, the illustrious
founder of Buddhism. But then, in the early 1920s, archeologists
surprised the world with the discovery of the so-called Indus
civilization—a culture that we now know extended over an area of
roughly 300,000 square miles (the size of Texas and Ohio combined).
This was in fact the largest civilization in early antiquity. In the
ruins of the big cities of Mohenjo Daro and Harappa, excavators found
depictions engraved on soapstone seals that strongly resemble
yogi-like figures. Many other finds show the amazing continuity
between that civilization and later Hindu society and culture.
There was nothing primitive about what is now called the
Indus-Sarasvati civilization, which is named after two great rivers
that once flowed in Northern India; today only the Indus River flows
through Pakistan. That civilization's urbane population enjoyed
multistory buildings, a sewage system unparalleled in the ancient
world until the Roman empire, a huge public bath whose walls were
water-proofed with bitumen, geometrically laid out brick roads, and
standardized baked bricks for convenient construction. (We are so used
to these technological achievements that we sometimes forget they had
to be invented.) The Indus-Sarasvati people were a great maritime
nation that exported a large variety of goods to Mesopotamia and other
parts of the Middle East and Africa. Although only a few pieces of art
have survived, some of them show exquisite craftsmanship.
For a long time, scholars thought that this magnificent civilization
was abruptly destroyed by invaders from the northwest who called
themselves Aryans (ârya meaning "noble" in the Sanskrit language).
Some proposed that these warlike nomads invented Yoga, others credited
the Indus people with its creation. Yet others took Yoga to be the
joint creation of both races.
Nowadays researchers increasingly favor a completely different picture
of ancient Indian history. They are coming to the conclusion that
there never was an Aryan invasion and that the decline of the
Indus-Sarasvati cities was due to dramatic changes in climate. These
in turn appear to have been caused by a major tectonic catastrophe
changing the course of rivers. In particular, it led to the drying up
of what was once India's largest river, the Sarasvati, along whose
banks flourished numerous towns and villages (some 2500 sites have
been identified thus far). Today the dry river bed runs through the
vast Thar Desert. If it were not for satellite photography, we would
not have learned about those many settlements buried under the sand.
The drying up of the Sarasvati River, which was complete by around
1900 B.C., had far-reaching consequences. Just imagine the waters of
the Mississippi running dry instead of flooding constantly. What havoc
this would cause! The death of the Sarasvati River forced the
population to migrate to more fertile parts of the country, especially
east toward the Ganges (Ganga) River and south into Central India and
Why is this important for the history of Yoga, you might ask? The
Sarasvati River happens to be the most celebrated river in the
Rig-Veda, which is the oldest known text in any Indo-European
language. It is composed in an archaic (and difficult) form of
Sanskrit and was transmitted by word of mouth for numerous
generations. Sanskrit is the language in which most Yoga scriptures
are written. It is related to languages like Greek, Latin, French,
German, Spanish, and not least English. You can see this family
relationship on the example of the word yoga itself, which corresponds
to zugos, iugum, joug, Joch, yugo, and yoke in these languages.
Sanskrit is like an older brother to the other Indo-European languages.
Now, if the Sarasvati River dried up around or before 1900 B.C., the
Rig-Veda must be earlier than that benchmark date. If that is so, then
the composers of this collection of hymns must have been
contemporaneous with the people of the Indus civilization, which
flourished between circa 3000-1900 B.C. Indeed, astronomical
references in the Rig-Veda suggest that at least some of its 1,028
hymns were composed in the third or even fourth millennium B.C.
Thus, the Sanskrit-speaking Aryans, who created the Rig-Veda, did not
come from outside India to destroy the Indus-Sarasvati civilization.
They had been there all along. What, then, was their relationship with
the Indus-Sarasvati people? Here opinions still differ, but there is a
growing understanding that the Aryans and the Indus-Sarasvati people
were one and the same. There is nothing in the Rig-Veda to suggest
In fact, the Rig-Veda and the other archaic Sanskrit texts appear to
be the "missing" literature of the Indus civilization. Conversely, the
archeological artifacts of the Indus valley and adjoining areas give
us the "missing" material base of the early Sanskrit literature—an
elegant solution to a problem that has long vexed researchers.
YOGA AND THE INDUS-SARASVATI CIVILIZATION
This means that Yoga is the product of a mature civilization that was
unparalleled in the ancient world. Think of it! As a Yoga practitioner
you are part of an ancient and honorable stream of tradition, which
makes you a descendant of that civilization at least at the level of
the heart. Many of the inventions credited to Sumer rightfully belong
to what is now known as the Indus-Sarasvati civilization, which
evolved out of a cultural tradition that has reliably been dated back
to the seventh millennium B.C. In turn it gave rise to the great
religious and cultural tradition of Hinduism, but indirectly also to
Buddhism and Jainism.
India's civilization can claim to be the oldest enduring civilization
in the world. Its present-day problems should not blind us to its
glorious past and the lessons we can learn from it. Yoga practitioners
in particular can benefit from India's protracted experimentation with
life, especially its explorations of the mysteries of the mind. The
Indian civilization has produced great philosophical and spiritual
geniuses who between them have covered every conceivable answer to the
big questions, which are as relevant today as they were thousands of
THE BIG QUESTIONS
Traditional Yoga seeks to provide plausible answers to such profound
questions as, "Who am I?", "Whence do I come?", "Whither
do I go?,"
and "What must I do?" These are the sorts of questions that, sooner or
later, we all end up asking ourselves. Or at least, we have our own
implicit answers to them, though may not get round to consciously
formulating them. Deep down, we all are philosophers, because we all
need to make sense of our life. Some of us postpone thinking about
these questions, but they don't ever go away. We quickly learn this
when we lose a loved one or face a serious health crisis.
So, we might as well ponder these questions while we are in good
shape. And don't think you have to feel morose to do so. Yoga doesn't
champion dark moods, but it is definitely in favor of awareness in all
its forms, including self-awareness. If we know the stuff we are made
of, we can function a lot better in the world. At the very least, our
self-knowledge will give us the opportunity to make conscious and
THE HISTORY OF YOGA
I can provide here only the merest thumbnail sketch and, if you wish
to inform yourself more about the long history of Yoga, recommend that
you study my book The Yoga Tradition. This is the most comprehensive
historical overview available anywhere. But be prepared for
challenging reading and a fairly large tome.
The history of Yoga can conveniently be divided into the following
four broad categories:
These categories are like static snapshots of something that is in
actuality in continuous motion—the "march of history."
Now we are entering somewhat more technical territory, and I will have
to use and explain a number of Sanskrit terms.
The yogic teachings found in the above-mentioned Rig-Veda and the
other three ancient hymnodies are known as Vedic Yoga. The Sanskrit
word veda means "knowledge," while the Sanskrit term rig (from ric)
means "praise." Thus the sacred Rig-Veda is the collection of hymns
that are in praise of a higher power. This collection is in fact the
fountainhead of Hinduism, which has around one billion adherents
today. You could say that the Rig-Veda is to Hinduism what the Book of
Genesis is to Christianity.
The other three Vedic hymnodies are the Yajur-Veda ("Knowledge of
Sacrifice"), Sama-Veda ("Knowledge of Chants"), and Atharva-Veda
("Knowledge of Atharvan"). The first collection contains the
sacrificial formulas used by the Vedic priests. The second text
contains the chants accompanying the sacrifices. The third hymnody is
filled with magical incantations for all occasions but also includes a
number of very powerful philosophical hymns. It is connected with
Atharvan, a famous fire priest who is remembered as having been a
master of magical rituals. These hymnodies can be compared to the
various books of the Old Testament.
It is clear from what has been said thus far that Vedic Yoga—which
could also be called Archaic Yoga—was intimately connected with the
ritual life of the ancient Indians. It revolved around the idea of
sacrifice as a means of joining the material world with the invisible
world of the spirit. In order to perform the exacting rituals
successfully, the sacrificers had to be able to focus their mind for a
prolonged period of time. Such inner focusing for the sake of
transcending the limitations of the ordinary mind is the root of Yoga.
When successful, the Vedic yogi was graced with a "vision" or
experience of the transcendental reality. A great master of Vedic Yoga
was called a "seer"—in Sanskrit rishi. The Vedic seers were able to
see the very fabric of existence, and their hymns speak of their
marvelous intuitions, which can still inspire us today.
This category covers an extensive period of approximately 2,000 years
until the second century A.D. Preclassical Yoga comes in various forms
and guises. The earliest manifestations were still closely associated
with the Vedic sacrificial culture, as developed in the Brâhmanas and
Âranyakas. The Brâhmanas are Sanskrit texts explaining the Vedic hymns
and the rituals behind them. The Âranyakas are ritual texts specific
to those who chose to live in seclusion in a forest hermitage.
Yoga came into its own with the Upanishads, which are gnostic texts
expounding the hidden teaching about the ultimate unity of all things.
There are over 200 of these scriptures, though only a handful of them
were composed in the period prior to Gautama the Buddha (fifth century
B.C.). These works can be likened to the New Testament, which rests on
the Old Testament but at the same time goes beyond it.
One of the most remarkable Yoga scriptures is the Bhagavad-Gîtâ
("Lord's Song"), of which the great social reformer Mahatma Gandhi
spoke as follows:
When disappointment stares me in the face and all alone I see not one
ray of light, I go back to the Bhagavad-Gita. I find a verse here and
a verse there and I immediately begin to smile in the midst of
overwhelming tragedies—and my life has been full of external
tragedies—and if they have left no visible, no indelible scar on me, I
owe it all to the teachings of the Bhagavad-Gita. (Young India, 1925,
In its significance, this work of only 700 verses perhaps is to Hindus
what Jesus' Sermon on the Mount is to Christians. Its message,
however, is not to turn the other cheek but to actively oppose evil in
the world. In its present form, the Bhagavad-Gîtâ (Gîtâ for short) was
composed around 500 B.C. and since then has been a daily inspiration
to millions of Hindus. Its central teaching is to the point: To be
alive means to be active and, if we want to avoid difficulties for
ourselves and others, our actions must be benign and also go beyond
the grip of the ego. A simple matter, really, but how difficult to
accomplish in daily life!
Preclassical Yoga also comprises the many schools whose teachings can
be found in India's two great national epics, the Râmâyana and the
Mahâbhârata (in which the Bhagavad-Gîtâ is embedded and which is seven
times the size of the Iliad and Odyssey combined). These various
preclassical schools developed all kinds of techniques for achieving
deep meditation through which yogis and yoginis can transcend the body
and mind and discover their true nature.
This label applies to the eightfold Yoga—also known as
Râja-Yoga—taught by Patanjali in his Yoga-Sûtra. This Sanskrit text is
composed of just under 200 aphoristic statements, which have been
commented on over and over again through the centuries. Sooner or
later all serious Yoga students discover this work and have to grapple
with its terse statements. The word sûtra (which is related to Latin
suture) means literally "thread." Here it conveys a thread of memory,
an aid to memorization for students eager to retain Patanjali's
knowledge and wisdom.
The Yoga-Sûtra was probably written some time in the second century
A.D. The earliest available Sanskrit commentary on it is the
Yoga-Bhâshya ("Speech on Yoga") attributed to Vyâsa. It was authored
in the fifth century A.D. and furnishes fundamental explanations of
Patanjali's often cryptic statements.
Beyond a few legends nothing is known about either Patanjali or Vyâsa.
This is a problem with most ancient Yoga adepts and even with many
more recent ones. Often all we have are their teachings, but this is
of course more important than any historical information we could dig
up about their personal lives.
Patanjali, who is by the way often wrongly called the "father of
Yoga," believed that each individual is a composite of matter
(prakriti) and spirit (purusha). He understood the process of Yoga to
bring about their separation, thereby restoring the spirit in its
absolute purity. His formulation is generally characterized as
philosophical dualism. This is an important point, because most of
India's philosophical systems favor one or the other kind of
nondualism: The countless aspects or forms of the empirical world are
in the last analysis the same "thing"—pure formless but conscious
This is again a very comprehensive category, which refers to all those
many types and schools of Yoga that have sprung up in the period after
Patanjali's Yoga-Sûtra and that are independent of this seminal work.
In contrast to classical Yoga, postclassical Yoga affirms the ultimate
unity of everything. This is the core teaching of Vedânta, the
philosophical system based on the teachings of the Upanishads.
In a way, the dualism of classical Yoga can be seen as a brief but
powerful interlude in a stream of nondualist teachings going back to
ancient Vedic times. According to these teachings, you, we, and
everyone or everything else is an aspect or expression of one and the
same reality. In Sanskrit that singular reality is called brahman
(meaning "that which has grown expansive") or âtman (the
transcendental Self as opposed to the limited ego-self).
A few centuries after Patanjali, the evolution of Yoga took an
interesting turn. Now some great adepts were beginning to probe the
hidden potential of the body. Previous generations of yogis and
yoginis had paid no particular attention to the body. They had been
more interested in contemplation to the point where they could exit
the body consciously. Their goal had been to leave the world behind
and merge with the formless reality, the spirit.
Under the influence of alchemy—the spiritual forerunner of
chemistry—the new breed of Yoga masters created a system of practices
designed to rejuvenate the body and prolong its life. They regarded
the body as a temple of the immortal spirit, not merely as a container
to be discarded at the first opportunity. They even explored through
advanced yogic techniques the possibility of energizing the physical
body to such a degree that its biochemistry is changed and even its
basic matter is reorganized to render it immortal.
This preoccupation of theirs led to the creation of Hatha-Yoga, an
amateur version of which is today widely practiced throughout the
world. It also led to the various branches and schools of Tantra-Yoga,
of which Hatha-Yoga is just one approach.
The history of modern Yoga is widely thought to begin with the
Parliament of Religions held in Chicago in 1893. It was at that
congress that the young Swami Vivekananda—swami (svâmin) means
"master"—made a big and lasting impression on the American public. At
the behest of his teacher, the saintly Ramakrishna, he had found his
way to the States where he didn't know a soul. Thanks to some
well-wishers who recognized the inner greatness of this adept of
Jnâna-Yoga (the Yoga of discernment), he was invited to the Parliament
and ended up being its most popular diplomat. In the following years,
he traveled widely attracting many students to Yoga and Vedânta. His
various books on Yoga are still useful and enjoyable to read.
Before Swami Vivekananda a few other Yoga masters had crossed the
ocean to visit Europe, but their influence had remained local and
ephemeral. Vivekananda's immense success opened a sluice gate for
other adepts from India, and the stream of Eastern gurus has not ceased.
After Swami Vivekananda, the most popular teacher in the early years
of the Western Yoga movement was Paramahansa Yogananda, who arrived in
Boston in 1920. Five years later, he established the Self-Realizaton
Fellowship, which still has its headquarters in Los Angeles. Although
he left his body (as yogins call it) in 1952 at the age of fifty-nine,
he continues to have a worldwide following. His Autobiography of a
Yogi makes for fascinating reading, but be prepared to suspend any
materialistic bias you may have! As with some other yogis and
Christian or Muslim saints, after his death Yogananda's body showed no
signs of decay for a full twenty days.
Of more limited appeal was Swami Rama Tirtha, a former mathematics
teacher who preferred spiritual life to academia and who came to the
United States in 1902 and founded a retreat center on Mount Shasta in
California. He stayed for only two years and drowned in the Ganges
(Ganga) River in 1906 at the young age of thirty-three. Some of his
inspirational talks were gathered into the five volumes of In Woods of
God-Realization, which are still worth dipping into.
In 1919, Yogendra Mastamani arrived in Long Island and for nearly
three years demonstrated to astounded Americans the power and elegance
of Hatha Yoga. Before returning to India, he founded the American
branch of Kaivalyadhama, an Indian organization created by the late
Swami Kuvalayananda, which has contributed greatly to the scientific
study of Yoga.
A very popular figure for several decades after the 1920s was
Ramacharaka, whose books can still be found in used bookstores. What
few readers know, however, is that this Ramacharaka was apparently not
an actual person. The name was the pseudonym of two people—William
Walker Atkinson, who had left his law practice in Chicago to practice
Yoga, and his teacher Baba Bharata.
Paul Brunton, a former journalist and editor, burst on the scene of
Yoga in 1934 with his book A Search in Secret India, which introduced
the great sage Ramana Maharshi to Western seekers. Many more works
flowed from his pen over the following eighteen years, until the
publication of The Spiritual Crisis of Man. Then, in the 1980s, his
notebooks were published posthumously in sixteen volumes—a
treasure-trove for serious Yoga students.
Since the early 1930s until his death in 1986, Jiddu Krishnamurti
delighted or perplexed thousands of philosophically minded Westerners
with his eloquent talks. He had been groomed by the Theosophical
Society as the coming world leader but had rejected this mission,
which surely is too big and burdensome for any one person, however
great. He demonstrated the wisdom of Jnana-Yoga (the Yoga of
discernment), and drew large crowds of listeners and readers. Among
his close circle of friends were the likes of Aldous Huxley,
Christopher Isherwood, Charles Chaplin, and Greta Garbo. Bernard Shaw
described Krishnamurti as the most beautiful human being he ever saw.
Yoga, in the form of Hatha-Yoga, entered mainstream America when the
Russian-born yoginî Indra Devi, who has been called the "First Lady of
Yoga," opened her Yoga studio in Hollywood in 1947. She taught stars
like Gloria Swanson, Jennifer Jones, and Robert Ryan, and trained
hundreds of teachers. Now in her nineties and living in Buenos Aires,
she is still an influential voice for Yoga.
In the 1950s, one of the most prominent Yoga teacher was Selvarajan
Yesudian whose book Sport and Yoga has been translated into fourteen
or so languages, with more than 500,000 copies sold. Today, as we
mentioned before, many athletes have adopted yogic exercises into
their training program because . . . it works. Among them are the
Chicago Bulls. Just picture these champion basket ball players
stretching out on extra-long Yoga mats under the watchful eye of Yoga
teacher Paula Kout! In the early 1950s, Shri Yogendra of the Yoga
Institute of Santa Cruz in India, visited the United States. He
pioneered medical research on Yoga as early as 1918, and his son
Jayadev Yogendra is continuing his valuable work, which demonstrates
the efficacy of Yoga as a therapeutic tool.
In 1961, Richard Hittleman brought Hatha-Yoga to American television,
and his book The Twenty-Eight-Day Yoga Plan sold millions of copies.
In the mid-1960s, the Western Yoga movement received a big boost
through Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, largely because of his brief
association with the Beatles. He popularized yogic contemplation in
the form of Transcendental Meditation (TM), which still has tens of
thousands of practitioners around the world. TM practitioners also
introduced meditation and Yoga into the corporate world. It, moreover,
stimulated medical research on Yoga at various American universities.
In 1965, the then sixty-nine-year-old Shrila Prabhupada arrived in New
York with a suitcase full of books and $8.00 in his pockets. Six years
later he founded the International Society for Krishna Consciousness
(ISKCON), and by the time of his death in 1977, he had created a
worldwide spiritual movement based on Bhakti Yoga (the Yoga of devotion).
Also in the 1960s and 1970s, many swamis trained by the Himalayan
master Swami Sivananda, a former physician who became a doctor of the
soul, opened their schools in Europe and the two Americas. Most of
them are still active today, and among them are Swami Vishnudevananda
(author of the widely read Complete Illustrated Book of Yoga), Swami
Satchitananda (well-known to Woodstock participants), Swami Sivananda
Radha (a woman-swami who pioneered the link between Yoga spirituality
and psychology), Swami Satyananda (about whom we will say more
shortly), and Swami Chidananda (a saintly figure who directed the
Sivananda Ashram in Rishikesh, India). The last-mentioned master's
best known American student is the gentle Lilias Folan, made famous by
her PBS television series Lilias, Yoga & You, broadcast between 1970
In 1969, Yogi Bhajan caused an uproar among the traditional Sikh
community (an offshoot of Hinduism) when he broke with tradition and
began to teach Kundalini Yoga to his Western students. Today his
Healthy, Happy, Holy Organization—better known as 3HO—has more than
200 centers around the world.
A more controversial but wildly popular guru in the 1970 and 1980s was
Bhagavan Rajneesh (now known as Osho), whose followers constantly made
the headlines for their sexual orgies and other excesses. Rajneesh, a
former philosophy professor, drew his teachings from authentic Yoga
sources, mixed with his own personal experiences. His numerous books
line the shelves of many second-hand bookstores. Rajneesh allowed his
students to act out their repressed fantasies, notably of the sexual
variety, in the hope that this would free them up for the deeper
processes of Yoga. Many of them, however, got trapped in a mystically
tinged hedonism, which proves the common-sense rule that too much of a
good thing can be bad for you. Even though many of his disciples felt
bitterly disappointed by him and the sad events surrounding his
organization in the years immediately preceding his death in 1990,
just as many still regard him as a genuine Yoga master. His life
illustrates that Yoga adepts come in all shapes and sizes and that, to
coin a phrase, one person's guru is another person's uru. (The
Sanskrit word uru denotes "empty space.") Another maxim that applies
here is caveat emptor, "buyer beware."
Other renowned modern Yoga adepts of Indian origin are Sri Aurobindo
(the father of Integral Yoga), Ramana Maharshi (an unparalleled master
of Jnana-Yoga), Papa Ramdas (who lived and breathed Mantra-Yoga, the
Yoga of transformative sound), Swami Nityananda (a miracle-working
master of Siddha-Yoga), and his disciple Swami Muktananda (a powerful
yogi who put Siddha-Yoga, which is a Tantric Yoga, on the map for
Western seekers). All these teachers are no longer among us.
The great exponent in modern times of Hatha-Yoga was Sri
Krishnamacharya, who died in 1989 at the ripe old age of 101. He
practiced and taught the Viniyoga system of Hatha-Yoga until his last
days. His son T. K. V. Desikachar continues his saintly father's
teachings and taught Yoga, among others, to the famous Jiddu
Krishnamurti. Another well-known student of Sri Krishnamacharya and a
master in his own right is Desikachar's uncle B. K. S. Iyengar, who
has taught tens of thousands of students, including the world-famous
violinist Jehudi Menuhin.
Mention must also be made of Pattabhi Jois and Indra Devi, both of
whom studied with Krishnamacharya in their early years and have since
then inspired thousands of Westerners.
Of living Yoga masters from India, I can mention Sri Chinmoy and Swami
Satyananda (a Tantra master who established the well-known Bihar
School of Yoga, has authored numerous books, and has disciples around
the world). There are of course many other great Yoga adepts, both
well known and more hidden, who represent Yoga in one form or another,
but I leave it up to you to discover them.
Until modern times, the overwhelming majority of Yoga practitioners
have been men, yogins. But there have also always been great female
adepts, yoginîs. Happily, in recent years, a few woman
saints—representing Bhakti-Yoga (Yoga of devotion)—have come to the
West to bring their gospel of love to open-hearted seekers. Yoga
embraces so many diverse approaches that anyone can find a home in it.
An exceptional woman teacher from India who fits none of the yogic
stereotypes is Meera Ma ("Mother Meera"). She doesn't teach in words
but communicates in silence through her simple presence. Of all
places, she has made her home in the middle of a quaint German village
in the Black Forest, and every year is attracting thousands of people
from all over the world.
Since Yoga is not restricted to Hinduism, we may also mention here the
Dalai Lama, champion of nonviolence and winner of the Nobel Peace
Prize. He is unquestionably one of the truly great yogis of modern
Tibet, who, above all, demonstrates that the principles of Yoga can
fruitfully be brought not only into a busy daily life but also into
the arena of politics. Today Tibetan Buddhism (which is a form of
Tantra-Yoga) is extremely popular among Westerners, and there are many
lamas (spiritual teacher) who are willing to share with sincere
seekers the secrets of their hitherto well-guarded tradition.