A brief history of yoga: from the origins to modern days

Are you interested in discovering more about the history and origins of yoga? Are you curious for instance about how this discipline was born and how it has developed into what we know as modern yoga?

You are on the right page then!

To start or develop in a discipline like this, we should understand how it was born and what it means. In my opinion it is highly important to be aware of what we are doing and the reason why we are doing it, as in every other field of life.

On this page you will find out about the legend of the birth of yoga, its origins, and which are the first texts mentioning this practice. Afterwards, we will explore the Yoga Sutras by Patanjali, and the further developments that yoga had in time.

The legend of the first yogi

“Once upon a time…

…while the temptations of the world were consuming the vitality and vigor of the human body, and the brilliance of the mind, Parvati (or Shakti) asked her husband Shiva, the Lord of the Yogis, to share the knowledge of yoga with her. As a matter of fact, this science had the power to prevent souls from getting lost in the world. Therefore Shiva and Parvati moved to an island where the Adi Yogi could teach the precious wisdom in complete privacy. There he shared with his wife the secrets of hatha yoga, which is the foundation for all other forms of physical, mental, and spiritual disciplines in the yoga tradition.

Nearby, however, there was a fish, that without being noticed listened carefully to all his wise words. When Shiva realized that the fish had heard and completely absorbed the entire knowledge of yoga, he filled his palms with sanctified water and sprinkled it on the fish. The little fish swam far away, and practised the sacred teachings he had learnt. He went through the stages of the evolutionary path of yoga and eventually turned into a man.

His name was Matsyendra Natha, the first yogi and first master in the tradition of hatha yoga after Shiva himself, thanks to whom the science of yoga was spread among the human kind”.

Adi Yoga Shiva

The origins

Most scholars agree that the earliest evidences of yoga date back to 5000 BC in India, as depictions of certain asanas were found on coins, tablets and seals belonging to that period.
At that time all the teachings were communicated only orally from teacher to disciple.
Yoga was intended as a set of meditative techniques with the aim of achieving the knowledge of universal truth and controlling the senses.

The first writings on yoga

The first written work where the word “yoga” appeared were the Rig Veda, a collection of texts about songs, mantras, and rituals used by the Brahmans and Rishis. In this period the discipline of yoga was developed by these Vedic priests, who reported their knowledge, beliefs, and practices in the Upanishads, philosophical and mystical poems written in Sanskrit, which explored the nature of the human soul.
It is on these ancient texts, which date back to 3000 BC, that we can find the first teachings on yoga. They focus on teaching the sacrifice of the ego through self-knowledge, action (karma yoga) and wisdom (jnana yoga).
The most renowned of the Yogic scriptures of this time is the Bhagavad-Gîtâ, composed around 500 B.C. In this text yoga above all intended as a conduct of life that guides towards liberation.

The Yoga Sutras: the “Bible” of yoga

It is with this work, written around 500 BC by Patanjali, that for the first time in the history of yoga all the existing knowledge was transcribed.
The Yoga Sutras are recognized as a fundamental text that any yoga practitioner should keep in mind as a reference.

Patanjali defined yoga as chitta-vrtti-nirohdah, which means the cessation of the turnings of the mind. Consequently, according to this text yoga asanas are exclusively poses aimed at facilitating meditation. The modern concept of these postures and their several modifications were introduced only later with Tantrism.

The Sutras can be divided into 4 sections called padas:

Samadhi Pada

The “conjunction”. In this section the path of yoga is illustrated as a means of achieving samadhi, the state of bliss that makes possible to experience things with a different awareness and to reach liberation.

Sadhana Pada

The “realization”. Here we are taught that yoga consists of eight limbs, aspects of Hatha yoga practice which include moral conduct, physical exercises, breathing practices, concentration, and meditation.

The eight limbs of yoga

  • YAMAS: these are moral restraints that control our actions, speech, and thoughts. They are five: Ahimsa, “non-violence”, “non-injury”. It is intended as compassion for all living beings, including our body during the yoga practice; Satya, “truthfulness”, that is conducting your life with honesty in behaviour, with thought, and with intention; Asteya, “non-stealing”, we need to get rid of our materialistic view of life, and to renounce to things that are not meant for us to have; Brahmacharya, “celibacy”, meant as avoiding the indulgence of the senses, and basing sexuality on love rather than flirtation; Aparigraha, “non-greediness”, the ability to separate your true needs from what are merely desires or wants.
  • NIYAMAS: they are rules, the law that incorporates discipline in actions and conduct and in our attitude toward ourselves. Five are the rules: Saucha, that is purity meant as physical cleanliness but also as purity in thinking; Santosha, this is the precept of contentment, encouraging us to be satisfied with and appreciate what we have; Tapas, precept inspiring us to develop a strong resolve and enthusiasm for our practice and for our work; Swadhyaya, self-study and self-reflection leading to self discovery; Ishvarapranidhana, the rule under which you accept that an all-knowing principle exists all around you and within you.
  • ASANAS: the physical postures of Hatha yoga, which are commonly considered to be yoga in the West.
  • PRANAYAMA: the control of the breath aimed at cultivating the vital force (prana).
  • PRATYAHARA: the withdrawal of the senses aimed at diminishing the distraction from outside to focus inwards.
  • DHARANA: the concentration of the mind, the ability to direct and maintain the mind toward an object.
  • DHYANA: meditation, where the mind has a one-pointed focus.
  • SAMADHI: the state of absorption with the absolute, that can be reached by gaining total control of the mind, and neutralizing our thoughts.

Vibhuti Pada

The “powers”. In this section Patanjali speaks of the last stages of the yogic path and these “powers” that are achieved through proper practice.

Kaivalya Pada

The “separation”. Separation has the meaning of detachment between spirit and body that is obtained through the achievement of the samadhi.

Hatha Yoga Pradipika

The Hatha Yoga Pradipika is a classical tantric text describing Hatha Yoga. It is said to be the oldest surviving text on Hatha Yoga. Swami Swatmarama, a displiple of Swami Goraknath, wrote the text during the 15th century AD, drawing upon previous texts and his own experiences. While the text describes asanas (postures), purifying practices (shatkarma), mudras, bandhas, and pranayama, it also explains that the purpose of Hatha Yoga is the awakening of kundalini (subtle energy), advancement of Raja Yoga, and experience of the deep meditative absorption known as samadhi.

Modern yoga

Until the XX century the yogic practice has been mainly focused on meditation and static positions for meditating, especially variations of the position of the lotus.
At the beginning of the 1900s Yoga started becoming the practice that we all know today due to the work of three Indian masters, whose focus was also on the physical aspects of yoga, and not just on meditation.
Swami Kuvalayananda mainly concentrated on the infinite benefits that this discipline can bring to health.
Swami Sivananda and Krishnamacharya developed a broad and varied system of asana and pranayama techniques.
In particular Krishnamacharya, also referred to as “the father of yoga”, educated three disciples who distinguished themselves and influenced the spread of yoga: Pattabhi Jois, who elaborated the discipline of Ashtanga Yoga; Indra Devi, who earned the name “first lady of yoga”, and B.K.S. Iyengar, who created a style characterized by a special attention to alignments and the use of supports, precisely called Iyengar Yoga.

Thanks to these gurus and many other teachers yoga has gained millions of practitioners around the world in modern times.
Yoga has spread so much that many different styles have developed. Some are more static, others more dynamic. Some new practices are completely different from traditional yoga.
If you have recently started doing yoga you should know that choosing the right yoga style is very important to get passionate about practicing. This is of course influenced by various factors: the type of person you are, your lifestyle, your age, the purpose of the practice, etc.

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