A History of Yoga in 5 Big Steps

With yoga’s surging popularity comes increased interest in its origins. Several popular histories have recently been published (some of which I’ve written about on this blog). The scholarly consensus is that, while yoga draws from a very old set of traditions, the ancient practices are quite different from modern yoga. Despite what NPR says, there is no “huge scholarly debate about yoga’s origins.” There is a movement to “take back yoga for Hinduism,” a position that meshes with the mainstream story about yoga’s origins. But that story is more informed by cultural politics than by accurate historiography.


Step 1: Sramana Asceticism

As early as 3000 BCE there are depictions of people or gods sitting in what look like yoga poses. The earliest textual evidence we have, dating to 1200 BCE, mentions yogis as forest-dwelling, world-renouncing magicians. Vedic (what would later be called Hindu) sources tell of the god Rudra, an outsider like a wild beast, a hunter and cause of disease. We know that there was an experiential and oral tradition of asceticism among sramanas who were outside normal society. But we don’t know what these people were doing, or more importantly, why.

Step 2: Buddhist Functionalism

Around 600-400 BCE, as north Indian city-states urbanized, a new set of practices emerged, drawing on the sramana traditions and calling themselves yoga. The main innovation was considering practice as something that could cause spiritual effects. In contrast to the previously dominant sacrificial rituals, yoga was something that you could do to progress on a spiritual path. The rise of the merchant class and social mobility made this new paradigm – in which one’s actions, not one’s heritage, determined one’s status – popular.


Jainas practiced devotion to vows. Ajivikas practiced breathing exercises. But the most fully articulated of the new yogas was Buddhism, detailing the psychology and mechanisms of meditation practice. Within the next few centuries, all of the popular religions in the area had developed their own yoga, including the Saivite (worshippers of Siva, an avatar of Rudra) branch of Vedic tradition. The Upanishads incorporate functional techniques into a previously ritual-based tradition, drawing heavily on Buddhist psychodynamics and even including the Buddha as a character. This integration reaches a height of sophistication in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, providing yoga with a full ontology and metaphysics (something that had to be added to the anti-metaphysical Buddhist story).


Step 3: Tantra and Internal Alchemy

Between 700-1000 CE, another innovation in practice swept India: Tantra. Tantra’s central idea is that latent power, held in the tension between opposites, can be unleashed and used for spiritual purposes. Both its literature and its methodology are heavily influenced by the growth in the previous several centuries of alchemy – both in its mystical quest for the elixir of immortality, and in practical metallurgy and chemical processes. Ayurvedic medicine used cinnabar (mercury sulfide); in Tantra mercury was associated with Siva and the male principle, sulfur with Shakti and the female, the latent powers of which are released in chemical reactions.


Another key Tantra insight, the interrelationship between the macrocosm and the microcosm inside the body, led to the idea of spiritual growth via catalyzing internal reactions. Again, every major tradition rushed to develop its own tantra, including the Siva-worshipping Natha sect, who produced the first major literature on physical practices like asana (e.g., the Hathayoga Pradipika, 1450). During the medieval period, Hatha practitioners became associated, along with their Muslim counterparts the fakirs, with magic and wilderness-based resistance to first the Mughal and then the British empire.


Step 4: Neo-Hinduism and the New Age

After two hundred years of British Rule, in 1857 Indian nationalists struck fear into the ruling class with the Great Rebellion. In response, the British abandoned their former rationalist modernization agenda and capitulated to the supposed inherent backwardness of the Indian mind by revitalizing indigenous mythology and looking to ancient power structures like the freshly reconstructed caste system. Indians struggled with a paradoxical situation: in order to achieve political and social power under the Raj, they had to present themselves as part of an ancient lineage. But in order to compete with the British as a world power, they needed to modernize their cultural and religious practices.


New Age religion, originating in the U.S., brought a universalist narrative that perfectly suited reformers in their push to unify disparate Indian religions into what they called Hinduism. By the 1890s, Vivekananda was able to present his newly synthesized Raja Yoga as an ancient Indian spiritual path that was, at the same time, more tolerant and modern than any other world religion. However, he scrupulously avoided Hatha Yoga, with its toxic associations with the wild and uncivilized fakirs, provocative Saivite and Tantric rituals, and militant resistance movements.


Step 5: Modern Postural Yoga

Tirumalai Krishnamacharya, the progenitor of three major modern yoga lineages through his students Pattabhi Jois, B.K.S. Iyengar, and T.K.V. Desikachar, travelled to Tibet in 1911 to study yoga. At the time, there were no yoga schools in India that suited his needs. India, like the west, was taken with the craze for physical culture. A sound mind needed a healthy body, and with the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species in 1859, colonial paternalism had a new justification in social Darwinism: India was dominated by Britain because Indians were racially inferior. The Indian YMCA introduced exercise programs to instill fitness and vigor into the supposedly inferior, ‘effeminate’ Indians. In fact, India was a hotspot of innovation in the field, with indigenous physical culture being mixed with Swedish Ling gymnastics and military drills.


When Krishnamacharya began teaching yoga in the Mysore palace, his classes were across the hall from classes in Surya Namaskar (sun salutes). It wasn’t until after 1941 that these two practices were considered part of the same system. Although the modern asanas have Sanskrit names, they bear striking resemblances to western limbering exercises and ‘women’s stretches’. And the philosophical goal of using one’s body to find spiritual balance is remarkably similar to non-yogic works like Genevieve Stebbins’ Dynamic Breathing and Harmonic Gymnastics (1892).



Each of the steps in yoga’s development represents a large shift in content and orientation. Whether modern yoga is a ‘real’ successor to some or all of these traditions is open for interpretation. But we need to take all of them into account when we tell the story.Thanks for reading, and if you’re interested, subscribe or check back for more in-depth discussion. I’ve obviously left out a ton of detail to make this post brief.


Further Reading/Sources

  • Misra, Maria. Vishnu’s Crowded Temple: India since the Great Rebellion. Allen Lane, London, 2007.
  • Mohan, A.G. Krishnamacharya: His Life and Teachings. Shambhala, 2010
  • Samuel, Geoffrey. The Origins of Yoga and Tantra. Cambridge, 2008
  • Singleton, Mark. Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice. Oxford, 2010
  • Trautmann, Thomas. India: Brief History of a Civilization. Oxford, 2011
  • White, David Gordon. The Alchemical Body: Siddha Traditions in Medieval India. U. of Chicago, 1998

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