A Very Brief History of Yoga

By Barry Elms MA DipDSY

"That which permeates all, which nothing transcends, and which like the universal space around us, fills everything completely - from within and without. That supreme non-dual Brahman - That Thou Art." - Shankaracharya

 Although the word ‘yoga’ is found in much earlier texts, the first recognisable yoga practice we find within the texts is within the Upanishads (800-500 BC), where we find a 6-limbed yoga defined in the Maitri-Upanishad, and specific yoga techniques in some, such as the Katha and Svetashvatare Upanishads.

Up until this point, most yoga we find described is predominantly meditational in practice, and is mainly suited to renouncers (ascetics), wandering the mountains with time and space on their hands to practice deep meditation. Dated at around 200BC and part of the Indian epic the Mahabharata, the Bhagavad Gita seeks to make yoga more accessible to householders as well as renouncers. The Gita describes a number of yogas (defined as ‘disciplines’), having practical instruction on Jnana yoga (the yoga of wisdom, similar to that found in the Upanishads), Bhakti Yoga (the yoga of devotion) and Karma Yoga (the yoga of action or work).

Not much later, around 200AD, Patanjali codified Classical Yoga in the Yoga Sutras. Here we find the practices of yoga laid out in a logical order, in the ‘sutra’ form of short aphorisms. For the aspiring yoga student there are many, many translations of the Yoga Sutras available, and many have commentaries to further enlighten the wealth of knowledge to be found within this short text, which is arguably the most important in the tradition. It is here we find the oft-quoted definition of yoga “Yogas Chitta Vritti Nirodhaha” - “The restraint of the modifications of the mind-stuff is yoga” (YS 1.2). No serious yoga student or yoga teacher should be without at least one copy of the Sutras! 

Only much later in the middle ages do we begin to find a more recognisable physical yoga practice documented within the texts of the Hatha Yoga tradition, for example: the Hatha Yoga Pradipika (1400AD), Shiva Samhita (1500AD) and Gheranda Samhita (1600AD). It is within the Hatha texts we find the traditional 84 Asanas (postures) of yoga mentioned, although not all 84 are described within the texts. We also find more importance is placed on other physical practices, such as Pranayama (breathing practices), Mudra and Bhanda (gestures and locks).

Up until the last century, yoga was mainly practiced by wandering renouncers, following the teacher-student (guru-shishya) system of teaching. It is only at this point that modern ‘asana pioneers’, such as Kuvalyananda, Sivananda and Krishnamacharya, drew on this ancient system, adding input of their own and some from other systems, and the modern ‘yoga class’ such as that we attend today was born. Then their students, great yogis such as Iyengar, Jois, Satchidananda and Vishnudevananda spread the knowledge and practice of yoga into the West, starting yoga centres and writing books, and of course training teachers.

Note: It is difficult to place firm dates on any developments within yoga, as it is a practical/oral tradition, so many of the dates used above are based upon texts written after the practices were first being used; dating of the texts is also subject to disagreement between scholars. Also note that I have chosen to write Sanskrit words phonetically for ease of reading.

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