The full history of yoga is fairly unclear, despite many curious researchers digging deep to further piece together the jigsaw.
Part of the reason for this uncertainty is that, in the early days of yoga, knowledge was passed on by word-of-mouth only. Later, this word-of-mouth knowledge was written onto palm leaves. However, with their fragility these were often damaged, lost or destroyed. This left few clues as to the early origins of yoga practice. There was also a secretive nature to yoga teachings, so tracing yoga history back to its roots was a difficult task.
History of yoga – earliest recordings
Historians believe yoga practice to be more than 5,000 years old. However, it could date as far back as 10,000 years, experts say.
The Rigveda, was an ancient, sacred text used by the Vedic priests. It contains songs, chants, scripts, rituals and mantras. Here, the word “yoga” was mentioned for the first time in recorded history.
These priests, along with the Rishis, refined the practice of yoga. They created the Upanishads, a collection of over 200 scriptures.
The Bhagavad-Gîtâ is the most famous of these yoga scriptures and dates back to 500 BC.
These scripts focused on sacrificing the ego through self-knowledge, action and wisdom, and stems much of yoga philosophy as it stands today.
Patanjali Yoga Sutras
Yoga history was fairly sporadic, and there was much contradiction throughout due to a lack of systemisation and varying ideas and beliefs.
Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras from the 2nd century collated various past scripts to create an 8-limb path to enlightenment. This is actually the practice of Raja yoga.
This era, in terms of yoga, is referred to as the “classical” period. Raja yoga is known as classical yoga being the roots of where yoga became structured, and therefore easier to follow and to teach.
The Yoga Sutras still form the basis of most types of yoga and Patanjali is still frequently considered the man responsible for the magnitude that yoga is today.
Tantra Yoga to Hatha Yoga
The next distinct phase in the history of yoga is the creation of Hatha yoga, which is so widely practiced in the West today.
Yoga practitioners were keen to explore the bridge between the physical world and the spiritual world. To this effect, they created Tantra yoga, a means to cleanse and rejuvenate the body and mind, believed to prolong life.
Tantra yoga techniques were used to disconnect the physical body and access spiritual connections, gaining enlightenment using the physical form. This went against the teachings of the ancient Vedas.
This focus on body-centred practice, including using asanas, is what eventually led to what is known now as Hatha yoga.
Recent yoga history
Until the early 1900’s yoga was very much practiced only in the East. But masters began to travel taking with them their yoga knowledge and techniques, and attracting much interest from Westerners.
Swami Vivekananda delivered a presentation about yoga in Chicago in 1893, which whetted the appetite of many listeners.
Hatha yoga by this time was being widely practised in India. In 1924, T. Krishnamacharya founded the first Hatha yoga school in Mysore. It was here where he mentored three students who would continue the promotion of Hatha yoga. These students were B.K.S. Iyengar, T.K.V. Desikachar and Pattabhi Jois.
A decade or so later, in 1936, on the banks of the Ghangi river, Swami Sivananda opened The Divine Life Society.
It wasn’t until 1947 when the first yoga centre opened in Hollywood. This was the start of the flurry of yoga into the western world, adding to the worldwide history of yoga story.