A Brief History of Yoga

(nb all dates below are approximate!)


The origins of yoga are lost in the mists of history, but it is safe to say that in its Indian form, it has been around for at least five thousand years. Archeological remains from this early time are virtually non-existent in the subcontinent, so much is still conjecture and the tentative putting together of all too scarce pieces of a very incomplete jigsaw.

Two tantalizing such pieces are a superbly realised figurine of a female figure (dancer, goddess?) worked in bronze a thousand years before such skills were known in Europe, and the famous steatite seal excavated at Mohenjodharo in what is now Pakistan. Mohenjodaro was one of the principle cities of the Indus Valley Civilisation (IVC) that flourished in the valley of the River Indus nearly 3000 years before Christ. This vast and well-organized urban culture, stretching through over a hundred settlements in a thousand-mile arc stretching from modern Sind (southern Pakistan) to Delhi and south to Mumbai, provides us with our earliest archeological information of civilisation in the subcontinent.

The IVC seal, barely two inches square, depicts a fertility deity. He wears horns, like the figures discovered in the ruins of early Mesopotamia, has an erect phallus, and is surrounded by wild animals – elephant, tiger, rhinoceros and bull. In front of him sits a pair of deer. Significantly, the figure is cross-legged in what looks like a yoga pose, on a low meditation couch that resembles those still in use in India today. He is considered to be the prototype of the later Hindu god Shiva, who is also known as pashupati ‘Lord of all creatures’. Shiva is the source of life and time, recreating and transforming the universe through the rhythm of his eternal dance. He lives in the tranquility of the forests, like many an ascetic after him, and in his form as Dakshinamurti is the lord of yoga and protector of yogis. As such he is worshipped as ‘the conqueror of death’ (mrityum jaya)‘ and giver of joy (shankara).

Barely two inches square this seal is imprinted with a script that remains undeciphered to this day, but it acts as one of the very few links between the great cultural unity that spanned the Indo-Mediterranean world in prehistoric times (Shiva has many affinities with the ancient Greek deity Dionysius) and the first known Indian civilization that succeeded it. Like some mysterious cipher, encoded with the essential wisdom of yoga, the seal appears to transmit an esoteric teaching that since the dawn of history, has been inseparably linked with the primeval and regenerative forces that govern both man and beast.

Some time around the second millennium BCE another culture began to make itself felt in north India, that of the tall, fair-skinned Aryan people who, grouped themselves around the now underground Saraswati river that ran across the whole of North India. Their sacred wisdom was encoded in the oral transmission of their scriptures, the Vedas (‘knowledge’) mankind’s oldest body of knowledge, dating from perhaps 2500 BCE ( = before the common era). The Vedas have many references to long haired ascetics who practiced spiritual disciplines and gained states of ecstasy, telling us they ‘harnessed their minds, and harnessed their visionary insights to see the steady light they find within the hidden place of the heart when they have sung their mantras which they fashion in their heart’ (Rig Veda : 1.67.2) . ‘Swifter than the mind’ (Rig Veda: 6.9.6) it is ‘the deathless flame in living beings without which nothing whatever can be done, that immortal essence whereby all is comprehended, that which is and that which will be hereafter’ (Yajurveda 34.3.4.)

It is tempting to see these wild seers as the forerunners of some of the millions of sadhus and sannyasins who are still part of the multifarious social scene in today’s India; be that as it may, it is clear that there was in India a highly developed mystical teaching and practice at even this very early stage, and it almost certainly included what was later to become known as yoga.

High scholars of the sublime

who have fixed their eyes

at length on the holy source

of light penetrating through Time

interpret the experience

as God’s incarnate mind,

and own their words in awe,

offering description

of sweet revelation

containing accurate signs

of that mode of thought

instructed in Eternity…

(From Allen Ginsburg: ‘On Visions’)

Whether the Aryan people came into India from the steppes of Southern Russia, and forcibly displaced the Indus Valley Civilisation, or whether they lived alongside the IVC for centuries as part of a unified culture, is a matter of academic debate. From the 1930’s on the former theory was unchallenged; today the latter is gaining ground, two of its proponents being the well known ‘yoga academics’, Georg Fuerstein and David Frawley.

What is beyond doubt is that the Aryans preserved their knowledge through an oral tradition in Vedic, an ancient incantatory language that was to be the precursor of classical Sanskrit. Sanskrit itself is the oldest known of the Indo-European languages, a family that includes ancient Greek and Latin as well as the Germanic and Celtic tongues – in effect all the modern European languages except Hungarian and Finnish. The seers and custodians of this knowledge were the rishis who through their meditations received and transmitted the truths of the universe gained during states of expanded consciousness.

The sacred rituals of the Vedic peoples centred on the fire offering (yagya), through which the priests contacted and placated the hidden subtle energies (devas) that they believed exist behind the scenes of daily life and control its outcomes. This highly specialized job was the responsibility of the hereditary priestly caste, the brahmins. At the same time, what we know as yoga seems to have been practiced by people who were not necessarily brahmins, though many of the teachers were of priestly background, and the demands made on aspirants for yogic knowledge were stringent. Thus at this early stage we seem to see a division between a concern with accruing benefits in daily life through yagya, and pure knowledge of reality through the physical and contemplative disciplines of yoga; in other words the split between religion and spirituality.

The urge for unmediated spiritual experience in time gave birth to a further category of literature, the Upanishads, which date from about 800 BCE – roughly contemporary with the Old Testament. The word Upanishad means the inner or mystic teaching and is derived from upa (near), ni (down) and s(h)ad (to sit), i.e., sitting down near the teacher to learn from him the esoteric doctrine. The Upanishads develop Vedic doctrines, emphasising such topics as yoga and meditation, karma, reincarnation and enlightenment. Thus the Vedic corpus became formalized into:

  1. Karma kanda: the organisation of individual and social life;
  2. Upasana kanda: priestly skills of performing rituals and use of mantras;
  3. Gyana kanda: the contemplative teachings on pure knowledge, to which the Upanishads and the early instructions on yoga belong.

Yoga and the sacred literature:

There are two principle categories of sacred Indian literature:

Shruti: ‘the Heard’

These are the four Vedas – Rig Veda, Sama Veda, Yajur Veda and Atharva Veda. Each Veda has four parts:

Samhita (800-500 BCE): Hymns praising the Supreme Consciousness under different names;

Brahmana (800-500 BCE): Prose manuals of ritual and prayer for the guidance of the priests;

Aranyaka (800-200 BCE): Philosophical discussions about worship, ritual and meditation;

Upanishad (800-200 BCE): Treatises on philosophy, metaphysics and enlightenment.

Smirti: ‘the Remembered’

The popular epics (itihasa) the Mahabharata (the world’s longest poem), and the Ramayana, are the best known of the smirti texts, which also include religious, moral and educational treatises. They were composed from 500 BCE onwards.
The 18th chapter of the Mahabharata, which is known as the Bhagavad Gita (‘Song of God’) is one of the most popular scriptures. Dating from about 400 BCE, it takes the form of a dialogue between Lord Krishna and Prince Arjuna, the archetypal everyman-hero and is a teaching on living according to dharma, which means Natural Law or, in theological terms, the Will of God. The category of smirti also covers the stories of the gods, collected together in collections called the eighteen puranas (‘ancient writings’) such as the Shiva Purana, Linga Purana, Devi Purana etc. These include the most loved scripture about Krishna, the Shrimad Bhagavatam.

All of the scriptures listed above contain references to yoga in its various forms.

Yoga and philosophy

Yoga is considered one of the six orthodox systems of Indian philosophy (astika sat darshana), and is traditionally paired with Sankhya. Sankhya is concerned with establishing and defining the difference between consciousness (purusha) and matter (prakriti-gunas), and yoga is concerned with experiencing the difference directly.

Yoga and ‘Hinduism’:

Sometime around the beginning of the common era, there emerged the body of beliefs, knowledge and practice that the West calls ‘Hinduism’ and the Indians call sanatana dharma, ‘the Eternal Truth’. This extraordinarily rich and varied corpus contains much of the Vedic and Upanishadic teachings mentioned above, but emphasizes in addition the worship of deities through image and temple, and the ordering of life through various duties, rites of passage, familial obligations and social responsibilities. Yoga can be practiced as part of this general socio-religious framework, or as a personal means of development that has nothing to do with it.

Similarly, several non-Hindu traditions originating in India -, Jainism, Buddhism, Sikhism and the Indian schools of Sufism – make use of yoga in some form or other. It seems that yoga – using that word in its most general sense as the practical means of ‘uniting’ with the Divine – forms the contemplative and purifying heart of many (and some would say all) of the world’s great religions.

Yoga texts:

Of the many yoga texts throughout the ages, four stand out:

  • The Yoga Sutras
  • Goraksha Samhita
  • Gherand Samhita
  • Hatha Yoga Pradipika.

The two most useful texts for most students are:

The Hatha Yoga Pradipika: ‘The Self-effulgent light of Hatha Yoga’

Dating from the 15th century CE (?) this is one of the classics on Hatha Yoga, and is attributed to Swatmarama, a 15th century saint who was closely associated with the Nath school of adepts, which has historically nine principle gurus and 84 siddhas as its teachers. Swatmarama was the follower of another great Nath Yogi, Gorakhnath, (12th century?), under whose leadership the Nath Sampradaya underwent its greatest expansion. Gorakhnath is credited with a number of works, the most important of which is the Goraksha Samhita. Nath yogis take as their chosen deity Shiva, the lord of yoga.

The HYP falls into four chapters of more or less equivalent length. It contains much material that can be classed as tantric (see below).

  • Chapter One: Asana deals mainly with asanas and diet;
  • Chapter Two: Shatkarma & Pranayama deals mainly with different types of pranayama and purificatory techniques;
  • Chapter Three: Mudra and Bandha deals with mainly kundalini, prana and the subtle body; mudras and bandhas;
  • Chapter Four: Samadhi deals mainly with samadhi, kundalini and various teachniques to bring about the state of enlightenment.

The Yoga Sutras

Complied by Patanjali in perhaps the 3rd century BCE, the sutras present the most succinct and pure overview of the principles of yoga as they pertain to consciousness, in what is known as Raja Yoga: the Royal Way. Patanjali’s position on the hierarchy of yoga conforms to the later words of the Goraksha Samhita: ‘The systematic teaching of Hatha yoga is like a ladder. Those who wish to reach the higher realms of the Royal Way climb up it’. Thus in four chapters he devotes only a few general sutras to asana and pranayama, preferring to dwell at length on morality, the practical challenges on the path of development, karma, the nature of the mind, meditation, samadhi, and especially, the Self. A whole chapter is devoted to siddhis or supernormal abilities.

The different ‘types’ of yoga:

It is usually said there are many types of yoga, each presenting a different path to realization of the Supreme and each suitable to a particular type of person. In practice though, while one particular way may be a preferred initial approach, they all tend to overlap and complement each other, and can best be seen as a holistic way of catering to the different facets of the complex conglomerate that is the human individual.

The seven main ‘types’ are:

· Hatha yoga: works to purify the gross and subtle bodies;

· Mantra yoga: utilizes subtle sound to effect changes in the psycho-physical structure;

· Laya yoga: enlivens the evolutionary energy (kundalini) dormant in the subtle body to bring about enlightenment;

· Karma yoga: undertakes selfless action dedicated to the Lord as the way to evolve;

· Gyana (jnana) yoga: employs refined discrimination to sift out Reality from the confusion and falsehood obscuring it;

· Raja yoga: the way of self-transcendence through deep meditation;

· Bhakti yoga: the way of self-transcendence through devotion to the chosen form of the Divine.

A word about Tantra:

Often inextricably associated with yoga, Tantra is normally understood to be a body of teaching that arose in north east India, around the 8th century CE. This teaching was concerned with:

  • the structure and functioning of the subtle body or subjective nervous system (prana, chakras, nadis, sushumna etc);
  • the energies operating within this subtle body, very often experienced as deities, and particularly the evolutionary force personified as the great Goddess (shakti, kundalini),
  • the procedures for enlivening, controlling and directing these energies through ritual (puja), sound (mantra) and various objects, principally symbolic geometric diagrams (mandala, yantra).

While it is certainly true that there existed tantric schools from the 8th century onwards, especially in Bengal, each with their own special texts (tantras; agamas) it is also the case that all of the exoteric religions in India contain, if you dig deep enough, teachings and practices that can legitimately be called ‘tantric’ by the above definition, and this is certainly the case with yoga. What is more, much of what we call ‘tantric’ teaching is prefigured in the magical lore of the Atharva Veda, almost two millennia before the school’s appearance in 8th century.

Academics tend to explain these congruencies as resulting from one school’s ‘influence’ on another, as if Indian religious groups formed their world-views through a process of intellectual accretion, like a group of Western philosophers building up an intellectual structure through debate, by accepting or rejecting concepts from various sides. But it is direct experience (anubhava) that has always been both the means and end of Indian spirituality, and this is gained through a process of ongoing experimentation on the human body and mind. Given the almost universal consistency of human beings, it is hardly remarkable that similar truths were uncovered by different groups at different times, all delving deeply into the inner workings of the human being. It is therefore perhaps useful to see Tantra not so much as an exclusive historical school, but more as a stratum of inner experience shared by all those who journey deep enough into consciousness, always allowing for the fact that this stratum will be interpreted and articulated according to the preferred conceptual models and vocabulary of the particular group in question.

Those esoteric schools that directly dispense with any exoteric teaching, and are only and immediately concerned with the subtle body and its energies can of course rightly be called tantric, but this should not necessarily imply that they came to ‘influence’ such religions as Sikhism, Buddhism or theistic Hinduism. All these have very different perspectives, yet each contains intrinsically ‘tantric’ strata hidden beneath their surface.