A Quick Reference Guide to the History of Yoga

I am sure you’ve had a moment in a yoga class, probably when the teacher asks you to try something that seems crazy, that you wonder “where in the world did all this come from?”. I had lots of moments like that when I started doing yoga and I still do as a teacher. The practice is so simple at times and so deep that it can leave you in awe of the history of yoga and whomever came up with the idea of combining breath and movement to bring strength, stability and grace to our minds and bodies.

The Western practice is known a primarily physical one,  but Yoga in Indian traditions, however, the physical exercise is a part of the multidimensional practice; it has a meditative and spiritual core. One of the six major orthodox schools of Hinduism is also called Yoga, which has its own epistemology and metaphysics, and is closely related to Hindu Samkhyaphilosophy

While the existence of yoga can be traced back to thousands of years ago, there are key markers in the practice that have brought us today’s kind of yoga and the oodles of different kinds of yoga out there.

Most articles out there get really into the details of the history, which is great, but if you are looking for a quick reference and guide to the history of the practice you do today, here it is (with Wikipedia links and references to dive in deep if you would like):

History of Yoga in a Paragraph

Yoga began as an ancient practice that originated in India circa 3000 B.C. Stone-carved figures of yoga postures can be found in the Indus Valley depicting the original poses and practices. Yoga was developed as a way to achieve harmony between the heart and soul on the path to divine enlightenment. Along the way, it was discovered that yoga has a practical benefit of curing many diseases like diabetes and high blood pressure, and alleviating physical injuries and chronic pains. Yoga has taken off in the West as an answer to helping ailments. And as yoga has become increasingly popular outside of India and in so many widely varying cultures, so has the practice cleaved into many different schools of teachings and avenues.

What is the layman‘s definition of Yoga?

Yoga is a group of physical, mental, and spiritual practices or disciplines which originated in ancient India.

How many kinds of Yoga are there?

There is a broad variety of yoga schools, practices, and goals in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism. Among the most well-known types of yoga are Hatha yoga and Rāja yoga.

What exactly is the difference between Hatha and Raja Yoga?

Raja Yoga is like the grandparent to Hatha Yoga. Raja Yoga is the Royal path of yoga consisting of 8 steps.  The first steps are the moral foundations for the yoga practice followed by asana, pranayama, sense withdrawal, concentration, and culminating with meditation and samadhi.  Raja Yoga is about controlling the mind and thought waves in the mind. The mind is like an ever flowing river, filled with rocks and bumps. The purpose of Raja yoga is to train the mind to step out of the river and help break the mind’s cycle of happiness followed by pain and suffering.  In order overcome this, Raja yoga teaches us to slow down the waves in the mind until the mind-lake is calm without any waves and we can see clearly our True Nature as peace, happiness, and bliss. Hatha Yoga is the physical practice of yoga which focuses first on the asana practice. Hatha yoga is part of the integral system of Raja yoga and focuses on the subtle energy flow in the body known as prana.

Are there other kinds of Yoga?

There are actually 6 main kinds, but Hatha and Raja are the most well known. The six kinds are Hatha, Raja, Bhakti, Jnana, Kriya, Karma Each are very unique, and you dive into the differences here.

What is the Origins of Yoga?

There are many theories as to when yoga began, it is mentioned in the Rigveda, but most likely developed around the 6th and 5th centuries BCE, in ancient India’s ascetic and śramaṇamovements. The chronology of earliest texts describing yoga-practices is muddy at best, varyingly credited to Hindu Upanishads. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali date from the first half of the 1st millennium CE, but only gained prominence in the West in the 20th century. Hatha yoga texts emerged around the 11th century with origins in tantra.

Yoga Moves West

Yoga gurus from India later introduced yoga to the West, following the success of Swami Vivekananda in the late 19th and early 20th century. By as early as the 1980s, yoga became popular as a system of physical exercise across the Western world.

Who are the pioneers that brought Yoga to the West?

We take advantage of the fact that America is filled with such incredible yoga, this was not always the case. Yoga Journal does a great job in giving the top 14 pioneers of yoga the chops they deserve here.


Books to read

  • Light on Yoga: The Bible of Modern Yoga [B. K. S. Iyengar]: Get into Iyengar’s mind and his Yoga, this is a book that you can turn to time and time again for years to come.
  • Light on Life: The Yoga Journey to Wholeness, Inner Peace, and Ultimate Freedom:This books reads like a great novel, you learn so much about Iyengar’s life and Yoga.
  • The Bhagavad Gita: The Bhagavad Gita is a dialog between the God Krishna and the hero Arjuna, taking place in a timeless moment on the battlefield before the climactic struggle between good and evil. You could call it the first ever Game of Thrones:)

Movies to Watch

  • Kumare: This is one of my all time favorite documentaries about the myths and nuances of gurus. It tell the story of a prank that turns into reality and the turmoil it causes and the unconventional ways life can teach us lessons and enlighten our minds.
  • Awake: The Life of Yogananda: If you only watch one movie ever about yoga, it should be this one. It is an unconventional biography about the Hindu Swami who brought yoga and meditation to the West in the 1920s. Paramahansa Yogananda authored the spiritual classic
  • Autobiography of a Yogi which has sold millions of copies worldwide and is a go-to book for seekers, philosophers and yoga enthusiasts today. (Apparently, it was the only book that Steve Jobs had on his iPad.) By personalizing his own quest for enlightenment and sharing his struggles along the path, Yogananda made ancient Vedic teachings accessible to a modern audience, attracting many followers and inspiring the millions who practice yoga today.
  • On Yoga: The Architecture of Peace: Based on photographer Michael O’Neill’s book of the same name, this documentary traces the author’s 10-year journey through the landscape of yoga.
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