A Brief History of Yoga
With the practice of yoga sky-rocketing in popularity over the years, it’s hard to imagine a time when this mind and body exercise wasn’t a normal part of our lives. New yoga studios are opening nearly every day, reimagined versions of classical yoga practices are being created all the time (hello, goat yoga?), and an estimated 28 million people practice yoga regularly. It’s easy to forget that yoga itself has an extremely rich history filled with classical eras, iconic teachers, and even competing ideals. If you want to gain a deeper understanding of yoga as we know it today, let’s take a brief look back at the fascinating history of yoga.
It’s no surprise that yoga has some very ancient origins, given that language used in the practice is largely derived from Sanskrit. Current research has shown that yoga has existed for at least 5,000 years and could be even older than that. The earliest known yoga practitioners belonged to the Indus-Sarasvati civilization of Northern India. These practices are believed to have been implemented by “mystic seers” who documented their experiences in a text called the Upanishads. The first-ever written form of the word yoga was discovered in the Vedas, a religious text that documented rituals, songs, and mantras from ancient priests.
As the knowledge of yoga began to expand and invite new interpretations, the classical period of yoga is largely defined by Patanjali's Yoga Sutras. Patanjali, who many call the “father of yoga”, worked to combine and translate all of the available information about these practices into one, singular text. In this text, Patanjali discusses what is referred to as the eight limbs of yoga, which supposedly contained the path to true enlightenment. Commonly known yoga styles such as Ashtanga yoga are directly connected to Patanjali’s work. Interestingly, some scholars disagree as to whether these ideas belonged to Patanjali himself or if they were simply his commentary on the previously established concepts. Nonetheless, the Yoga Sutras is still revered as being the foundational text for modern yoga.
After the work of Patanjali, more yoga masters began to emerge across the East and yoga continued to evolve as new ideas, systems, and interpretations were created. As for yoga’s assimilation into Western civilization, some researchers have found that yoga masters began arriving in the West in the mid-1800s. Swami Vivekananda, who some believe was the first Indian monk to visit the United States, was said to have gained significant attention after performing yoga postures for a fascinated audience at Chicago's World Fair. Since then, yoga masters have continued to spread their teachings across the globe and people of all ages, backgrounds and religious affiliations started to accept yoga as a beneficial practice for the body and mind.
Despite having deeply spiritual origins, yoga today is considered to be a remedy for a wide range of physical and mental ailments. You might be practicing yoga for back pain, tight muscles, stress, anxiety, or just for a fun, new fitness challenge. No matter what your reasons for starting a yoga practice look like, the mind and body connection that is experienced from this ancient tool is something that nearly anyone can benefit from.