How Old is Yoga?

Via on Nov 18, 2009

Disclaimer: I don’t know what I’m talking about, I’m sure. So are you. If I’ve got something wrong, comment and I’ll make corrections to this elusive, enigmatic and ill-understood question as we go (that’s the wonder of the web—it’s a two-way street) ~ed.

Picture 2528

We American yoga students casually, commonly claim that history shows yoga to be at least 5,000 years old. Why? Because we’ve heard it from some yuppie hippie American dilettante, or read it in online somewhere, or in a marketing brochure.

Fact is, JC and the Buddha came about 2,009 and 2,572 years ago…that’s a loooong time ago. And you’re telling me yoga is twice that? Maybe so…but I don’t get it, yet.

The ancient Hindu Rig Veda is approximately 4000 years old, give or take 500 years…and it doesn’t mention “yoga.” Then, of course, there’s the seminal, philosophical classics Bhagavad Gita and the Upanishads, both of which mention yoga, which clock in in from the first millennium BCE right up to the modern period.

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The only substantive claim yoga has to JCx2 is an image on a coin of a man in full lotus. You call that yoga? Give yoga more credit: it’s a full and expansive, multi-faceted physical and spiritual tradition drawing from several traditions and countless influences. Defining its age necessitates defining just what yoga is—and what it’s not—and that’s tough to do.

enlighten up

A few months back, I was in the Trident cafe, downtown Boulder, talking with my longtime acquaintance Nick Rosen, and he was talking about how, in the course of starring in Enlighten Up!, and meeting with Pattabhi Jois, BKS Iyengar, others, he’d learned that yoga was…

…not 5,000 years old

…not even, really, 500 years old

…over at Yogadork, probably my most-visited yoga site these days, Nick Rosen and Svasti politely discuss whether yoga might be 100 years old…here’s an excerpt from Nick’s comments:

“As I understand it, the tradition of asana AS WE PRACTICE IT TODAY — as a set of postures and movements we undertake to achieve health and for some a sense of spiritual/medititative calm, as an end in itself — and by tradition I mean a basically unchanging continuation of practice with the same means and ends, is about 100 years old. There was a book or two traced back to 500 years ago, but the way it was practiced and why it was practiced was very different back then. so how relevant is that?”

…read the rest at Yoga Dork, it’s well worth it. For even more depth on this discussion, check Nick’s Confessions of a Yoga Guinea Pig over at Huffington Post. Excerpt:

“…In a rare interview, BKS Iyengar, the 90-year old ambassador of yoga to the West, told me that his yoga, as taught to him by his master, was a purely physical exercise and completely unrelated to ancient philosophy. He says he invented and refined much of it himself. It wasn’t until 1960, while on a visit to London, that English intellectuals introduced Iyengar to the ancient “yoga sutras”. Five years later, he combined the yoga poses and the Hindu teachings together in his book “Light on Yoga,” which then sold hundreds of thousands of copies in the United States. And voila — the modern yoga craze was born. But it was basically a new age invention, not an ancient practice…”

Yoga as we know it today—hatha yoga—could be said to be just 50 years old, when BKS Iyengar brought various traditions (including British acrobatics) together in his seminal Light on Yoga. As far as the interviews I’ve done with various teachers on this question, this seems to be as accurate a place to plant a marker in the sand as any.

Where I differ from cynical savvy Nick (who cheerfully told me about the Yogadork commentfest yesterday when we ran into each other at the climbing gym) is the importance of defining and protecting “true yoga.” Now, I understand his point that “real yoga” has never really existed. Still, in the soupy marketing hype, the giddy goldrush that is American yoga over the past 15 years, it’s important to beware/be aware of “spiritual materialism“—not from a point of view of defining true yoga and identifying charlatans so much as from a personal practice point of view. Is our practice dedicated to the welfare of all? Is it about opening up to the present moment, and all that brings? Or is it merely about refining and perfecting ourselves, and our ego? Or is the yoga we practice losing its historical, spiritual thread—is it just about refining…our yoga butt?

yoga butt

Of course, Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras are also a pretty darn decent marker for the advent of “yoga.” Still, the yoga Patanjali talked little about what we know as hatha yoga, and more about about yoga as a spiritual path. Not something your modern soccer mom would recognize as yoga, or even the cousin twice- removed of yoga.

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To read a succinct history of yoga, including lots of dates and early forms, click here.

To see my interview with Richard Freeman on the Future of Yoga, click here.

About Waylon Lewis

Waylon Lewis, founder of elephant magazine, now elephantjournal.com & host of Walk the Talk Show with Waylon Lewis, is a 1st generation American Buddhist “Dharma Brat." Voted #1 in U.S. on twitter for #green two years running, Changemaker & Eco Ambassador by Treehugger, Green Hero by Discovery’s Planet Green, Best (!) Shameless Self-Promoter at Westword's Web Awards, Prominent Buddhist by Shambhala Sun, & 100 Most Influential People in Health & Fitness 2011 by "Greatist", Waylon is a mediocre climber, lazy yogi, 365-day bicycle commuter & best friend to Redford (his rescue hound). His aim: to bring the good news re: "the mindful life" beyond the choir & to all those who didn't know they gave a care. elephantjournal.com | facebook.com/elephantjournal | twitter.com/elephantjournal | facebook.com/waylonhlewis | twitter.com/waylonlewis | Google+ For more: publisherelephantjournalcom

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90 Responses to “How Old is Yoga?”

  1. JamesPMorrison.Thanks for filling us in on that little know bit of Flintstone's history.

    That's probably the first known instance of human Yoga. We know, of course, from "Babar's Yoga for Elephants" that Yoga was originally developed by elephants in prehistoric times, and only adopted by humans much later, probably by the Flintstones, who probably picked it up by seeing the same elephant Yoga cave drawings that Babar references.

    Bob Weisenberg
    http://YogaDemystified.com

  2. JamesPMorrison.Thanks for filling us in on that little know bit of Flintstone's history.

    That's probably the first known instance of human Yoga. We know, of course, from "Babar's Yoga for Elephants" that Yoga was originally developed by elephants in prehistoric times, and only adopted by humans much later, probably by the Flintstones, who probably picked it up by seeing the same elephant Yoga cave drawings that Babar references.

    Bob Weisenberg
    http://YogaDemystified.com

  3. JamesPMorrison.Thanks for filling us in on that little know bit of Flintstone's history.

    That's probably the first known instance of human Yoga. We know, of course, from "Babar's Yoga for Elephants" that Yoga was originally developed by elephants in prehistoric times, and only adopted by humans much later, probably by the Flintstones, who probably picked it up by seeing the same elephant Yoga cave drawings that Babar references.

    Bob Weisenberg
    http://YogaDemystified.com

  4. Svasti says:

    Hey Anonymous, Hinduism, from my understanding… was never one religion to begin with. In fact, Hindu is a word that the English used to colloquially describe what they saw of religious practices in India. It was never a native Indian word. It's said the word is derived from the English interloper's mispronunciation of the word "Indu" or "Indus"…

    Yoga was never specifically Hindu either, from what I understand. Will read the rest of your comments below before commenting further…

  5. Svasti says:

    On this point I beg to differ. I'd say it all depends on how much study the white dude and the non-white dude have done. Certainly, the non-white dude who has grown up in the culture has an ingrained understanding of the culture, religion and philosophies. BUT a white dude can go and live in India for many years and become just as conversant. Certainly, there are plenty of Indians who are not serious practitioners of Hinduisn and/or yoga. On the other hand, there are also plenty of white dudes (and dudettes) who do practice seriously, and aren't caught up in the western hype surrounding asana based practices…

  6. Svasti says:

    Righto. Linda-Sama invited me to write a guest post on her blog, which encompasses my response to both this article and the Yoga Dork one. It's a two-parter. You can check out the first part here: I don't know how old yoga is and neither do you — part 1 :D

  7. Svasti says:

    Righto. Linda-Sama invited me to write a guest post on her blog, which encompasses my response to both this article and the Yoga Dork one. It's a two-parter. You can check out the first part here: I don't know how old yoga is and neither do you — part 1 :D

  8. Svasti says:

    Righto. Linda-Sama invited me to write a guest post on her blog, which encompasses my response to both this article and the Yoga Dork one. It's a two-parter. You can check out the first part here: I don't know how old yoga is and neither do you — part 1 :D

  9. Svasti says:

    Righto. Linda-Sama invited me to write a guest post on her blog, which encompasses my response to both this article and the Yoga Dork one. It's a two-parter. You can check out the first part here: I don't know how old yoga is and neither do you — part 1 :D

  10. Svasti says:

    Righto. Linda-Sama invited me to write a guest post on her blog, which encompasses my response to both this article and the Yoga Dork one. It's a two-parter. You can check out the first part here: I don't know how old yoga is and neither do you — part 1 :D

  11. Nice post! Just commented.

  12. Rachel says:

    Thanks for posting this article! Obviously there are a lot of misinformed ideas about what yoga "really" is – and a lot of anxiety over maintaining the "authenticity" of the practice. For anyone who is interested, and for anyone who wants to seriously engage with this practice, there are several fantastic books available that delve into the history of yoga and how it has been purposefully reformulated within the context of British colonialism and imperialism since the 1850s. Must reads. They end all speculation. I'd be interested in hearing what you think after reading them.

    A History of Modern Yoga, Elizaebth De Michelis
    Yoga in Modern India: The Body Between Science and Philosophy, Jospeh S. Alter

  13. Thanks, Rachel. I just put these on my Amazon wish list.

    What a novel idea. Seek out books by people who have actually studied this question!

    Bob Weisenberg
    http://YogaDemystified.com

  14. Thanks, Rachel. I just put these on my Amazon wish list.

    What a novel idea. Seek out books by people who have actually studied this question!

    Bob Weisenberg
    http://YogaDemystified.com

  15. Thanks, Rachel. I just put these on my Amazon wish list.

    What a novel idea. Seek out books by people who have actually studied this question!

    Bob Weisenberg
    http://YogaDemystified.com

  16. Thanks, Rachel. I just put these on my Amazon wish list.

    What a novel idea. Seek out books by people who have actually studied this question!

    Bob Weisenberg
    http://YogaDemystified.com

  17. Rachel and everyone else. I highly recommend these guest blogs on this same topic by Svasti and the related discussion on Linda's blog:

    http://lindasyoga.blogspot.com/2009/12/i-dont-kno

    http://lindasyoga.blogspot.com/2009/12/i-dont-kno

    Bob Weisenberg
    http://YogaDemystified.com

  18. Rachel and everyone else. I highly recommend these guest blogs on this same topic by Svasti and the related discussion on Linda's blog:

    http://lindasyoga.blogspot.com/2009/12/i-dont-kno

    http://lindasyoga.blogspot.com/2009/12/i-dont-kno

    Bob Weisenberg
    http://YogaDemystified.com

  19. Rachel and everyone else. I highly recommend these guest blogs on this same topic by Svasti and the related discussion on Linda's blog:

    http://lindasyoga.blogspot.com/2009/12/i-dont-kno

    http://lindasyoga.blogspot.com/2009/12/i-dont-kno

    Bob Weisenberg
    http://YogaDemystified.com

  20. Rachel and everyone else. I highly recommend these guest blogs on this same topic by Svasti and the related discussion on Linda's blog:

    http://lindasyoga.blogspot.com/2009/12/i-dont-kno

    http://lindasyoga.blogspot.com/2009/12/i-dont-kno

    Bob Weisenberg
    http://YogaDemystified.com

  21. I think it's only fair to mention that both of Rachel's recommended books were also recommended by Nick Rosen in his comments to the original YogaDork blog that set off this wonderful firestorm of discussion in the first place, and they formed the basis for his original controversial interview:

    "YogaDork Interviews Kate Churchill and Nick Rosen of Yogamentary Film ‘Enlighten Up!’"
    http://www.yogadork.com/2009/11/16/yogadork-inter

    Bob Weisenberg
    http://YogaDemystified.com

  22. I think it's only fair to mention that both of Rachel's recommended books were also recommended by Nick Rosen in his comments to the original YogaDork blog that set off this wonderful firestorm of discussion in the first place, and they formed the basis for his original controversial interview:

    "YogaDork Interviews Kate Churchill and Nick Rosen of Yogamentary Film ‘Enlighten Up!’"
    http://www.yogadork.com/2009/11/16/yogadork-inter

    Bob Weisenberg
    http://YogaDemystified.com

  23. I think it's only fair to mention that both of Rachel's recommended books were also recommended by Nick Rosen in his comments to the original YogaDork blog that set off this wonderful firestorm of discussion in the first place, and they formed the basis for his original controversial interview:

    "YogaDork Interviews Kate Churchill and Nick Rosen of Yogamentary Film ‘Enlighten Up!’"
    http://www.yogadork.com/2009/11/16/yogadork-inter

    Bob Weisenberg
    http://YogaDemystified.com

  24. I think it's only fair to mention that both of Rachel's recommended books were also recommended by Nick Rosen in his comments to the original YogaDork blog that set off this wonderful firestorm of discussion in the first place, and they formed the basis for his original controversial interview:

    "YogaDork Interviews Kate Churchill and Nick Rosen of Yogamentary Film ‘Enlighten Up!’"
    http://www.yogadork.com/2009/11/16/yogadork-inter

    Bob Weisenberg
    http://YogaDemystified.com

  25. Rachel says:

    Bob, you are absolutely correct – thanks for directing me to the comments below. I'm happy to know they've already been suggested. Thanks also for the links to similar topics.

  26. Sarath says:

    I have not gone through the discussion here. But I have read the post and this particular quote about B.K.S. Iyengar combining yoga poses and hindu practices. All I can say is that my grandmother's grandfather was a yoga practitioner and he used to do asanas, pranayama and meditation which he learnt from his guru. I do not know the details about his practice but it certainly points to a tradition more than 100 years old. Oh, and yes, he passed away in the late 40's.

  27. shashi says:

    "ekam sat viprA bahudA vadanti" – truth is one, paths are many, is a vedic quote, please try to quote the original source as much as possible.
    - shashi

  28. yogi Tobye says:

    Was it 35,000 years ago that someone turned on that "magic switch" that started human creativity? Anthropologists are still asking questions about how we suddenly went from virtual animal, to creating cave paintings, pottery, jewelery etc…. I would debate that that was when "yoga" was also born. Yoga is our spiritual/emotional/mental/physical evolution. Asana and pranayama are historically only exercises to get weak bodies in tune for meditation practice. Meditation practice started as soon as Humans had the ability to take a break and not stress over hunting, being hunted or gathering and realised exactly what a still mind actually did for us
    Certainly the Pyramids are over 5000 years old and there's paintings there of people practising asana.
    As soon as Man could think, become aware and seperate Himself from nature, but also be aware of how much a part of nature He was… that's when yoga was born.
    Lots of mindstuff happening above…. kinda reminds me of the 2 monks sitting on the hill watching the prayer flags… one says to the other "flag is moving" the other says "wind is moving" another monk walks by and says "both wrong, mind is moving!"
    Yoga can be the art of painting… if painting watercolours stops your mind moving and arguing about when yoga was "invented" is just lots of minds moving……

  29. martin says:

    Bla, bla, bla….of Yoga

  30. Ramesh says:

    For a more in depth reply to this article, please read:
    http://www.elephantjournal.com/2010/04/how-old-is

    Hinduism as a term is not very old, not more about 1000 years old when the Muslims invaded India and called the people living on the other side of the "Sindhu River" for Hindhu; they simply did not pronounce the word correctly. Later on, when the British cane to India, looted and pillaged, like all great empires and imperialists do, they firmly gave that term nationalistic shape and recognition. So, Hinduism is not very old at all…. the Vedas are old, Yoga is old, Tantra is old, Shaivism is old, etc etc, but not Hinduism. Besides, Hinduism is a foreign construct. Before Hinduism, India was, and still is, a conglomerate of religions and spiritual paths, the two greatest, the Vedic and the Tantric/Yogic is what forms the backbone of India's culture and heritage, not Hinduism, because that term was invented by invaders and later adopted by Indians, as well as, unfortunately, most conquered people do.

  31. What an interesting article! I’d love more information.Thanks!

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  34. Helen Paul-Smith says:

    Nobody knows how old yoga truly is, if my source is correct it is mentioned in the eldest veda which is thought becuase of it's use of ancient sanskrit to be 7-8,000 years old.

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