Yoga History in 9 Easy Steps.

Via on Oct 8, 2012

History is important.

History keeps us connected. History gives us perspective.

But history can also be complex and confusing. How old is your asana or meditation practice? Answer: it depends. What was the social condition of India like during Buddha’s time? Answer: turbulent. Which philosophical system influenced Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras as well as Ayurveda the most? Answer: Samkhya.

Yes, how old is your asana? A hundred years old? A thousand years old? Two thousand? Who created them, and why?

I’m not making this up: many of the asanas practiced in today’s yoga studios are no more than about 80 years old. In fact, many of them are no more than five to 20 years old. That’s been proven by such books as Mark Singleton’s Yoga Body. Singleton shows convincingly that modern Hatha Yoga is a mixture of Indian yoga and Western gymnastics first developed in a castle in Mysore, India by the great and late Krishnamacharya.

I’m not making this up, either: yoga is more than just a set of East-West fitness poses. Yoga also includes simple and sophisticated meditation and pranayama techniques, holistic medicine (ayurveda), philosophy and cosmology. And its total history is a lot longer than 80 years, at least a few thousand years longer.

Unlike what some yoga writers claim, there is no need to resort to unsubstantiated mythology or hearsay to prove that yoga is a lot older than the Ford Motor Company. That is, if we agree that Hatha Yoga can be divided in at least three periods—the modern, the medieval and the ancient—and that yoga includes more than just a set of physical exercises.

If we agree that yoga includes both preliminary and advanced practices for the body, mind and spirit, then there is plenty of archeological, linguistic, textual, genetic or other evidence to suggest that Hatha Yoga is at least 1500 years old, that Tantra is at least 6000 years old, that Yoga philosophy is at least 3500 years old, and that goraksasana (a complex Hatha Yoga bhanda) was practiced more than 4000 years ago.

As a teacher of yoga history to yoga teacher students, I have researched these issues for a number of years. Depending on your perspective of what yoga is, there are various ways to look at yoga history.

Here are seven, equally valid, but different, perspectives to keep in mind:

1) If yoga is thought to be synonymous with modern Hatha Yoga as taught from Krishnamacharya to Seane Corn, you may convincingly argue that its history is no more than 80-100 years old. Some poses are actually only five to 10 years old. Actually, a few new ones were invented just yesterday.

2) If yoga includes traditional practices of Hatha Yoga as preserved in texts such as the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, the Shiva Samhita and the Gheranda Samhita, yoga history is about 1000 years old.

3) If yoga history includes Patajali’s Yoga Sutras and its associated practices, its history is about 2200 years old.

4) If yoga includes the subtle teachings of Astavakra, who wrote the Astavakra Samhita describing a philosophy that is nondual and Vedantic in nature while his practical teachings were Tantric, then yoga history is about 2400 years old.

Astavakra, according to my teacher Anandamurti, taught that asanas should be practiced slowly and held in certain positions for a certain period of time to effect glandular secretions and thus your health and mood. Mayurasana (peacock) can thus be practiced to overcome both fear (including fear of public speaking) and certain digestive problems.

5) If yoga includes the inspirational teachings and deep philosophy and practices described in the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita, the history of yoga is at least 2700 years old.

6) If yoga includes the long and complex co-mingling of the Vedic and Tantric (Shaiva) civilizations and its associated literature (many texts yet to be translated into English) and oral teachings, then textual, archeological, linguistic and genetic evidence suggests this history to be nearly 7000 years old.

During the time of this Indus Valley civilization (2000-4500 BCE), the Vedic scriptures the Atharvaveda, Yajurveda and Samaveda were developed in India. The RigVeda had been composed earlier and mostly outside India. The Atharvaveda was greatly influenced by Tantra. Archeological evidence of Hatha Yoga and meditation postures (see archeologists John Marshall and Jonathan Mark Kenoyer and Indologists Heinrich Zimmer and Georg Feuerstein, among others).

While the script in the Indus Valley is Dravidyan according to Indologist Asko Parpola, archeological evidence points to a mixed culture of Shaiva Tantra (Dravidyan) and Vedic (Aryan) influences, much like India today. (Due to religious, caste and political overtones, this period of India is hotly debated, but science is slowly building consensus).

7) Many complain that there is little evidence of yoga practice in the ancient literature. It depends on what is meant by ancient.

There is scriptural evidence going back at least 2500 years or more. The main reason for lack of scriptural evidence is that most of the ancient history and practice of yoga has been preserved as oral teachings, much like in the shamanic tradition.

But, since the yogis preserved their knowledge in easy-to-remember sutras and slokas, it was passed down quite accurately for thousands of years.

There is thus often a huge discrepancy between the knowledge of yoga written in texts and the knowledge taught orally by yogis within the tradition.

Moreover, many texts have yet to be translated into English, but researchers in the Indian government’s Traditional Digital Knowledge Library have collected evidence of hundreds of asanas from ancient texts.

8) Finally, there are broadly two perspectives on ancient yogic history. 1) Some hold that ancient yoga originated with the early Vedic civilization. 2) Some hold that ancient yoga originated with the early Tantric civilization.

Both perspectives are partially true, because Indian civilization, and thus the yoga tradition, is a blend of these two cultural streams.

As yoga scholar Georg Feuerstein writes: “Except for the most orthodox pundits, who view Tantra as an abomination, educated traditional Hindus… distinguish between Vedic and Tantric—vaidika and tantrika—currents of Hindu spirituality.”

Most of what we associate as philosophy, religious ritual and mythology hails from the Vedic tradition, and, broadly, what we associate with yoga as practice originated from the Tantric tradition (also called Shaivism). Over thousands of years, these traditions merged and created what we often term Hindu Tantra.

That is to say, while different yogis invented different philosophies and schools of yoga, the practices they had in common can be characterized as Tantric, not Vedic. Not surprisingly, the Hatha Yoga Pradipika (1400 AD) was not written by Vedic priests, it was written by Tantric yogis from the Natha school of Tantra.

9) So, if your perspective is that yoga is synonymous with contemporary Hatha Yoga or posture yoga, then you may argue that yoga history is not much older than Krishnamacharya and the Ford Motor Company.

But if your perspective is that yoga includes such marvelous texts as the Bhagavad Gita and the subtle insights of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, as well as the ancient Tantric teachings of meditation and kundalini awakening, then yoga history is a few thousand years older than Krishnamacharya.

Indeed, Krishnamacarya himself did not claim he invented yoga, he simply modified what he had learned from his teachers. And in that spirit of continuous reinvention, the history of yoga will move on.

Notes: Most dates above are approximate. My research sources are from oral history, ancient tantric and yogic texts such as the Puranas, Yoga Upanishads, Shiva Samhita, Agamas and Nigamas, Hatha Yoga Pradipika, Gheranda Samhita, Astavakra Samhita, and from writers, teachers and scientists such as Swami Satyananda Saraswati, Shri Anandamurti, Lalan Prasad Singh, N. N. Bhattacarya, Alain Danielou, Richard Rosen, Georg Feuerstein, Mark Singleton, Spencer Wells (geneticist), genetic researchers from the University of Utah, Sir John Marshall (archeologist), and many more.



Editor: Kate Bartolotta

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About Ramesh Bjonnes

Ramesh Bjonnes is the co-founder of the Prama Institute, a holistic retreat center in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina and the Director of the Prama Wellness Center, a retreat center specializing in detox by incorporating juice fasting, ayurveda, meditation and yoga to cleanse, relax and rejuvenate. Bjonnes is also a writer, yogi and workshop leader. He lived in India and Nepal in the 1980s learning directly from the traditional teachers of yoga and Tantra. He has taught workshops in many countries and is the author of Sacred Body, Sacred Spirit (InnerWorld) and Tantra: The Yoga of Love and Awakening (Hay House India). He lives and practices in an eco-village in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina.


71 Responses to “Yoga History in 9 Easy Steps.”

  1. Pankaj Seth says:

    Ramesh, congratulations on your new book… sounds like a fantastic read. In this blog too, you've brought in a lot of info and I really like how you've presented the argument as to 'depending on the criteria used, Yoga can be thought about this way.'

    It seems that that the West's Indo-European heritage, which predates Christianity is coming to the fore. In this, looking at Indian materials and practices has been important. This common heritage of all Indo-European cultures might even include the Druids who had a calendar which marked the 27 Nakshatras. I wonder what else historians will find…


    " 'Celtic cosmology is a parallel to Vedic cosmology. Ancient Celtic astrologers used a similar system based on twenty-seven lunar mansions, called nakshatras in Vedic Sanskrit. Like the Hindu Soma, King Ailill of Connacht, Ireland, had a circular palace constructed with twenty-seven windows through which he could gaze on his twenty-seven "star wives."
    There survives the famous first century bce Celtic calendar (the Coligny Calendar) which, as soon as it was first discovered in 1897, was seen to have parallels to Vedic calendrical computations.' Early Irish Astrology: An Historical Argument by Peter Berresford Ellis"

    *** I was recently made aware of the above. I wonder if you or someone else can corroborate this info…

  2. leah says:

    Thank you for clarifying that as I am always amazed at the constant bombardment of new postures!

  3. shiva says:

    Good post Ramesh. Lots of good information. I just want to add one more piece. If you read indian scriptures specially mahabharata, and ramayana which were writtern few thousand years back there are many references to tapasya, standing with single leg like vrikshasana, pranayama, etc. These show that asana portion of yoga have been practiced for thousands of years. Because the emphasis was always on spiritual few references can be found for asanas than tapasya/meditation. I am impressed by your knowledge and understanding.


  4. Pankaj Seth says:

    Ramesh, on what basis do you say that the Rg Veda was composed mostly outside of India? You are aware of course that the hymns describe the Sapta Sindhu region, which is northern Punjab and modern day Pakistan. So, given this, what is the basis of supposing that though local features are described, yet it is composed elsewhere?

  5. Vic DiCara says:

    100% wonderful article.

    Question: Why do you say Tantra is inherently Siva oriented in its original, ancient form? Do you really mean "Siva" literally or various Rudras who later became Siva? My understanding (and experience) is that the name and person Siva is not found in Rg, Atharva, Sama, Yajur.

  6. Ramesh Bjonnes Ramesh says:

    Dear Vic, according to my studies and the oral tradition I belong to, the Tantric and the Vedic traditions do not hail from the same tree, so to speak. But over time, as I mention in the article, they influenced each other. So, yes, Shiva is, in the Tantric and Shaiva tradition considered the father or King of Yoga. His origin can be traced apart from Aryan culture and his worship pervaded all of India. Shiva thus had non-Aryan origin and Aryan manifestations in different promiscuous forms including that of the Vedic Rudra (the power of destruction) and has other names: Mahadeva, Nataraja, Hara, etc. The name Harappa, which signifies a part of the Indus Valley, is named for Shiva (hara =shiva and appa=father) There are also bilva leaves found on sculptures of people in these ruins (3500 BCE), which shows early worship of Shiva as these leaves are still used in the worship of Shiva.

  7. Eric Shaw Eric Shaw says:

    With all due respect, Ramesh, even the most beyond-the-center scholars put the Vedas no later than 1800 BCE and none of them attribute them to the Indus-Sarasvati civilization. The most simple reason for this (to avoid the more complex arguments!) is that the I-S script is wholly different from the script of Sanskrit–Devanagri. The script of the Indus civilization is tantalizing, but it has never been deciphered. To call it Dravidian is a leap. We do not know enough about the culture to attribute it to this language or ethnic group. Also, to call the culture Tantric is reaching. The main evidence for yoga from the civilization–the seals and small terracotta molds that show a meditating figure–are definitely suggestive of Shiva's iconography, worship and mythic stories–as are the bilva leaves you mention–but it is a leap from that to say the I – S civilization was Tantric–and I know of no true scholarly consensus that suggests this. A good review of the scholarship here can be found in Aryan and Non-Aryan in South Asia, edited by Johannes Bronkhorst.

    A second point: Yoga is first described in the Upanishads (800 BCE to 200 CE). Formal Tantra does not emerge textually till the 4th century CE and not in full cultural bloom till the 7th century. To call any social movement before that "Tantric" would be difficult to sustain, as I suggest above. Are you calling ascetic culture Tantric culture? The ascetic and Brahmanic (Vedic) practices are certainly in conversation in the Upanishads and yoga becomes a new Vedic idiom thereby. By this time the conversations between ritualists (Vedic priestly culture) and ascetic (outcaste yogi culture) suggests a detente, if indeed they were ever wholly separate or at odds. People we can call yogis are described in the Vedas (c. 1200 – 800 BCE), but not yogic practices. (I would be curious to understand what you are pointing to in your "4000 year-old" practice of goraksasana.). It is odd to argue an "origin" for yoga that is "either Vedic or Tantric."

    A third point about your statements on Hatha Yoga: the current consensus is that it's provenance runs to 1300 CE–so to say it is 1500 years old is quite a leap. We have some evidence for postures from cave carvings around that time, but no description of a system, and certainly not one named "Hatha"–the term used by Gorakhnath in the period I mention.

    All best,

    Eric Shaw

  8. Ramesh Bjonnes Ramesh says:

    Eric, as i mentioned in the article, there are so many scholars and writers who call the indus Valley tantric and shaiva, in particular in India and especially in Bengal, so it all depends. In fact, there is a divide along Vedic Brahmin and Darvidyan Tantric lines. Similarly, if you talk to John Trudell about US history, a Lakota Indian, you will get a very different version from that of George Bush. So these issues are contentious and very politicized. From Satyananda saraswati to Bhattacharya, from Anandamurti to Lalan Singh, from Thapar to Marshall, you will hear that this was indeed a civilization very much influenced by Tantra. BUT, I did not say only Tantra–it was a blended civilization, much like Inida is today, btween the Vedic and the Tantric. In the Upanishads, in the philosophy, you see the Vedic influence, but when you go into the yogic practices, beyond the vedic prayers and rituals, that is all Tantra. That is my thesis, and dozens of others say the same thing.

  9. Ramesh Bjonnes Ramesh says:

    Lastly, in my article I clearly separated textual and oral history. When you spend time in India with the oral tradition, you realize it is not just based on myths, but also on carefully preserved knowledge. Now, I understand that Western academics may not want to touch that, but nevertheless, that is also part of history. Moreover, I also define Asthanga Yoga of Ptanajali as tantric, and that is older than 800 AD. Regarding Goraksana: that is in reference to the Pashupati figure: Feuerstein, my self and many others have concluded that is the posture. Some Western scholars call it the lotus pose, but that does not make any sense at all as the heals are pressed into the scrotum. Archeologists draw conclusions from less eveidence than that, but it all depends on your background and your knowledge. Molst Western scholars have little or no knowledge of the actual practices of the traditions they study, they stick to the texts only and thus miss a great deal.

  10. Ramesh Bjonnes Ramesh says:

    Eric, one more point: I mentioned in my article that all the dates are approximate. You are right that the oldest Hatha Yoga texts are only about 800-1000 years old. However, my point wqas that one can clearly argue that Hatha Yoga as a practice is much older. At least as old as Patanjali's Yoga Sutras in which Pranayama, a hatha yoga practice, is an integral part. Moreover, in order to practice pranayama and the other meditation practices of the eight limbs (partyahara, dharana, dhyan and samadhi), the yogin sits in various asanas, also a part of Hatha Yoga. So, it is safe to say, that Hatha Yoga, the practice of various asanas, bhandas, and breathing exrecises is a lot older than the Hatha Yoga Pradipika. And if the Pashupati seal depics someone in goraksasana, then the practice of Hatha Yoga is several thousand years older. Indeed, the various practices described by Patanjali are scattered in various older texts as well. So, I think it is important for the Western, yogic mind to venture beyond the narrow confines of academia, even though the latter is important and has its place.

  11. Ashton Szabo says:

    Hi Ramesh,

    I appreciate your article, but I, like others here, am having a hard time connecting some of your dots. Under what sort of definition are you classifying Patanjali's Ashtanga Yoga as tantric? As well, saying that "Hatha Yoga" is old because the practices contained within it are old is logically invalid. The saying: "If I am in Bejing, I am in China. But to say that I'm in China does not mean I am in Bejing" applies here. Just because Hatha Yoga absorbed practices that might very well have been hundreds (maybe even a thousand+) of years old, doesn't mean that Hatha Yoga itself then is that old. If we were to take an arbitrary thing like a sport such as Football. And say that it is 100 years old (I have NO idea how old the sport with the name of football actually is, but that is irrelevant for this example), but that it borrowed ideas from much older ancient sports (the ball game of the aztecs, lets say). That doesn't mean that you can then date Football back hundreds more years to the aztecs, just because they gained ideas from those previous games… Because the game of football wasn't created until people got together, made the sport and called it football.

    So I'm quite curious as to where you are deriving your dates for things… To say "from the oral traditions"… well… I mean… sure… you go to India and every Kaustubh walking down the street might tell you that yoga is 5000 years old. But… walk down a street in a fundamentalist christian community and they will tell you the world is only a few thousand years old. Because that's "their" tradition. Unfortunately, the verifiable facts don't really add up. Yes, the "winners" right history, and Howard Zinn's book is a wonderful resource, and I get your point… but I'm still having a hard time with your evidence…

    I appreciate your comments and insights though, and I look forward to hear what you have to say.

  12. Ramesh Bjonnes Ramesh says:

    Ashton, I have clearly defined two streams, Vedic and Tantric. I have also said that they signify two different streams of Indian culture, one a system of prayers, rituals and a certain philsophy, the other a system of yogic practices. Go look for them in the Vedas, and you will mainly find Tantric and yogic stuff in the Atharvaveda. So start by reading some of my sources listed above. Your verifibale facts may not add up, because you have been acusstomed to a certain way of looking at history. We cannot argue that the Cherokee language is only as old as its very recent script anymore than we can argue that Hatha Yoga is only as old as its first text. It is highly unlikely, especially when you have sculptures with sophisticated bandhas going back thousands of years more. But, sure, you are welcome to ignore that, or interpret it differntly I accept the value of textual origin, but I do not accept that as the whole way of dating reality. I have inlcuded many other sources above, including linguistics, genetics, archeology. Study it all, then make up your own mind. .

  13. Ramesh Bjonnes Ramesh says:

    Ashton, all of the meditation techniques discussed by Patnajali are Tantric in nature, not Vedic. Mantra incantation is part of Ishvara Pranidhan, for example. Tantric scholar Gopinath Kavirajs writes:" According to the directive of Maharsi Patanajali, in mantra incantation, the ideation of mantra is essential. Incantation and ideation are inseparable." That point, is the heart of Tantric meditation. Patanjali defines yoga as the elimination of all vrittis. That process is indeed also at the very heart of tantric meditation, of kundalini yoga, as the vrittis are eliminated as the kundalini ascends, which leads to samadhi. Hatha Yoga is the basis of kriya yoga, of asthanga yoga, of raja yoga. So the reason why the various practices are not outlined in detail by Patanjali is because they were taught orally, from teacher to disciple. But the teachings, the knowledge was there, and we we see the evidence in that asanas (hatha yoga) comes before pranayma, pratyahara etc. in his system. So Asthanga yoga is all Tantra.

  14. Ramesh Bjonnes Ramesh says:

    Ashton, finally, let me explain how I have connected my dots by using one important example: there are various theories about the Vedic Aryans. Mainly three: 1. they arrived in India in 2000 BCE and destroyed the Dravidian Indus Valley Civilization. This view is standard in academia. 2. They never arrived, they have always lived in India; the Indus Valley was not destroyed by invading Vedic Aryans. 3. The vedic Aryans arrived around 5000 BCE and, yes, there were conflicts but over a long period of time. These issues are crucial in our study of the history of yoga/tantra. I was taught an oral history saying that they arrived around 5000 BCE. This oral history has been proven with the genetic science of Spencer Wells and also Utah university researchers. That's how I connected two important dots: oral history and genetics. So, please read my essay more carefully… was all in there. Finally, I also explained how I deine and use the word tantra, much the same way you use the word yoga. That is also an important dot.

  15. Ramesh Bjonnes Ramesh says:

    P.S. Most Western readers and students of yoga are not familiar with the way that I use the word Tantra. Simply put, I use it much the same way most of you use the word yoga, to mean a whole lot of things related to the practice of yoga. So to me, and to a host of other writers, pundits, gurus, sages, Tantra=Yoga.
    In india, one distinguishes between Tantric and Vedic initiation.
    So when Swami Satyananda titles one of his books (A Systematic Course in the Ancient Tantric Techniques of Yoga and Kriya), he uses the word Tantra to mean everything related to the practice, the science of yoga. As I said earlier, Tantra signifies practice, a science, a system. Apart from that, there are numerous schools of tantra and yoga, but that is another topic.

  16. bflatbrad says:

    Good writing, Ramesh !!!

  17. Ramesh Bjonnes Ramesh says:

    In the evolution of the Vedic literature–from the archaic/mythic worship of nature gods in the Rigveda to the more transcendental voices of the later Vedas, especially in the the Upanishads–it is instructive to view human culture as outlined by Jean Gebser–from achaic to magic to mythic to rational to integral consciousness. RigVedic literature represent the dawn of human civilization with its nature gods–Indra, Marutas, Vayu, Agni, Suria, Usha, etc–whose power and wrath needed to be appeased w/ offerings of blood, ghee, etc by the Vedic priests. The Rigveda praises the nature Gods, it is mostly magical and mythic in nature, less rational/transcendental. In the Atharvaveda there is a marked difference, as we see the influence of yogic/tantric sages–there is a mixture of magic and myth and more transcendental wisdom. This becomes much more pronounced in the socalled fifth Veda, the Upanishads, as we see the influence of yogic/tantric and rational/integral wisdom even stronger. Thus, India has, through cultural evolution seen the emergence and blending of these two sacred archetypes–the priest/Vedic and the yogic/Tantric–wowen throughout its history. At their best, these archetypes have merged in the most sophisticated of Indias sages.

  18. Ramesh Bjonnes Ramesh says:

    In other words, the brahmans of old were so powerful that they only could do these sacrifices. Good grief. This is just one of many examples of how some of the Vedic animal sacrifices are being rationalized to mean whatever you want them to mean. What is not mentioned is that the sacrifice was done to get something from the gods. In tantra it is said that the lowest form of spirituality is worshiping idols, the highest is meditating on the Divine without asking anything in return. Well, in my book, animal sacrifice is even lower than idol worship.

  19. Bryan says:

    Ramesh. If you believe in transmigration of the souls, then the brahmins who could perform such rites were in fact doing a service to the horse in letting it receive a higher birth. You can judge them for trying to get something for it but to completely disregard the power of mantra and knowledge of the ancients is a point of debate which quite frankly you can't even begin to discuss.
    As regards pouring ghee on things and yogic science, from my own experience in performing agnihotra, a revived Vedic practice of pouring ghee on dung /rice in a copper pyramid and burning it at sunrise/sunset with mantras, there is some definite science and energetics behind it. Weird science, but science nonetheless. Try it yourself.
    I appreciate the discussion on here, but let's face it, we can't really come to any conclusive facts about the history and terms can be endlessly debated. I find your article interesting but rather confusing and not such an "easy" approach in the least. I mean who would even think of equating yoga history with modern yoga via Krishnamacharya? It is an absurd notion to even the most novice studio going "yogi". Seems you are reaching for something to write an article about here.
    When all is said and done I'm sure we all can agree that it is more important to have a living teacher who can guide you through these times if your really interested in finding God or whatever you wan't to call it. That trumps any textual exegesis. Robert Svoboda has two great quotes on his blog this month

    "The greater the ignorance the greater the dogmatism"
    "A fanatic is one who can't change his mind and won't change the subject."

    Thought for thought. Perhaps we can all move on now and go meditate?

  20. Raj Kumar Dham says:

    Ramesh Ji thanks for nicely compiling the history / information on Yoga , I feel both Vedic and Tantric philosophy have contributed significantly to the development of yoga,I have been reading books from Bihar School of Yoga ,Swami Satyanand Ji Sarswati and Swami Niranjanananda Sarswati like Dharana Darshan ,Swara Yoga , and realised many practices are based on Yogic,Tantric and Upanishadic practices .

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