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