How old is Yoga? Reply to Waylon Lewis.

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Shiva-the King of Yoga.

Waylon Lewis asked an intriguing question in one of his blogs: How old is yoga?  A little more than half a dozen decades older than Waylon Lewis, responds one of the experts, Nick Rosen, over at Yogadork.

There is undoubtedly some truth to that quick and concise historical assessment. But only if one equates the practice of yoga with the practice of asanas, the physical exercises most people today associate with yoga.

It is true, Waylon, modern yoga—as taught by Krishnamacarya and later by B.K.S. Iyengar, who imported it to the West—is indeed a mixture of Western gymnastics, wrestling and Indian Hatha Yoga. This is true. This has been documented.

If you think of yoga as these forms of practices, which today have morphed into numerous other yoga styles, including Power Yoga and Bikram Yoga, yoga is indeed no more than 90-100 years old. Not much older than one of Bikram’s Roll Royces.

But let’s not conflate yoga to the level of the body only. As the Einstein of consciousness, Ken Wilber, would say, that’s flatland science. That’s conflating reality to one dimension only: the physical. And, Waylon, that does not work in the world of yoga.

As you know, in yoga, we divide reality up in at least three dimensions: body, mind, spirit. And, says Boulder’s Einstein, Mr. Wilber, we need to understand each of these levels on their own terms. Not conflate them all to the level of the body. Hence, yoga does not equal asanas only.

So, to understand the history of yoga, we need to understand that yoga is more than the physical exercises exported to the West by B.K.S Iyengar et al. Luckily, more and more yoga students today understand that. And Iyengar certainly understood it. Iyengar certainly knows and respect the fact that he has borrowed from a tradition that is thousands of years older than Waylon Lewis.

So here goes:

The most recent record of authentic Hatha Yoga scriptures from India in existence is the Gheranda Samhita, which was written in the 17th century. This book describes 32 of the most common asanas used today.

This book builds upon another book, the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, from the 15th century (there are also versions of this book hundreds of years older), which list a dozen yoga postures. So, Waylon, we already know—by using only measurable and scientific methods acceptable to the Western flatland mindset—that yoga is at least 500 years older than you are!

The Hatha Yoga Pradipika mentions in its introduction that these exercises were developed by Shiva and that there were 84 in all. Other written sources, such as the Shiva Samhita, say the same thing. Shiva is the original founder of Yoga. That is why in India, Shiva is called the King of Yoga, and that is why you see posters of this dreadlocked hippie everywhere.

This is no coincidence. If we want to trace the history of yoga, we must follow the smoke, including the smoke from the sadhu hashish pipes, leading us back to this one sadhu king named Shiva. Because, if we want to know yoga and its origins, that’s our man.

But before we go tracking down Shiva, we need to visit with some other yogis, the Tantric yogis of the Middle Ages. From about 400 AD to about 1400 AD, India experienced a spiritual renaissance of Tantric dimensions. This is the period when all the books on Tantra were written, including the Hatha Yoga Pradipika.

So, if we want to understand the roots of yoga, we cannot leave out Tantra. Why? Because everything we associate with yoga (asanas, kundalini, chakras, pranayama, mantra, and so on) have been developed by Tantric yogis. Even Patanjali (200 BC) acknowledged that and many other important teachers acknowledge that Patanjali’s Asthanga Yoga System built upon Tantra and Samkhya. That is why Ashtanga Yoga is also called Raja Yoga. Kriya Yoga or also Kundalini Yoga. Hence, also the Tantric saying: a true yogi combines Hatha Yoga with Raja Yoga to create body-mind-spirit balance. In modern language: combine the heat of Bikram with the upward coil of Kundalini and you’re getting closer to the real deal!

So, Waylon, now we have established that yoga is at least 2200 years old. Because, even Western acadeics acknowledge that the Yoga Sutras are that old, give or take a few hundred years. And, we have also clearly established that yoga is more than asanas, the physical flatland stuff, because Asthanga Yoga is divided into eight limbs, and only one of them deals with asanas.

Let’s move another few hundred years backwards into history. Some say that the Samkhya philosophy was written about 500 years before Christ, some say it was developed around 1500 BCE. This is very likely so, because all of yoga history and its philosophy existed for a long time as oral tradition before being written down.

Interestingly, this philosophy, which is the foundation of Ayurveda and also, to some extent, Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, was also called Kapilasa Tantra after its founder Kapila.

Another word for Tantra is Shaivism. And Samkhya is a Shaiva philosophy. In other words, Samkhya is basically a Tantric yoga philosophy. Hence, there is also a deep interrelationship between Ayurveda and Tantra. In South India this Tantric medicine is called Siddha medicine.

Moreover, many traditional Ayurvedic doctors in India will say that Shiva also developed Ayurveda. In other words, both yoga and Ayurveda can be traced back through oral history to this dreadlocked sage.

And, if you want to read this oral history, read the Puranas. The Shiva Puranas in particular concludes that yoga and Tantra come from the same ancient source.

Note here that we have not mentioned anything about the Vedas yet. Many Western scholars claim that yoga originated in the Vedas. That is very unlikely. The oral tradition of the Vedas was upheld by the Vedic priests. The oral tradition of yoga was upheld by the yogis, the Shaivites, the Tantrics. You just don’t go to a Vedic priest to learn about yoga, especially if you are a woman.

The Vedic dogmas do not think highly of women. In Tantra, on the other hand, women could be teachers and gurus. No problem. Indeed, according to oral Tantric tradition it was Shiva and his wife Parvati who developed the Agamas and Nigamas, the teachings of Tantra. Hence, yoga’s earliest roots can also be traced straight back to a woman, to Parvati.

Around 1500 BCE, there lived a great man named Krishna. He introduced three forms of yoga: Bhakti Yoga (yoga of devotion), Karma Yoga (yoga of action) and Jinana Yoga (yoga of knowledge). Krishna’s teachings are outlined in one of the greatest spiritual books ever written, the Bhagavad-Gita. (It has now been proven that Krishna’s city Dvarka lays under the sea on the west coast of India; it dates back to 1500 BCE)

In the period after Krishna, many other yogic scriptures were developed: the Brahmanas and the various Upanishads. All these scriptures signify a blending of two cultures and traditions, the Vedic and the Tantric, the priest and the yogi.

These sophisticated spiritual scriptures are often termed the Fifth Veda. Many scholars in the West, I would say most, do not accurately distinguish the great difference between Tantra and Veda, and do not appreciate the great value Tantra has had in supplying the yogic practices, the spiritual technology that enabled the yogi sages to have inner experiences that in turn enabled them to develop such sublime philosophies as outlined in this period, as well as in the later tantric renaissance of the Middle Ages.

When we speak of Hinduism, we speak of the blending of Tantra and Veda. But we must also remember that Hinduism is a Western term, a recent term that is pretty meaningless when we trace the real spiritual history of ancient India.

A few thousand years before Krishna (1500 BCE) there was an early Dravidian and Tantric civilization in India, the Indus Valley civilization. It is this civilization that has produced the Pashupati seal of the horned yogi sitting in a certain bhanda (lock) with his heals pressed into the scrotum. Many mistake the position in this seal for the lotus position.


The Horned Yogi

This shows that the people of that period, as early as 4000 years before Christ, were intimately familiar with various yogic bhandas. Now, pay close attention: As mentioned earlier, Shiva had developed 84 yoga positions, many of which have been written down in various books, such as the Hatha Yoga Pradipika. Some of these 84 positions were also bhandas (as seen above), which are often more sophisticated than the asanas, as their main goal is to awaken kundalini.

Hence, I venture to claim that this yogic seal proves that yoga asanas existed as far back as 6000 years ago. If these folks knew bhandas, they certainly also knew how to practice asanas. More importantly, they also knew how to meditate.

Indeed, there is another statue from this period in which the person gazes at the tip of his nose. This meditation exercise is called dharana and is part of the much later Ashtanga Yoga of Patanjali.

So, what about Shiva? Did he vanish in a cloud of hashish smoke? It is indeed unfortunate that many Shiva followers today, the sadhus, do little else but smoke hashish all day long. Because, in spite of all the legends and the stories, it is unlikely that was how the prehistoric Shiva spent his time.

When I was in India, I learned from my Tantric teachers that Shiva, just like Buddha and Krishna, was a historical personality who lived around 7000 years ago. And if that is true, we know that yoga is a lot older than Waylon Lewis.

The same teachers told me that Shiva lived during the first Vedic Aryan invasion to India, 5000 years before Christ. The genetic science of Dr. Spencer Wells and his famous Genome Project has now proven that is a fact.

Indeed, the history of yoga is very long. The history of its motherland, India, is also very long. Yoga did not come from the Rigveda, nor any of the other four Vedas. Yoga came from the tradition of Tantra, the tradition of Shiva and Parvati, the tradition of Shaivism.

After thousands of years of comingling between these two mighty spiritual rivers, the Veda and the Tantra, the yoga of the Gita, the yoga of Samkhya and the yoga of Patanjali develops. Hence all of the yoga technology of asanas and pranayama and mantra meditation we know today can be traced back to prehistoric Tantra, and most of its philosophy comes form the Upanishads and the Gita, also called the Fifth Veda, as well as the various books we call Tantras.

So, Waylon, if you think of yoga as asanas taught in a Power Yoga class, many aspects of that kind of yoga is not that old. However, even some basic Power Yoga exercises have their roots in the ancient practice of Tantra. Moreover, as you know, yoga is so much more than asanas. And when we include the whole shebang that is yoga—the whole body-mind-spirit aspect of it, then we realize that yoga is very old. Some say as old as that dreadlocked king they call Shiva. That ancient king, not of modern Pop Yoga; that king of  ancient Tantra Yoga.

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About Ramesh Bjonnes

Ramesh Bjonnes has traveled the world as a meditation teacher, Ayurvedic practitioner, author, and is currently the Director of the Prama Wellness Center, a retreat center teaching yoga, meditation, and juice rejuvenation. He studied yoga therapy in Nepal and India, Ayurvedic Medicine at California College of Ayurveda, and naturopathic detox therapy at the AM Wellness Center in Cebu, Philippines. He is the author of four books, and he lives with his wife Radhika and Juno, a sweet, gentle Great Pyrenees, in the mountains near Asheville, North Carlina. Connect with him via his website: and


16 Responses to “How old is Yoga? Reply to Waylon Lewis.”

  1. dayvan cowboy says:

    this is the best elephant journal article i have read in a long, long time. thank you.

  2. Yogimatt says:

    I really enjoyed this article. It is interesting to see different interpretations of the history of yoga than Dr. Feuerstein. It would be great to have some footnotes and all for us research junkies. Thanks

  3. elize says:

    great concise weaving of the pieces of yoga history… thanks so much

  4. Ramesh says:

    Kaoverii, I agree with you, Feuerstein and Frawley have done a fantastic job at translating tantric and ayurvedic philosophy and practice for a Western audience. However, they have downplayed and sometimes distorted the importance of tantra by wrongly claiming that yoga hails from the Vedic lineage. As you indicate, it is time we present the history of yoga from the other side, the tantric.

    • vakibs says:

      If you want to see how closely Tantra influenced the Vedic tradition, look no beyond than Kashmiri Shaivism.

      Vedic or Brahmanic tradition is not against women or the lower castes. In fact, if you look at the number of women who are found debating in the Upanishads, it is very high ! Probably, the most important of the Upanishads – Brihadaranyaka is a series of conversations between Yajnavalkya and his wife Maitreyi. Then we have sages who were born into familes of very lowly occupations : both Valmiki who composed Ramayana and Vyasa who composed Mahabharata and who compiled the Vedas were born into very low castes, and even mentioned to be of dark skin colour !

      If at all an Aryan invasion has happened in India, it was more a series of immigrants coming down to settle down in a culturally and technologically superior land. Not much unlike how Indians and Chinese students flock to the US universities today.

      The Vedas and Tantra come from the same single root, and that root has its origin in the Indus valley civilization. And it is from that root that Indian mathematics and science germinated.

  5. vakibs says:

    You are correct in pointing out that Yoga is related directly to Tantra and Sāmkhya. In the Indian tradition, Sāmkhya represents one of the 6 classical philosophical views (darshanas). In fact, it is considered to be the oldest, and its influence can be felt in every other philosophical treatise, including the Upanishads. Even epics like Ramayana and Mahabharata mention Sāmkhya liberally. If there is a single root from which the various million philosophical ideas and religions of India germinate, that would be Sāmkhya.

    Now, Sāmkhya literally means "enumeration" in Sanskrit, and its philosophy is tied to enumerating every object in nature with respect to causal relationships. To understand it properly, one have to use the completely non-intuitive system of enumeration that was developed in India – through the use of zeroes.

    The 3 gunas of Sāmkhya stand for 3 choices that a finite number has on the axis of integers : to increase (rajas), to reduce to a zero (sattwa) and to stay the same (tamas). These 3 choices are very non-intuitive, especially that of sattwa (becoming zero) which paradoxically is the best bet towards reaching to infinity. The trimurti (literally, 3 forms) pantheon of Hindu gods are just a representation of infinity with respect to the 3 qualities : Brahma (sattwa), Vishnu (rajas) and Shiva (tamas).

    So, Shiva is not a human being, but a representation of the cosmos ! He is indeed a historical personality, but only with respect to cosmic history (or the history of the very universe). This is because Indian tradition says that in the beginning, there was neither being nor non-being. And the very first being to have arose from this state of utter neutrality is Shiva. This is what makes him the very first Yogi.

    About the human tradition of the Yogic system and its origins, we have to look for Sāmkhya. The meditation seal of Mohenzo Daro gives one possible upper limit to the date of origin. It is from Sāmkhya that both the Vedic and Tantric traditions have arose. From the same source, they diverged into two rivers, which again split into a million more. This is how things work in India : from one, many.. unlike in the USA where it is from many, one.

    • svan says:

      late arriving, but thank you all for this terrific article and discussion!
      vakibs, I found your comments here and on your Samkhya link very illuminating – wish you could hear the pennies dropping… thank you for this

  6. Ramesh says:

    Vakibs, as you know, I disagree with some of your assertions about Shiva and Samkhya. Shiva in Tantra is both a philosophical term (Cosmic Consciousness) and a historical person. As an initiate into the secret Tantric tradition, and in according to our oral history, Shiva was, like Buddha and Krishna, a historical person, the King of Yoga, the first to systematize yoga and tantra practice. Samkhya was the world's first philosophy and is based on Tantra but appeared several thousand years after Shiva. So Tantra or Shivaism had existed for several thousand years before Kapila developed Smakhya (1500 BCE) Samkhya is also often referred to as Kapilasia Tantra, the Tantra of Kapila.

  7. curious says:

    I will take them all- a historical person, cosmic consciousness, a combination of aryan Rudra and the pre-aryan Pasupathinatha. And I will add that he is a Hindu god (even though Ramesh objects to it). Shiva is my Eswara.Om Namah shivaya

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