Yoga History in 9 Easy Steps.

Via Ramesh Bjonnes
on Oct 8, 2012
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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. Ramesh says:

    None of these ideas have passed, my friend. I regularly chant one of the chants from the Rigveda which does contain spiritual wisdom, but far from all of the text does. There's plenty of irrational myth and magic in it to last many life times. When was poring ghee on a stone to appease the sky gods yogic science? These kinds of abhorent rituals have nothing to do with the inner yoga of tantra and the yoga sutras but everything to do with mythmaking and dogmatic, religious belief systems. If you don't belive in cultural evolution, I understand you will rationalize such things and make them spiritual and cosmic. Your choice, my friend.

  2. Ramesh says:

    This is revisionism, Pankajji. No doubt there are wonderful ideas and wisdom in the Rigveda, but to deny there are no irrational myths is whitewashing humnity's history in all its light and shadow, all it terror and enlightenment. Aswhamveda, the horse sacrifice of the Vedas is a good example. Many swamis interpret this symbolically, as if it never happened. But to Buddha, it definitely happend; thus he protested these excesses of Vedic culture. What about the caste system. Also just a spiritual symbol? The horse sacrifice, as well as other animal sacrifices were an integral part of old vedic culture. In fact, it was common in many parts of the world not just in India. So was the bruning of women when their husband died. The practice of Sati. Even my forebears, the Vikings, practiced this. If I as a Norwegian would interpret this dark practice symbolically and say it never happened, what would you say, my friend? Great yogi? Great interpreter of the myths of Odin? There are many dark myths and beliefs in humanity's past that we can live without–in India as well as in Norway, where I come from.

  3. Ramesh says:

    Here is a pseudo-rational explanation for the killing of animals as part of vedic rituals:
    "The Lord raised the question of cow-killing, and the Kazi properly answered Him by referring to the Koran. In turn the Kazi also questioned the Lord about cow sacrifice in the Vedas, and the Lord replied that such sacrifice as mentioned in the Vedas is not actually cow-killing. In that sacrifice an old bull or cow was sacrificed for the sake of receiving a fresh younger life by the power of Vedic mantras. But in the Kali-yuga such cow sacrifices are forbidden because there are no qualified brāhmaṇas capable of conducting such a sacrifice. In fact, in Kali-yuga all yajñas (sacrifices) are forbidden because they are useless attempts by foolish men. In Kali-yuga only the saṅkīrtana yajña is recommended for all practical purposes. Speaking in this way, the Lord finally convinced the Kazi, who became the Lord's follower."

  4. 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.

  5. paul says:

    When then would you date the Vedas? The Rig Veda is (by academics) 3000 years after this geneitic stuff is said to have begun popping up in the area. So, if the genes are there in 5000 BCE, how is it they are not locals, and the religion not be native? Further, pulling racial stuff from the Rig Veda is suspect, as the language used is poetic, and too is more likely to refer to groups with similar religious practices, but done in the wrong way.

    That other religious and philosophical strains became canonized as Vedism is I think pretty obvious, as seen in for instance the Svetasvatara Upanishad where Sankhya and (what would come to be called) Saivism show up seemingly fully formed. But this does not mean Vedism didn't develop amongst (those now called) Indians, nor that in its early development was uninfluenced by groups other than the Aryans themselves (as in, "Hey, nice cows, welcome to the neighborhood. Have you ever tried soma? All the locals are doin it…")?

    The history is interesting, but again, I don't see how it affects the truth of the revelations. Rather, the endeavor to uncover this past seems a way for one "side" to "prove" its authenticity and authority, when I think the consequences of the practices and philosophy speak much better to their relevance and use. A definitive understating of this history seems to be sought more to bolster certain groups credibility (be it nationalist, religious, or academic), rather than for understanding itself, but too I wonder if it because certain religious practices are kept secret (moreso by tantrics, but vedics will for instance, intentionally teach syllables wrong; academia offers its own version of secrecy in the cost of access to journals, etc), these historical "proofs" are so sought after.

  6. 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?

  7. Ramesh says:

    Bryan, I indeed know the benign power of mantra meditation as I practice it dayly and have done so for several decades. I also know the destructive power of slaughter and have wirnessed it several times. I also know the power of ritual, both positive and negative.
    I disagree that we canot come to any conclusive facts about history. Indeed, learning about our own history, as yogis or not, is an important part of being human.
    I like the Svoboda quotes and they both apply well to the religious mindset of many Vedic rituals and ideas.
    Meditation is an integral part of life, and so is the study of history. Both are complimentary. And we are always moving on.

  8. Ramesh says:

    Pankajji, if you read my stuff carefully, you will notice we agree on the migration theory over a longe period of time. However, there were also cultural clashes as there always are when different peoples struggle for pasture, for riches, for cultural hegemony. All those clashes accroding to many Indian writers are noted in the Vedas, the Ramyana, etc. We also agree that the Indus valley was not destroyed by an invasion, because, as I have said many times before, the Vedic Aryans arrived much earlier. The most consclusive genetic evidence was done by Wells as he had hundreds of reserchers and mapped the whole world, and he has proven when and from where they arrived around 5000 BCE. Now, were they Vedic? Again, many of my sources have clearly proven they were, and most of these sources are Indian, not western.

  9. Pankaj Seth says:

    Rameshji, it matters not whether the writers were Indian or Western. Both have been fed the invasion theory so long that it has coloured their reading of the Vedic corpus. But this idea of Vedic civilization arriving on horseback is gradually collapsing because things don't add up. While some indicators may be salutary, others are inimical, enough so that this collapse is occurring. There are genes flows into and out of India at various times. Its not a simple picture.

    But most important to me is that the idea of history-centrism, in reading these mystical texts, should give way to something more fitting to these works. The invasionists thought that in finding Harappa et al, they had found the forts which were destroyed by Indra the fort destroyer. But there is no fort destruction to be found in the archeological record. Thus, hopefully soon we can begin to think about Indra not as a fort destroyer god, but as the controller of the Indriya, the senses. And we can also then see agni not as a fire, but as chaitanya, the brightness felt as sentience, agni the priest/hotr of this house called the body, and the world. Also, we can then see that Savitr is not the sun in the sky, but the great inner light sighted in meditation, sighted and identified with. This is the way to look at the Veda.

  10. Ramesh says:

    Paul, read my article and comments carefully and you will note that I said only the early Rig Veda was composed outside India. B. G. Siddharth and others date it through astrological data to perhaps as early as 10,000 BCE. There are archeological, linguistic and other links to the middle East, all the way to Turkey of an Indo-Europena Vedic culture, from 7000 BCE. However, as I have said repeatedly, the other Vedas were developed in India. The Indus Valley culture thus represents a combined culture of the vedic and tantric streams of Indian civilization. In the Atharvaveda you see already a tantric influence. Lalan Prasad Singh (see his book Tantra: Its Scientific and Mystic Origin), Alain Danielou, N. N. Bhattacarya, etc. note this in their books. The Vedic sutras were preserved as an oral tradition for thousands of years before they were written down, hence sutras were added as part of history, hence we speak of early and late versions of the vedas.

  11. Ramesh says:

    Pankaji, history is reflected in humanity's evolution of ideas over long periods of time, Thus, the Upanishads reflect a different and more sophisticated philosophy than the Rig Veda, for example. So reading transcendental messages into all of the Vedic corpus, as you and many others do, is a mistake. See above where I mention the Ashvamveda, the horse sacrifice, this was real ritualism, real sacrifice. Not symbolism as some swamis will have us believe. The south/north divide in india is also real, as is the caste system, which is reflected in the genes, as well. These are not any more imaginary than slavery, than racism, than human conflict anywhere. I lived long enough in india to know that these are not imagined realities. Anyway, let us agree that the greatness of Bharata far outweighs its faults. Om Shanti!

  12. Pankaj Seth says:

    Rameshji, yes we find useful and unfortunate things all over this world, throughout history, including yesterday and today. Yagnavalkya in the Upanishads and Buddha after him criticize the literalization of the Veda, including animal sacrifices, which after Buddha were stopped. The Ashvamedha was a kingly rite, not some everyday home ceremony. There is also mentioned the Purushamedha, but that doesn't seem to have meant a literal human sacrifice, so we must be careful with literal readings.

    People have called Rg Veda a nature worship, a sun worship, but let us not forget that Vamadeva, the Vedic seer upon realizing, said "I was Manu, the first being and am the sun."

    The North-South divide has a history… eg Periyar, and which was fomented by the Invasion theory.

    As to the caste system, virtually the whole world has had something like it, until very recently. I'm sure you know about the estates of the realm… – this is tied up with earlier times of guilds, clans, feudal lords etc. Certainly, there are have been abuses of salutary things in this world, but I wholeheartedly agree with your last sentence. Om Shanti.

  13. paul says:

    I'm still confused on how you construct Vedism. From what I understand, you are saying that the Rig Veda was composed over 5000 years, retaining the same language and a more or less stable theology/mythology, stabilizing around 5000-4000BCE, all while traveling throughout south-west Asia. In this case, either it, or the later Vedas, Brahmanas etc, cannot be Vedic; either the Rig is pre-Vedic (proto-Indo-Iranian), or what follows is post-Vedic (which cannot be the case. The Persian diaspora of the ages are not "Vedic" just because they share similar elements with Vedism. This is an important quibble with a name, because underpins the narrative authority of the religions.

    The narrative authority is the only thing interesting me in this dating/migration issue, as I don't see a difference of thousands of years undercutting the revelations or practices of either religion. The "Rig is seperate" gives an authoritative "advantage" to the tantrics (giving them authorship of the Atharva Veda, and more importantly the eventual abstraction of the sacrifices), while another "nativist" view prefers there to be no break, so that in Vedism (or perhaps more appropiatly Vedanta) one finds complete whole consistent perfection. To have any useful opinion of this, one has to become a specialist in it, with a good grasp of not only linguistic, genetic, archeological and philological theory, but how these elements play into the story. The difficulty and obscurity allows any "bunch of stuff" to be used to give authority to whatever, be it tantra, a nationalism, or even the efficacy of academia. So I wonder, what really is the point, other than, "it's interesting"? What benifit? Is there a narrative authority undercut by the current dating?

    (And a note on genetics, in regards to a new article in Science [EDIT: I confused myself, and wrote very incorrectly initially, oops!] Farmer the other day… mentions "Current estimations of mutation rates are [now said to be] roughly half the magnitude that they were … in 2005. All those studies from the first decade of the century (thankfully!) are now shown to be even less reliable than we argued seven years ago.") (Which is to say, this is a story still being written.)

  14. 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 .

  15. Ramesh says:

    Dear Raj Kumarji, yes, exactly, that was the main thrust of my article–to acknowldge the great contribution of both the Vedic and Tantric traditions and to also appreciate their comingling and union. You are wise to be studying with the folks at Bihar School of yoga!

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