History has always been important to me: history keeps me connected and history gives me perspective.
But history can also be complex and confusing.
How old are our asanas or meditation practices?
Answer: it depends, because there are so many expressions and schools of yoga.
What was the social condition of India like during Buddha’s time?
Answer: turbulent, because Buddha and many others were fed up with the prevailing Vedic/Hindu practices at the time: horse sacrifices, widow burning, the caste system.
Which philosophical system influenced Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras as well as Ayurveda the most?
Answer: Samkhya, the world’s oldest philosophical system, developed by Kapila, perhaps as early as 1500 years before the birth of Christ.
But how old is our asana practice? A few years old? A hundred years old? A thousand years old? Two thousand? Who created them?
Many of the asanas practiced in today’s yoga studios are no more than about 80 years old. In fact, some 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.
But 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 contemporary yoga writers claim, there is no need to resort to unsubstantiated mythology or hearsay to prove that yoga is a lot older than 100 years, a lot older than the Ferris Wheel or 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. And also: that yoga is a lot more than Hatha Yoga, that yoga also includes meditation practice, philosophy, cosmology, even medicine.
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: talked to yogis and gurus and pandits in India, leafed through dozens of books, studied archeology, genetics and searched the internet into the wee hours of the night.
Depending on your perspective of what yoga is, there are various ways to look at yoga history. Here are eleven, 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 Sean Corn, you may convincingly argue that its history is no more than 80 to 100 years old. Some poses are actually only five to 10 years old. Actually, a few new ones were invented just yesterday. (Source: Yoga Body by Mark Singleton.)
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 between 400 to 1500 years old. (Sources: various traditional texts, Original Yoga by Richard Rosen.)Photo: Mixtribe Photo
3) If yoga history includes Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras and its associated practices, its history is about 2200 years old. (The various dates for the Yoga Sutras ranges from between 200 BCE to 200 AD.)
4) If yoga includes the sublimely subtle teachings of Ashtavakra, who wrote the Ashtavakra Samhita (also called Ashtavakra Gita) describing a philosophy that is nondual and Vedantic in nature while his practical teachings were Tantric, then yoga history is about 2400 years old. (Source: Traditional textual sources and the writings of Anandamurti.)
(Ashtavakra, according to 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.
Ashtavakra, whose Tantric system of yoga is called Rajadhiraja Yoga, is similar to the Raja Yoga of Patanjali; I as outlined in the Yoga Sutras, emphasized practicing pranayama with mantra and visualization.)
5) If yoga includes the inspirational teachings and deep philosophy and practices described in the Upanishads, Vedanta and the Bhagavad Gita, the history of yoga is at least 2700 years old. (Sources: Dating of traditional texts from Western scholarly sources. Various Indian sources, however say that the oral origin of the Bhagavad Gita is 3500 years old. Archeological sources now claim Krishna’s city Dvarka has been discovered and is about 3500 years old, hence, according to Anandamurti and some Indian scholars, as well as some Westerners, including Georg Feuerstein, it is likely Krishna lived around 1500 BCE.)
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.
This claim is the most controversial because it deals with the complex history of whether the Vedic people (Aryans) migrated into India from the outside, at what time, and their socio-political-religious hegemony and introduction of the caste system, something the Dravidian Shaiva/Tantric culture was opposed to.
There is now genetic evidence the Aryans migrated to India about 5000 BCE. But even this is contested, especially by the Fundamentalist Hindutva movement in India, who claim the Aryans were Indian.
The most compelling genetic evidence, however, points to a gradual Aryan/Vedic migration into India starting as early as 5000 BCE. This version of history is much like all race related histories all over the world—it is tinged with conflict, disagreements, and opposing world views.
My own view is that India experienced a gradual invasion, not around 1900 BCE as has been taught in universities for many years, but much earlier, as the genetic and traditional Tantric evidence shows (the Tantric teachers point to the Ramayana as being the allegorical story of the historical conflict between the racial conflict between the Aryan invaders and the darker skinned natives. In that regard, ancient Indian history is similar to the invasions of the New World, Africa, and modern Asia).
Even Georg Feuerstein, who contested the 1900 BCE invasion theory was open to this possibility. Most writers hailing from a Tantric background support this view. (Sources: Satyananda Saraswati, Anandamurti, Lalan Prasad Singh, N. N. Bhattacarya, Alain Danielou, and StanfordUniversity geneticist Dr. Spencer Wells)
During the time of the IndusValley 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 the works of archeologists John Marshall and Jonathan Mark Kenoyer and Indologists Heinrich Zimmer and Georg Feuerstein, among others).
While the script in the advanced Indus Valley civilization (perhaps the oldest in the world) is Dravidyan according to Indologist Asko Parpola, archeological evidence points to a mixed culture of Shaiva Tantra (Dravidian) 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 we mean 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 was preserved as oral teachings, much like in the shamanic tradition. But, according to Alain Danielou, some of the yet to be translated Puranas contain references to yoga and Tantra being at least 6000 years old. Other reasons are that many of the original texts have never been studied by scholars outside the traditions or translated. 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 often a huge discrepancy between the knowledge of yoga written in texts and the knowledge taught orally by yogis within the tradition. There is also disagreement about how old the various asanas are, but researchers in the Indian government’s Traditional Digital Knowledge Library have collected evidence of hundreds of asanas from ancient texts, some as old as 2500 years.
8) There are broadly two perspectives on ancient yogic history.
a) Some hold that ancient yoga originated with the early Vedic civilization.
b) 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. But if we talk about yoga as practice, as spiritual technology, its source is ancient, prehistoric Tantra, not the Vedas. Most Western scholars based on scriptural evidence will also say that yoga as we know it today emerged from Tantra, but in the middle ages within the Tantric Hatha Yoga tradition. The reason for this is that their timeline is based on written scriptural evidence only.
So, for a long range perspective yoga scholar Georg Feuerstein’s words are instructive:
“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). A more sophisticated yoga philosophy evolved out of this practical Tantra tradition as expressed in the Upanishads, Vedanta, Samkhya and the Yoga Sutras. Over thousands of years, these traditions merged and created what we often term Hindu Tantra. (Sources: Anandamurti, Feuerstein, Satyananada, and many others.)
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) 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 American car. (Sources: Mark Singleton.)
10) 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 at least a few thousand years older than Krishnamacharya.
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.
11) If we search back into ancient human history and try to trace yoga’s origin, it seems compelling that yoga emerged from Shamanism rather than from the priestly Vedic tradition, as most Western yoga scholars believe. While Shamans certainly dabbled in dubious belief systems and fantastic claims of magic, they also often underwent an inner journey much like the Tantric yogis, who, instead of shamanic dancing and drumming and drug use, developed inner bodily energies of bandhas and asanas and inner energies of kundalini, prana, and mantras to experience subtle ecstasies of peace, otherworldly wonder, healing and longevity.
Thus we can generally say that the Shaman and the Tantric yogi embarked upon on an interior ritual journey, while the Vedic priest developed a worldview of belief and faith rooted in external ritual. Moreover, the Shamans and the Tantrics were renegades and often lived outside of social norms, or protested social religious norms by opposing social dogmas such as the Vedic caste system, and the subjugated roles of women and sexuality. (Sources: Mircea Eliade, Michael Harner, Anandamurti, and others.)
As we modern yogis move into and invent the future from the past, it is important to embrace the history of our practice, reflect on it and learn from it.
While we may want to reject those traditions we find sexist or irrational and reinvent ever new practices, it behooves us to be respectful and sensitive to traditional yoga’s vast psychological riches potent philosophical poetry, physiological health values, as well as gain fresh nourishment from its spiritual depths and universality.
Yoga has, after all, since ancient times, always been about experiencing the oneness, wonder and vibrancy of mind, body and spirit.
Note to the reader: 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 (ancient Tantric texts, which Ananadamurti, Satyananda, Lalan Prasad Singh, and others claim to have been orally transmitted as sutras and slokas since 5000 BCE), Hatha Yoga Pradipika, Gheranda Samhita, Shiva Samhita, Ashtavakra 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.
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Ed: Catherine Monkman