The history of yoga can be traced back to 3000 BC from stone tablets with identifiable poses depicted on them. Although yoga is primarily a self-focused discipline, historians believe its roots are grounded in shamanism and its community-based, Stone Age practices. The history of yoga is inextricably tied to the historical progression of the Indian religion and culture and can be divided into four movements: the Vedic, pre-Classical, Classical and post-Classical.
The history of yoga begins with the Vedas, the sacred scriptures that form the basis of modern Hinduism. Along with hymns, the Vedas also incorporates rites and ceremonies, which offer a communion with the divine. Adherents to this religion were instructed by rishis, or yogis, who lived in seclusion and believed that intense spiritual practice could only be performed alone and away from everyday commerce and distractions.
Along with the Vedas, the Uphanishads were the other sacred texts used in Hinduism. In terms of the history of yoga, the pre-Classical movement relied on these writings to guide followers to achieve Brahman (knowledge of the universal) and Atman (self-knowledge). The Bhagavad-Gita emerged around 500 BC and marked the first text in the history of yoga that dealt with the practice exclusively. This text advocated three things: activity is key to health, both spiritual and mental; do no harm; and sublimation of self.
The Classical movement in the history of yoga is where many of the principles of modern yoga are defined. The yoga Sutra specifies yoga’s eightfold path:
- Yama, ethical values,
- Niyama, ritual observance,
- Asanas, positions,
- Pranayama, breathing exercises,
- Pratyahara, inwardness
- Dharana, concentration,
- Dhyana, meditation and
- Samadhi, spiritual consciousness.
Interestingly, this phase in the history of yoga had many practitioners who focused on meditation rather than the asanas as they believed this was the only way to separate spirit (purusha) from flesh (prakriti).
The post-Classical stage, which is where we are now in the history of yoga, focuses on living in the present and accepting its limitations. In the 19th century, yoga was introduced to Westerners and gained widespread popularity in the 1960s as an alternative religious practice and lifestyle. Swami Sivananda codified yoga practices into five principles. These are:
- Savasana, relaxation,
- Asanas, positions,
- Pranayama, controlled breathing,
- Diet and
- Dhyana, meditation.
Of the six branches of yoga observed throughout the world, Hatha yoga is the type most practiced by Westerners and incorporates breathing techniques with poses and meditation to achieve mental and physical well-being.