The History of Yoga

What is the history of Yoga?

Yoga originated in India about 5,000 or more years ago.

Western scholars believed Yoga originated later, around the time of  Gautama the Buddha, which was around 500 B.C.
It wasn’t until the early 1920’s archeologists discovered the Indus civilization, a culture which extended roughly over 300,000 square miles.

This culture was the largest civilization in early history.
Excavators found depictions of yogi-like figures engraved in what looked like soapstone.

what is the history of yoga

The history of Yoga divided into the following four categories:

  • Vedic Yoga
  • Preclassical Yoga
  • Classical Yoga
  • Postclassical Yoga


The Sanskrit word Veda means “knowledge,” while the Sanskrit term Ric (taken from ‘rig’) means “praise.” – Vedic
Vedic is the wellspring of Hinduism. There are at least one billion followers of Hinduism in our world today.

Vedic Yoga was closely connected with an everyday ritual life of ancient Indians.
Its purpose was the idea of sacrifice as a way to join the material world with the spirit world.

The ‘Vedic’ practice of sacrifice was for the practitioner to be able to focus and hold their mind for extended periods of time. This would ultimately reward the yogi with visionary transcendence.

A masterful Vedic Yogi was called a ‘seer’ (rishi in Sanskrit)
There are beautifully written poems by these yogi’s which still inspire many today.

what is the history of yoga


Preclassical Yoga covers about 2,000 years up to the 2nd century A.D.
The earliest associations were with the Vedic culture.
The Brahmanas and the Aranyakas.

The Brahmanas are Sanskrit texts comprising and explaining Vedic hymns and the rituals that go with them.
The Aranyakas are the ritual texts.
These are specific to those yogis who chose to live in the forest, secluding themselves from the rest of society.

what is the history of yoga

The Upanishads, when Yoga has come into its own,  are the texts teaching the ultimate unity of all things, with over 200 scriptures combined but only a handful of them were written before fifth century B.C during the time of Gautama the Buddha.

These scriptures can be compared to the New Testament, which rests on the Old Testament but simultaneously goes way beyond.

The most noted and remarkable Yoga scripture is the Bhagavad-Gita which translates to “Lord’s Song”

what is the history of yoga


Classical Yoga is applied to the well known, Raja Yoga, or the eightfold (8 limb) yoga, which was taught by Patanjali in his Yoga-Sutra, a Sanskrit text comprising under 200 aphoristic statements.

Serious yoga students eventually discover this work and try to understand the statements contained in Patanjali’s yoga sutra text.

The word “sutra” translates to the English word “thread” which is supposed to convey “thread of memory” a way to memorize the knowledge and wisdom of this ancient yoga sutra text.

Post-Classical Yoga

Until now most yogis studied the spiritual wisdom of the mind and paid very little attention to the body and its physical attributes.

It was a few centuries after Patanjali in which the evolution of Yoga took a turn.

Now yogis were beginning to probe the mystery of the body and all its qualities whereas previously their goal was to obtain transcendence of the mind merging with one formless spirit.

The new post-classical yogis explored the possibility of energizing their bodies to such a degree that would change their biochemistry in hopes to become immortal.

This practice is what led to what we know now as Hatha-Yoga.


what is the history of yoga

Modern Yoga

The Parliament of Religion was held in Chicago in 1893.
It was there at congress that a young Swami Vivekananda made a lasting impression on the American public.

Swami Vivekananda’s teacher, Ramakrishna, asked that he find his way to the States where he wouldn’t know a soul and speak to the American public.

He wound up being the most popular diplomat known for his discernment and inner greatness.
He then traveled widely attracting many students.

Swami Vivekananda’s success in the United States helped open channels for many other Eastern teachers to come to the western hemisphere.

Many remained and created foundations of their own, teaching for years to come.

what is the history of yoga

Paramahansa Yogananda arrived in Boston in 1920 and only five years after he arrived the Self-Realization Fellowship was established.

This organization has its headquarters till this day in Los Angeles California.

In 1952, he passed at the age of 59 but continues to have a worldwide following.
His ‘Autobiography of a Yogi is well known and a great read.

His body showed no signs of decay a full 20 days after his death, as with other known saints.

Swami Rama Tirtha came to the United States in 1902.

He was a former mathematics teacher who preferred a spiritual life over his teaching career.
He founded a retreat center on Mt Shasta in California, where is stayed for only 2 years.

Swami Rama Tirtha drowned in the Ganges River in 1906 at the age of  33.
His talks were collected and made into five volumes, In Woods of God-Realization.

Yogendra Mastamani arrived in Long Island in 1919.  
He astounded Americans by demonstrating the power and elegance of Hatha Yoga.

He founded the American branch of Kaivalyadhama, an Indian organization created by the late Swami Kuvalayananda, which contributed a great deal to the scientific study of Yoga.

what is the history of yoga

From the early 1930’s until his death in 1986, Jiddu Krishnamurti demonstrated the wisdom of Jnana-Yoga, the Yoga of discernment, and drew large crowds of people among them the likes of Aldous Huxley, Charles Chaplin, Bernard Shaw and Greta Garbo.

Bernard Shaw, world renown author described Krishnamurti as the most beautiful human being he has ever met.

Hatha-Yoga enters mainstream America by way of a Russian-born Yogini named Indra Devi, otherwise known as “First Lady of Yoga.

She opened her Yoga studio in Hollywood California in 1947 and taught stars such as Gloria Swanson, Robert Ryan, Jennifer Jones as well as trained hundreds of teachers.

In the 1950’s “Sports Yoga” has been founded by Selvarajan Yesudian.
He wrote a book on Sport and Yoga and its incredible popularity helped it to translate into 14 different languages.

Many athletes have adopted yogic exercises into their regular training due to this one teacher, most notably the Chicago Bulls.

In 1961, Richard Hittleman introduced Hatha-Yoga to the American public by way of  television and with his book, The Twenty-eight-day Yoga Plan, which sold millions of copies.

what is the history of yoga

In the mid-sixties, the western yoga movement grew exponentially through Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.

His involvement with the Beatles caused a huge following which popularized TM, Transcendental Meditation.

This form of Yoga still has a huge population with corporate businesses incorporating it daily in offices everywhere.
TM also has created MD’s to further research its benefits at various American universities.

In 1965, Shrila Prabhupada, then 69 years old, arrived in New York.
He founded the International Society for Krishna Consciousness.

By the time of his death, his foundation created a worldwide spiritual movement based on Bhakti Yoga which is the Yoga of devotion.

In the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, many swamis who were trained by the Himalayan master, Swami Sivananda, opened their schools in Europe, North America, and South America.

Most notably Swami Satchitananda, Swami Sivananda Radha (a woman swami) and Swami Satyananda.
Swami Sivananda Radha was well known for her pioneered work between spirituality and psychology.

The History of Yoga


In 1969,  beloved teacher Yogi Bhajan broke tradition by beginning to teach Kundalini Yoga in the west.

He created the Healthy, Happy and Holy Organization which is also known as 3HO and has more than 200 centers around the globe.

His motto was to create teachers that were ten times greater than him and in doing so he has left a legacy of hope, inspiration, and technology for future generations and the upliftment of humanity.


When people ask “what is the history of yoga” they must look at many places to find the answer.

For a comprehensive look at this history, one must read from many scholars on this subject.

Yoga in all its glory is vast and has many tens of thousands of pages dedicated to its rich history all the way to its modern day popularity.

A great place  to start with is “The Yoga Tradition” published by Hohm press.

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12 Replies to “The History of Yoga”

  1. I had no idea Yoga was so old. Up until recently I thought Yoga was just a way to get fit practised by women. Though taking into account how it evolved, it must have been mostly a men’s thing originally. I wonder when it became a women’s thing.

    1. Hi! Yoga became widely popular in the late 60’s when Yogi Bhajan came to the USA. He created the 3HO organization which held a summer camp for women only. This was the first camp ever to be held in the USA for women where they can learn and practice yoga. It still operates today and is a great place for women to come together and practice.

      Thanks for you comment!

  2. I didn’t know that Yoga actually originated from India until now. I use to think and believe that it started from China or Japan. However, this is a great post that has given me some lessons and enlightenment regard to this subject. Yoga is another great way of keeping body and spirit alert such that some people have even started using it for weight loss.

    In fact it has been taken over by other countries especially the United States.

    Thanks for this great post…

  3. Hi Meherbani!
    well that was absolutely fantastic to read! I am not a practitioner of yoga but that being said, its history is fascinating. I have however began a new workout regimen that involves pilates and yoga poses and moves. And yes they are harder than they look! But what I especially connect to with yoga is its spiritual component, as you describe so well here. The Eastern world has always seen the connection between the mind and the body. And integrated a lot of spirituality in their lives. In the Western world, this was not seen as much. That being said, I follow the Native American way of life and spirituality is a huge part of my life. Both personal and professional. So its wonderful spiritual history of yoga touches me.

    1. Thanks so much happy you enjoyed it! Pilates is great and I know many people that benefit hugely by this practice alone.
      I have always been into the Native American way of life. I remember I used to wear moccasins when I was in my teens.
      There isn’t much I don’t admire in the Native American ways. I appreciate your comment and come back some time to say hi!

  4. Wow. I’m originally from India but never knew yoga has such a rich history that originates from it! Of course, being an Indian you are constantly reminded through various media and activities about the usefulness of yoga, but I am personally into other activities so haven’t paid much attention so far. You have certainly piqued my interest now! Thanks for a great article!

    1. That’s great! So happy I can pique your interest and have you possibly check yoga out for yourself.I would imagine being from India you’ve seen it all when it comes to yoga and yogis! I appreciate you comment!!

  5. That was a lot of information to follow and I don’t think I quite understood it all. I got lost in pronouncing the names. But, I get that yoga isn’t simply doing some movement that gives me better strength and flexibility. It is really something that has a spiritual and meditative component to it that’s more of a way of life than an activity.

    I read another history of yoga somewhere else but it saw yoga as evil and something that Christians shouldn’t do. I wonder if you would like to weigh in on that. Here is the link:

    1. No Yoga practices deny Christian belief or that Christ was a deity. There is no conflict. Yoga is non-denominational.
      Some yogic practices work on the physical form. Other yogic practices work on different facets of the human being, mind, body, and spirit.

      Kryananda and Yogananda were two of the most influential people in the USA and both were historically recorded as promoters of Jesus the Light.

      The words can get lost in translation but I thought I’d throw one in:
      Ananda translates to extreme happiness, one of the highest states of being.

      Hope this helped!
      Thanks for your comment.

  6. Hi, I really like your site, this post on the history of yoga is very informative and well written. I actually love yoga, I wish I had the discipline to do it every day.
    Regards, Sylvie

    1. Hi Sylvie, You don’t have to do it every day but it’s good to at least try for once a week =)

      Thanks for you comment!!

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