Yoga can no longer be deemed a trend; it is certainly something that has made its way into the mainstream. People are flocking to their hot yoga classes, flow yoga classes, and even to goat yoga! How did yoga become so popular? With its origins deeply rooted in ancient Eastern tradition, it is quite remarkable to see how yoga has evolved in the 20th and 21st centuries. But where did yoga come from? How did this ancient practice make its way into our western culture? What is the history of yoga? Let’s take a look at a brief history of yoga to see how it continues to make an impact in modern times.
Yoga originates in the northern region of India and was a part of the ritual practices of the time. The earliest teachings of yogic philosophy probably date back at least 5,000 years. Vedic priests taught about knowledge, wisdom, and healthy positive living through songs, prayers, and other rituals of the time. These teachings were later recorded in ancient texts and scriptures and can be found in documents like the Upanishads. Some of these texts, including the famous Bhagavad Gita, can still be read today.
In this Pre-Classical Era of Yoga, you will see that there were no yoga postures practiced. Yoga, at this time, was more of a spoken philosophy that was shared with its people from a religious context. But it was here that the foundation and intention of yoga was established.
As these ancient practices and teachings became more refined and eventually documented, the ideas of yoga, though, began to change over time. It was becoming evident that the written words of this philosophy were actually beginning to sound contradictory. Researchers of the practice claimed that a more systematic approach was needed to better understand yoga as a whole. One such practitioner, Patanjali, sought to re-interpret the written scriptures into something that was more practical. He is considered the “father of yoga” and one can read his interpretations of the yogic philosophy in the Yoga Sutras. In this poetically written document, he describes yoga as a path to enlightenment. In its pages, one can follow these paths, or “eight limbs,” to achieve an enlightened life. This standardization of yoga became known as the Classical Era of Yoga.
Even during this time, yoga was still something that was learned through scripture, other writings, and ritual practices. But as yogis followed Patanjali’s eight limbs, another shift in the practice was needed to suit the era. Although yoga still held it’s ancient Vedic structure, groups, like the Tantricas, declared that a focus on the physical body was needed to bring more comprehension to the limbs they were learning. It was believed that yoga was not just about intellectual understanding, but could be deeply understood, practiced, and accepted by more people if it included physical elements. As a result, Tantra Yoga became a new form of yoga in this Post-Classical Era of Yoga. It introduced methods of cleansing the mind and body of impurities so that they could be free to achieve true and rich enlightenment. Part of the physicality introduced to the ritual practices was breath work or Pranayama. Through dynamic breathing, the body could experience an enhanced sense of clarity. In addition to breathing, moving the physical body became a part of the cleansing component.
This mind-body connection was later known as Hatha Yoga; it became a practice of combining breath and movement into the spiritual practice toward enlightenment. This is the style of yoga that eventually made its way into western culture. In this Modern Era of Yoga, the philosophical practice was being fully developed, taught, and practiced. By the 1920’s T. Krishnamacharya, a yoga teacher, scholar, and healer was refining Hatha Yoga. He opened the first Hatha Yoga School in Mysore, India. In his teachings, he delivered a deeper understanding as well as a modernization of yoga to his students. Some of his most well known students included B.K.S. Iyengar, T.K.V. Desikachar, and Pattabhi Jois. Iyengar brought physical preciseness to his practice. He focused on body alignment as well as breath and healing. He cultivated a system of over 200 yoga poses to develop the healthy mind, body, and spirit. Iyengar Yoga is still a practice a yogi can find today in some yoga studios. This practice, often done with props like straps and blocks, help an individual’s strength, flexibility, and mobility.
Desikachar, the son and yoga student of Krishnamacharya, developed a style of yoga called Viniyoga. He wanted to ensure that the ancient teachings of yoga was not lost in just a physically focused practice. Viniyoga brought in aspects of the Yoga Sutras. Further, he introduced a more holistic aspect to the practice. He incorporated a deeper awareness of a person’s background, culture, and age.
Pattabhi Jois also had a major influence on the history of yoga. He, too, wanted to bring the ancient practices of yoga into the modern era. He took the eight limbs described in the Yoga Sutras and developed a systematic style of yoga called Ashtanga (which means “eight limbs.”) Keeping with the origins and intentions of yoga, moving toward enlightenment, his practice taught a flowing style of yoga (vinyasa) that emphasized strength, stamina, agility, flexibility, determination, and more. In the 1940s, he opened the Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute. This systematic style of yoga is still taught and practiced today.
So, this still leaves us with the question of how did yoga become so popular and highly influenced by the mainstream. As the exercise boom was happening in the early 1970s, more gyms, studios, and community centers were introducing aerobics into their fitness schedules. Although yoga had emerged into the western culture by the 1950s, it was still obscure and new with smaller communities practicing types like Iyengar Yoga and Ashtanga Yoga. But since Ashtanga had such a “fitness” quality to it, it eventually made its way into the exercise scene. Hatha Yoga was becoming more popular and streamlining into gym settings and independent studios.
As a result of these early yoga pioneers, we have seen the emergence of Bikram Yoga and Power Vinyasa Yoga (stemming from Ashtanga Yoga), Anusara Yoga (coming from Iyengar Yoga), and other schools of thought and practice. And further, people were experiencing wonderfully positive results from this new physical practice. And even though students were attending yoga classes for the bodily benefits, embedded into the practice was the ancient teachings of mindful and spiritual connection. Yoga continues to offer a resource and tool toward gaining greater self-awareness, cleansing and healing, and a path toward earthly enlightenment.