A Brief History of Yoga In India

by | Nov 14, 2022 | Yoga Philosophy & History

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As Yoga is becoming increasingly popular, many practitioners may wonder where the discipline of Yoga originates. Is Yoga just exercise and relaxation techniques from India, or is it something more? What is the history of Yoga within its country of origin?

Yoga originated in ancient Northern India about 5,000 years ago as a part of the ritual and prayer life of Hindu priests and hermits. Over the centuries, Yoga developed into a structured and diverse category of spiritual disciplines involving:

  • Body postures
  • Breathing techniques
  • Prayer
  • Meditation

Yoga remains popular in India and has become a global phenomenon whose history and origins may be obscure even to long-time practitioners. Keep reading to learn more about the history of Yoga, how it developed in India, and the stages of growth that Yoga has undergone on the Subcontinent.

Yoga, Where It All Got Started

Yoga has its origins in the Northern Indian Indus Civilization about 5,000 years ago. Yoga developed as a series of physical, verbal, and mental prayer practices practiced and refined by Hindu Brahmin priests and by Hindu religious hermits over generations.

Starting out as a series of Sanskrit prayers and physical worship gestures, the traditions of Yoga were passed down from teacher to disciple over thousands of years and were linked to the worship of various Hindu gods and goddesses. 

A Brief History of Yoga In India

Yoga has gone through a number of epochs, and each epoch has further developed and refined what is meant by Yoga and added much to the overall understanding of what Yoga is, and how it is to be learned and practiced. 

The various stages of the development of Yoga can be classified as:

  • The Ancient Era, up to 5,000 years ago, in which the seeds of Yoga in the form of Indus priestly worship patterns began to develop. 
  • The Early Vedic Era, about 3,000 years ago, in which Yoga is mentioned as a lifestyle of physical prayer and mental meditation adopted by the ascetics and hermits of the priestly Brahmin class. 
  • Late Vedic / Early Classical Era, from about 500 B.C. to 300 A.D. in which Yogic traditions and techniques begin to be written down and popularized among the masses, the greatest example of this being the Bhagavad Gita
  • Middle Ages (500 A.D. to 1500 A.D) Bhakti Yoga began to develop into richer and more popular forms, and Hatha Yoga developed at this time. Other religions such as Sikhism, which incorporate elements of Hindu devotion, also arise and advocate for Nama Yoga.
  • Modern Age (1500-Present) Yoga begins to spread around the world thanks to its introduction to the West by Swami Vivekananda. The Gita is also translated into various European languages, and in the 1960’s, Yoga became popular with young people as a form of spirituality. A somewhat watered-down form of Yoga gains popularity in the West as a form of exercise and meditation. 

Now, let’s get into each of these below.

Vedas and Early Yoga (Ancient Era – Early Vedic Era)

The ancient priestly rituals and prayers of the Vedas, meant to connect the common people to the gods and goddesses through the sacrifices, rituals, and ceremonies of Brahmin priests, are the origins of Yoga.

Prayer practices of Hindu priests and hermits began to develop from these prayers and rituals, with the earliest references to Yoga recorded about 800 B.C. in the later Vedic texts. The earliest forms of Yoga involved:

  • Prayer
  • Asceticism
  • Austerities
  • Mantra chanting

The various Yogic techniques were passed from Teacher to Disciple orally for many centuries, and remained a series of practices limited to religious hermits until gaining wider popularity in the Middle Ages. 

These meditative practices would be detailed and codified by Patanjali in later centuries, and would eventually become widely practiced by men and women from all walks of life.  

Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras (Late Vedic Era)

The father of Yoga as it is widely practiced today is widely believed to be Patanjali, who lived at about 200 B.C. to 200 AD. He was a Hindu scholar, philosopher, and educator who compiled his culture’s tradition of Yoga into a more organized system of practice and belief. 

He detailed the importance of:

  • Abstinence
  • Breath control
  • Postures
  • Meditation
  • Contemplation
  • Absorption in mystical knowledge as vital components of Yoga

At this time period, Yoga was still practiced largely by Hindu priests and hermits. But the Yoga Sutras helped develop Yoga into a system of belief and practice that could eventually be taken up by both priest and laborer and allowed Yoga to develop as a philosophical path as well as a devotional and active one.

Writing of the Bhagavad Gita (Late Vedic Era)

The compositing and ensuing popularity of the Bhagavad Gita resulted in another era of Yogic flourishing, and a popularization of Bhakti Yoga. The date of the Gita’s composition is difficult to nail down with certainty, but the grammatical features of the Gita indicate a date between 200 B.C. and 200 A.D.  

The text details a conversation between the god Krishna and the warrior Arjun, in which Krishna elaborates upon:

  • The duty of man
  • The value of doing one’s social and cosmic duty in life
  • The value of worshipping him (Krishna) as the source of all divinity, goodness, and wisdom
  • The practice of Bhakti Yoga, in which enlightenment is achieved through singular devotion to himself

Instead of memorizing detailed and complex texts or retreating into a forest, Bhakti Yoga as presented in the Gita can be practiced by the housewife, servant, king, and warrior alike. This has made the Bhagavad Gita enduringly popular among Hindus for generations, and it holds a place among Hindus comparable to that of the Gospels among Christians. 

Development of Hatha Yoga (Middle Ages)

In the centuries following the composition of the Bhagavad Gita, Bhakti Yoga became greatly popular among the masses, and popular devotion to Hindu gods and goddesses took varying and creative forms.

Hatha Yoga also developed during this time, about 1200 A.D. Incorporating both physical exercise with prayer and meditation practices, this is the form of Yoga most familiar to many Westerners.

Gorakhnath, a Hindu saint and philosopher, is credited with developing and writing extensively about the use of these things as central to his Yogic practices:

  • Body postures
  • Breath control
  • The body’s innate spiritual energy

It was Hatha Yoga which made its appearance in the West, and which most Westerners are familiar with. The postures of popular Yoga, as well as concepts such as Chakras and Kundalini energy all originate within Hatha Yoga. 

Yoga Today In India

Yoga was introduced to the West primarily by the Hindu Yogi Swami Vivekananda. A practitioner of Hatha Yoga, Vivekananda presented Yoga as well as introduced the West to Hindu religious texts such as the Bhagavad Gita and Upanishads. 

A somewhat watered-down version of Hinduism that emphasizes physical postures and breathing rather than prayer and religious meditation has taken root in the West. Derived from Hatha Yoga, this Westernized Yoga is widely taught and practiced globally. 

Yoga remains popular in India and has remained a beloved prayer and meditative technique among Hindus. Sikhs, Jains, and others have also developed prayer and meditation practices influenced by Yoga, and the discipline remains popular and beloved in India. 

Conclusion

Yoga has its origins in the prayers and ritual of Hindu priests and hermits in ancient times. The early and later Vedic eras, from 3,000 B.C. to 500 B.C. saw the development of Yoga as a meditative routine followed by priests and ascetics. 

A somewhat secularized form of Hatha Yoga has taken hold in the West, where it is largely seen as a form of exercise and relaxation, and often lacks the overt mantras, chanting and worship of classical Yoga. Classical Yoga, however, remains popular among Hindus in India, where it is cherished as a spiritual discipline, and is still passed down from teacher to students.

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