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Ancient History of Yoga & How It Relates to Modern Yoga

Yoga is a five millennial old science and as a modern Yoga practitioner, it is interesting to know about the origins of Yoga. Let's take a look at the beginning of Yoga and how it relates to modern yoga.

The Evolution of Yoga Introduction

The history of yoga is an extensive subject involving about 6000 years of history starting from Pre-Vedic times. In fact, some researchers think that yoga may be up to 10,000 years old. To trace back the definitive origin of Yoga is a challenging task, however, understanding the evolution of Yoga through the ages can deepen our understanding of the evolution of human consciousness.

As a yoga practitioner and yoga teacher, you ought to know the evolution of yoga and the ideas conveyed throughout this period. The most common interpretation of the word Yoga - that you might know already - comes from the Sanskrit word "yuj" which means union. However, yoga is defined in different ways based on the texts and era that it is practiced in.

Yoga’s long rich history can be divided into four main periods of innovation, practice, and development:

  1. Pre-Classical: Pre-Vedic period (Before 3000 BCE) Vedic period (3000 BCE to 800 BCE) Upanishadic period (800 BCE to 250 BCE)

  2. Classical period

  3. Post-classical period

  4. Modern period

We will divide the series into three parts to cover the whole range from Pre-Vedic times to the yoga practices such as Hatha Yoga and Iyengar Yoga, taught in studios today. In this part of the series, let us cover the fundamentals of ancient yoga. We will cover a few important personalities that have played an important role in this era: Adiyogi, Krishna, Buddha, and Patanjali.

This is a phenomenal journey of man's quest to understand the nature of life, the nature of the universe, and his place in the universe.

Yoga in the Pre-Vedic period (Before 3000 BC)

About 4000 B.C. to 1800 B.C., the Indus Valley Civilization, also known as the Harappan Civilization or the Indus Sarasvati Civilization, was the most advanced societal system in the Indian subcontinent. It extended over a wide region in the east, from Baluchistan on the Iranian border in Pakistan to beyond New Delhi, India, and in the north, from Afghanistan and the Himalayas to Mumbai, India.

Recent studies and theories suggest that the Indus Valley was home to both indigenous Dravidians and Sanskrit-speaking Aryans who arrived from the north. Between the Dravidians and the Aryans, a great cultural and spiritual fusion took place.

Archaeological surveys conducted in 1921-22 in what is now Pakistan, according to some, reveal evidence of an existing Yoga community.

A well-known seal was discovered, depicting a male figure in the lotus position (or simply with his legs crossed) surrounded by animals. Some believe this is proof that this was Lord Pashupati, or Lord of Animals, a kind of Shiva. Another obvious hint at the existence of Yoga can be seen in this other Indus Valley Civilisation seal. Here a humanoid figure suspected to be Shiva is sitting in a position resembling the Padmasana and appears to be meditating.

Evidence for the beginnings of Yoga and Hinduism are said to exist with other seals discovered depicting images found today in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism.

Yoga in the Vedic period (3000 BCE to 800 BCE)

The Vedic culture is also referred to as Sanatan culture or eternal culture - it deals with an individual's actions, lifestyle, thought, and spiritual quest, the universe, and the concept of God. “Veda” is derived from the Sanskrit root "Vij," which means "to know." Awareness, according to the Vedic tradition, comes not only from intellect but also from experience.

Vedas are essential hymns that were heard by the "seer" in the deep states of meditation and ecstatic states. In Indian tradition, seer means the one "who has seen, experienced and witnessed the nature of life" in deep states of meditation. Vedic periods were dominated by rituals - rishis would come into a state of heightened awareness, perform these rituals and would recite these hymns.

This intuitive knowledge was recited during the rituals and it was mainly passed down generations orally. Gurus would have firsthand knowledge of the subject matter and they would pass on their knowledge to students who would recall them from memory and pass it onto the next generation. Eventually, this knowledge was written down in the form of scriptures - the four Vedas. These are:

The Rigveda - based on astronomical experiences

The Samaveda - musical hymns and chants

The Yajurveda: based on the rituals,

and Atharvaveda: magical spells.

Each Veda is subdivided into four parts: The Samhitas (prayers & rituals), The Brahmanas (codes of ethics for householders), The Aranyakas (household duties completed), and The Upanishads (texts on philosophy, meditation & spiritual knowledge). In Rig Veda, the Sanskrit term “Yuj” from which the term “Yoga” originated was coined for the first time in history.

Sanatan culture answers the fundamental question of "what is man's purpose in this universe?" through the visions, thoughts, and experiences of thousands of seers through the ages. The four aims of human life were: material needs, emotional needs, ethical law, and moksha (liberation).

This era was marked with mythical consciousness - people demonstrate their spirituality in the form of rituals. Rishis or sages or brahmans would come into a heightened state of awareness when they would perform these rituals. And it is through these rituals that people would connect with divinity.

During this period, yoga fundamentally consisted of groups of men performing rituals by gathering around a fire and making primordial sounds. Next, in the Atharva Veda (dating to 1200-1000 BC), there is a mention of the importance of the control of breath. During the Vedic period, yoga was practiced ritually, to develop concentration, transcend the mundane, and transform the mind.

Brahmanas and Aranyakas (1500 BCE)

Brahmanas can be translated as “'explanations of sacred knowledge or doctrine' or 'Brahmanical explanation' of the rituals. Here the sacred knowledge comes from Vedas and in this era: highlighting how a Bhraman (the one who does the rituals) ought to do the rituals. The texts set in this era add a secondary layer to Vedas, often explaining how to do the Vedic rituals and recite the Samhitas (hymns). This era was still marked with rituals and written in the form of prose.

In addition, the Aranyakas are a continuation of Vedas and constitute the philosophy behind rituals. The rituals are explained from multiple perspectives - symbolism, rituals and philosophy. We see overlap between Brahmanas, Aranyakas and Upanishads.

Yoga in the Upanishadic period

The word "Upanishads" means "sit down closely", implying that one would have to pay careful attention to a guru's teachings. The phrase "revealing underlying reality" has also been attributed to the Upanishads as they discuss the truths articulated in the Vedas that shed light on the intention and significance of the Vedic Era ritualistic practices.

It is for the first time in Upanishads that the practice of meditation was also given importance. The most interesting concept relating to yoga practice is how yogis took the ‘external' fire.

There was a shift in the concept of sacrifice of Vedic ritual to internalizing it in the body during the transition from Vedic Religion to the Upanishadic period. The concept of the yagna sacrificial fire altar was now based on the body. Internal yoga practices such as Pranayama, Pratayahara, Dharana and Dhyana were established. The concept of Tapas or generating body heat evolved as well. As a way of purifying Karma, the fire metaphor persisted.

The Upanishads reflect on the workings of the mind and spirit through personal teachings. They advocate for meditation and mantra recitation in order to achieve enlightenment.

These address various yogic practices such as pranayama (breathing exercise) and pratyahara (sense withdrawal), as well as breathing exercises and meditation.

During the later Upanishadic era, social unrest arose, and the ‘Brahmanical tradition' was put into question. Brahmins were not as invested in emancipation (Moksha) during the later Vedic Age, expecting people to work and pay heavy taxes in the name of gaining salvation.

This led to a new spiritual landscape emerging about 800-500 BCE. An unconventional movement exploded in popularity, some people left their homes to practice yoga in the jungles and forests in trying to evade the development of karma that lasted many lifetimes. Forest rishis, silent Munis, tapasya yogis, reclusive Shiva-worshiping Pashupatas, and others sought "direct knowledge" from their yogic practices, and radical new ideas developed.

The Upaniṣads don’t share much more ‘technique’ about the practices than what was given in the Vedas. They mostly share a lot of stories and use broad metaphors to address our problem of being enslaved by our bodies and senses. They paint a philosophical picture but don't include specific guidance on the practices that yogis used to achieve these results. But at least we know that some of the practices we do on our mats have been around for thousands of years.

Literary texts from the Upanishadic era like Ramayana, Mahabharata and the Bhagavad Gita contain several references to yoga

Ramayana - About 7000 years old, an epic story of Lord Rama, the Ramayana consists of 24,000 verses. It tells the story of King Rama of Ayodhya, whose life is filled with misery and pain. But, even in the face of hardship, King Rama retains his composure and leads a virtuous life without sacrificing his life's ideals and values. King Rama - a central figure in this epic is a man of righteousness and virtues. Rama inspires us to lead a moral and virtuous life with his story. Ramayana also introduces us to the practice of karma yoga- fulfilling one’s duties and responsibilities for others and altruism.

Yoga is mentioned many times in this tale. To mention a few, the great sage Vasistha is said to have taught Yoga to Lord Rama in the Ramayana. Lakshman, Lord Rama's brother, lived a life of austerity for fourteen years, which is an important Yogic concept. Furthermore, the story's antagonist, Ravan, received all of his unique abilities as a boon after performing intense Yoga poses and meditation for Lord Shiva.

Mahabharata and Bhagavad Gita - Mahabharata is another significant epic and it is the story of Pandavas and Kauravas, with over 200,000 verse lines. There was a battle fought between Pandavas and Kauravas - so the Pandavas can rightfully get back their kingdom. When Arjuna, a Pandava prince is in dilemma at the battlefield - he is distressed and distraught. Lord Krishna teaches Prince Arjuna about the meaning of life and different kinds of yoga - the one that can also be applied on a battlefield. These teachings of Krishna are in a monologue in the form of Bhagavad Gita.

In Gita, Krishna has mentioned three types of yoga:

  1. Bhakti Yoga or Yoga of devotion: The path of yoga in which you surrender to the higher entity with devotion and faith.

  2. Karma Yoga: Here, you do service for others and do action without expecting fruits of your labor.

  3. Jnana Yoga or Buddhi Yoga: Yoga of logic and contemplating on metaphysical questions such as “what is the nature of life?”

Krishna also talks about one Dharma or duty - the responsibility that we carry based on our role in society. Bhagavad Gita has guided millions of people and it is regarded to have a multitude of valuable wisdom that is still applicable in today’s day and age.

Yoga in Classical period: Darshans, Patanjali Yoga Sutras, Rise of Jainism and Buddhism

There was a change in people's thinking patterns after the upheaval toward Bhramanical thought and the end of the Vedic period. Various philosophers and intellectuals appeared, each with their own philosophical school of thought. Indian Philosophical Schools known as Darshans were the philosophies, world views and teachings in ancient India. Darshan means to see or witness, implying that this knowledge is witnessed by the seers. This is not mere philosophical discussion but world-views and experiences of the nature of life.

The following five main questions were the basis of these schools:

  1. What is the composition of the body and how does it function?

  2. What is Prana? How does it interact with our objects and our body?

  3. How does Prana manifest itself?

  4. What is Atma (Soul)? How can one experience it?

  5. How can I attend liberation or Moksha?

There are six main Darshans: Sankhya, Yoga, Nyaya, Vaisheshika, Mimamsa and Vedanta. We will not go into details with other darshanas and focus on yoga darshana or Patanjali’s yoga sutras.

Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras

These have been credited as the very foundation of classical yoga. The Sutras provide instructions to help the reader attain peace and fulfillment. At this point, it's important to note that the name Patanjali has been used by many writers, and research is still underway to ascertain who wrote the Yoga Sutras. However, it is difficult to deny the relevance and subsequent success of Patanjali's Yoga Sutras, regardless of authorship.

Patanjali yoga sutras are not just philosophy but a practical treaty to still the mind, reach higher states of awareness and to achieve Samadhi. Patanjali does not just talk about the path of yoga, but also what kind of obstacles we will face and how they can be overcome.

The introduction of the eight limbs of yoga, also known as Ashtanga Yoga or Raja Yoga, is another defining characteristic of the classical yoga era. Patanjali outlined the following as a guide to living a life of meaning and purpose:

  • Yama – social discipline or ethical laws relating to one's actions toward others.

  • Niyama – appropriate self-behavior as a way of encouraging personal development.

  • Asana – the exercise of physical postures

  • Pranayama - breath control

  • Pratyahara - regulation of one's senses

  • Dharana- is the act of drawing the senses inward with focus and concentration

  • Dhyana - meditation.

  • Samadhi – the combination of meditation and the main subject of meditation, which is often connected with attaining enlightenment.

Buddhism and Jainism

Both these schools of thought are called Nāstika (non-orthodox). Both of these schools are based on the teachings of Gautam Buddha and Mahavir Jain respectively. Buddhism speaks of Buddha's Four Noble Truths and the eightfold path to reach the ultimate goal is to overcome suffering to attain Nirvana.

  • All existence is dukkha (suffering).

  • The cause of dukkha is craving. Buddha says that their actual root is to be found in the mind itself. In particular our tendency to desire and crave things.

  • The cessation of dukkha is possible. There is a solution.

  • There is a path that leads from dukkha. It can be done with the Noble Eightfold Path.

Most Buddhist traditions emphasize transcending the individual self, using the eightfold path. On the other hand, Mahavir Jain around 600 BCE was teaching ahiṃsā (non-violence), anekāntavāda (many-sidedness), aparigraha (non-attachment) and tapas (abstinence from sensual pleasures). The religion Jainism is based on these teachings. These principles have influenced Jain culture for example: consuming a vegetarian diet.

It is awe-inspiring to have a look at the journey of these phenomenal individuals that contributed to moving yoga forward. The practices of Yoga and the meaning of Yoga have changed throughout these ages. In the upcoming part, we will look at the influence of Patanjali’s yoga and the post-classical yoga period and the evolution of yoga through time until current times.

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