The History of Yoga

“I didn’t know yoga started so long ago or how much wisdom packed it is” were my thoughts exactly when I learned about its history. You see, Yoga is a long standing tradition believed to have started about 5,000 years ago and possibly 10,000 years if the art wasn’t lost through oral tradition & fragile palm leaves! I won’t push back in history too far but let’s start with what is known as the classical period of yoga.

So, what do we know? Essentially, it started with an Indian sage named Patanjali who wrote the Yoga Sutra, a practical philosophical guide on spiritual growth. He came up with this guidebook woven together with concise, impactful threads of universal truths. This text on classical yoga was made up of 195 sutras (words of wisdom) after he meditated on the idea of rejuvenating the human physical health and reaching enlightenment.

Patanjali was credited with being the father of yoga and influencing most of the modern styles of yoga. Though not much is known about the sage, he’s like the grandmaster of grandmasters, a renaissance man, and also made interesting contributions to the ancient Indian system of medicine.

Sometime after this, yoga masters developed the techniques into Tantra Yoga and what would be the modern yoga in the West today, Hatha Yoga. The yogis wanted to avoid the teachings of the ancient Vedas, placing importance on the sacrifice of the ego through self-knowledge, and wanted to move towards the physical body to reach enlightenment.

Yoga Migrates to the West

In the late 1800’s, yoga masters began spreading their practices to the states starting with Chicago. Yoga is translated as a means of uniting, or method of discipline. Hatha yoga was a physical practice that strengthen the body as to calm the mind. Ha means “sun” and Tha means “moon”, which roughly translate to the union of opposites, possibly referring to the mind-body connection. It is kind of a meta idea of moving the body to calm the mind as a form of meditation. It makes you rethink about meditation in general right? You’re no longer sitting in a cross-lotus contemplating your navel or staring off blankly into space. In yoga, you’re actively moving but still making gains towards enlightenment.

Around this time in India, the first Hatha Yoga school opened and yoga societies were opened to make way for this now popular practice. It was clear that movement of this art was not only spreading around the world but also on the local front as well. Later, the first yoga studio was introduced in Hollywood in 1947. An interesting fact that you may not know is that a female practitioner is called a yogini while the male counterpart is called a yogi.

Modern Times

With the sacrifices of many pioneers, Hatha yoga now has many different styles and emphasizing different aspects of the practice. It used to be that only knowledgeable, experienced, or wise individuals in specific families or seers in Ashrams were able to teach. Now, you must feel grateful that there are many yoga institutions, retreat venues, and small studios spreading around this beautiful collection of physical wisdoms. Yoga can also go very deep, depending on how you want to include the concepts of karma yoga, bhakti yoga, gyana yoga, and kriya yoga. I’ll leave that researching up to your interest levels. That’s it for a brief history and hope you have thoroughly enjoyed it! Namaste, my friends.


Author: Timothy Hoang for RetreatHub

Photo credit: Photo by Samuel Austin

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