More than a Workout - The Epic History of Yoga

More than a Workout - The Epic History of Yoga

If you’ve participated in yoga classes, you’ve undoubtedly seen how yoga practice can be a highly active and life-changing experience, especially if you keep it consistent. But while sitting in the studio, you may have also seen statues of older yogis, mysterious scrolls and symbols adorning the walls, and you may have heard terminology you’re not familiar with. All of those idiosyncrasies suggest that yoga goes a lot deeper than a series of stretches and sequences. Discover more about the illustrious history of the modern fitness phenomenon known as yoga.

The First Signs of Yoga in History

In the Indus Valley which is located in the Northwest part of India, stone statues have been found that depict the fundamental poses of yoga. Although much debate exists over the origins of yoga, it’s widely accepted that it began in the Indus Valley Civilization around 3300-1900 BC. As more groups began to embrace yoga, the movements became standardized and led to different sects and styles over the upcoming centuries.

The Veda Texts are the First to Mention Yoga

The Vedic People wrote songs and scriptures which were intended for use by the Vedic priests, known as Brahmins. Ultimately, these Brahmins compiled over 200 works into one masterwork called the Upanishads. Of these hundreds of scriptures, the one that’s most prominent from a yoga perspective is the Bhagavad-Gîtâ, which has been traced to around 500 B.C.E. This and similar texts are the earliest evidence of yoga and how it evolved into the art form we now recognize.

The Indus Valley where yoga was first practiced

Father of Yoga - Patanjali's Sutras Revolutionize Yoga Forever

Written between 100-200 AD, Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras remain arguably the most important yoga works ever written. While yoga knowledge had been previously available, Patanjali’s contribution was organizing it into a system. His system included the eight paths and stages needed to attain enlightenment, ultimately giving an approachable structure and strong foundation to yoga practice. His style is often known as Raja, or classical yoga.

Patanjali’s Sutras and the Different Types of Yoga

The sutras written by Patanjali are deeply influential to this day, so much so that they cemented his place as the father of yoga. It’s worth noting that these didn’t simply contain poses, but also details on yoga philosophies and the different types of yoga. These various types discussed in the sutras of Patanjali were:

  • Samadhi Pada - Being absorbed in spirit

  • Sadhana Pada - Being immersed in spirit

  • Vibhuti Pada - Supernatural abilities and gifts

  • Kaivalya Pada - Absolute freedom

Yoga Integrates With Popular Eastern Religions

Developed as a spiritual practice by priests in the Indus Valley, yoga was born out of spirituality. It wasn’t long before other religions adopted it’s concepts as part of their own teachings, often adding their own interpretations into the practice. The religions who became most closely associated with yoga practice included Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism. In fact, it’s widely believed that the Buddha first learned about meditation from encounters with yogis at the time.

Zen and its Roots in Yoga

Zen is another major school of meditation and even it owes a lot of credit to yoga. It’s no coincidence that Zen and yoga share many similar concepts. For example, the ultimate goal of the meditation is to reach a state of enlightenment, which is known as Nirvana in Zen Buddhism and Samadhi in yoga. As an ancient and complex form of meditation, many popular modern forms can be directly linked to the sutras and philosophies of yoga.

Swami Vivekananda Brings Yoga to the West

The late 1800’s saw a lot of yoga masters bringing their knowledge to countries in the West. Most notably, Swami Vivekananda made a memorable impact with these speeches on yoga at the 1893 Parliament of Religions in Chicago. This powerful introduction of yoga from a renowned master paved the way for yoga to become accepted and mainstream in the United States. A newspaper reporter at the time even described Swami as the highlight of the event in Chicago:

“An orator by divine right and undoubtedly the greatest figure at the Parliament.”

1905-1910: Pierre Bernard Opens Yoga Schools In the U.S.

As yoga was taking hold in the Western World, it was still largely relegated to Hinduism and other religious sects. But a yoga master born in America changed that in 1905. After perfecting his training in Bengal and Kashmir, Pierre Bernard opened his school, giving many Americans their first experience with the ancient art of yoga. These initial schools led the way for yoga to continue rising in popularity and becoming a mainstream practice in the United States.

Bernard’s Scandal and Unscrupulous Downfall

In what is arguably the first scandal in the history of yoga, 1910 turned out to be a bad year for yoga-pioneer, Pierre Bernard. In a scandal that ruined his reputation for years, Bernard was accused of having "inveigled and enticed" a young, 19-year old student to travel across the country to practice at another school with him. The scandal led to scathing media accounts of his character, and his reputation wouldn’t recover until he resumed teaching decades later.

Modern Yoga Combines the Physical and Spiritual Benefits

Perhaps the next time you set foot into your yoga studio, you’ll have some questions or new knowledge about the figures, symbols, and terms you’ll encounter there. Although on its surface yoga is a stellar workout for the mind and body, you can clearly see that the study of yoga goes as deep as you’re willing to explore. Ultimately, each time you step into yoga class for a session, you’re doing your part to keep this thousands-of-years-old tradition alive and ensuring it continues to thrive for future generations.