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History of Yoga: Origins to Modern Day

history of yoga

You may be familiar with different poses, types and techniques but have you ever wondered “what is the history of yoga?” 

We’re here to share with you a yoga definition, as well as a guide to yoga history and benefits, so that you can broaden your yogi knowledge! We’ll cover:

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Where Did Yoga Come From?

history behind yoga

Before we delve into a history of yoga timeline, you may be wondering “where is yoga from?” 

The earliest transcriptions of yoga can be found in Vedic literature. These were religious texts written in Sanskrit, an ancient Indo-European language. 

This literature is made up of The Vedas, a collection of spiritual poems and hymns. 

‘Veda’ in Sanskrit translates as ‘knowledge’, suggesting that the texts contain the fundamental truths about yoga’s existence. 

The word ‘Yoga’ translates as ‘yoke’ or ‘union’, encapsulating the core principle of yoga as a means of unifying: 

  • The mind and body
  • Breath and energy
  • Soul and body

Spiritual enlightenment is thought to be achieved once one unifies each of these things! 

yoga history

Now, we’ve mentioned that the practice comes from ancient texts, but how old is yoga exactly? 

Yogis around the world have been practising yoga for over 5,000 years, but it wasn’t until the late 1800’s that yoga became more well-known in the West. 

It is thought that there are two main reason for the spread of yoga:

  • Monks and gurus would share their knowledge of yoga in and around their local communities, which then spread around India as a whole. 
  • Over time, travellers to India would hear of yoga and take what they learned back to their homelands, so the practice spread to different countries.

This is a very short history of yoga. So let’s now get into a more in-depth history of yoga timeline, so you can start to piece together how this practice came about! 

 

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History Of Yoga Timeline

Our yoga history timeline is made up of 5 parts:

  • Vedic Period
  • Pre-Classical
  • Classical
  • Post-Classical
  • Modern Yoga

We will discuss each period and what happened during it, so that you can get a better understanding of the history behind yoga. 

Vedic Period (1500-500 BCE) 

how old is yoga

As we have said, the earliest transcriptions of yoga can be found in Vedic literature. 

Some yogis say that there was originally 1 Veda, the Yajur, which was later divided into 4 scriptures:

  • Rigveda
  • Yajurveda
  • Samaveda
  • Artharvaveda. 

Each of these has a further 4 subdivisions. 

  • Samhitas - mantras and benedictions 
  • Aranyakas - texts on rituals, ceremonies, and sacrifices
  • Brahmanas - commentaries on rituals, ceremonies and sacrifices
  • Upanishads - texts on meditation, philosophy, and spiritual knowledge

Each subdivision is written in the form of poems and hymns that encourage a broadening of the mind, body and soul to achieve spiritual enlightenment. 

Scholars believe that these texts were written around 2,500 years ago. 

In these texts, ‘Rishi’ is mentioned frequently, which is a term used to describe an enlightened individual. The rishis functioned as guidelines to instruct people on how to follow yoga teaching correctly, which have helped us to understand the origins of yoga today. 

An interesting yoga history fact from this period is that many yogis started to live in areas such as woodlands and moors, as being close to nature was thought to be an important part of the yoga practice. 

Knowledge of yoga’s background like this is particularly interesting, since many modern-day yogis enjoy practising in outdoor spaces such as parks, gardens, and on the beach. 

So, when we look at yoga origins and history, the Vedic period is where it all began! 

Pre-Classical Period (500 - 200 BCE) 

The next period on the yoga history timeline is the Pre-Classical era. 

It is during this time that the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita were created. Both are foundational yoga texts that many still read today. Let’s break down exactly what these texts entail:

The Upanishads 

history of yoga

The Upanishads is a collection of 200 late-Vedic texts based on Hindu philosophy. 

These texts are more commonly referred to as ‘Vedãnta’ which has been interpreted as “the last chapters of the Veda”. 

The main themes explored in the Upanishads are:

  • Braham- the ultimate reality of the universe
  • Atman- the transcendental self

When a relationship forms between the two it is thought that one’s eternal self is connected to the universe.  

The Bhagavad Gita

yoga history

When we look at the history of yoga, the Bhagavad Gita is one of the most famous Hindu texts. 

It is a 700-verse poem that discusses the key principles of yoga to reach spiritual enlightenment, or rishi. One key teaching is to do one's duty and to not expect the fruit of action. 

This helps readers and yogis learn about selflessness, a fundamental trait of yoga. 

It was also during this time that yoga found its way to Buddhism, as Lord Buddha was the first Buddhist to study yoga. 

In summary, the history of yoga in the Pre-Classical period taught yogis how to lead a life of fulfilment selflessly. This is a key element of yoga today too, particularly karma yoga which is all about doing things for others with no expectation of reward. 

Classical Yoga (200 BCE - 500 CE) 

history of yoga and meditation

While Hindus have been practising yoga for over 5,000 years, it wasn’t until 2,000 years ago that texts were written on the theory of yoga. 

Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras is another important Sanskrit text. It offers guidance to the reader, teaching them about creating peace and how to achieve fulfilment. 

The Sutras also introduce Hatha yoga, which is where many modern-day yoga variations originate. 

In the first few sutras, Patanjali says:

Yoga is the progressive settling of the mind into silence… When the mind is settled, we are established in our own essential state, which is unbounded consciousness.

The classical period was also when the “eight limbs” of yoga emerged:

  1. Yamas (abstinences) 
  2. Niyama (observances) 
  3. Asana (postures)
  4. Pranayama (breathing)
  5. Pratyahara (withdrawal)
  6. Dharana (concentration)
  7. Ghana (meditation)
  8. Samadhi (absorption) 

It is a common misconception that yoga is just about making impressive-looking poses. But as you can see, postures is actually just one of the 8 limbs of yoga! 

We would recommend reading one of these best yoga books to get a better understanding of the Eight Limbs of Yoga. 

Knowing these key yoga history facts will help you deepen your practice so you too can achieve enlightenment! 

Post-Classical (1500 - 1899 CE) 

history of yoga timeline

Next on our history of yoga timeline is the Post-Classical period.

This era marks a new outlook of yoga as greater emphasis is put on asanas, kriyas and pranayama for cleaning the body and mind. 

  • Asanas are body postures/poses.
  • Kriyas consist of exercises, breathing techniques and mantras to unlock energy.
  • Pranayama is the practice of breath regulation. Find out more about the meaning and benefits of pranayama here!

 

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It was during this time that yoga started to become more well-known in the West. 

It is thought that 3 major figures helped with this:

Swami Sivananda: Swami Sivananda was a yoga guru and Hindu spiritual teacher who wrote over 200 books on yoga and philosophy in the late 1800s - mid-1900s. 

He also founded the Divine Life Society in 1936 which is an organisation for yogis and gurus to share the teaching of yoga. 

Swami Vivekananda: He visited the US in 1893 and spoke at the World’s Parliament in Chicago and spread the message of Hinduism and yoga. 

Vivekananda also wrote books and hosted tours to discuss the history of yoga and meditation throughout the US. 

Maharishi Mahesh Yogi: Also known as the ‘giggling guru’, was an Indian yoga guru known for developing and popularising Transcendental Meditation (TM).

TM is a form of silent meditation that is practised by over 5 million people around the world. It promotes awareness and reduces stress.

Mahesh Yogi received his nickname by laughing a lot during TV interviews where he discussed yoga practice and TM. Such interviews helped to popularise yoga in the West in the 1900s. 

If you like this sound of this combination of humour and yoga, you might want to check out our guide to laughter yoga

So, if you wanted to learn more about the history of yoga in the UK, these 3 figures are thought to have influenced what we know about yoga in the West today. 

Enjoying this article so far? Here’s 3 more that we think you’ll love:

Modern Period (1900 - ) 

The history of modern yoga refers to the form practised in studios, gyms and homes all over the world today. 

As mentioned earlier, many modern-day types of yoga are derived from Hatha Yoga. These include:

Vinyasa Yoga

Vinyasa yoga is a modern-day form of yoga that is all about flowing from one pose to the next in a sequence called a ‘vinyasa flow’.

history of yoga in the uk

It requires changes in breathing patterns while flowing from one posture into another. 

During a Vinyasa yoga practice, muscles are continually stretched, enhancing flexibility and strength. 

Hot Yoga

This is another modern-day type of yoga, getting its name from the fact that it is practised in 35-40°C heated rooms. 

The hotness helps to stretch every muscle, ligament and tendon in the body, as well as enhancing detoxification.

Read all about the benefits and risks of hot yoga here!

Anusara Yoga 

This form of yoga has set patterns and flows to sessions that are designed to help energise yogis and purify the mind. 

Just one session of Anusara often leaves one feeling extremely relaxed and less fatigued. 

Animal Yoga

Finally, animal yoga is a new and upcoming yoga style that many enjoy.

who invented yoga

For a lot of people, the positive effects of yoga are similar to spending time with animals. Both can help to reduce stress and boost mood. 

Animal yoga can see dogs, cats, bunnies and even goats roaming freely during a practice! 

With the emergence of things such as ‘Doga’ (dog yoga), it is now one of the most popular alternative fitness classes out there!

There are 5,000 years worth of history behind yoga, but you can see how it’s changed since its inception- and what the future of yoga holds! 

History Of Modern Yoga

Now that we’ve covered aspects of yoga’s background, we’ll now discuss some modern-day influences as to why it’s one of the most popular practices today.

The influence of Instagram on modern yoga

yoga history summary

Instagram has made a huge impact on yoga since the app’s launch in 2010. 

There are over 1 billion active users, making it an incredible tool for yogis around the world to connect with like-minded people. 

Here are just some of the great ways that Instagram has has an impact on yoga:

  • Following yoga Instagram accounts can help yoga newbies to learn about different yoga poses, breathing techniques, and big figures within the industry. 

  • It can also motivate more advanced yogis to work towards accomplishing more complex poses, and even encourage them to become a yoga teacher themselves. 

  • Yoga teachers can livestream their classes on Instagram, helping them reach a whole new audience of students. It is therefore a great way of marketing a yoga business!

  • Yoga accounts offer a wealth of content such as how-to guides on performing poses, overviews of yoga workouts, post-workout recipes, details on yoga history and meditation, just to name a few. 

Instagram currently has 105 million Instagram posts that use the ‘#yoga’, hashtag with this figure growing each day.

This shows that Instagram is an incredible resource for connecting with fellow yoga lovers around the world and for learning something new with each post. 

The influence of YouTube on modern yoga

YouTube is another way that yoga has become accessible to the masses.

As for a brief history of yoga on YouTube, the largest yoga channel, Yoga With Adriene, has been uploading yoga videos since 2012. 

Channel host, Adriene, has amassed 10.8 million subscribers with most videos getting millions of views. 

a brief history of yoga

She has over 600 videos, some just 10-minutes long and others 45-minutes to an hour. 

With content for beginners, advised yogis, morning yoga sessions to month-long programmes, Adriene’s YouTube channel has made yoga incredibly accessible for all.

Moreover, since YouTube is free to use, this makes learning more about yoga even easier, accounting for yoga’s rise in popularity since YouTube’s launch in 2005. 

Aside from Yoga With Adriene, there are countless other amazing yoga Youtubers out there. Check out our list of the best YouTube yoga channels to get you started! 

YouTube, therefore, is an incredible development in the history of modern yoga, as it is accessible, easy to use and free! 

 

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The rise of online yoga classes 

history of modern yoga

Online yoga classes have boomed in popularity in recent years, especially since the Coronavirus pandemic which meant in-person classes were hindered. 

A 2020 study found that prior to the pandemic, less than 10% of yoga teachers taught online. Yet this figure soured to 86% teaching online during the pandemic. 

During this time, many fitness brands and yoga teachers jumped at the chance of expanding their services and have since started to offer online classes. 

They are incredibly convenient for those that work from home and cut out the need to commute. Online classes also help newbie yogis get involved in yoga who may be apprehensive about attending an in-person class.

You can even become a yoga teacher from the comfort of your own home, thanks to online yoga teacher training courses

There are lots of subscription-based services with live sessions and tailored programmes for yogis. Here are some great examples:

  • Glo
  • Move Your Frame
  • The Yoga Revolution
  • Digme at Home
  • Down to Earth

Online classes have contributed to yoga’s rise in popularity in recent years. It shows just how far the practice has developed since the origins of yoga all those years ago! 

The rise in demand for yoga yoga teachers

origins of yoga

Since yoga has become an incredibly popular activity, this means that there is a huge demand for yoga instructors. 

Yoga teaching, therefore, has become a popular career path for many yogis.

In the UK, there are currently over 10,000 active yoga teachers with approximately 30,000 classes taking place each week.

Instructors can work part-time, full-time and freelance which makes teaching manageable for different schedules and lifestyles. 

With that, there are teaching opportunities in a variety of locations, such as: 

  • Gyms
  • Leisure centres and health clubs
  • Yoga studios
  • Holidays and yoga retreats
  • Cruise ships
  • Exercise referral schemes

As for the yoga teacher salary, according to Indeed, the average reported salary for a yoga teacher was calculated at £21.85 per hour- which isn’t bad as far as salaries go!

Fancy becoming a yoga teacher yourself? Here at OriGym, we offer an Ofqual-regulated Level 3 Diploma in Yoga Teaching that qualifies you to do just that! 

FAQs

Who invented yoga? 

yoga definition history

Now that we’ve covered a brief history of yoga, you may be curious as to exactly who invented yoga. 

The answer to this question is often debated amongst yogis, teachers, gurus and Hindus as, truthfully, nobody actually knows for certain!

As you know from our yoga history summary, several people and texts have influenced what yoga is today. 

Some believe that the inventor of yoga is Veda Vyasa, the author of the Vedas since the earliest transcriptions of yoga are documented there.

However, Patanjali is often considered the father of yoga since his Yoga Sutras have had a significant influence on the modern history of yoga.

Others believe that Swami Vivekananda invented modern-day yoga as he brought it over to the US, resulting in there now being several variations of the practice.

Ultimately, while it's not known with certainty who ‘invented’ yoga, these figures are thought to have had the most influence on what we know of yoga today. 

Yoga originated in which country?

where is yoga from

Yoga is a highly spiritual, physical, and mental practice that originated in ancient India. 

The beginnings of yoga were developed by the Indus-Saraswati civilisation, located in Northern India approximately 5,000 years ago. 

Over time, gurus, yoga teachers and Hindu’s started to spread their knowledge of yoga and those travelling to India would take lessons and experiences back to their homelands. This is how yoga started to become more well-known around the world. 

Since India is regarded as the home of yoga, many of the best yoga holidays and escapes are held there. 

So, as well as learning about yoga origins and history, we hope that you now know more about where it is that yoga is from in the world.

 

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What is the history of yoga poses?

yoga originated in which country

In yoga, the Sanskrit word for poses is ‘asanas’. This simply refers to a posture held during a yoga practice. 

Asanas can be standing, sitting and inverted, with some that require twisting and balancing too. 

In regards to the history of yoga poses, some are thought to be linked to Buddhism. 

Siddhartha Guatama, the founder of Buddhism, is often pictured sitting in the lotus pose. This is a cross-legged sitting position that you’re likely to be familiar with. 

The lotus pose is a popular yoga symbol that you may be familiar with, and is meant to portray the perfect symmetry and poise of a lotus flower.

As for Siddhartha, sitting in this pose symbolises him overcoming the pain he felt towards the material world and eventually achieving spiritual enlightenment. 

The lotus pose is one of the original asanas detailed in The Vedas. Some others include: 

  • Cow-Facing Pose (gomukhasana)
  • Seated Twist Pose (matsyendrasana)
  • Corpse Pose (shavasana)
  • Bow Pose (dhanurasana) 

Variations of classic asanas have been created in recent years and will carry on doing so. Yoga, after all, is an evolving practice! 

But, in terms of the origins of yoga poses, the above are thought to be amongst the collection of the original asanas.

Before you go! 

We hope that you have learned something new about the history of yoga and meditation to help deepen your yoga practice. 

Want to progress your yoga practice further and pass on your passion to other yogis? Become a qualified yoga teacher with OriGym’s yoga teacher training course! Enquire today, or download our free yoga course prospectus here

References

Rawlings, J and Pollen, T (2020) ‘The Rise of Online Yoga: Student & Teacher, Attitudes & Preferences’, Jenni Rawlings: Yoga & Movement. Available at: https://jennirawlingsblog.com/blog/the-rise-of-online-yoga

Written by Emily Evans

Content Writer & Fitness Enthusiast

Emily studied English Language and Literature at the University of Sheffield, graduating in 2021 with a 2:1 BA honours degree. Alongside her degree, she also gained experience in student publication as Forge Press’ Lifestyle Editor and Deputy Editor for Post-Production. This is where her love for content writing stemmed from, which also led her to OriGym. Outside of her work, Emily will either be found on a long hike, at the gym or making a mess trying new healthy recipes in her kitchen!

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