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The history of yoga is shrouded in mystery. Is it 10,000 yrs old, 5,000 yrs old, or 2,000 years old? It may all depend on your definition of yoga. What most people in the West consider to be yoga is only one part of the science of yoga. Asana, or the physical practice, is the third limb of the complete eight-limb path of yoga (called Ashtanga Yoga).

Mythology:

There is a myth about the origin of yoga. The story begins in a remote jungle location where Lord Shiva was giving a secret discourse on yoga to his wife Uma. When Shiva was finished he heard a noise nearby. After some investigation, he discovered Ananta, the thousand-headed serpent trying to get away. After he caught Ananta, Shiva dealt out a punishment for his spying. Ananta was to go to the humans and teach them all that he had overheard. Of course, when Ananta approached a village, the residents ran away screaming from the sight of the thousand-headed serpent. Ananta returned to Shiva and explained what had happened. Shiva suggested that Ananta take on the form of a human in order to complete his task. Ananta took the shape of Pantanjali, who is the author of the Yoga Sutras, and considered the father of yoga. The humans readily accepted Pantanjali and his teachings, and from that moment yoga was brought to the human race.

Timeline of yoga:

The reason it is so hard to track the origins of yoga and asana, is that yoga has long been an oral tradition. The teachings were learned directly from a teacher or guru, not from a book. The first written mention of yoga is in the ancient Rig Veda, which was composed approximately 5,000 years ago. Asana is first mentioned in Pantanjali’s Yoga Sutra, which was written approximately 2,200 – 2,400 years ago. In one of the most famous verses (2.46) Pantanjali writes, “Sthira Sukham Asanam”, which is translated as, “the postures must have both the qualities of firmness and ease”. But Pantanjali makes little more mention of the third limb of the eight-limb path. As we get to the 15th century, Swatmarama writes the Hatha Yoga Pradipika mentioning 15 asanas. In the 17th and 18th centuries the Gheranda Samhita and the Shiva Samhita are written. Each adding to the number of asanas described with the written word. In the 19th century the Maharaja of Myosore compiled the Sritattvandhi, which details 122 asanas. By the time B.K.S. Iyungar published his renowned Light on Yoga in 1966, over 360 asanas are explained in detail. In 1984 Dharma Mittra began assembling his book, Asanas – 608 Yoga Poses. Although no one can pinpoint the exact beginning of yoga, it is an ever-growing science that will continue to change and develop into an even greater system of not only physical practice, but also internal practices as well.

When yoga came to the West:

At the end of the 19th century through the beginning of the 20th century several Indian masters began traveling to the United States. Two of theses masters, Swami Vivekananda and Parahamsa Yogananda, impressed attendees of their lectures in the U.S., and word began to spread of the eastern science called yoga. In India, in the early 20th century, Sri Krishnamacharya began teaching several students who would become renowned teachers sharing their passion for yoga with the world. They are: Indra Devi, who opened the first yoga studio in Hollywood in 1947 and was the first westerner to study with Krishnamacharya; Pattabhi Jois, who developed the Ashtanga Vinyasa System; B.K.S. Iyengar, author of many books, including Light on Yoga, and the founder of the Iyengar Yoga; and T.K.V. Desikachar, Krishnamacharya’s son and founder of the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram. As word spread of these great teachers and students of Krishnamacharia, Westerners began to travel to India to study yoga with them, and bring it back to the United States. In the mid 1950’s two students of Parahamsa Yogananda, opened a studio in San Francisco. Their son Baron Baptiste is the founder of Baptiste Power Vinyasa Yoga. As students began seeking out teachings from the Indian masters, they began creating their own forms of yoga. Today there are more forms, styles and names of yoga than anyone could have ever imagined. Just to name a few: Anusara, Ashtanga Vinyasa, Baptiste, Bikram, Flow, Jivamukti, Power, Subtle Yoga, Universal Yoga, Viniyoga, and Yin. And although yoga is continuously evolving and changing, the basic tenets go back to the Yoga Sutras written by Pantanjali.

In the end does it matter when it all began? Truly we should be grateful for the masters who have passed this wonderful gift on to us through the ages.

Sources:

Burgin, Timothy. “History of Yoga.” November 26, 2007. www.yogabasics.com/learn/articles

Cushman, Ann. “New Light on Yoga.” www.yogajournal.com/wisdon/266

Hammond, Holly. “Yoga’s Trip to America.” www.yogajournal.com/wisdom/467

Lappa, Andey. Universal Yoga Level One Teacher Training. October 1, 2010.

Maehle, Gregor. Ashtanga Yoga, Practice and Philosophy. Novato, CA: New World Library, 2006.