The history of yoga dates back to ancient times, even before recorded history. Some believe yoga is as old as human civilization and trace its origins to the Stone Age, but little to no evidence exists to support this claim. Still, there is no doubt that yoga is one of the oldest spiritual practices in existence.
Origins of Yoga
The earliest evidence of yoga’s existence occurs in stone seals found in the Indus Valley. These seals are at least three thousand years old, and depict poses very similar to yoga poses used today. The depictions might be of people practicing the poses, or might depict gods in meditative postures. The existence of these seals implies that yoga probably existed before the poses were recorded, but without written evidence, this cannot be proven.
The first written discussion of yoga occurs in the Vedas, sacred scriptures and hymns of Brahmanism, an ancient religion that formed the basis of today’s Hindu religion. At least one verse mentions a figure in a pose many would recognize as the lotus, indicating that the practice of yoga might have gone beyond meditative practice even at this early date. This has led some scholars to believe yoga practice can be dated to at least five thousand years ago, and possibly earlier.
While mentions of yogic practice in the Vedas is not explicit, these verses are used today as the basis of a yoga practice called Vedic Yoga. More explicit discussion of yoga occurs in commentaries on the Vedas written in 800 and 900 BC.
The Upanishads also discuss yogic practice, mentioning meditation and other disciplines. The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, the earliest Upanishad, written about 900 BC, speaks about meditation. Texts referred to as the Middle Upanishads, written in 200-300 BC, discuss yoga principles that would be familiar to practitioners today, such as pranayama and concentration. In fact, the term “yoga,” which means “yoke,” first occurs in the Upanishads.
The Yoga Sutras
Explicit documentation of yogic practice arrived with the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. Written about 200 AD, this text is still used as the basis for all practice of yoga. Patanjali wished to compile the various branches of yoga and standardize the practice. The text is composed of 195 sutras, a Sanskrit word meaning “strands,” which refers to short statements of belief. Patanjali’s Eightfold Path, or the Eight Limbs of Yoga, is well-known among yoga practitioners.
Patanjali’s ideas, while helping standardize and spread the practice of yoga, differed from previous beliefs. Patanjali believed that the spirit and body must be separated, while earlier yoga philosophy saw the two as complementary, and felt that the ideal was to join body and spirit together. Later practice has moved back toward these earlier ideas.
From these beginnings, yoga has developed and changed. For some practitioners, it remains a spiritual practice, while others focus primarily on the physical benefits. As yoga has become more popular across the world, more and more physicians have seen the benefits of focused meditation to reduce stress and even blood pressure. Increased flexibility, core strength and overall physical health are also undeniable benefits of a modern application of this ancient practice.