On 21st June, we will be celebrating the 8th International Yoga Day. Popular all around the world today, yoga is an ancient practice and evolving tradition with roots in Hinduism. Combined with ayurveda, Yoga aims to heal the body and mind in a holistic way.

Unfortunately, Yoga practice today has been decoupled from its philosophical roots and repackaged as a commercial product. As a result, we see absurd ‘Yoga commodities’ being sold, such as ‘Beer Yoga’, a product truly inimical to the true purpose of Yoga. On the other hand, we see religious bigots denounce Hinduism and then claim to have a better version of Yoga (‘Christian Yoga’).

In recent years, much discussion has centered around the “ownership” of Yoga, and who gets to claim credit for its current popularity, and who gets to complain about its appropriation. Some have even argued that, in its current form, the Yoga Asanas are a very recent development. They argue that its current practice owes more to European calisthenic techniques than to Patanjali. Still others will argue for appropriation, claiming ‘Yoga’ is a symbol of casteist oppression . They completely ignore the long history of the organic growth and evolution of Yoga in India.

Shiva as Adiyogi

Pashupati seal from Mohenjo-Daro

The Beginnings

The Yogic tradition is far deeper and more complex than the Asanas we associate with it in popular culture. Indeed, Yoga is one of the six Darshanas(philosophical schools of thought) that guide Hindus in our spiritual quest for Moksha, release from worldly attachments. Yoga has also had a major influence on more recent philosophies, such as Advaita Vedanta. The earliest written mentions of Yoga can be found in the Upanishads. In fact, most Yoga systems developed in India have been lost to time.

The history of Yoga has many uncertain chapters. Some believe that the origins of Yoga are very old, possibly beginning from the Sindhu-Saraswati civilization that reached its apex around 2600 BCE. The iconic seal of Pashupathi from Mohenjo-Daro shows a man, possibly a proto-Shiva deity, in a yogic pose surrounded by animals. Shiva is believed to be the Adiyogi – the first exponent of Yoga. The figure in the seal is shown in Mulabhandasana. The details of this image continue to be a matter of debate and may not be fully understood until the script of the Sindhu-Saraswati Civilization is eventually deciphered.

Philosophical Roots

The period between the Maurya and the Gupta empires (500 BCE to 500 CE) saw the composition of many seminal texts on Yoga, some of which are used even to this day. Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras were probably composed at this time. His shlokas define the eight components of yoga (Ashtaanga), including some simple asanas, methods to attain stillness, control the mind, and finally, to achieve Samadhi. The role of the Asanas here was to help achieve stillness, not to perform complicated postural exercises. The goal was not only fitness, but more importantly, spiritual happiness.

One of the more interesting Yoga texts from this period is the Yoga Yajnavalkya. This text is written as a conversation between Yajnavalkya and Gargi Vachaknavi — the famous female philosopher who was honored as one of the Navarathnas (nine gems) in the court of King Janaka of Mithila. Clearly, Yoga and the pursuit of spiritual goals, were not exclusive to men.

Yogis of the Natha Sampradaya, which flourished in India and Nepal during the 12th century CE, contributed significantly to advancing the development of the Yogic arts. The Hatha yoga asanas innovated by Nath yogis are attested in temple sculptures from around this time. Natha Yogis used Asanas as a part of a wide range of practices that included pranayama, cleansing practices, bandhas, and mudras. Natha Sampradaya was a heterodox system. It ran against dominant culture by rejecting society and embracing asceticism and welcomed followers from any background into its fold.

  1. Nath Yoginis – An 18th century painting from Bikaner.
  2. A sculpture of a Yogini from Chola Dynasty (10th Century)
  3. Yogi in Vajrasana in Māṇakeśvara temple
  4. Yogi in Naukasana in Brahmanātha Temple, Parunde (Pune District)

Decline and Revival
Nath yogis came to be persecuted under Aurangzeb, and subsequently under the British. Concurrently, Hatha yoga experienced a period of overall decline that continued until to the 20th century. Adherents of the ancient Natha Sampradaya can be found even today, including the current Chief Minister of UP, Yogi Adityanath.

The renaissance of Yoga in the late 19th and 20th centuries owed much to the efforts of contemporary spiritual practitioners. Among the most popular was Swami Vivekananda, who provided modern translations of ancient texts. He believed that the most supreme form of Yoga was Raja Yoga — meditation — rather than Hatha Yoga. In his view, the rediscovery of India’s past knowledge would provide the spiritual basis for India as a nation in the modern world.

While Vivekananda focused on the spiritual aspect of Yoga, Tirumalai Krishnamacharya, is widely credited with having revived Hatha Yoga. Using existing Asanas as a starting point, he developed new Asanas and trained a new generation of Yogis, under the patronage of the Mysore Raja Krishna Raja Wodiyar. It was Krishnamacharya’s students who ultimately introduced Yoga to the western world. Thus, yoga as practiced around the world today clearly has its roots in early-to-mid 20th century India.

The 20th century saw the establishment of many yoga schools across the country. The Kaivalyadhama Health and Yoga Research Center in Lonavala, founded by Swami Kuvalayananda, was designated a “Leading Yoga Institution” by the Government of India in 2019. More recently established institutions of Yoga include the Bihar School of Yoga (1963), Art of Living Foundation (1981) and Baba Ramdev’s Patanjali Yogpeeth.

Tirumalai Krishnamacharya in Mulabandhasana

International Yoga Day in New Delhi

Our quick tour through the history of yoga reveals the evolution of a philosophical school of thought that developed and matured over thousands of years. In the development of Yoga, the philosophical and physical were merged to holistically improve our lives. Innovators from the past did not forget the Dharmic roots of Yoga. As Yoga continues to evolve today, we must make sure that commodification of this knowledge does not result in an erasure of our philosophies. As the inheritors of its rich and ancient legacy, we must never forget that Yoga is a spiritual way of life unto itself — one that offers a wealth of teachings we can use to improve our own experience of the world.

– Vaishakhi Mayya