The History of Yoga

Where did we come from?

At some point in history, human beings asked themselves this question. When our ancestors transitioned from living as nomadic hunter-gatherers to settling down in villages, they began making major advances such as farming, irrigation, and what would later become writing.

Join us for a Mindfulness and Movement Practice for the History of Yoga: 52 mins

During this time, knowledge was passed verbally from person to person. For example, in India, students would be assigned verses to memorize from traditional poems and songs. Because music brought people together in vibration, voice, and song, it was a great way to distribute and retain information. We now know that it actually helps regulate our nervous system. Music helps keep us healthy.

The word yoga is first mentioned around 4000 BCE in India, in an ancient, sacred Hindu text called the Rig Veda. The word veda (or the Vedas) translates to “knowledge.” The Rig Veda was filled with 1,028 poems and 10,600 verses, plenty of poems and songs to be memorized! The word yuj, which means “to join,” made its debut here. Yuj eventually became “yoga,” the union of mind, body, and soul.

The Vedas were chanted with melodies like music. It was believed that they gave way to the sound of the universe. Some say the teachings within the Vedas hold the key to understanding our personal existence and acknowledging all things we can and cannot see. The poems call out to the Vedic gods who were named for the elements: agni (Fire), indra (Wind), prithvi (Earth), jala (Water), and surya (Sun). Clearly, the Vedas were a big deal back then, and still are in parts of the world today.

Chanting and music can evoke powerful emotions. We all have songs that make us feel a certain way, from upbeat ones that pump us up to sad ballads that allow us a safe place to have emotional experiences. Thousands of years haven’t lessened the importance of music in human cultures and traditions.

Yoga Looks Different Now

The practice of yoga was commonly offered to young men as a form of discipline. It was a way to focus and build upon their physical and mental aptitudes. Eventually, everyone was encouraged to practice yoga in order to cultivate a strong body, a quick mind, and keener awareness.

John Lennon, Paul Mccartney, Ringo Starr and George Harrison of The Beatles with their guru the Maharishi in 1967.

Something to clarify is that yoga is not a religion. Although it developed parallel with the Hindu religion, yoga is a philosophy that helps those who practice to better understand their place within a universal whole. Certain paths of yoga were outlined in one of the best known and most famous of Hindu texts called the Bhagavad Gita, often referred to as the Gita. It is a 700-verse scripture that presents a synthesis of Hindu ideas about dharma (the cosmic law regarding behavior and social order) and yogic ideals. The Gita’s call for selfless action inspired many leaders, like Mahatma Gandhi, who referred to it as his “spiritual dictionary.”

The word “guru” has historically been used to describe a yoga master who has a large following of students. A “guru” can have a religious affiliation or not. For example, in the late 1960s, The Beatles followed a guru named Maharishi who introduced the Western world to Transcendental Meditation (see Maharishi Mahesh Yogi Pg. 22).

Throughout its long history, the yoga community has been filled with supportive, loving people on a path to transformation. Many wonderful friendships have formed among yoga students and teachers. However, there have also been high-profile yoga leaders that have taken advantage of their power by controlling, intimidating, manipulating, or violating others. Whether subtle or overt, abuse will not be tolerated in our yoga community. If you ever feel uncomfortable, tell a trusted friend, peer, or confidant. Keep speaking out until the situation is addressed.

The yoga of today has been through many changes and looks very different from the yoga of old. However, at its core, it is still an invitation to open up our bodies and minds. A yoga practice contributes to day-to-day life in a way that deepens our joy of being alive. Yoga cultivates introspection, empathy, discernment, self-awareness, self-regulation, and a pathway to an ever-evolving consciousness. It is the continual practice of observing and becoming aware of our thoughts and actions, training our minds to reframe or cast out thoughts that don’t serve us. This idea seems so simple, yet the effects of this practice are powerful enough to transform your entire life for the better.

Yoga is the art and science of living.

Indra Devi

Take a Minute

Try This Box Breath Exercise before a Test:

This exercise increases focus, awareness, and observation. Facilitator sets a timer for four minutes. Sit in an easy criss-cross position with your sit bones on the earth and your spine tall and lifted up toward the sky. Inhale for a count of four, hold the inhale for a count of four, exhale for a count of four, and pause at the bottom of the exhale for a count of four.

You are building a pattern and rhythm for your breathing like a box: inhale up one side of the box, hold across the next side, exhale down the other side, and finally hold for the final side. Then, begin again. This helps the body and the systems know what is coming next. It calms anxiety and builds stamina while continuing to flood the body with fresh oxygen for the brain.

Reflect on your Origin Story:

    • Past
      Where and who did you come from?
      What are the countries, cultures, and belief systems that make up your heritage?
      What are three things you were told to believe, think, or feel about life?
    • Present
      Where and who did you come from?
      What are the countries, cultures, and belief systems that make up your heritage?
      What are three things you were told to believe, think, or feel about life?
    • Future
      Where and who did you come from?
      What are the countries, cultures, and belief systems that make up your heritage?
      What are three things you were told to believe, think, or feel about life?
    • Role Models
      Where and who did you come from?
      What are the countries, cultures, and belief systems that make up your heritage?
      What are three things you were told to believe, think, or feel about life?

Types of Yoga

Since ancient times yoga has been practiced in different ways.
Many people think of yoga as solely the poses, however some types of yoga focus on meditation while others honor selfless service or love and devotion.

Emotional body
(500 BC)

First revealed in the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita. It is a practice of love and devotion with the purpose of developing unconditional love. The practice includes chanting, rituals, and prayer. It is considered similar to Jnana and Karma as all these paths are led by devotion to obtain liberation from mental and physical suffering.

Pure Consciousness
(100 BC-1100 AD)

This exercise can be very helpful for anxiety. The four-count rhythm of the breath allows you to anticipate what’s coming next. Begin by inhaling to the count of four, then hold your breath for the count of four. Exhale to the count of four and pause after the exhale to the count of four. Imagine a square. Inhale and exhale from corner to corner. Repeat until you feel calm.

Physical Body

Learning to direct your breath with your movement. It is a movement-based practice focused on creating a balance between two opposite forces. The word Hatha can be translated as willful, Ha – Sun, and Tha – Moon.

Intellect and Mind

Translated as Royal Yoga or the highest state of yoga using the power of the mind to reach a heightened state of consciousness. Practiced through mindfulness, meditation, chanting, and mantra.

Action and Service

Outlined in the Bhagavad Gita. It is yoga based on right action or selfless service. It honors the duties and responsibilities in life regarding making hard choices that serve the greater good.

Yoga Lineages

Teachings passed down from master to student that are categorized under one of the above types of yoga. The instruction is enriched by many perspectives.


A rapid-moving, highly disciplined practice that builds heat in the body by synchronizing breath with movement. The same series of poses are practiced in the same sequence, in precise order, until the postures have been mastered. These teachings are from the Classical Era.


A disciplined practice of aligning the body for optimal health. The use of props is encouraged to support all body shapes and sizes. No matter how limited their range of motion, everyone’s body can thrive from precision, detail, and alignment. These teachings are from the Classical Era.


The word kundalini is believed to be a power associated with the divine feminine located at the base of the spine. Meditation, pranayama, chanting, and asana are ways to move kundalini energy, expanding consciousness, personal growth, and internal healing. When we awaken kundalini it is equated to a bolt of heat, upward rising from the base of the body. These teachings are from the Post Classical Era.


Through meditation or mindful movement, Tantric yoga is a practice of noticing how you’re using your energy and senses to become more connected and more consciously awake. Tantra is about becoming one with all the sensations that live within the body, good or bad. Our senses — taste, touch, smell, hearing and sight — become more refined through our experiences. Therefore, we become more empowered to embrace the good in all things. May you be free from suffering and approach life from a place of loving awareness. These teachings are from the Post Classical Era.


A quiet, simple practice targeting deep connective tissue, fascia, muscles, and bones. Yin helps to restore mobility and flexibility which improves the flow of energy or chi. It is a practice influenced by Chinese medicine and the qualities represented by yin from the yin-yang symbol. Yin is grounded earth energy that is receptive, cool, and dark. It is tied to the moon, the oceans, and the shade. It is associated with feminine energy. Yang on the other hand represents the sun. It’s light, expansive, and somewhat reckless at times, associated with masculine energy. These teachings are from the Post Classical Era.


A practice of deep and active relaxation. Holding poses for longer periods of time with the support of props encourages optimal physical and emotional release. When the muscle fascia settles, it balances the nervous system and boosts immunity. These teachings are from the Post Classical Era.

The History of Yoga Through Time

Knowledge of our past provides insight into our future.

The History of Yoga Through Time is a visual snapshot of how yoga has evolved since ancient times. Although there are some that say yoga is older, let’s begin with our introduction to an era beginning as early as 1500 BCE.

Pre-Classical Era – Yoga was first introduced in sacred Hindu texts called the Vedas: Rig, Sama, Atharva and Yajur, as well as the Upanishads. These scriptures were sung with a melody, like chanting. There was an awareness of mind-body practice in his era. Teachings of the Buddha and from books entitled the Bhagavad Gita, Ramayana and the Mahabharata are all introduced here. Kindness, compassion, karma and dharma, eternal love and non-attachment are teachings from this time.

Classical Era – The Father of Yoga, Patanjali, developed the Yoga Sutras in this era. He synthesized and organized knowledge about yoga from much older traditions. Many agree that this is where modern yoga begins. At this time, it was believed that the body was an obstacle to enlightenment, which was obtained by harnessing the mind.

Post-Classical Era – This era was the introduction to the teachings of Tantra, including the Tantra Loka and Shiva Sutras. It’s a practice of awakening and liberation. Teachings are being shared from teacher to student and the physical form of hatha yoga begins to appear. In contrast to the previous era, at the time Tantra celebrated the body as a gift and that celebration is the path to enlightenment.

Modern day masters bring forth different lineages and styles of yoga. Many traditions were cross laterally shared. Even today, each teacher shares their perception and experience of what yoga means to them. As it becomes a mainstream physical practice, we can benefit from some of its early teachings of mindfulness and meditation. Conscious Classroom hopes to encourage easy ways to access these meaningful teachings.


Sacred Hindu texts or books by the assigned master

Buddha, the founder of the world religion of Buddhism who taught for around 45 years and built a large following.

Influential yoga masters. The color of their books defines the lineage and type of yoga that they bring forth.

The Yoga Masters and Their Styles

Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902)

One of the most revered spiritual leaders. He saw how Indian spirituality could benefit the western world. Influenced by his guru Ramakrishna, he taught that all living beings were the embodiment of the divine self.

Sri Swami Sivananda (1887-1963)

A Vedic teacher with a vision of oneness for all. He studied medicine and found a common thread in health and yoga. He is the author of more than 300 volumes of teachings distributed to students all over the world. In 1932, he started the Sivananda Ashram, where students still study his teachings today.

Sri T. Krishnamacharya (1888-1989)

This era was the introduction to the teachings of Tantra, including the Tantra Loka and Shiva Sutras. It’s a practice of awakening and liberation. Teachings are being shared from teacher to student and the physical form of hatha yoga begins to appear. In contrast to the previous era, at the time Tantra celebrated the body as a gift and that celebration is the path to enlightenment.

Paramahansa Yogananda (1863-1952)

Yogananda was an advocate for building unity between the East and the West. He built a huge following of yoga in North America, specifically California. He is known as the “Father of Yoga in the West.” He believed and practiced a life of “plain living and high thinking.” His book, Autobiography of a Yogi, sold millions of copies and is revered for its spiritual teachings in the 20th Century.

Indra Devi (1899-2002)

She saw yoga as a means of exercise that helped the body and the mind work together. She was very popular in America with a large Hollywood celebrity following. She was known as the First Lady of Yoga. She brought the practice forward as a form of stress relief. Some of her students were Greta Garbo, Eva Gabor, and Yul Brenner.

Neem Karoli Baba (1900-1973)

His devotees called him Maharaji. He was known as a great Indian saint because of his work to feed all, love all, and tell the truth. He often said, “All is one.” He walked a path of devotion called “bhakti yoga,” a path of the heart.

Sri Krishna Pattabhi Jois (1915-2009)

Yoga teacher and Sanskrit scholar who created what we know today as “ashtanga yoga” in 1948. He was responsible for bringing yoga into the 20th century with his teacher Krishnamacharya.

Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (1918-2008)

Hindu yogi credited for bringing forward a practice called Transcendental Meditation. With the use of mantras or silent meditation, TM helps regulate the nervous system by focusing on relaxation, expanding awareness, and the teachings of peace and love. He embraced the joys of building a practice of inner peace to know happiness. In the 1960s, The Beatles followed him as their guru and, as a result introduced the Western world to TM.

BKS Iyengar (1918-2014)

The author of many books used today to teach most certified yoga instructors. He wrote Light on Yoga, Light on Pranayama, and Light on Life. His books explain the foundations of understanding breath, poses, and meditation. He is credited for popularizing alignment based yoga both in the East and the West called Iyengar yoga.

Yogi Bhajan (1929-2004)

Indian-born yoga teacher of the West who built a large business around Kundalini yoga and all its teachings. He shared the beliefs of Sikh teachings: that we are all equal, and that we should live with integrity and general care toward others.

Ram Dass (1931-2019)

Also known as Richard Alpert, he was a psychologist, author, and spiritual teacher. He was a professor at Harvard who later wrote a book entitled Be Here Now. He described how to become more connected and present in every moment. In 1967, he traveled to India and met his guru Neem Baba Karoli. Following his dharma, he became a catalyst in spreading love.

TKV Desikacher (1938-2016)

The son of Sri Krishnamacharya and considered the pioneer of modern yoga as exercise versus solely a spiritual practice. He created programs specific to the student’s needs for self-discovery and personal transformation: “Yoga is basically a program for the spine at every level: physical, respiratory, mental, and spiritual.”

Discover how the origin of the word “yoga” was first mentioned in a collection of ancient teachings and chants that were believed to help understand our human existence. Yoga means the union of mind, body, and soul. Although the history of yoga is closely intertwined with the Hindu religion, it’s a philosophy, NOT a religion. Connecting to our own history brings on more empathy, gratitude, and understanding for ourselves and others.