This past weekend I was leading a History of Yoga lecture for a teacher training program. To prepare for this lecture I did a little extra research into how yoga originated. What I found was fascinating.
I’ve always known the basic history of yoga since I went through my own teacher training program and continued to study on my own. I know about the classical texts and books. I know about some of the mythology and the names of the important people.
As I kept researching though, I became more and more interested about the history of the lineages.
The basis for the yoga lineages
The historical basis for yoga begins with the lineages and the reason it’s survived for so long is because of the evolution of these lineages.
A good example of how “lineages” can evolve can be seen within the automobile industry. German engineer Karl Benz was credited with the invention of what we know as the modern-day car in 1886. It wasn’t until 1908 that the Ford Motor Company was able to make a car widely available to the masses in America with it’s famous Model T. America as a culture and an economy was better suited and primed to adopt the automobile quickly, whereas the European countries and countries that were less developed were slower to adopt this new technology. Today, there are many, many companies across the world that use the basic framework for what the modern car is and innovate to create a plethora of options and functions. As a consumer, you can choose from Chevrolet, Toyota, Honda, Chrysler, Jeep, Hummer, Volkswagen, Mercedes, Mazda, Porche, Jaguar, etc. Different strokes for different folks, right?
So let’s get back to the yoga. In the beginning, yoga as an ancient practice was all about meditating, chanting and breathing. There was no such thing as yoga poses. In fact, it took hundreds, if not thousands, of years to see any mention of physical yoga poses in texts. If the physicality of yoga was mentioned at all, it was to address how to prepare your body to sit comfortably for longer and longer periods of time.
This “yoga practice” was developed as a way to transcend consciousness. It was a practice to evolve and grow mentally and spiritually. And it was a practice that was reserved for the upper caste. It makes sense that at first, and for a very long time, yoga was reserved for the 1%. Only those people who didn’t have to worry about surviving could bother themselves about the evolution of consciousness. Everyone else was too busy figuring out how to eat.
Yoga was passed down, like many ancient traditions, orally from teacher to student. We don’t know the names of the original teachers or students and it really doesn’t seem to matter. The original yogis sat in caves and meditated and chanted and then taught their students rituals and chants and those students became teachers and the tradition continued.
The evolution of learning
From a global historical context, human development as a whole started to evolve in the century leading up to and directly after the birth of Christ. Students became ever more curious and started asking questions of their teachers. You can imagine the teachers were taken aback, similar to how grandparents today might be suspicious of using Google Maps to navigate the city. It was disruptive to ask questions because questioning the way things were had never been done before.
But the students kept asking questions about where these practices came from, why the rituals and chants were so important, and what the purpose of these practices served in their life. The reality was that life was changing and evolving and so the practices either needed to evolve to stay relevant or die.
Some of the teachers obliged (rebels!) and started to answer the questions. The practice of yoga evolved. This was really the birthplace of the yoga lineage as different teachers had different answers and different models of reaching enlightenment started to solidify.
Interestingly, this is all happening right around the same time (historically speaking, within a few hundred years) that Socrates and Plato and western philosophy is happening. The “question and answer” form of learning is the basis for all that we know about western philosophy from the Greeks in that time period.
The birth of Classical Yoga
And so, yoga continued to evolve. At a certain point, it got a little hard to follow what was really going on. Someone came along and decided to take it upon himself to codify how to live a yogic life. He studied and researched all the different practices and teachers and wrote down for the first time a manual for yogic living. That man was named Patanjali, and similar to Socrates, little is known about him (in fact, we know more about Socrates then we do about Patanjali). The yoga sutras are arguably the most important text on yoga ever written to this day. The sutras are like the Bible of yoga (but remember, YOGA IS NOT A RELIGION!).
You can imagine how furious some of the teachers must have been that someone had the audacity to simplify such a complex practice. I gave this example to my teacher trainees. Imagine you are a scholar of the Bible and Christian philosophy and then someone comes along and writes an article in People Magazine with the headline “10 Ways to Live a Good Life.” The article goes on to explain, in 500 words or less and with lots of pictures, the 10 Commandments. You’d be a little pissed at the oversimplification. That’s like what the Yoga Sutras must have been for the teachers who had learned such a significant tradition from their masters.
But, as with all innovation, there were pluses and minuses. The plus was that all of the sudden, yoga practices were much more widely available now that there was a simple manual (and let’s clarify that the sutras are not simple to read and interpret – it’s written like poetry in a different language that is hard to translate).
Then Buddha comes along and changes everything
If we zoom the lens out again, there was another major innovation happening in world religions at the time and that was the arrival of the Buddha. If you know anything about Buddha, he was an upper-class prince that finally decided enough was enough and jumped the walls of his castle to become a wandering mendicant in the forest. He sat down underneath a tree to meditate one day and became enlightened. This was important because it was this movement that really sought to include lower castes in spiritual development and the steps to enlightenment. Because this was also happening in the same region, this way of thinking started to influence the Hindus who were practicing “yoga.”
My favorite part of this whole evolution of yoga, though, comes with the introduction of Scandinavian gymnastics.
And then there was the gymnastics movement
At this point, yoga still has nothing to do with physical posture. However, fast forward to the late 1800s/early 1900s and Europe is starting to get really interested in physical fitness and exercise. A gymnastics program is developed in Scandinavia that sweeps through Europe and becomes wildly popular. Naturally, the British bring this style of fitness to India, which they still rule.
India starts to like the idea of this whole physical fitness thing, too. Some people think that to become an independent nation and overtake British rule, the Indian people will need to become strong. A couple people disguised themselves as “yoga gurus” and travel the countryside teaching an adapted form of “yoga” all across the countryside that melds ancient Indian tradition with Scandinavian gymnastics as a way to train rebels in the hopes that the Indian people can overthrow the British colonialists.
Once again, you can imagine how so many of the yoga gurus at the time must have cried out in protest because Scandinavian gymnastics most certainly was not yoga. And yet, this movement spread because the psyche was ripe for revolution and change. And so yoga changed with it.
How we got yoga as we know it
Which brings us to today. India gains independence from Britain in 1947 (whether or not the physical yoga training had anything to do with it in the end, who’s to say?). A man named Krishnamacharya has a school in India where he teaches young boys and he needs a way to calm them down so they can learn their lessons. He adapts the Scandinavian gymnastics he learned from those fake yoga gurus who were training revolutionaries and develops a “yoga practice” he calls Ashtanga. Some of his students include BKS Iyengar, Pattabhi Jois, Indra Devi, and TKV Desikachar.
Iyengar is a sickly child and can’t perform the intense yoga poses in quick succession. So he learns a different, more gentle and alignment-based practice from Krishnamacharya, develops it further and starts teaching it as Iyengar Yoga. Pattabhi Jois continues to refine the Ashtanga practice into what we know it as today and goes on to teach many of the worlds most renowned teachers. Indra Devi becomes the first modern-day yoga celebrity and one of the first female yoga teachers. She becomes known mostly in China and South America, but also was an actress in India and had some run-ins with Hollywood. TKV Desikachar, Krishnamacharya’s son, continues to teach his father’s teachings around yoga as therapy.
The importance of innovation in yoga
The lineages of yoga continue to evolve, teachers continue to create their own spin on things and people all over the world continue to complain that what their neighbor across the street is practicing is not yoga. Isn’t that how it goes with everything?
But it doesn’t matter what form of yoga you practice. From the beginning of time, the masters were pointing fingers and telling others “that’s not yoga!”
Every time the global psyche and the cultural mindset changed, yoga had to evolve to fit it lest it be swept under the rug, packed away in the attic and forgotten.
In the beginning, yoga was about the evolution of consciousness. Today, yoga is still just that. We just happen to go about it in different ways. And just like it’s hard to teach someone how to become successful in business because every one’s situation is different, it’s hard to say that there is only one way to become enlightened.
If the only way to get you interested about yoga is to first have you experience the physical practice because then you at least feel like you’re getting in a workout, fine. Eventually you’ll either get curious about the larger teachings behind the practice or you’ll keep on working out and getting fit, and there’s nothing wrong with that. If you feel better, you’re that much closer to living an enlightened life.
Yoga belongs to all of us
Recently, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals held up a federal district court ruling that Bikram Choudhury, founder of the very well-known and popular Bikram Yoga, cannot copyright his 26-pose sequence. He can’t copyright it “because copyright protection is limited to the expression of ideas, and does not extend to the ideas themselves.”
No one can own yoga. Yoga is for all of us. As we continue to evolve as human beings, let’s hope yoga continues to innovate to meet the needs of the times.
Note: a huge source of information for this post comes from Mark Singleton’s fantastic article on the history of yoga in Yoga Journal.