Last updated on September 23rd, 2023.
With an estimated 300 million regular practitioners around the globe (and roughly 36 million in the United States alone), yoga is a wellness practice that benefits the body as well as the mind. But with a rich history that goes back not hundreds, but thousands, of years, the forms of yoga that are practiced in studios and homes today are a far cry from the original disciplines taught by the first gurus.
In the beginning, yoga was a spiritual practice used to achieve the ultimate state of self-awareness. But through the centuries, a greater emphasis began to be placed on postures and breathing, and as yoga became popular in western cultures, it became a platform for physical and mental well-being.
In the modern era of yoga, there are a dozen or so disciplines that comprise the most popular forms of yoga practiced around the world, and each caters to differing needs. Some forms of yoga have evolved into strictly meditative practices while others challenge the physical fitness of their practitioners. Whatever the type, all forms of yoga have evolved from the same origin. Here’s how it happened.
The Evolution of Yoga Through the Years
From its earliest roots as a pathway to spiritual enlightenment to the vital role it plays as a well-being platform for millions of practitioners across the globe, yoga is an ever-evolving medium for the promotion of physical, mental, and spiritual health.
The diversity of yoga disciplines that are practiced today is an indication of how far yoga has come from its humble beginnings. There are many reasons why millions of practitioners embrace the ancient art of yoga as a vital part of their everyday lives: it soothes, it calms, it heals, and it invigorates. And in the simplest of terms, yoga beckons people to turn their attention inward, toward themselves.
Here is a look at the evolution of yoga through the years, starting with its origin in ancient India.
Where did Yoga Originate?
There is a general consensus that yoga originated in the Indus Saraswati Valley in ancient India sometime around 2700 BC. While it is entirely possible that yoga in its most primitive forms may have been around even longer, there is solid evidence supporting the notion that the birthplace of yoga can be properly traced to this region and time period, including:
- The discovery of ancient seals depicting figures in what appear to be seated yoga poses
- Symbols and representations of people performing yoga
- References to yoga in ancient folk traditions
For thousands of years, yoga has been utilized to improve health and clear the mind, originally by select groups of gurus and their devout followers and in modern times by throngs of health-conscious people seeking to improve their own well-being. All told, yoga may be one of India’s greatest contributions to humankind as it continues to benefit millions upon millions of people around the world.
What Does Yoga Look Like Now?
Yoga appeals to practitioners seeking to reap its many physical, mental, and spiritual benefits. But more than at any time during its long existence, today’s yoga is a diverse collection of disciplines, each with its own unique focus on addressing the particular needs of practitioners. But there are some common threads shared by the various forms of yoga practiced in modern times:
- Virtually all modern disciplines have their roots in hatha yoga
- Poses and postures are the building blocks of today’s yoga
- Controlled breathing is another important aspect of the types of yoga that are practiced nowadays
- While modern-day practitioners overwhelmingly look to yoga as a means of improving physical fitness, there are strong mental and spiritual elements as well
- In fact, alleviating stress and anxiety are among the major reasons why people practice yoga today
Despite being around for thousands of years, yoga is an ever-evolving practice. As evidenced by just the past several decades, new forms of yoga emerge to suit the needs of new legions of followers while existing forms must adapt to the changing whims of their practitioners. But the past 20 to 30 years is just a snapshot of yoga’s history. Read on to learn more about yoga’s evolution through the centuries, charting new paths and reinforcing old with everything from Baby Yoga to Goat Yoga or from Hatha Yoga to Yin Yoga.
Meditation practices like yoga and kundalini can be introduced to younger generations with these 7 fun ways of using yoga cards for kids.
How has Yoga Evolved Over Time?
The evolution of yoga is a process that was initiated roughly 5,000 years ago and which shows no signs of letting up. In this sense, yoga is as flexible as the most nimble of yogis, contorting itself in unimaginable ways to suit the needs and whims of followers from all walks of life.
One thing that is certain is that the most popular forms of yoga that are practiced today, particularly in the US and other westernized cultures, are a far cry from the sacred rituals that were practiced by the earliest gurus and taught to a very select group of disciples.
How has yoga evolved over time? Keep reading for an essential guide highlighting key moments in yoga’s long and rich history.
The Birth of Yoga
Thousands of years ago most traditions and teachings were passed down orally from teacher to student and from one generation to the next. Yoga certainly falls into this category. While there are tantalizing hints that the earliest practitioners struck certain poses when practicing the very first versions of yoga, it is believed that the main objective was the pursuit of spiritual enlightenment.
The Vedic Period
One of the most significant developments to come out of what is commonly referred to as the Vedic Period (approximately 4500 to 1200 BCE) is the emergence of a 4-book series collectively known as the Vedas. The Vedas formed the backbone of ritualistic and spiritual beliefs in ancient Indian culture and were therefore considered to be sacred texts.
From the standpoint of yoga, the Vedas also described certain aspects of performing rituals that are widely viewed as being the earliest templates for common yoga practices, including:
- Proper body positioning (poses)
- Breathing methods
- Mental focus
The steady evolution of yoga that would come in the centuries to follow would build upon the foundation laid during the Vedic Period.
The Upanishad Texts
The ancient Indian scriptures that are known as the Upanishads further refined the concept of yoga and its core practices. One of the hallmarks of this period is the formation of close relationships between teachers (gurus) and their students. In fact, the word Upanishad translates to “secret doctrine” and “to sit close to”.
Like the Vedic Period that came before it, this era of yoga’s evolution (approximately 900 to 500 BCE) focused on the art of self-awareness through practices like:
- Pranayama – breathing techniques
- Pratyahara – mental focus
While at this stage the practice of yoga is a far cry from how it looks today, it is evident from the historical record that important cornerstones of modern yoga are being laid.
The Pali Canon and the Mahabharata
In the centuries that followed, two highly influential texts emerged, each impacting the evolution of yoga in their own unique way. These are:
- The Pali Canon – this is a sacred body of written works that contain the “Word of the Buddha” and among the wealth of spiritual teachings are descriptions of yogic postures and breathing techniques. The Pali Canon (circa 600 BCE) is significant because it represents the first complete collection of texts relating to yoga ever found.
- The Mahabharata – while its greatest claim to fame may be its incredible length (1.8 million words and 200,000 lines of verses), the Mahabharata (circa 400 BCE to 300 CE) is significant in the evolution of yoga because within the body of the text are clear references to 3 types of yoga: karma (yoga of action), bhakti yoga (yoga of devotion) and jnana (yoga of knowledge).
The significance of these two works in a yoga sense is that they represent the earliest written works in which the practice of yoga is not only recorded in a detailed fashion but also documented for future yogis and practitioners to draw upon.
Around 400 CE, noted Indian sage Patanjali penned the Yoga Sutras, a body of work comprising 196 verses (sutras) detailing the objectives of yoga and the manner in which it should be practiced.
While the Yoga Sutras continue the centuries-old theme of yoga representing the pathway to a higher plane of self-awareness and mindfulness, they also describe the eightfold path, more affectionately known to yogis as the 8 limbs of yoga:
- Yama (things that should be avoided)
- Niyama (things that should be practiced)
- Asana (postures)
- Pranayama (breathing techniques)
- Pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses)
- Dharana (concentration)
- Dhyana (meditation)
- Samadhi (absorption)
While yoga at this time was far from the largely physical practice that it is today, the fact that asana is listed as one of the 8 limbs is significant.
The Emergence of Hatha Yoga
The period of 1100 to 1500 CE witnessed the development of hatha yoga, a discipline pairing physical poses with breathing techniques. Unlike other forms of yoga at that time, hatha yoga did not restrict its base of practitioners to persons of any particular class or holding certain religious beliefs. It was this openness that, in the centuries to follow, would facilitate yoga’s spread to western cultures.
Introduction of Yoga to the Western World
There are signs that starting in the 1700s, yoga began to be viewed as more than a means to a spiritual end. A greater appreciation for the physical benefits of yoga began in earnest during the 18th and 19th centuries, as evidenced by a fully-illustrated manual containing 122 asanas (poses) with detailed descriptions.
As developing modes of transportation allowed for easier and faster travel from one part of the world to another, the spread of yoga from India to the rest of the globe became inevitable. One of the first and most influential advocates of yoga was Swami Vivekananda, who traveled to the US in the late 1800s and introduced yoga to a receptive American audience.
The Modernization of Yoga
From the 1920s through the 1960s, yoga went through a dramatic transformation as elements of western gymnastics were woven into disciplines of yoga that were becoming increasingly strenuous and aerobic in nature. It was during this time that vinyasa flow yoga emerged and gained popularity among practitioners for the way that asanas were sequenced one after the other.
This renaissance period of yoga, as it is often called, also saw the emergence of several key figures who played instrumental roles in getting the word out and popularizing yoga among the masses. These included:
- Tirumalai Krishnamacharya – known as the father of yoga and teacher to students who would go on to make names for themselves in yoga circles
- Pattabhi Jois – the developer of the immensely popular ashtanga vinyasa discipline of yoga
- BKS Iyengar – creator of Iyengar yoga
- Indra Devi – yoga instructor to the stars in the 1990s
One of yoga’s most endearing and enduring attributes is its highly organic nature.
What are the Types of Yoga Available Now?
No matter the skill level or physical condition, chances are good that there is a form of yoga that is suitable for just about everyone. All type of yoga help with your mentality. Find these 7 ways yoga helps with stress management to give you even more reasons to continue or start the practice. Whether meditative, restorative, or highly intensive, the types of yoga that are available now are as diverse as they have ever been, and they include:
Aside from being a popular type of yoga, there is an argument to be made that pranayama is actually a vital component of all yoga disciplines because of its focus on carefully measured, purposeful breathing.
This form of yoga is a slow, deliberate journey through selected poses that are held for 3 to 7 minutes at a time, often with the aid of props and blankets, in order to attain a deep state of relaxation and mental calmness.
This is another methodical form of yoga but its purpose is not to relax practitioners but to target the various forms of connective tissue (e.g., ligaments and fascia) in their bodies. Like restorative yoga, poses are held for extended periods in yin yoga so there are only 5 to 8 postures used during a session.
Anusara comes from the hatha branch of yoga and brings movement and breathing techniques into harmony while focusing on proper body alignment. Because it can be practiced by people with all skill and experience levels, it is a popular gateway into yoga.
For practitioners seeking a more strenuous experience that still incorporates yoga-centric breathing techniques and attitudes, power yoga is a great option with its challenging poses and gym-like approach to mixing up sequences to keep things lively.
Another popular form of yoga is ashtanga vinyasa, which is a highly-structured discipline (the same sequence of poses is used for every session) that promotes physical strength, flexibility, and stamina. Vinyasa yoga is unique in that the poses flow from one to another without any interruption or pauses.
Hot and Bikram
As the popularity of yoga has surged in recent years, a number of highly specialized yoga studios have been cropping up, offering hot and Bikram yoga. Practiced in closed environments where the temperatures are maintained at 90° F (32° C) to 105° F (40° C), hot and Bikram yogas rely on the hot environment to boost flexibility and enhance mobility when performing various poses.
What makes kundalini yoga unique is the way that it incorporates singing and chanting into its meditative techniques to awaken the inner senses and achieve an invigorated state from within.
Kundalini has lots of meaning behind every aspect of it. Learn about the meaning behind the kundalini serpent to know how this symbol represents and involves very deep significance into the practice.
From its inception nearly 5000 years ago, yoga has traveled a long and winding road through history while influencing the lives of countless practitioners through the centuries and around the globe. From the mountains in Rishikesh all the way to being able to follow Yoga on YouTube and practice it in a studio in your garage. And as it continues to evolve and keep pace with the changing wants and needs of its practitioners, the only question that remains about yoga’s future is what the next 5000 years will bring.