The Origins of Yoga

Yoga has a rich, 5,000-year history and because it is such a multifaceted practice, which has in the past intertwined with religion, philosophy and of course exercise, pinning down an exact origin has proven difficult.

Some suggest the origins of yoga stem from the Indus Valley Civilization, a Bronze age civilization in northwestern regions of South Asia, while others have noted references to yoga between 500 BCE and 200 BCE, and this falls in line with when the philological ideas of Hinduism and Buddhism, in particular, were beginning to take shape. It’s important to note the references to yoga here are vastly different, almost unrecognizable to what many may think of as yoga today.

In this article, we’ll take a brief look at the four main periods which have been most influential to the creation and development of modern yoga.

Vedic Period

Our journey starts with the Vedic Period. This era relates to when the Vedas, four ancient scriptures (Rigveda, Yajurveda, Samaveda and Atharvaveda) were created. The Vedas themselves are the holy writings of Brahmanism (Brahmans being a dominant priesthood in ancient India and not to be confused with Brahma, the creator god in Hinduism).

It’s this collection of hymns that contain the oldest known teachings about yoga available. It’s widely understood that the first mention of the Sanskrit word “Yuj”, which is the root of the word ‘yoga’, first occurred in the Rigveda.

Teachings in the Vedas are called Vedic yoga and they are characterized by ceremonies and rituals that encourage a broadening of the mind to surpass its limitations. During this period, people relied heavily on ‘rishis’, a Vedic term used to describe an enlightened person. These rishis would act as guides, sages who could instruct people on how to correctly follow the teachings outlined in the Vedas. Essentially they were the go-between, the middle ground between the layperson and a higher authority.

Another point of interest is that this period was the first time yogis living in seclusion was recorded. Vedic yogis felt that living in seclusion, close to nature, was the most conducive environment to practice. The rishis favored dwellings in forests, but it’s easy to see why many modern-day yoga retreats favor being away from civilization.

In a vivid narration from Sadhguru, we take a look at the being who introduced yoga to humankind, the Adiyogi, the first yogi


In the yogic culture, Shiva is not known as a god, but as the Adiyogi or the first yogi – the originator of yoga. He was the one who first put this seed into the human mind. According to the yogic lore, over fifteen thousand years ago, Shiva attained to his full enlightenment and abandoned himself in an intense ecstatic dance upon the Himalayas. When his ecstasy allowed him some movement, he danced wildly. When it became beyond movement, he became utterly still.

People saw that he was experiencing something that nobody had known before, something that they were unable to fathom. Interest developed and people came wanting to know what this was. They came, they waited and they left because the man was oblivious to other people’s presence. He was either in intense dance or absolute stillness, completely uncaring of what was happening around him. Soon, everyone left…

Except for seven men.

These seven people were insistent that they must learn what this man had in him, but Shiva ignored them. They pleaded and begged him, “Please, we want to know what you know.” Shiva dismissed them and said, “You fools. The way you are, you are not going to know in a million years. There is a tremendous amount of preparation needed for this. This is not entertainment.”

So they started preparing. Day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year, they prepared. Shiva just chose to ignore them. On a full moon day, after eighty-four years of sadhana, when the solstice had shifted from the summer solstice to the winter solstice – which in this tradition is known as Dakshinayana – the Adiyogi looked at these seven people and saw that they had become shining receptacles of knowing. They were absolutely ripe to receive. He could not ignore them anymore. They grabbed his attention.

He watched them closely for the next few days and when the next full moon rose, he decided to become a Guru. The Adiyogi transformed himself into the Adi Guru; the first Guru was born on that day which is today known as Guru Pournami. On the banks of Kanti Sarovar, a lake that lies a few kilometers above Kedarnath, he turned South to shed his grace upon the human race, and the transmission of the yogic science to these seven people began. The yogic science is not about a yoga class that you go through about how to bend your body – which every new born infant knows – or how to hold your breath – which every unborn infant knows. This is the science of understanding the mechanics of the entire human system.

After many years, when the transmission was complete, it produced seven fully enlightened beings – the seven celebrated sages who are today known as the Saptarishis, and are worshipped and admired in Indian culture. Shiva put different aspects of yoga into each of these seven people, and these aspects became the seven basic forms of yoga. Even today, yoga has maintained these seven distinct forms.

The Saptarishis were sent in seven different directions to different parts of the world to carry this dimension with which a human being can evolve beyond his present limitations and compulsions. They became the limbs of Shiva, taking the knowing and technology of how a human being can exist here as the Creator himself, to the world. Time has ravaged many things, but when the cultures of those lands are carefully looked at, small strands of these people’s work can be seen, still alive. It has taken on various colors and forms, and has changed its complexion in a million different ways, but these strands can still be seen.

The Adiyogi brought this possibility that a human being need not be contained in the defined limitations of our species. There is a way to be contained in physicality but not to belong to it. There is a way to inhabit the body but never become the body. There is a way to use your mind in the highest possible way but still never know the miseries of the mind. Whatever dimension of existence you are in right now, you can go beyond that – there is another way to live. He said, “You can evolve beyond your present limitations if you do the necessary work upon yourself.” That is the significance of the Adiyogi.

The article is by Sadhguru - Founder of Isha Foundation.

Find out more about the Adiyogi, in the free ebook Shiva – Ultimate Outlaw or visit Isha Foundation 


Following the Vedic period came the pre-classical period. This era is defined by the creation of the Upanishads, a collection of 200 Vedic texts. Central concepts to these texts are Brahman (the ultimate reality in the universe), Atman (the transcendental self or self), and the relationship between these two ideas. Both the Vedas and Upanishads are said to form the basis of religious concepts for Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism.

Classical Yoga

While yoga has been practiced for over 5,000 years, it wasn’t until 2,000 years ago that Indian sage and author of several Sanskrit texts, Patanjali systematized the practice of yoga and documented his work, the Yoga Sutras, so that others could follow his work.

Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras have been credited as the very foundation of classic yoga. In the Sutras, guidance is offered to help the reader create peace and achieve fulfilment. A small but important note to make at this stage is that there were several authors by the name of Patanjali and work continues to determine who is the actual author of the Yoga Sutras. Regardless of authorship, it’s hard to refute the importance and subsequent popularity of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. It’s for this reason, like the Gita, that it has made it onto our list of essential reading for yogis.

Another defining factor of the classical yoga period is the emergence of the eight limbs of yoga. If you are currently studying your yoga teacher qualification or have recently completed one, this will already be very familiar to you. You could argue that the eight limbs are as synonymous with yoga as another component or idea.

Pantanjali set out the following as a means for living a life of purpose and meaning:

Yama – ethical rules relating to conduct towards others or social discipline

Niyama – correct conduct towards oneself, a means of aiding personal growth

Asana – the practice of physical postures (undoubtedly the most well known of the eight limbs)

Pranayama – controlling of the breath

Pratyahara – controlling the senses

Dharana – concentration, the process of drawing the senses inward

Dhyana – meditation

Samadhi – the union of mediation and the subject of meditation, often closely linked with obtaining enlightenment

Post-Classical Yoga

Yoga was introduced to the West in the early 19th century and predictably, many of its Eastern teachings and philosophies steadily became Westernized. It was this period as well that saw many teachers and gurus travel to the West.

One such figure was Swami Sivananda who wrote over 200 books on yoga and philosophy and greatly contributed to the post-classical yoga period. Other notable names to rise from this period include Tirumalai Krishnamacharya, one of the most influential yoga teachers of the 20th century who has also been referred to as the father of modern yoga.

Then there’s Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, dubbed the ‘giggling guru’ as he would regularly laugh during TV interviews. Maharishi developed Transcendental Meditation and this may perhaps be one of the things he’ll be remembered for the most. Transcendental Meditation (or simply TM as it is also commonly known), is a technique practiced by 5 million people worldwide and amongst its proponents including many notable celebrities.

Modern Yoga

In some respects, modern yoga, the form practiced in studios, gyms and homes the world over today, can be seen as just as complex as the lineages that have come before it. Many current styles are based on hatha yoga, which was initially introduced in the yoga sutras.

There are also several over prominent styles you may be familiar with or heard of, they include:

Yoga is a consistently evolving practice and form of exercise that could almost be considered organic. It means something different to each style or school and in fact right down to the individuals who practice yoga. Considering the development it has undergone in the past 5,000 years, it’s easy to see how it will continue to develop, grow and evolve.