Origins of Yoga

28 Nov

Yoga is the oldest spiritual tradition in the world.  It has evolved tremendously from its roots, and yoga as we know it in the West (predominantly a physical practice of asanas) barely scratches the surface of the wealth of wisdom Yoga has to offer.  It is a worthwhile practice to look deeply at the origins of yoga and see how they can deepen our modern-day practice.

Indus Valley Civilization (

The origins of yoga can be traced to the Indus Valley Civilization (in modern-day Northern India) more than 5,000 years ago.  There is archaeological evidence from the work of British Archaeologist John Marshall (among others) in this region in the early 1900s: at the time of the 1920s, the Indus Valley Civilization was unearthed and among its contents, steatite seals depicting yoga postures have been dated to 3,000 BC.  “These great Indian ancestors … were masters of Yoga–the inner world–and masters of the outer world,” states Georg Feuerstein, PhD in Yoga Unveiled, referring to the fact that this highly-sophisticated civilization evolved even before the time of the Great Pyramids and its “engineering feats were not replicated until the time of the Roman Empire” (27 BC).  “This civilization had a deep reverence for the natural world, equating nature to the creator himself,” according to Yoga Unveiled.

Stone seals depicting people in yoga postures date to 3000 BC

There is not much known about yoga in the time period pre-dating the stones (and written history), as Yoga originated as an oral tradition, passed down with no record.  “What we know as yoga,” says Feuerstein, “is the distillation of an entire civilization.”  There is a common misconception that Yoga is rooted in Hinduism–in fact the opposite is true: Hinduism’s religious foundation evolved much later than Yoga, incorporating some practices of Yoga (notably, other religions also incorporated practices and ideas related to Yoga).

Vedic Period

2500 BC ~ The Vedas were composed within the Indus Valley Civilization

  • Sanskrit language is a part of the indo-European language family: if you are interested in learning more about Sanskrit, have a look at the American Sanskrit Institute.
  • Sacred writings in the forms of songs, hymns, ceremonial rituals and poems only passed down orally until the first writing, the Rig Veda
  • Veda translates “knowledge”
  • Rig Veda–this is the oldest Yogic Scripture
  • Yajur Veda–theme of sacrifice
  • Sama Veda–the theme of chance
  • Atharva Veda–theme of ritual

Pre-Classical Period



1000 BC – 500 BC ~ The Upanishads

  • Upanishads focused on man’s inward journey in search of the Inner Self
  • Written in the forest, rejected some of the ideas in the Vedas, clarified other Vedic teachings

Epic Period

600 BC ~ Bhagavad Gita

  • Rooted in Upanishads, most beloved yogic text of India
  • Elucidates the Yoga of wisdom (Jnana Yoga), selfless action (Karma Yoga) and devotion (Bhakti Yoga)
  • My personal favorite translation is by Stephen Mitchell, who says “The Gita is a love song to reality, a hymn in praise of everything excellent and beautiful and brave.”
  • Theme of Loka Sangraha ~ the bringing together of the whole world.

CreditñjaliClassical Period of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali

500 BC – 100 BC ~ Yoga Sutras of Patanjali

  • Sutra means to string together or to sew ~ the threads (lines/aphorisms) in the sutras color and complete the tapestry of life
  • 6 schools of philosophy based on the Vedas emerged at this time ~ (Darshanas – to see the truth with an emphasis on experience) ~ one of which is Yoga
  • Raja Yoga ~ explains the workings of the mind and the body: Body’s purpose is to prepare the mind for meditation.
  • This is the first systematic delivery of yoga ~ succinct ~ all the ideas of the vedic texts, the teachings passed along through lineages in one text.
  • It is speculated that Patanjali lived in Northern India in approximately 200 AD ~ composed the Sutras in response to philosophical discourse that was very dynamic at the time

8 Limbs of Ashtanga Yoga

  • Outlined within the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali
  • Yama ~ observances
  • Niyama ~ restraints
  • Asana ~ posture
  • Pranayama ~ breathing
  • Pratyahara ~ withdrawal of senses
  • Dharana ~ concentration
  • Dhyana ~ meditation
  • Samadhi ~ merging with the Inner Self ~ the ultimate goal in yoga

Yamas ~ Observances

  • Ahimsa ~ loving kindness and compassion for all living things
  • Satya ~ commitment to the ultimate truth
  • Asetya ~ nonstealing ~ taking only what you need
  • Bramhacharya ~ sexual restraint
  • Aparigraha ~ nongrasping

Niyamas ~ Restraints

  • Saucha ~ purity, clarity
  • Santosha ~ contentment
  • Tapas ~ fiery enthusiasm
  • Swadhyaya ~ self study
  • Ishvarapranidhana ~ merging with the divine

Much of the information here is expanded upon in the delightful film I highly recommended, Yoga Unveiled.  If you are intrigued by the history and evolution of Yoga, you will love this movie!

Om shanti shanti shanti.



4 Responses to “Origins of Yoga”


  1. Restorative Yoga Study & Results | YogAscent: Heighten Your Practice - November 28, 2013

    […] as a life strategy has been around for over 5000 years.  The practices of yoga have been perfected, replicated, and repeated uncountable times since […]


  2. Restorative Yoga Study | Center of Holistic Wellness Sedro Woolley, WA - December 28, 2013

    […] as a life strategy has been around for over 5000 years. The practices of yoga have been perfected, replicated, and repeated uncountable times since then. […]


  3. Yoga: the Path of Holistic Wellness | Center of Holistic Wellness Sedro Woolley, WA - July 21, 2014

    […] is an ancient system (archaeologists date the physical origins of yoga to somewhere around 3000 BC) developed by Rishis in the Indus Valley Civilization as a way to bring […]


  4. Yoga: The Path of Holistic Wellness | YogAscent: Heighten Your Practice - August 3, 2014

    […] unite the body, mind, and Inner Self. Yoga is an ancient system (archaeologists date the physical origins of yoga to somewhere around 3000 BC) developed by Rishis in the Indus Valley Civilization as a way to bring […]


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