A Very (Very) Short Introduction to the History and Philosophy of Yoga 

Is Yoga a practice or a philosophy?

At its heart Yoga is an experiential practice with its origins embedded in Indian Hindu/Buddhist culture. But, I personally know a wide diversity of people who identify as variously as Hindu, Humanist/Atheist, Buddhist, Christian and Muslim who have adopted Yoga’s core practices of asanas (postures), pranayama (breath practices) and meditation as they perceive them as compatible with their beliefs/reasoning and provide practice based experiential support to explore their worldviews or their health. This suggests to me that Yoga is primarily a practice/experiential based system that can help and support people from any number of backgrounds and cultures.

That said there is an underpinning philosophy (arguably universal beyond Yoga) which in simple form looks like this: we experience suffering and disharmony to varying degrees because we view life and relationships through the murky lens of our family and societal conditioning and potentially inherited tendencies ( whether viewed as genetic or karmic or a combination of both). Yoga practices help us unpick and cut through these knots of conditioning so we can wipe the lens clean, ‘see’ clearly, and so live in harmony and peace with ourselves and others. 

In essence philosophy gives us an approximate map to work from and reflect on, whilst practice and life is the actual territory. 



Central to this is the concept of karma , not a blame game, but a multi-dimensional cause and effect principle that can be observed in life when we are paying attention. Many aspects of life, including other people’s behaviour, are out of our control, but we can determine our relationship to it, and as a result how life goes. On a personal level we can reflect on the following interrelating cause and effect chain: Feelings → emotions → thoughts → intentions → speech/action → habits → character → destiny, and how much of the time we are aware of it in action. How this causal chain works and gets enacted is influenced by our conditioning. Yoga practices can help empower us to be a fully conscious participant in this process every moment, every day giving us greater choice in how we are and how life goes. The traditional goal of this would be to attain liberation/moksha/nirvana a condition where no more karma is created and we are not reborn (if we believe in that). Most serious historical Yoga practice would have had that goal. In the modern era most of us would be happy to live a freer more conscious life not driven and enslaved by unconscious conditioning. 

The never ending knot of karma.

Earliest Forms of Practice.

There is no definitive evidence of pre-historical era formal Yoga practice that we would recognise beyond some loose theories based on patchy archaeological evidence that Yoga emerged in the Indus Valley civilisation (modern day Pakistan) around 3000 BCE to 1300 BCE . Rishis (seers) are mentioned in the Vedas (1500 – 1200 BCE ish) and the similar name of Reusi exists in Thailand and S.E. Asia; through their deep meditations and explorations these people are often credited as the creators/discoverers of the prototypes of later traditional medicine and spiritual practices. Doubtless people have been experimenting with mind/body technologies and experiential forms of knowledge for a very long time. In a similar vein to Rishis, Sramanas were early truth seekers, usually voluntarily homeless, who lived a hermit like existence in forests and mountains. They spanned across all the spiritual/religious traditions of Asia (and likely beyond) and are still around today, particularly in India.    

Upanishads (written 800 – 200 BCE approximately) 

A series of teachings in which Yoga practices of meditation and pranayama are first recognisably described; the focus is on practice based experiential understanding. The literal translation of Upanishad is ‘sitting by the teacher’. Teachers would gather followers, often in forest ashrams, and give teachings and practices that would help reveal the truth of oneness and non duality (that matter, consciousness and spirit are all of one thing). The key theme of the Upanishads is all of life is unpinned by consciousness (Brahman) and we all have a part of that within us (Atman, described as a flame in the heart area, the heart as the seat of consciousness). The Upanishads are part of the Vedic tradition of Shruti (revealed truth) which is sceptical of intellectual learning on this subject and suspicious of organised religious ritual as a way of understanding the ultimate truth. Also known as Advaita Vedanta (Advaita – one not two), these teachings are still very much alive and taught today having undergone reinvigoration at various points of history. The overall flavour of the text evokes a poetic awe and wonder at the wonder of life and the experience of oneness and our place in it. Such as when lying on your back stargazing on a clear summer night.     

Bhagavad Gita (written 400 – 200 BCE) 

In this period early Buddhism was already flowing parallel with Upanishadic practices. Both had common themes of personal practice and liberation from the cycle of rebirth which generally involved a level of disengagement from worldly life.The Bhagavad Gita then asked the question of how to live Yoga in the midst of daily life with all its challenges and dilemmas. Based on the story of a war in which Arjuna (a warrior) and Krishna (his Atman/soul) are in dialogue as Arjuna faces ultimate ethical dilemmas around fighting a war against members of his own extended family. Although the context of the story is war, the teaching is about the internal conflicts we all experience and the internal chat that goes on around them. Dilemmas are solved when we understand who we really are through Yoga, and so live our truth and act it out in life. The living it part of this equation takes (a lot of) courage, likely requires changes and challenges to our habitual mode of being. Each time we make a small or large positive change to our habitual actions we gain more courage and strength; this is even reflected in our biology which changes to strengthen our courage further. Importantly this is a leap into actualising our potential in life which practicing Yoga in secluded places by itself may not. Jnana Yoga (the cultivation of wisdom), Karma Yoga (acting in alignment with your truth, but without attachment to outcomes) and Bhakti Yoga (do it with love – traditionally including deity worship) are the Yoga teachings here. In essence our social identity, roles and purpose in life are made important again and are part of the path, not just a part of us to be transcended and denied by heading off to the forest/mountains/your bedroom.

Walk your path.

Buddhism as Yoga (500 BCE onwards) 

When the Buddha first left his royal palace on his search for deeper meaning he most likely encountered Upanshadic like Yoga teachings, practiced them, but was not entirely satisfied. So he determined to forge his own path and practice until he was enlightened. He sat in meditation under the Bodhi Tree for 49 days, clearly and completely understood the conditions of life and so developed the psycho-somatic skills to free himself from them. This understanding in himself also awoke the compassionate response to want to teach and help others which he did for the rest of his life. In essence he taught four noble truths: that life inherently contains suffering/dissatisfaction, that it is possible to understand its causes within ourselves, that it is possible to end the problem and that there is a practice method to achieve this. Traditionally in early Buddhism this would have been focused around a more solitary goal of attaining liberation/nirvana and an escape from the cycle of rebirth. As Buddhism grew as a religion/practice, more socially inclusive ideas developed (as with the Bhagavad Gita) which meant Buddhist based practices were available to anyone living a normal life. The teachings of the Buddha have always run parallel to and interacted with other Yoga practices and this continues to this day well outside traditional settings in Asia.    

The eyes of the Buddha.

Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras  ( unknown but approx 400 BCE – 400 CE)

Often described as the defining and core guide on Yoga. Some would dispute this as despite its undoubted value it essentially describes a path that taken literally would lead us back to the more hermit like goal of not acting or creating any more karma in order to merge with a source consciousness and escape the cycle of rebirth. The source consciousness (named here as Purusha), appears like the Brahman/Atman of the Upanishads, but is subtly different in that it is actually described as separate from the material world, making this text philosophically dualist (separates consciousness/spirit from matter/the material world) . The text starts with the statement: ‘Yoga is the stilling of the thought waves of the mind’,  then the rest of the book is about how to achieve that and how to live in such a way that that state is not de-stabilised. The text is mostly focused around ethical living and personal habits (that keep the mind undisturbed), pranayama and meditation. Active asana is not really described beyond the meditation seat which should be stable and relaxed. Some of the text talks about magical powers of mind over matter that can be developed through practice, but are to be avoided as they are distractions from the goal.

Tantra (5th – 8th CE) and Hatha Yoga (unknown) 

Tantric Yoga and Buddhist practices started to appear in response to the seemingly extreme austerities and arguably life denying practices of some branches of Yoga/Buddhism unrealistic for regular people. Instead of treating the body and its inherent natural energies and urges as being a problem to be transcended, all aspects of bodily life were made part of the path and bought into consciousness. For some this makes it a more complete holistic path; if Yoga is about understanding and liberating ourselves from our conditioning, that process needs to include all aspects of life. Tantra helped spawn and develop Hatha Yoga which is where we start to see more of the asana and pranayama practices that a modern day practitioner would recognise. The body, mind, spirit complex is seen as an inseparable interrelating whole and is described as overlapping layers or koshas. You can focus practice around the body with asana but that inevitably includes and influences feeling, emotion and the mind, or you can focus practice on the mind with meditation but that inevitable includes and influences the body, feeling and emotion. There is a system of chakras (energy centres along the spine) which describe our expression in the world, encouraging us to examine how we outwardly express what we learn in Yoga. In essence the human being is described as a microcosm of the universe: that all the conditions and elements in the universe that created life on earth are within us, something to ponder.   

Ganesh , sometimes associated with Tantra.

 Modern Yoga. 

Yoga tends to morph, shape itself and be viewed according to the preoccupations , motivations and primary lenses of the cultures that it is practiced in. As a generalisation there may be more spiritual/religious motivations in its practice in some Asian countries but more scientific/health related motivations in some western countries; but increasingly these seem to be overlapping as globalisation has spread information and ideas from everywhere to everywhere else. This can be great but confusing. Regardless of cultural forms, at its heart is the idea that we can become more freely and fully ourselves, less encumbered by potentially unhelpful societal and cultural conditioning. Any practice that helps you with that is potentially Yoga. 

A short article on the whole of Yoga history and philosophy is actually an impossible task, so this one is inevitably hugely over simplified! I hope though it is useful for some of you. If you are interested in my Yoga teaching, retreats or Yoga history and philosophy courses you can go here .

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