If someone told you to get into downward dog or child’s pose, you would rightly assume that they were telling you to perform a yoga position. For many Americans, it can seem like yoga exploded onto the scene out of nowhere. And somehow, it went from a fringe activity for new-age people to becoming so trendy that you can’t cross a street without passing a yoga studio or someone wearing Lululemon yoga pants. But trendiness aside, yoga has been around for millennia and is far more rooted in history and religion than probably many of the people who visit a studio would know.
While the specific date of yoga's creation is a bit of a mystery, some people believe that the ancient practice first began nearly 10,000 years ago. However, experts do know that the first concrete proof of yoga in writing was nearly 5,000 years ago with the Indus-Sarasvati civilization that lived in what is now Northern India. Yoga first appears in the Rig Veda, a religious text that was crafted by the Brahmans, who were Vedic priests.
Even in these early stages, yoga was always closely tied to spirituality, discovery of self, and a focus on reducing your ego through self-knowledge, wisdom, and action. These core tenets would serve as the precursor to Karma Yoga and Jnana Yoga.
Clearly, there’s a large time gap between 5,000 years ago and the modern era — which is defined as the 1800s through today. During this time, the core principles of yoga, as well as practices and styles, were being formulated. That large time gap between origins to today is usually classified into three periods: Pre-Classical, Classical and Post-Classical. The Pre-Classical period centers on yoga’s origins, which we covered earlier.
Classical is usually defined by Patanjali’s Yoga-Sûtras, who established the actual practice of yoga poses. Patanjali, who is often considered the father of yoga, created an “eight limbed path” that outlined the steps and stages followers would need to complete to reach Samadhi or enlightenment. The practical application of yoga was written in the second century and is defined as Raja Yoga (also known as classical yoga). Even though modern yoga has deviated from Patanjali’s creation, many of the poses and mantras you see in yoga are based on his teachings.
Post-Classical yoga takes place centuries after Patanjali and focuses on using the body as a pathway to achieve enlightenment. But in particular, yoga masters from this era focused on poses that would help to rejuvenate the body and boost functionality. Tantra Yoga is one of the key practices that arose from this period, and it centers on a mind-body connection as well as an intense focus on spirituality. For most westerners who practice yoga, this concept probably sounds familiar and it is formally known as Hatha Yoga.
Yoga Goes West
It was inevitable that a practice as pervasive as yoga would eventually leave India’s borders and reach the western world. And this shift moves us into the Modern era of yoga. One of the first documented moments when yoga caught the attention of westerners was 1893 in Chicago at the Parliament of Religions convention. Swami Vivekananda was a lecturer at the event, and he wowed audiences as he spoke of yoga’s therapeutic benefits not just for the body but for the soul. From there, future swamis would also help to enhance yoga’s visibility through visits to western countries and writing books. But yoga didn’t really get a hold in the United States until 1947 when Indra Devi opened a yoga studio in Hollywood. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Even if you’re not the most spiritual of people, there is scientific evidence to support the therapeutic and health benefits of engaging in yoga. As a clinical description, yoga is the practice of combining “breathing exercises, meditation and poses ... to encourage relaxation and reduce stress.”
And there are studies to back up those claims. In one case, researchers followed 131 people who participated in a 10-week yoga program. At the end of the study, all of the respondents expressed that they felt less stressed and were able to relax better. In another study, 64 women who were clinically diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) were enrolled in a 10-week yoga program. At the end of the program, respondents who participated in a weekly yoga class reported feeling less stress. And of the participants who practiced yoga, 52% had reduced their PTSD symptoms to the point that they no longer met the criteria for the diagnosis.
But yoga can do more than just reduce stress and anxiety. It might improve your heart health too. In another study that looked at patients over the age of 40, those who practiced yoga for five years had lower blood pressure and pulse rates as compared to similar patients who didn’t practice yoga. And finally, a study that looked at 113 people diagnosed with heart disease found that after a full year, the patients who practiced yoga regularly (in addition to correcting their diet and stress management behaviors) saw a 23% decrease in their overall cholesterol levels and a 26% decrease in their LDL or bad cholesterol. Most importantly, 47% of the patients’ heart disease stopped progressing.