Hatha yoga has been around for thousands and thousands of years. Some people believe the tradition to be 5,000 years old while others think it dates back as many as 10,000 years ago. This great disparity in time is due to the fact that when yoga was first being practiced, there was no written word, no paper, no way of transmission other than the spoken word.
The practice was also quite mysterious and secretive. It’s said that some of the very earliest teachings were written on flimsy palm leaves, which were, of course, not easy to preserve. We do know that what researchers call “pre-classical yoga” began around 5,000 years ago in northern India – among the Indus-Sarasvati people. The "Rig Veda" came to be during this time, and it’s the most ancient text that records the word, “yoga.”
You’ve probably heard of the Vedas, or Vedic texts. These are the first texts used by the Vedic priests and mystics, or rishis, at this time in history. Then the Upanishads came to be, and also the Bhagavad Gita. All these texts happened in “pre-classical” time.
Next we come to what yoga researchers call the “classical yoga” time period. This is when Patanjali and his Yoga Sutras were written. We reference these sutras often – even today – and because we do, Patanjali is sometimes known as the father of modern yoga.
(Learn more about Patanjali and The Foundation of the Yoga Sutras.)
Then we come to what researchers call the “post-classical yoga” time period. It’s here that Tantra yoga came into existence. There was more emphasis on the physical body, as well. This is when what we think of as Hatha yoga made its way into the world. Naturally, over that time, the Hatha yoga practice branched off in many different directions; and in the past few hundred years, we’ve seen the greatest number of branching off as it has gained popularity.
Here’s an example. Standing asanas only came to be just a few hundred years ago. Before that time, there was no record of any standing postures in the yogic pantheon of physical postures. The yogis before this time believed that standing poses had no positive affect on their prana and, as such, were of no consequence to the practice. And they had a point. As we know today, standing poses -- when compared with seated postures, supine postures and inverted postures -- do far less for the body on an energetic level. They’re physically powerful, but energetically less so.
Another practice that has only happened over the last few hundred years is what we call vinyasa flow, or the threading together of various yoga postures with the breath in a sort of constant flowing movement. This vinyasa type of practice only developed approximately 100 years ago.
(You may also be interested in understanding more about Why We Practice Asanas.)
Yogis began traveling to the Western world in the late 1880s and this is when the period of “modern yoga” officially began. There was an historic event that took place in Chicago in 1893 called the Parliament of Religions. Swami Vivekananda, along with other spiritual leaders from around the world, spoke here to a large American audience and from there yoga began its rapid dissemination into the Western world.
In the 1920s, the renowned Krishnamacharya started the very first Hatha yoga school in Mysore, India. This yoga master taught such famous devotees as Indra Devi, T.K.V. Desikachar, Sri K. Patthabi Jois and B.K.S. Iyengar, who all created their own styles of teaching and spreading of the practice throughout the world. In 1936, the Divine Life Society, which belonged to Swami Sivananda, was founded along the famous Ganges river. Indra Devi brought yoga to Hollywood, Cali. when she opened the first yoga school there – teaching to the actors and, especially, the actresses of the time.
The Constant Goal Throughout the Ages
While Hatha yoga has since branched off in many styles and schools of practice, there has always been a constant system of practice that aimed at reaching one primary goal – unified consciousness.
Even in some of the ancient yogic texts, which came to be about 800 years ago, there are records of asana, pranayama, chakras, mudras, mantra, meditation and even the unfolding of the esoteric energy known as kundalini. The aims of Hatha yoga, according to these ancient texts were: purification, strengthening, calming, stability, higher perception, expansion and illumination.
The ultimate achievement of yoga is resting in a state of total non-dual awareness in which you are in a state of connection with all that is. In other words, there’s no distinction between you and the ever-present Absolute Reality. This has been the goal of yoga since the very beginning. There have just been different means of getting there as the practice has progressed and evolved through the millennia.
One Yoga, Many Styles
Different schools and styles of yoga resonate with different people, and we’re so lucky to have such a panoply of practices to choose from. Now, when you practice, you can thank the yogis of the past and the ancient seers for bringing such a wonderful system to humanity.
(Continue reading about more of these different styles of yoga in 12 Popular Yoga Styles.)