Yoga is a Hindu term for a broad range of different socio-cultural and religious traditions, only some of which are slightly related to what is referred to today as “yoga”. Historians of yoga typically use the term “trans-national yoga” to identify the modern “physical posture” practice which has achieved global dominance.
For convenience, this post will use the term “yoga” to refer to this specific form of yoga. Some of the sources cited will use the terms trans-national yoga, āsana yoga, or physical posture yoga.
For a five minute video version of this post, go here.
Yoga’s bad history claims
Modern yoga practitioners usually make claims of a tradition of “thousands of years”, while often being vague on the details of this tradition.
“About 5,000 years ago, yoga was invented.”
“The practices are based on traditions that go back thousands of years in South Asia and other places around the world, including East Africa’s Kemetic Yoga.”
“It has an illustrious five-thousand-year history, and since the 1970s its popularity in the West has skyrocketed.”
“Asana was invented thousands of years ago as a way to prepare the body for meditation.”
The fruitless search for ancient yoga
Yoga’s claims to great antiquity escaped scrutiny for most of the twentieth century.
“It is only since the 1990s that modern forms of yoga have begun to be examined within the humanities and social sciences.”
However, close examination in the last decade of the twentieth century revealed the truth; yoga as practiced today in both the West and in India itself, does not have the lengthy historical tradition claimed for it.
“The problem is that in spite of the sincerity with which such claims are made, they often simply do not stand up to the slightest critical scrutiny.”
“The asana practice of the many modem Yoga schools in India and the West is not directly based on or otherwise connected with any known textual tradition.”
Exhaustive studies of three thousand years of Indian textual and visual source material, have proved there is no evidence for historical yoga earlier than the nineteenth century.
“Several scholars have tried to find indications of early Yoga practice in seals of the Indus Valley civilization, but the evidence from that period is far from conclusive. Others have looked for elements of Yoga practice and early references to Yogins in the hymns of the Rgveda and Atharvaveda, but not much substantial material can be found.”
Although there is ancient precedent for some of the breathing exercises common to modern yoga, the physical body postures used today (the āsanas), cannot be found in historical sources.
“For example, the claim that specific gymnastic āsana sequences taught by certain postural schools popular in the West today are enumerated in the Yajurand Ṛg Vedas is simply untenable from a historical or philological point of view. …In sum, the Indian tradition shows no evidence for the kind of posture-based practices that dominate transnational anglophone yoga today.”
The only exceptions are a few sitting postures which are mentioned as conducive for meditation. However, even these postures were not part of a systematic yoga tradition; there was no agreement on any standard physical movements for yoga.
Some modern yoga sources point enthusiastically to images such as these murals on the wall of the Nātha Mahāmandir temple in Jodhpur. But this temple was only built in the nineteenth century, and these images are unrelated to any tradition of yoga physical postures.
Origin of the myth
How did this myth originate? What are the genuine roots of yoga as it is known today? Here is a summary of the facts.
Yoga was invented over 100 years ago by members of the Hindu elite.
The physical postures were borrowed from European exercise regimes.
The religious and philosophical elements were largely borrowed from a combination of Western interpretations of Hindu religion, and a new religious movement called theosophy, which started in nineteenth century Europe.
European study of historical Indian texts was co-opted by Hindu leaders, and used to create a pseudo-history of yoga as an ancient tradition.
Hindu yoga teachers used their newly invented tradition to stir up Hindu nationalism in India, and to criticize Western culture and society.
These same yoga teachers embarked on highly successful international advertising campaigns in Europe and North America, promoting and selling yoga as superior to Western religion and spirituality.
Knut Jacobsen summarises the modern invention of yoga thus.
“Hindu gurus (see Jacobsen 2011a) already more than 100 years ago adapted Hinduism to Western context (de Michelis 2004; Saha 2007: 489): Vivekananda promoted ‘a “Hindu spirituality” largely created by Orientalism and adopted in the anticlerical and anticolonial rhetorics of Theosophy’ (Van der Veer 2001: 73); European philological scholarship influenced the creations of written texts of oral Hindu traditions and critical editions of Hindu written textual traditions and innovative Hindu teachers adopted Western traditions of gymnastics and blended it with yoga philosophy.”
How posture yoga was “borrowed” from European exercise regimes
In the early nineteenth century, Swedish gymnastic instructor Pehr Henrik Ling devised a system of physical exercises, based partly on Danish gymnastics. His system quickly became popular across Europe, and was adopted by the British, who introduced it to India.
“These and similar free-standing holistic exercise systems grew in popularity and spread rapidly.”
As a wave of enthusiasm for physical fitness swept Europe and became exported to other countries, the British started looking for comparable systems among indigenous people. In China they discovered the martial arts systems of gong fu (功夫), and in India they started examining haṭha yoga, the branch of yoga which emphasised a healthy diet, relaxing breathing techniques, and sitting correctly as a preparation for meditation. The British decided this was the closest Indian equivalent of European exercise regimes, and praised haṭha yoga for its supposed health advantages.
In fact haṭha yoga was almost completely spiritual in its focus, placing little to no emphasis on physical exercise or its medical benefits. However, Indian practitioners took up the British interpretation of haṭha yoga, and started turning it into an Indian version of therapeutic physical exercise.
“The therapeutic cause-effect relation is a later superimposition on what was originally a spiritual discipline only.”
In the late nineteenth century, Indian yoga teachers started to completely re-invent haṭha yoga. They copied the exercise regimes of two gymnastics instructors, Pehr Henrik Ling of Sweden and Jørgen Peter Müller of Denmark, to create new physical postures which were never originally part of haṭha yoga. These photos show how the new yoga exercises were copied directly from the Swedish and Danish originals; https://imgur.com/cHOhwJs.
How yoga breathing exercises were “borrowed” from an American writer
Indian yoga teachers also repeated British claims about the health benefits of haṭha yoga, and invented new claims about the advantages of correct breathing and relaxation. In some cases they borrowed directly from European publications on these subjects. Shri Yogendra, one famous yoga guru, actually directly plagiarized the work of American breathing instructor Genevieve Stebbins, copying her work and representing it as his own.
“In fact, what Yogendra wrote about relaxation in his main text, Yoga Asanas Simplified, is purloined, with a bit of fussy touching up, from Stebbins, whom he also strategically quotes—what audacity!—in support of “his” theories. (In Hatha Yoga Simplified, Yogendra chose a more straightforward rhetorical strategy: he simply presented the supporting passage as if he’d written it.)”
How the new yoga was marketed to the West by Indian elites
In the late nineteenth century, Indian Hindu monk Narendranath Dutta (later known as Swami Vivekananda), promoted yoga as part of a campaign to ignite nationalist Hinduism. A high caste aristocrat, Vivekananda was one of a number of wealthy and influential yoga teachers who traveled internationally, introducing the newly invented yoga to the West.
“The pervasive message is that āsana is an indigenous, democratic form of Indian gymnastics, requiring no apparatus and essentially comparable in function and goal to Western physical culture—but with more and better to offer.”
Vivekananda’s message to Westerners was simple; the physical system of āsana yoga, or physical posture yoga, was not only superior to Western physical exercise regimes, it also provided a spirituality and religious dimension which Western systems could not offer.
“Vivekananda promotion of Hinduism as a ‘spirituality’ that was superior to Western religion and that the West was in need of, inspired other Hindu gurus to travel to the West to present Hinduism with a global message for everyone.”
This was the start of a decades long campaign by Indian yoga teachers, visiting Western nations and encouraging Westerners to take up yoga as a superior form of physical exercise to anything the West had to offer.
“The appeal of postural yoga lay to a great extent precisely in this reputation as an accessible Indian alternative to the Western systems that dominated physical education in India from the last third of the nineteenth century. The very authors who were synthesizing modern gymnastic technique and theory with haṭha yoga nevertheless tended to present Western gymnastics as impoverished with regard to the “spiritual” and the “holistic” (Yogendra 1988 ; Sundaram 1989 ).”
How the new yoga’s real history was concealed
Part of the marketing campaign of the new yoga was its claim to be an authentic Indian tradition, thousands of years old. To achieve this, Indian yoga teachers had to separate yoga from its historical roots. This required distancing yoga from traditional Indian yogins, and appealing to Western science to justify yoga’s new health benefit claims.
“Haṭha yoga had to be appropriated from the yogin, and one of the ways this occurred was through appeals to modern science and medicine.”
Some yoga teachers,such as Shri Yongendra, acknowledged that the yoga they were now teaching was different to the yoga which had traditionally been taught. However, they typically did not mention that the yoga they were now teaching, was borrowed from Western sources.
“In his manual Yoga Asanas Simplified, Shri Yogendra emphasized the differences between his hatha yoga system and the traditional hatha yoga system taught to him by his guru, Paramahamsa Madhavadasaji. The deviation in Yogendra’s yogic exercise practice lies in elements that Yogendra appropriated from calisthenics—almost certainly from Müller’s system, in particular.”
It was important to erase the European roots of modern yoga, so one prominent yoga teacher (Muzumdar), invented the idea that European physical regimes such as the Swedish Ling exercises, were actually taken from an Indian yoga tradition thousands of years old.
“Muzumdar had in fact argued that the very source of Swedish gymnastics is ultimately yoga itself. The similarities between yoga and Ling, he claims, can be explained in terms of a westward knowledge transmission from India to Europe which is thousands of years old. …“Swedish exercises are not original,” we learn, but derive from ancient therapeutic techniques of Indian yoga (1937a: 816).”
Why have so many Westerners taken up yoga? Because several decades of Indian yoga instructors visited their countries and urged them to do so. The yoga typically practiced today in the West was a commercial invention by Indian yoga teachers, which was designed, packaged, and marketed, specifically to Western consumers. Western practitioners of yoga are consuming a product which was made for them by Indian yoga teachers, and is typically not found in India itself.
Does this mean it’s impossible for Western yoga practitioners to be guilty of cultural appropriation? No. Western yoga practitioners should not perpetuate the myth that yoga has a history thousands of years old. They should not associate yoga with Indian language and culture with which it has no historical connection. They should not dress up their yoga practice with Indian clothing and Sanskrit words which are not theirs and which have nothing to do with the yoga they actually do.
They should not represent themselves as the legitimate inheritors of an ancient tradition of a culture to which they do not belong. They should acknowledge they are consumers of a nineteenth century product created for Western audiences by Indian elites.
Michelle Goldberg, “Iyengar and the Invention of Yoga,” The New Yorker, n.d., https://www.newyorker.com/business/currency/iyengar-invention-yoga; Amara Miller, “Origins of
Yoga: Part I,” The Sociological Yogi, 2 May 2014, https://amaramillerblog.wordpress.com/2014/05/02/origins-of-yoga-part-i/; Matthew Remski, “10
Things We Didn’t Know About Yoga Until This New Must-Read Dropped,” Yoga Journal, n.d., https://www.yogajournal.com/yoga-101/10-things-didnt-know-yoga-history;
Mark Singleton, “The Ancient & Modern Roots of Yoga,” Yoga Journal, n.d., https://www.yogajournal.com/yoga-101/yoga-s-greater-truth.
“Yoga’s Extreme Makeover. ~ Melissa Heather,” Elephant Journal, n.d., http://www.elephantjournal.com/2014/04/yogas-extreme-makeover-melissa-heather