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The Origins and Practices of Yoga

Matthew Clark


The meaning of ‘yoga’ and its origins

The term 'yoga' derives from the Sanskrit root yuj, meaning 'join', 'bind together' or ‘harness’ (such as of horses to a chariot). In the Indo-European family of languages, to which Sanskrit belongs, many cognate words may be found, such as 'yoke' in English. In the Indian context yoga has several senses and in this article an attempt will be made to outline broadly what is known of its origins and practices. The focus is mainly on what has been termed ‘postural’ yoga, which involves work on the body. However, there are extant Hindu, Buddhist, Jain schools of yoga, and other derivative schools, for whom the main practice is meditation.

The practice of yoga is particularly associated with the Indian subcontinent. Some of the earliest reports available to us from travellers, such as from Greeks in the fourth century BCE, contain references to the practice of sometimes extreme asceticism by ‘gymnosophists’ (naked philosophers) attempting to gain wisdom. However, several of the techniques of yoga, including breath-control, meditation, the raising of heat in the body, and entry into near-death trance states, are not unique to South Asia. Similar or identical techniques have been employed for millennia by seekers of wisdom, health, immortality or occult power, in some shamanic traditions, in Taoism in China, and also in ancient Greek society.

Practices of yoga may be very ancient, perhaps as a component of shamanic activities. However, before around 500 or 600 BCE, there is no substantial evidence to confirm this possibility. In brief, no one really known how ancient the practices of yoga are.

Yoga as a science

At its root, the practice of yoga is an attempt to transform the individual’s consciousness through a variety of mental and practical techniques that work on the nervous system and brain chemistry. The yogi is essentially an experimenter with consciousness who may engage with various mental and physical disciplines and with regimens of particular kinds of plants or foods, modifying practice and consumption in order more easily to regulate the fluctuations of the mind.

Yoga is a science, as the practitioner needs to observe and carefully analyse the effects of practice on his or her consciousness, health, well-being or psychic powers, and adopt or adjust to an attitude, lifestyle or behaviour which better contribute to the desired results. Historically, yogis have tended to live on the margins of society, experimenting with practices that generally run counter to traditional social norms and values.

Historically, at its ancient root, yoga practice essentially entails withdrawing from or formerly renouncing (saṃnyāsa) society, remaining entirely celibate, sitting perfectly still in meditation, firstly observing the breath, and then practising breath control (prāṇāyāma). Prāṇāyāma is a practice that uniquely links the inner and outer words; breathing can be either voluntary or involuntary; and controlled breathing is the most direct way to attain a non-ordinary state of consciousness.

In the long course of the development of mental science in South Asia, the term ‘yoga’ acquired several technical senses, one of them being a disciplined or controlled method. The grammarian Pāṇini, who lived in the 5th or 4th century BCE, noted two verbal forms for the root yuj: yuji, referring to the ordinary sense of joining/uniting; and yuja, referring to concentration, in the sense of samādhi, a state of trance. By this time, practices of yoga by Brahmans, Buddhists, Jains and other ascetic sects had evolved to a point where such practices were clearly recognised as a distinctive discipline in South Asia.

The ancient use of psychedelics

In my book The Tawny One: Soma, Haoma and Ayahuasca (Aeon Books, 2020) I present evidence that in ancient Asia and Greece, religious rituals were regularly conducted in order to facilitate profound mystical states, engendered through the drinking of a sacred potion, known as soma to the Brahmans of South Asia, haoma to Zoroastrians, and as kykeōn in the Greco-Roman world. I argue that this potion was made from a variety of plants, which has the same effect as ayahuasca, the psychedelic drink used by various communities in South America, and in the last few decades in the wider, international world. 

I speculate that many centuries of use of the sacred potion was probably one of the factors that led eventually to the development of yogic techniques and practices, particularly in India, which could facilitate mystical states without the use of psychoactive plants.

The Axial Age

In the 1949, the German philosopher Karl Jaspers (2010) published his theory, which is still widely accepted, of the ‘Axial Age’, a period between around 800 and 300 BCE, in which there was a profound change in the religious cultures and thinking in societies in ancient Persia, India, China and the Greco-Roman world. Distinctive new religions, Ājivikism, Jainism and Buddhism, which had a very different world view to that of the Brahmans, arose in India in Magadha, an area comprising the modern state of Bihar (see Bronkhorst 2013).

In the Axial Age humans acquired the power of what might be called ‘abstract thinking’, being able to conceive of things and powers that you cannot see. This capacity led to the ‘invention’ in the Middle-East of one invisible God, and in India to the idea of brahman, an invisible cosmic power underlying the universe. Money, an invisible power you cannot see, was invented at exactly the same time—and in some instances in the same places—as philosophy first began in Greece, during the 7th century BCE (see Seaford 2004). This same process occurred at around the same time in India. Some of the earliest coins found in India were found in Magadha, also dating to the 7th century BCE. 

It could be said that philosophy, in essence, is the exploration of the difference, in various fields of inquiry, between appearance and reality. Essentially, the yogi is a philosopher seeking wisdom—true knowledge of the Self or of a higher reality—which lies behind appearances. Philosophers in general, regardless of religious orientation or sectarian affiliation, were often referred to in India as yogis in South Asia.

From sacrifices to the ‘care of the self’

The Vedas are the sacred texts of the Brahmans (priests) of South Asia; their oral composition occurred between around 1600 and 800 BCE. Originally there were three Vedas (Ṛgveda, Sāmaveda, Yajurveda); the Atharvaveda was added subsequently. The mantras of the Vedas accompany the fire rituals performed for at least 3,500 years by Brahmans, and are also used for any important Hindu ritual. The most important of around 160 kinds of Vedic ritual are those involving the drinking of soma. The main Vedic rituals used to require the sacrifice of animals (usually goats).

In the Axial Age there was a transition in both India and Greece from the widespread practice of religious rites that required the sacrifice of animals, to what Guy Stroumsa has termed ‘care of the self’, in which the salvation of the individual—rather than the community—becomes central to religious practice, engendering new religions that have this focus (Stroumsa 2016).

Yoga in the Upaniṣads

It is during the Axial Age in India that the ideas of a path of salvation through yogic discipline clearly emerge, not only in Buddhism and Jainism, but also in the Upaniṣads, which are the first semi-philosophical texts to be composed by the Brahmans of South Asia, dating to between around 800 BCE to 200 CE. The twelve or thirteen ‘classical’ Upaniṣads comprise the final sections (Vedānta) of the four Vedas. Other collections of Upaniṣads on yoga (see Verenne 1971; Vishnuswaroop 2017) and renunciation (saṃnyāsa) were composed in later centuries.

In four of the classical Upaniṣads (Taittirīya, Maitrī, Kaṭha, Svetāsvatara) there are the first discussions in the Brahmanical tradition of yoga as a spiritual discipline. In the Maitrī Upaniṣad a six-fold path of yoga is described, comprising prāṇāyāma (breath control), pratyāhāra (withdrawing the senses), dhyāna (meditation), dharaṇa (meditation on an object), tarka (reasoning), and trance (samādhi). A six-fold system is quite common in Buddhist schemes and may be found in some Tantras (see Grönbold 1996; Vasudeva 2004).

To gain freedom or release (mokṣa) from worldly entanglement and a continuous round of rebirths, the senses, which naturally pursue pleasures (or avoid pains), need to be restrained. True ‘Knowledge’ entails realizing the identity of own’s own self (ātman) with brahman (the invisible cosmic power underlying the universe). In the Kaṭha Upaniṣad a metaphor is used whereby the Self is the Lord of a chariot (the body), insight (buddhi) is the driver, the mind (manas) is the reigns, and the senses are the horses. The senses must be controlled, like horses, to attain the yogic goal of liberation.

Discipline and austerities (tapas)

There is the element of discipline in all yogic practices, which is a vital component in the regulation of brain chemistry. Yoga might also be described as ‘immersion’: in psychic space or in an object of meditation. Deep states of immersion are perhaps best described as trance states, which may be experienced as a kind of ‘suspension’ of the normal world, or as a timeless union with something immeasurably larger than the individual practitioner. Such states are usually experienced, in one way or another, as an encounter with ‘truth’ or with ultimate or absolute ‘reality’, which are more vivid and profound than any experience in ordinary waking consciousness.

The ancient Sanskrit term tapas derives from the root tap, meaning ‘heat’. Tapas also means austerities or asceticism, and is a feature of most yoga traditions (but not generally in Buddhism). Various forms of tapas are (or were) undertaken not only by Hindus, but also by Jains, Ājīvikas, the ancient śaiva sect of Pāśupatas, Qalandar Sūfīs and others seeking powers or liberation.

Practices of tapas are, essentially, ways of developing control over the restless mind. Tapas may entail fasting, sleep-deprivation, or mortifications of the body, such as remaining only standing and not lying down or sitting for many years. Other practices include remaining in a ring of fire in the sun for long periods of time in the summer, or being immersed in icy rivers for long periods of time in the winter. Other forms of tapas are to keep an arm in the air or to spend long periods of time in an upside-down position. Particularly in the early mediaeval period, it is sometimes difficult to ascertain whether or not representations of yogis in sculpture are of them doing tapas or, alternatively, practising a yoga posture (see Powell 2017).

Trance states

Rigorous yoga practices or the ingestion of psychedelic plants may result in an enormous sense of heat in the body, which can arise in trance states. Such supra-normal states can cause a cleaning of the biophysical system and be powerful aids to health. Perhaps obviously, the more radical the experiment with consciousness, the more the experimenter needs to be aware of the possible dangers and social difficulties that may result. 

The trance state is referred to by several different terms in South Asia. In the Yoga Sūtra(s) Patañjali calls it samādhi; in the Upaniṣads it is sometimes referred to as the ‘fourth state’ (turīya), the other three states of consciousness being waking, dreaming and sleeping. It is blissful, timeless, usually filled with supernatural light, and entails a near-death experience. According to Patañjali, experience of this state eradicates the negative passions/impressions (vāsanās) of the mind.

The Bhagavadgītā

Composed around 2,000 years ago, the best-known text on yoga in India is the Bhagavadgītā (The Song of God), which comprises a short section of one of the great epics of India, the Mahābhārata. In the dialogue in the text, between the God Kṛṣṇa and the soldier Arjuna, various paths of yoga are described. Among these paths are those of bhakti (devotion), karma (selfless service), jñāna (direct knowledge) and meditation (dhyāna). Continuous yoga (abhyāsa), the yoga of insight (buddhi) and the yoga of the self (ātma) are also referred to. The yogi is said to be able to go beyond the ‘opposites’ of the world by controlling the in-breath and the out-breath.

One of several possible ways of reading the Bhagavadgītā is to understand that yoga can be practised by householders or anyone. It is not necessary to renounce society and involvement in the world to obtain liberation. Kṛṣṇa specifically says that renunciation (saṃnyāsa) will not lead to liberation. These recommendations can be understood as a direct attempt by Brahmans to counter the prevalent social movement of the times towards renunciation by ascetics, including Buddhists, Jains, Ājivikas and others.


The Yoga Sūtra(s) of Patañjali, which together with its main commentary is known as the Patañjalayogaśāstra (śāstra being a system of knowledge) was composed around 400 CE. Recent scholarship (Maas 2018) indicates that the main commentary on the sūtras, by Vyāsa (editor/compiler), was by Patañjali himself. The well-known eight-fold path (aṣṭāṅga) of the aspirant yogi proceeds from correct ethical conduct (yamas and niyamas) to steadily and comfortably sitting still (āsana), to breath control (prāṇāyāma), sense withdrawal (pratyāhāra), meditation on an object (dhāraṇa), meditation (dhyāna), and, finally, trance (samādhi).

Patañjali was certainly aware of, if not in direct dialogue with, other philosophers of his time, such as Jains and the Mahāyāna Buddhist philosopher Vasubandhu. Patañjali occasionally uses quotations from Buddhist texts and also uses technical Buddhist terms such as kleṣa (defilement) and dharmamegha (cloud of knowledge). It needs to be emphasised that yoga is not a Hindu practice; it is a discipline that was historically developed also by Buddhists, Jains and others.

The Sāṃkhya system

The yoga system of Patañjali is intrinsically paired with the Sāṃkhya system, which is a dualistic framework, comprising two fundamental principles: puruṣa, which is pure consciousness, and prakṛti, which comprises all creation, including one’s mind, senses, body and the external world. The fundamental elements of the body and the world are known as tattvas, of which there are twenty-five in Sāṃkhya; these can be understood as the fundamental elements of experience (see Burley 2007).

The tattvas comprise puruṣa and prakṛti, buddhi (insight), ahaṃkara (ego) and manas (the thinking mind), five sense capacities, five organs of action, five subtle elements, and five gross elements (which constitute the external world, composed of earth, water, fire, air and space). The yogi aims to isolate (kaivalya) pure consciousness from thought, the body and the external world.

Supernatural powers (siddhis/vibhutis)

Around thirty percent of Patañjali’s work is devoted to supernatural powers (vibhūtis/siddhis); around twenty of them are discussed by Patañjali (see Sarbacker 2012). Patañjali remarks (IV.1) that powers may be attained either (naturally) through birth, or through mantra recitation, tapas, samādhi or through the use of psychoactive plants (oṣadhi). By concentrating on particular objects, supernatural insight can be attained: for example, concentration on the moon reveals the arrangement of the stars (III.27); concentration on the navel reveals the organisation of the body (III.29); The accomplished yogi can become invisible or can enter another’s mind.

Supernatural powers gained through tapas or yogic discipline is a theme that runs deeply throughout the long span of South Asian literature and understanding (see White 2009).

Tantric yoga

Systems of Tantric yoga first emerged in śaiva (followers of Śiva) and Buddhist milieux from around the 4th to 6th centuries CE. Tantric practices could generally be described as ‘magical’; and in many contexts as black magic. An array of techniques is employed by the Tantric ritualist to attain both powers (siddhis) and liberation while alive (jīvanmukta). These techniques include the recitation of mantras, visualizations, the use of sacred diagrams (yantras), prāṇāyāma, sexual rituals, the ritual divinisation of the body, and the consumption of impure substances, including faeces, blood, meat, fish and intoxicants (alcohol or psychoactive plants). Rites are often performed in graveyards and may involve meditation on a corpse.

A key component of Tantric practice is the attempt to become possessed (samāveśya) by a spirit/deity (usually a terrifying female yoginī/ḍākinī), resulting in the acquisition of the powers of that entity. The ritual system of Tantric worship is fundamentally ‘magical’ in the sense that numbers, yantras, mantras, colours and geometric shapes all have related correspondences between the microcosm and the macrocosm. Through making ritual correspondences the Tantric yogi hopes to manipulate the external world. Although folk practices of Tantra could be described as black magic, there is a current of Tantra in South India, known as Śrī Vidyā, which does not employ impure substances or practise transgressive rites.

Tantric metaphysics

During the latter part of the first millennium CE, a metaphysical system evolved in Tantra, a system based on the Sāṃkhya system. Thousands of ritual texts, known usually as Tantras, have been written. In the śaiva system the twenty-five tattvas of Sāṃkhya are augmented to thirty-six tattvas. The tattvas are an emanation of the pure consciousness of Śiva, activated through śakti, the energetic female power. The ritualist aims to identify with the pure consciousness of Śiva.

The Tantric body

A component of the metaphysics of Tantra is the ‘Tantric body’, comprising a network of minute channels (nāḍīs) that run throughout the body, a system of wheels (cakras) arranged in various parts of the body and also along the spinal axis, and the notion of a snake-like, coiled, female power (kuṇḍalini), which can be activated through prāṇāyāma or Tantric rituals. Sometimes 72,000 nāḍīs are mentioned, the three most important (there are only two in the earliest śaiva tantra, the Niśvāsatattvasaṃhitā) being the iḍā (left ‘lunar’ channel), piṅgalā (right ‘solar’ channel) and central channel (suṣumnā), which run from the base of the spine to the crown of the head.

The scheme of cakras along the spinal axis is sometimes of four, five, six, seven or nine cakras. If kuṇḍalinī is successfully activated, she ascends through the cakras and exits through the crown of the head to unite with pure consciousness. Liberation and powers are thus attained.

Five airs/winds in the body

In the Atharvaveda five bodily winds/airs are discussed. These five winds subsequently feature in the medical texts of Āyurveda, Tantras and medieval yoga texts (see Zysk 1993). The usual function of these winds are: prāṇa (the chief wind, sometimes said to govern the outbreath), apāna (the downward breath, governing evacuation, birth and ejaculation), udāna (in the throat, governing speech and the production of sound), samāna (in the stomach area, governing digestion, and vyāna (which transports wind and nutrients throughout the body).

Haṭha yoga: a medieval development

Patañjali only refers to the term āsana twice; firstly in the list of the eight limbs (II.29) and secondly describing āsana as ‘sitting steadily and comfortably’ (II.46), for the practice of meditation. In the commentary by Vyāsa/Patañjali twelve postures are named for this practice.

In the 12th century, for the first time, in a Buddhist text, the Amṛtasiddhi, practices of haṭhayoga are discussed. Haṭha means ‘force’ or ‘exertion’. Yoga texts compiled in the medieval period generally illustrate the incorporation of the ‘original’ practices of meditation and prāṇāyāma. However, overlaid onto these practices are the Tantric ideas of the Tantric body, visualisations, some strenuous postures, multiple kinds of prāṇāyāma and bodily cleaning exercises, all practised to purify the body. In most medieval yoga texts are descriptions of how, if the body is first purified, the winds of the body may, through force, enter into the central channel (suṣumnā nāḍī) and awaken kuṇḍalinī

In the medieval period practices of haṭhayoga were explored not only by Hindus but also by Tibetan Buddhists (see Baker 2019) and Sūfīs (see Hatley 2007). Jains also have a long history of yoga practice (see Chapple 2003). Energetic yogic exercises are known as trulkhor in Tibetan. Sūfīs had their own terms for the elements of the Tantric body; for example, centres of light, known as latifa, have broad correspondences with cakras.

Gorakhnāth/Gorakṣnāth, who probably lived un the 12th century, and his guru Matsyendranāth are important figures in the development of haṭhayoga in South Asia. They are two of a group of nine Nāths, a cult, still popular, of wonder-working magicians and yogis. To Gorakhnāth is attributed the reformation of the cult of the Nāths, a sect of yogis who were influential in the religious landscape of the medieval period (see Bouillier 2018). Around two dozen texts on yoga are attributed to Gorakhnāth, one of the better-known being the Gorakṣaśataka (The hundred verses of Gorakṣa), composed around 1200 CE. In this text are discussed two āsanas (padmāsana and vajrāsana), three locks (bandhas: mūla, uḍḍiyāna and jālandhara) and the arousing of kuṇḍalinī.


One of the best-known medieval texts on yoga is the Haṭhapradīpikā (Hatha Yoga Pradpika) of Svātmarāma, dating to around 1450. This text, compiled from passages and verses from over a dozen earlier texts, expands the lists of yamas and niyamas (to ten each), elaborates on various systems of prāṇāyāma, details bodily cleaning practices, which include neti (cleaning the nasal passages with water), basti (enema), and dhauti (swallowing strips of cotton cloth), describes the three main bandhas, and names eleven postures.

In medieval yoga texts postures are not taught in sequences or groups but are to be practised individually for long periods of time, to cure disease or to gain powers. Over the centuries since haṭhayoga practices began around 1,000 years ago, it is apparent that the number of postures practised gradually increased (see, for example, Mallinson 2004; 2007b; Birch 2018); in some texts a scheme of eighty-four postures is described (Bühnemann 2007).

In medieval yoga texts, several radical practices are explained, which are extolled as supreme techniques for attaining occult powers or liberation. These include khecārī mudrā, in which tongue is elongated and the tip is then curled back over the palate (see Mallinson 2007a), and vajroli mudrā, in which a pipe is inserted through the penis into the bladder (see Mallinson 2018). These radical practices are not generally taught these days in yoga classes.

However, not all yoga practices described in medieval texts involve radical practices, postures or force. Yoga practices are sometimes referred to as being of four kinds: mantra, laya, haṭha and rāja. Layayoga entails a visualization of the dissolution of the elements (tattvas) of the body and the world, while rājayoga usually refers to the state of samādhi.

Swami Vivekananda

The person most influential in the transmission of yoga to the West was Swami Vivekananda, who was the representative of Hinduism at a large conference, the World Parliament of Religions, which convened in Chicago in 1893 (see Michelis 2004; Singleton 2010). Vivekananda presented the notion that the spiritual essence of India lies in the practice of yoga, through which the practitioner may realize the perennial Truth, which is the same ultimate reality described by the major religions of the world.

Vivekanda’s book, Raja Yoga, first published in 1896, was a major influence in introducing the concepts of yoga to the West. Vivekananda did not like superstition and believed in social reform, such as women’s rights. In Raja Yoga he describes four paths of yoga: devotion (bhakti), selfless service (karma), knowledge/insight (jñāna) and rāja (meditation). Vivekananda maintained that meditation was the most effective yoga practice. He did not like the extreme practices of haṭhayoga, though he did occasionally teach some basic āsanas (Goldberg 2016:52).

Modern yoga classes

In traditional India, for many centuries, yoga practices were transmitted privately from a guru to one or just a few disciples. Apart from occasional instances of householders practising yoga, it was generally practised by yogis who did it as a full-time, spiritual occupation. Often smeared with ashes and living very austerely, yogis would often engage in extreme practices.

From the late 18th century onwards, exercise routines, body-building and natural health cures began to sweep Europe and the USA, and by the end of the 19th century also India. One of the first teachers to combine exercise systems, such as callisthenics, with āsanas was Sri Yogendra (see Goldberg 2016). Yogendra’s innovation was the opening of a yoga centre, at Versova, Mumbai, in 1918. He taught thirteen basic āsanas, co-ordinated with breathing, to patients requiring a health cure or for general fitness. He subsequently taught classes in the USA.

This was a radical innovation: a ‘yoga teacher’ who taught public classes (a new kind of job), which students could pay for; householder students who could practise part-time, retaining their worldly life; and a shift of emphasis away from attaining a non-ordinary state of consciousness (samādhi) liberation (mokṣa) or occult powers (siddhis), to the goals of fitness, bodily suppleness or strength, relieving tension and attaining spiritual or worldly harmony. This is what could be called ‘yoga light’, a commodification of yoga that has permitted access by anyone to ancient practices, for a fee. 

During the 20th century many yoga teachers were to follow Yogendra’s path, taking yoga to Japan, Europe and the USA. Although there are a few lineages of yoga teachers that descend from gurus who were independent of three major lines of transmission, international yoga practice that is primarily based on āsana—usually combined with some meditation and prāṇāyāma—stems very largely from teachers from three Indian lineages: from Krishnamacharya in Mysore (see Sjoman 1996; Singleton 2010), Sivananda in Rishikesh (see Strauss 2005), and Bikram Choudhury and Bishnu Ghosh in Calcutta (see Armstrong 2020). These teachers or their students took yoga worldwide, each placing varying emphases on different aspects of yoga, and introducing a variety of innovations for students in the modern world.

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