Elephant Festival in India

History of Hatha Yoga

How It Begun

Yoga is the philosophy, science and art of holistic living where the ignoble in man is transformed into the noble. This is one of the most ancient science and cultural heritage of India. Generally, the word Yoga means union and etymologically it has been derived from the Sanskrit root meaning to bind, join, attach any yoke. It signifies union with the Supreme Universal Spirit to obtain relief from pain and suffering.

According to the scholar Panini in his writings, it has three meaning-union ' Yuj ' which means 'unity', 'join' or 'oneness'. There are also many different ideas related to Yoga, where it comes from, what it is all about, and how to practice a range of techniques. Yoga can be traced back to the Rig Veda, the oldest Hindu text which speaks about yoking of mind and body. Generally, it is recognised as an ancient system of philosophies, principles and practices derived from the Vedic tradition of India more then 5000 years ago but some researchers think that yoga may be up to 10,000 years old. Yoga works on all aspects of the person; the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual. Yoga is more then mastering postures and increasing flexibility and strength. In Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism the word yoga means "spiritual discipline". People often associate yoga with the postures and stances that make up the physical activity of the exercise, but after closer inspection it becomes clear that there are many more aspects of yoga. For a better discussion of the history of Yoga, we could divide it into four periods: 



The existence of the Vedas marks this period. The Vedas is the sacred scripture of Hinduism. It is a collection of hymns which praise a divine power. The Vedas contains the oldest known Yogic teachings and as such, teachings found in the Vedas are called Vedic Yoga. This is characterised by rituals and ceremonies that strive to surpass the limitations of the mind. During this time, the Vedic people relied on rishis or dedicated Vedic Yoga to teach them how to live in divine harmony. Rishis were also gifted with the ability to see the ultimate reality through their intensive spiritual practice. it was also during this time that Yogic living in seclusion ( in forests ) were recorded.


The creation of the Upanishads marks the Pre-Classical Yoga. The 200 scriptures of the Upanishad describe the inner vision of resulting from devotion to Brahman. The simple explanation of its contents are about the ultimate reality (Brahman), the transcendental self (Atman), and the relationship between the two. The Upanishads further explain the teachings of the Vedas during the pre classical period, The Bhagavad-Gita or Lord's song was created and this is currently the oldest known Yoga scripture. It is devoted entirely to Yoga and has confirmed that it has been an old practice for some time. However, it doesn't point to a specific time wherein Yoga could have started. The central point to the Gita is that - to be alive means to be active and in order to avoid difficulties in our lives and in others, our actions have to benign and have to exceed our egos.


The classical Yoga Period is marked by another creation - The Yoga Sutra. Written by Sage Patanjali around the second century, it was an attempt to define and standardise Classical Yoga. It is composed of 195 aphorisms or sutras ( from the Sanskrit word which means thread ) that expound upon the Raja Yoga and its underlying  principle, Patanjali's Eightfold path of Yoga  ( also called Eight Limbs of classical Yoga ). 

1. Yama : Universal Morality  

2. Niyama : Personal Observances 

3. Asanas : Body Postures 

4. Pranayama : Breathing Exercises & Control of Praana.

5. Pratyahara : Control of the Senses

6. Dharana : Concentration & Cultivating Inner Perceptual Awareness 

7. Dhyana : Devotion, Meditation on the Divine 

8. Samadhi : Union with the Divine 

Patanjali believed that each individual is a composite of matter ( prakriti ) and spirit ( purusha ). He further believed that the two must be separated in order to cleanse the spirit - a strong contrast to Vedic and Pre-Classical Yoga that signify the union of body and spirit. Patanjali's concept was dominant for some centuries that some Yogis focused exclusively on meditation and neglected their Asanas. It was only later that the belief of the body as a temple was rekindled and attention to the importance of the Asana was revived. This time, Yogis attempted to use Yoga techniques to change the body make it immortal.


This period in yoga affirms the teaching of Vedanta, that there ultimate unity in everything in the cosmos. Vedanta is the philosophical system based on the teachings of the Upanishads. The earlier era saw Yogis laying emphasis only on meditation and contemplation. Their goal was to shed their mortal coils and merge with the infinite; but, during this period, Yogis began to probe the hidden powers of the body. Yoga masters designed advanced yogic practices that would rejuvenate the body and prolong its life. This led to Hatha Yoga, which is presently practiced throughout the world.The classic text ever written on Hatha Yoga was from an Indian yogi named Swatmaram who wrote Hatha Yoga Pradipika in the fifteenth century C.E. “Ha” meaning “sun” and “Tha” meaning “moon”  - the  name indicates the union of two opposite energies. It indicates a lot of physical effort as well as creating harmony between “strong” & “gentle” or Ida & Pingala or Yin & Yang. The focus of Hatha yoga is first of all to concentrate on the practice of postures ( asana ) and breath control ( pranayama ) both with the aim to purify the subtle energies ( nadir ) to prepare oneself for the further steps of yoga namely sense-withdrawal ( Pratyahara ), concentration ( Dhahran ), meditation ( Dhyana ), and union with the of meditation ( Samadhi ). In Hatha Yoga postures are longer period of time and the breath is consciously silent and unforced.