The History of Yoga in Antiquity

Yoga is union of the individual self (jivātma) with the supreme self (paramātma).

— Yoga Yajnavalkya, Classical Yoga Text


Yoga is the oldest spiritual tradition in the world. Yoga means ‘union’ or ‘connection’. In Sanskrit, the word ‘Yoga’ is used to signify any form of connection. Yoga is both a state of connection and a body of techniques that allow us to connect to anything.

Conscious connection to something allows us to feel and experience that thing, person, or experience. The experience of connection is a state of Yoga, a joyful and blissful, fulfilling experience. There is no single definition of Yoga. In order to experience truth through Yoga, we must study its classical definitions and reflect on our own understanding of it. Awareness is the secret of Yoga.

Everything we do can become Yoga if it is done with awareness. Awareness is the key to discovering all the mysteries of who we truly are. Yoga reveals the luminous intelligence and the beauty that lies within us. It is a worthwhile practice to look deeply at the origins of Yoga and see how they can deepen our modern-day practice.

History provides context and meaning, and Yoga is no exception to this rule. If you are fond of history, you’ll enjoy what follows. Many of the facts and ideas presented here have not yet found their way into the so called “mainstream” textbooks or even into most Yoga books. If you are not a history buff, well, perhaps I can tempt you to suspend your preferences for a few minutes and read on anyway.


Yoga and The Indus Valley Civilization (BC 5000 or older – BC 1700)

The origins of Yoga can be traced to the Indus Valley Civilization (North, Central and Western parts of the Indian Subcontinent) more than 5,000 years ago.  There is archaeological evidence from the work of British Archaeologist John Marshall (among others) in this region in the early 1900s: at the time of the 1920s, the Indus Valley Civilization was unearthed and among its contents, steatite seals depicting Yoga postures have been dated to 3,000 BC.

“These great Indian ancestors … were masters of Yoga–the inner world–and masters of the outer world,” states  Georg  Feuerstein, PhD in Yoga Unveiled, referring to the fact that this highly-sophisticated civilization evolved even before the time of the Great Pyramids and its “engineering feats were not replicated until the time of the Roman Empire” (BC 27) .

“This civilization had a deep reverence for the natural world, equating nature to the creator himself,” according to Yoga Unveiled.

There is not much known about Yoga in the time period pre-dating the stones (and written history), as Yoga originated as an oral tradition, passed down with no record.  “What we know as Yoga,” says Georg Feuerstein “is the distillation of an entire civilization.”  There is a common misconception that Yoga is rooted in Hinduism–in fact the opposite is true:  Hinduism’s religious foundation evolved much later than Yoga, incorporating some practices of Yoga (notably, other religions also incorporated practices and ideas related to Yoga).

Georg Feuerstein also states that despite more than a century of research, we still don’t know much about the earliest beginnings of Yoga. We do know, though, that it originated in India 5,000 or more years ago.

Until recently, many Western scholars thought that Yoga originated much later, maybe around 500 B.C., which is the time of Gautama the Buddha, the illustrious founder of Buddhism. But then, in the early 1920s, archeologists surprised the world with the discovery of the so-called Indus civilization—a culture that we now know extended over an area of roughly 300,000 square miles (the size of Texas and Ohio combined).

This was in fact the largest civilization in early antiquity. In the ruins of the big cities of Mohenjo Daro and Harappa, excavators found depictions engraved on soapstone seals that strongly resemble Yogi-like figures. Many other finds show the amazing continuity between that civilization and later Hindu society and culture.

There was nothing primitive about what is now called the Indus-Sarasvati civilization, which is named after two great rivers that once flowed in Northern India; today only the Indus River flows through India and Pakistan.

That civilization’s urbane population enjoyed multistory buildings, a sewage system unparalleled in the ancient world until the Roman Empire, a huge public bath whose walls were water-proofed with bitumen, geometrically laid out brick roads, and standardized baked bricks for convenient construction. (We are so used to these technological achievements that we sometimes forget they had to be invented.)


The Indus-Sarasvati people were a great maritime nation that exported a large variety of goods to Mesopotamia and other parts of the Middle East and Africa. Although only a few pieces of art have survived, some of them show exquisite craftsmanship.

For a long time, scholars thought that this magnificent civilization was abruptly destroyed by invaders from the northwest who called themselves Aryans (Arya meaning “noble” in the Sanskrit language). Some proposed that these warlike nomads invented Yoga; others credited the Indus people with its creation. Yet others took Yoga to be the joint creation of both races.

Nowadays researchers increasingly favor a completely different picture of Ancient Indian history. They are coming to the conclusion that there never was an Aryan invasion and that the decline of the Indus-Sarasvati cities was due to dramatic changes in climate.

These in turn appear to have been caused by a major tectonic catastrophe changing the course of rivers. In particular, it led to the drying up of what was once India’s largest river, the Sarasvati, along whose banks flourished numerous towns and villages (some 2500 sites have been identified thus far).

Today the dry river bed runs through the vast Thar Desert. If it were not for satellite photography, we would not have learned about those many settlements buried under the sand.

The drying up of the Sarasvati River, which was complete by around 1900 B.C., had far-reaching consequences. Just imagine the waters of the Mississippi running dry instead of flooding constantly. What havoc this would cause! The death of the Sarasvati River forced the population to migrate to more fertile parts of the country, especially east toward the Ganges (Ganga) River and south into Central India and Tamil Nadu.

Why is this important for the history of Yoga, you might ask? The Sarasvati River happens to be the most celebrated river in the Rig-Veda, which is the oldest known text in any Indo-European language. It is composed in an archaic (and difficult) form of Sanskrit and was transmitted by word of mouth for numerous generations. Sanskrit is the language in which most Yoga scriptures are written.

It is related to languages like Greek, Latin, French, German, Spanish, and not least English. You can see this family relationship on the example of the word Yoga itself, which corresponds to zugos, iugum, joug, Joch, yugo, and yoke in these languages. Sanskrit is like an older brother to the other Indo-European languages.

Ruins of archaeological site of Harappa

Now, if the Sarasvati River dried up around or before 1900 B.C., the Rig-Veda must be earlier than that benchmark date. If that is so, then the composers of this collection of hymns must have been contemporaneous with the people of the Indus civilization, which flourished between circa 3000-1900 B.C. Indeed, astronomical references in the Rig-Veda suggest that at least some of its 1,028 hymns were composed in the third or even fourth millennium B.C.

Thus, the Sanskrit-speaking Aryans, who created the Rig-Veda, did not come from outside India to destroy the Indus-Sarasvati civilization. They had been there all along. What, then, was their relationship with the Indus-Sarasvati people? Here opinions still differ, but there is a growing understanding that the Aryans and the Indus-Sarasvati people were one and the same. There is nothing in the Rig-Veda to suggest otherwise.

In fact, the Rig-Veda and the other archaic Sanskrit texts appear to be the “missing” literature of the Indus civilization. Conversely, the archeological artifacts of the Indus valley and adjoining areas give us the “missing” material base of the early Sanskrit literature—an elegant solution to a problem that has long vexed researchers.

This means that Yoga is the product of a mature civilization that was unparalleled in the ancient world. Think of it! As a Yoga practitioner you are part of an ancient and honorable stream of tradition, which makes you a descendant of that civilization at least at the level of the heart. Many of the inventions credited to Sumer rightfully belong to what is now known as the Indus-Sarasvati civilization, which evolved out of a cultural tradition that has reliably been dated back to the seventh millennium B.C. In turn it gave rise to the great religious and cultural tradition of Hinduism, but indirectly also to Buddhism and Jainism.

India’s civilization can claim to be the oldest enduring civilization in the world. Its present-day problems should not blind us to its glorious past and the lessons we can learn from it. Yoga practitioners in particular can benefit from India’s protracted experimentation with life, especially its explorations of the mysteries of the mind. The Indian civilization has produced great philosophical and spiritual geniuses who between them have covered every conceivable answer to the big questions, which are as relevant today as they were thousands of years ago.


Yoga and the Pre-Classical Age (BC 1500 – BC 500)

The Pre-Classical Era in the Indian Subcontinent comprised of the Vedic Period and The Epic Period and is defined by the holy writings of the Vedas and The Epics (Ramayana and Mahabharata) that set the tone for Hinduism of today. The Vedas were a compilation of worship songs that recognize an almighty power and encompass the most ancient teachings of Yoga.

The lessons taught from the Vedas are recognized as Vedic Yoga. In Vedic Yoga, customs and functions that allow the mind to broaden are the most important aspect of all the teachings. The Vedic people welcomed Rishis and Vedic Yogis to instruct them on how to live to meet the standards of divinity and togetherness that the Vedas set forth. Rishis also had the power to view the paramount actuality by means of spiritual customs. Yogis felt that they could best express themselves by living in a quiet, secluded place but close to natures so they established their domiciles in forests.

Veda translates “knowledge”. There are four Vedas, the Rig Veda, Sama Veda, Yajur Veda and Atharva Veda. The Vedas are the primary texts of Hinduism. Each Veda has been sub classified into four major text types – the Samhitas (mantras and benedictions), the Aranyakas (text on rituals, ceremonies, sacrifices and symbolic-sacrifices), the Brahmanas (commentaries on rituals, ceremonies and sacrifices), and the Upanishads (texts discussing meditation, philosophy and spiritual knowledge).

They also had a vast influence on Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism. Traditionally the text of the Vedas was coeval with the universe. Scholars have determined that the Rig Veda, the oldest of the four Vedas, was composed about 1500 B.C., and codified about 600 B.C. It is unknown when it was finally committed to writing, but this probably was at some point after 300 B.C.

The Vedas contain hymns, incantations, and rituals from ancient India. Along with the Book of the Dead, the Enuma Elish, the I Ching, and the Avesta, they are among the most ancient religious texts still in existence. Besides their spiritual value, they also give a unique view of everyday life in India four thousand years ago.

The Vedas are also the most ancient extensive texts in an Indo-European language, and as such are invaluable in the study of comparative linguistics.


It is difficult to think of the Vedas without thinking about Yoga, as the Vedas promote spiritual knowledge born of meditation, the way to achieve which is the practice of Yoga. Yoga is a term that is first found in the Vedas, where the root for Yoga, ‘yuj’, meaning to unite, yoke or harness is common, not only relative to horses and chariots, but also relative to the mind and senses. Even the yoking of the Vedic chariot (ratha) is symbolic of deeper Yoga practices of controlling the mind.

Sometimes people today fail to see the yogic nature of the Rigveda because we are approaching Yoga with a recent modern idea of Yoga as mainly asana or physical postures.  Asanas do not have a major role either in the Vedas or in classical yogic texts, including the Yoga Sutras, which only devotes two of two hundred sutras to them.

The Vedas do address with Yoga in an obvious but different way. The Vedas as mantras begin with Mantra Yoga. This is not uncharacteristic of Yoga as a whole as even the Yoga Sutras emphasizes Pranava or the Divine Word as a prime principle of Yoga practice, implying importance to Mantra Yoga The Vedas are themselves mantras and reciting them is itself a path of Mantra Yoga.

Even later Mantra Yoga continues to use Vedic mantras like Gayatri as well as resting upon the Sanskrit language, the origin of which is in the Vedas.

Yet mantra has an application in action, which is ritual or karma. Vedic Mantra Yoga has its corresponding Karma Yoga. The Vedas outline the original rituals behind the practice of Karma Yoga, which in India today still extensively employs Vedic fire offerings. Mantra is meant to teach Dharma or the laws of life. As such, the Vedas encourage sacrifice, giving and helping others that is the basis of seva or service, another important aspect of Karma Yoga.

Ritual can be defined as a way of sacred action in which we use name and form to approach the nameless and the formless. The implements, substances and materials used in the ritual are not employed for their literal or practical value, though there are correlations.

The Vedic fire offerings are not done to produce heat or cook food but to carry messages to the higher worlds. The consecrated Vedic fire is not simply a fire. The substances offered into it are not used merely as fuel for the fire. They indicate movements and offers of the heart. Ritual is way of bringing the sacred or Brahman into action. When that ritual action is turned within, it becomes Yoga.

Yet this Vedic ritual is not only outward but also inward. The inner sacrifice involves the offering of speech, prana and mind to the deity within the heart. Yoga can be traced to this inner sacrifice (antaryaga) that includes mantra, pranayama and meditation, a point already noted.


Just as the Vedas imply Yoga, so does Yoga imply the Vedas! The science of Yoga arose in a Vedic context and employs a Vedic terminology like the Purusha and the use of OM, the great Vedic mantra. Most of the great Yoga teachers who have come to the West have been steeped in Vedic teachings as well. Many have been Swamis in Vedantic orders.

The term Yoga arises in the Rigveda itself and is first explained in more obvious terms in s early Upanishads like the Svetashvatara and Katha, which are said to be Yoga Shastras or Yoga texts. Many great Vedic Rishis were regarded as great Yogis including Vasishta, the most famous among them. Hiranyagarbha, the reputed founder of the Yoga tradition, is a Rigvedic deity often connected to Savitar, the Vedic Sun god, with Vasishta as his main disciple

Some modern scholars – generally not trained in the inner meaning of the Vedas – have tried to separate Yoga from the Vedas because Yoga as a specific term is not common in the Rigveda. They fail to note that many other synonyms of Yoga practice do occur in the Rigveda, including karma, yajna, mantra, tapas, svadhyaya, and dhyana. The Vedic rishi or seer is also a Yogi who has higher powers of consciousness, can commune with the deities, and becomes a deity as well.

Pre-Classical Era Yoga also comprises the many schools whose teachings can be found in The Two Great Epics of India, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata (in which the Bhagavad-Gita is embedded and which is seven times the size of the Iliad and Odyssey combined). These various preclassical schools developed all kinds of techniques for achieving deep meditation through which yogis and yoginis can transcend the body and mind and discover their true nature.

Now coming back to the present age, on December 11 2014, The United Nations General Assembly marked June 21 International Yoga Day, an annual celebration to incorporate yoga and meditation more into humanity all over the world. As His Holiness the Dalai Lama notes: “If every 8-year-old in the world is taught meditation, we will eliminate violence from the world within one generation.”

On a personal note, I wish to state that Yoga is Universal, Yoga is not ‘Religion’, Yoga does not belong to any Race or Sect, Yoga is of this Earth and a gift to its beings!

I conclude my Birthday celebration today, December 14 2016 ( and writing articles for the year 2016 and also my stay in this glorious country, India, which has been very interesting and a learning experience, hoping to be back soon  ) with the above article on History of Yoga, hope you enjoyed reading the article, hope to continue writing in the coming years from wherever I am and as long as I have the strength to write…..

Tashi Delek!

Courtesy: Notes by Georg Feuerstein


Additional Information:

The Yogic Seal / Pasupati Seal of Mohenjo-Daro

This seal with anthropomorphic form of ithyphallic Shiva is one of the most significant Indus finds attesting the prevalence of Shiva-cult, his personalized Mahayogi or Pashupati form as also his aniconic ‘ling’ form, as early as Indus days and much before the emergence of Vedic cult. The seal has been engraved on a chip of steatite, a soft stone, decay-resistant but soft to carve.

The discovery of the large number of seals leads some scholars to conclude that seals-cutting was one of the major industries of Harappan settlements. The masterpieces of art these seals carry representations of religious character and are index to the type of culture and social life the people led those days.

The pictographic inscriptions on the seals are equally significant for they hold key to the language the Indus people used. Seals must have been an integral part of trade mechanisms. Religious beliefs and practices of the people can also be inferred from the seals.

This seal with buffalo-horned figure almost unanimously identified as Shiva in his form as Pashupati, Lord of animals – Shiva’s earliest representation preceding Vedas by far, is the best known and most widely contextual Harappan seal.

The figure of Shiva represented on the seal is ithyphallic. He has been portrayed as seated cross-legged, that is, in Yogic ‘Padmasana’, and wide-armed. The arms of the image pointing towards the earth, the Yogic nature of the wide – lapped stance and the curved horns, transmit power and establish equilibrium.

Natural enemies, wild and virile animals, buffalo, leaping tiger, rhinoceros and elephant all amicably surround the figure. The un-deciphered script is arranged horizontally in the space above the headdress.


Further Reading:

The Indus Valley Civilization is Older than Previously Thought!

The False Theory of Aryan Invasion: Stephen Knapp

12 Facts That Prove Aryan Invasion Theory Is Merely a Well-Designed Propaganda

About German Indologist Georg Feuerstein (AD 1947- AD 2012)

The Vedas

The Vedic Yoga and Yoga as a Whole

The Secrets of Yoga

Yoga Unveiled

Traditional Yoga Studies

Yoga: the Path of Holistic Wellness

60 of the Most Recommended Yoga Books



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