Yoga Through the Ages: A Simplified Timeline of Its Evolution

Last Updated on February 14, 2024 by Lifevif Team and JC Franco

Yogi symbol on the column in the temple of India Hampi yoga
Napoleonka / Shutterstock.com

To truly appreciate the art of Yoga, you need to know its history and where it came from. 

Yoga is not an art practiced simply by chance. It is deeply rooted in several principles. Those who have a deeper understanding of Yoga and where it comes from understand that it is not just an art or form of exercise; it is actually a way of life. It incorporates therapy for the body, mind, and soul.  

A timeline of the history of Yoga:

  1. 8,000 – 10,000 years ago, Yoga is first mentioned in the ancient script of Rigveda, 
  2. 5,000 years ago, Maharishi Patanjali reveals the concept of Yoga,
  3. Medieval times (500-1500AD) sees Yoga take on various forms,
  4. Yoga appears in Buddhist scripts in the 8th century,
  5. Modern 19th century (1890s) sees Westerners learning Yoga,
  6. The 20th century (1930s) sees Yoga reach the United States,
  7. Today, Yoga is the go-to meditative workout for health enthusiasts.

From reading that you can probably start to realize that the origins of Yoga are not just a few hundreds of years old, but rather thousands upon thousands. The history of Yoga is certainly interesting, and you will find that the story changes here and there, if you take the time to read all the research and articles on it. 

I personally found that learning the actual meaning and basis of Yoga helped me to find a deeper understanding of the practice. To help newbies to the yoga lifestyle, I have included a brief history of Yoga based on the above-mentioned pointers below. 

The Timeline of Yoga’s History & How it became a World-Wide Phenomenon

Laksman Jhula bridge at sunrise time across the Ganges River in Rishikesh yoga
Volobotti / Shutterstock.com

Something that interests me about Yoga is how there are various forms that have branched off from the main version of Yoga. It’s given much cause to thought because each of those forms of Yoga that you encounter today has a history of its own. 

That being said, are you ready to delve into where exactly Yoga comes from and why it was created? Then, let’s jump right in.

1) 8-10 thousand years ago, Yoga is first mentioned in the ancient script of Rigveda.

It sounds weird to say that Yoga, or the concept thereof, is some 10,000 years old, doesn’t it? Could it really be that old and what evidence do we have of this. 

Yoga is not a Western practice. It comes from ancient Indian times, and so the history that we have of it comes from ancient Indian spiritual scripts. Still, it is hard to fathom how something so ancient is still practiced with such enthusiasm today. Nevertheless, Yoga is said to have been mentioned in ancient Indian scripts – the Rigveda, to be specific. 

a mountain pass in the Western Ghats india yoga
Kevin Standage / Shutterstock.com

The Yoga mentioned in these scripts is said to actually be in reference to a yoke. You might wonder what a yoke has to do with Yoga, I did, but if you give it some thought, it is actually quite obvious how it is relevant. So, what is a “yoke” – we don’t have such things today, do we? 

The yoke referred to in the scripts was in reference to a yoke that is usually used on animals. Think of a chariot in battle, with a yoke over the animals pulling it. Some say that the yoke referred to the expected behavior of the Vedic priests at the time, who were meant to be controlled, self-disciplined, and averse to indulgent behavior. This gave way to the controlled and self-disciplined poses and stances that are seen in Yoga today.

2) 5,000 years ago, Maharishi Patanjali reveals the concept of Yoga.

Okay, so you might say that because ancient scripts mentioned Yoga, which was actually in reference to a yoke, does not mean that Yoga was really practiced some 10,000 years ago, and you would be right. 

a statue of maharshi Patanjali, "Father of Yoga"
Anuja Mukhopadhyay / Shutterstock.com

The practice of Yoga started around 5,000 years ago, when Maharishi Patanjali, a sage in Hinduism, brought the concept of Yoga to life by introducing the 8 limbs of Yoga. The 8 limbs of Yoga form the basis of all yoga practice today and include:

  1. Social ethics (Yama)
  2. Personal ethics (Niyama)
  3. Postures/Poses (Asana)
  4. Life Force/Energy (Pranayama)
  5. Turning inward (Pratyahara)
  6. Centered focus (Dharana)
  7. Meditation (Dhyana)
  8. Merging with self (Samadhi)

These 8 limbs transformed Yoga into a meditation and physical practice. You have probably heard of them if you have watched a yoga class before or are already involved in it.

3) Medieval times (500 – 1500 AD) sees Yoga take on various forms.

Yoga did not stagnate – it progressed quite exponentially after the introduction of the 8 limbs of Yoga. 

During the Medieval times, different forms of Yoga emerged with one particular type focused on devotion to God and living through love –Bhakti yoga – being the most prevalent. At this time, Yoga still seemed to be an exclusively Hindu practice although it was known of by other cultures. 

It was not until the 5th century that Yoga made an appearance for the first time in the Buddhist community. At this stage, the concept of Yoga was changing and the ideology attached to it too. No longer were practitioners using the art as a form of therapy for surviving the human experience, but looked to it for deeper meaning and self-actualization. Some say that the art seemed to become more about self-deification. 1

4) Yoga appears in Buddhist scripts in the 8th century.

Great Buddha Statue near Mahabodhi Temple yoga
Saiko3p / Shutterstock.com

Even though the Medieval Buddhist community was practicing Yoga in the 5th century, the earliest mention of it in Buddhist scripts seem to only appear in the 8th century. Interestingly enough, it is the type of Yoga that most people associate with yoga practice today. 

At the time, the Buddhists adopted a form of Yoga called Hatha yoga, and it involved practitioners performing a variety of postures, breathing techniques, and meditating too. If you have practiced Asanas such as “warrior pose”, or “child’s pose”, know that these come from the Buddhist’s version of Hatha Yoga. With the Buddhists taking on Yoga, the spread of it was spurred on. 

5) Modern 19th century (1890s) sees Westerners learning Yoga.

It seems that Western communities became intrigued by other cultures, particularly Indian cultures, in the 19th century. In the 1890s it was the ‘in thing’ to learn more about the cultures of others, and so it wasn’t uncommon for people to know of the art of Yoga even if they weren’t practicing it themselves. 

A Hindu monk called Swami Vivekananda is said to have spread the concept of Yoga to highly-respected intellectuals, while doing a tour of Europe in the 1890s. It seems that his mention of the practice sparked an interest in the Western world and so the news of Yoga spread rapidly. People wanted to learn Yoga, and so they did. 

Big red color statue of Swami Vivekananda yoga
ManeeshUpadhyay / Shutterstock.com

6) The 20th century (1930s) sees Yoga reach the United States.

While Yoga was widely accepted in Europe in the 19th century, it had not quite made its way to the United States yet. Although Swami Vivekanada did tour the United States while on his European tour in the 1890s, it was quite some time until the U.S adopted the art. It was Hatha Yoga that first became known in the United States in the 1930s, but very few practiced it.

In the 1960s, when social change came about, it became almost popular to practice Hinduism as a form of meditation, and so, more people learned the art of Hatha Yoga. The younger generations were the ones to quickly adopt Indian spirituality, and because of the sudden popularity, the United States saw many Indian instructors teaching classes on the art of Yoga across the country.  

couple doing yoga outdoor on the beach
DisobeyArt / Shutterstock.com

7) Today, Yoga is the go-to meditative workout for health enthusiasts.

In the 1980s, many reports flooded the media of the health benefits of Yoga. Suddenly what a vast part of the population thought was a craze or a fad simply adopted by the younger generation became a health and fitness sensation – and it has been such ever since. 

People could not stop talking about how yoga practice was good for the mind, but also great in terms of heart health and overall body toning – things most Americans were becoming increasingly interested in at the time. It was in the 1980s when fitness became important to most, and so the practice of Yoga was fairly widespread. 

Many different forms of Yoga have been adapted to suit the work-out and meditative requirements of people across the world and today, Yoga is no longer something to be intrigued by because it is, in fact, the norm – everyone is doing it. 

Thousands of yoga practitioners pack Times Square in New York
Rblfmr / Shutterstock.com

The most popular forms of Yoga today include the likes of Hot Yoga, Vinyasa yoga, Hatha yoga, Ashtanga yoga, Power Hot yoga, Kundalini yoga, Iyengar yoga, and Yin yoga. Some of these classes are even done in a heated room in order to intensify the experience.

Last word

The history of Yoga is one that is deeply rooted in self-control, self-betterment, and love and acceptance of all. Its history only makes this clear to those who wonder what Yoga is all about.

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This article was co-authored by our team of in-house and freelance writers, and reviewed by our editors, who share their experiences and knowledge about the "Seven F's of Life".

JC Franco
Editor | + posts

JC Franco is a New York-based editor for Lifevif. He mainly focuses on content about faith, spirituality, personal growth, finance, and sports. He graduated from Mercyhurst University with a Bachelor’s degree in Business, majoring in Marketing. He is a certified tennis instructor who teaches in the New York City Metropolitan area. In terms of finance, he has passed the Level I exam of the CFA program.