Love Your Yoga? Here's How It All Started

Photographed by Caroline Tompkins.
When most people finish a sun salutation, they’re not pondering the history of the pose. They’re thinking “God, I’m a sweaty mess,” not, “Gee, I wonder who came up with this concept?” Although it might not come up in your practice, the history of yoga is storied and complex. As far as scholars know, the first yogic activities emerged about 3,000 years ago in India, and involved people isolating themselves from their community to perform contemplation, prayer, and purification, according to Matthew Remski, a yoga teacher, trainer, and the author of Practice And All Is Coming: Abuse, Cult Dynamics, And Healing In Yoga And Beyond. Now, as Remski puts it, yoga is “a globalized, middle-class, mainstreamed, $80-billion-per-year wellness commodity, produced and consumed mainly by women.”
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Although knowing the background of yoga probably won’t help you perfect your crow pose, it’s important to know where this popular exercise comes from, so you can understand why you're doing it and what it represents.
Knowledge is power, and, if you ask my yoga teacher, power transcends.
Yoga wasn’t always popular.
“Yoga used to be a very rare and sometimes bizarre activity,” Remski says. Back in Iron Age India, young men would leave their families and social duties to pursue poverty and isolation.
Remski says that in medieval times, a "yogi" was synonymous with "dark wizard" in some parts of the world. “Someone you'd keep your children away from,” Remski quips. “These were badass guys, and they weren't always pursuing what we think of as peace. In 1878, the British colonial government specifically prohibited yogis from owning firearms, because they were in some places waging guerrilla warfare against the occupation.”
The word yoga is older than the practice itself.
The word yoga is actually as old as the Sanskrit language,” according to David Gordon White — the author of Kiss of the Yogini: "Tantric Sex" in its South Asian Contexts and a distinguished professor emeritus of religious studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He says it’s related to the English word yoke — not the egg kind, but the kind you put on a donkey to plow a field. “Originally that term was used in warfare,” Gordon White says. “When people would go into battle, and the aristocrats fought with horse-drawn chariots. And they would put the yoke on the horses before going to war. And that was the original sense of yoga — it was warfare.”
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He says it was a word for the chariot itself. “When a warrior died in battle, according to [Hindu] mythology, a heavenly chariot called a yoga would come and carry him up to heaven where all the dead heroes would stay forever.”
With that said, not every yogi agrees on this "yoke" root. For one, there's Aadil Palkhivala, a master yoga teacher and certified yoga therapist who learned yoga from B. K. S. Iyengar, a man from Bellur, India, who many consider the father of the modern yoga. Palkhivala says the word yoga was derived Sanskrit root yuj which means to bind, to integrate or to come together. Hence, yoga is the integration of body, mind and spirit.
Over time, yogi’s goals have shifted.
If the original practitioners of yoga time traveled and found themselves in a modern yoga studio, they would have no idea what was going on, Remski says. They were all about mind over body. “They weren't into functional movement, strength training, toning, increased flexibility, beauty, therapy, or even relaxation,” he says.
“They weren't trying to become more grounded multi-taskers or more healthy and productive citizens. They were pursuing transcendent goals — but that didn't necessarily mean love and light. In many cases it looked like meditating themselves into trance states that lasted for days or weeks, or holding their breath until they either died — seriously — or transitioned into some kind of post-human state.”
"Poses" were originally frowned upon.
Palkhivala says until less than 800 years ago, asana or yoga postures were frowned up by yogis. "In fact the popularity of postures is largely attributable to my teacher B.K.S. Iyengar who, with continuous and intense demonstrations, popularized what is now called yoga only in the past 60 years."
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Sun salutations have a surprising history.
According to Remski, standing postures in yoga — stances like lotus pose, that you’d recognize today — didn’t start gaining ground until the 15th century. This later inspired a revival and transformation of those postural practices in early 20th century India, Remski explains.
Kelly Clifton-Turner, the Director of Education for YogaSix, explains that the sun salutation was actually based off of the burpee-style workouts that British soldiers were doing for athletic training at their military stations in India. “In that time, the British soldiers were doing burpees," she says. "The other people seeing this were like: Oh it's calisthenics, it’s exercise, it’s movement. They adapted it, and modified with more flow… It’s interesting because you have some traditionalists say: ‘Oh that’s an ancient, mystical practice.' But it’s a burpee, guys."
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