The fascinating real history of yoga may rock everything you think you know about it!

Yoga Practice

We all know that the roots of Yoga trace back thousands of years to India, right?!

But the details of how, why and when it made its way over to the west are far more sketchy to most of us. You may be surprised to hear for example that most of the poses people practice in yoga classes all around the world today, actually only date back to the 19th Century. Why? Because that was the first record found where a description of asanas was actually written down. It’s just one of the fascinating facts in a story of how yoga came to the west and grew into the popular practice we all know and love today.


Why much of the yoga we know only dates back hundreds, not thousands of years.

Working out the real history of hatha yoga is not so clear cut. When it comes to the physical side of the practice of yoga, things weren’t documented in texts until quite recently. With so much of yoga based in oral traditions, historical evidence for its development is hard to track and trace. 


The first document found, which writes in detail about how to perform asanas, is the Sritattvanidhi. This illustrated manual of 122 postures was created by a prince in the Mysore Palace in the 1800’s. Before this, most ancient texts around yoga spoke mostly about meditation and ways of sitting. These detailed instructions went on to form much of our recognisable poses in existence today. 

 Yoga pose image from the Sritattvanidh

The Yoga “freak shows” of the 1800’s.


It was also in the 19th century when yoga first started to make its first appearance in the west. In America one of the men first credited in sparking the countries curiosity was Swami Vivekananda, who performed postures at a world fair in Chicago and translated Indian texts into English during his visit in 1893. 


Meanwhile towards the late 1800’s in Britain, a phenomenon had become popular within "sideshows" and public entertainment places in England (and mainland Europe). Here, where yogis performed for money, they were seen more as contortionists who could do weird things with their body rather than spiritual practitioners.  


The birth of modern yoga


Two of the most popular styles of yoga today, Iyengar and Ashtanga, were born from the Sritattvanidhi Mysore Palace manual and went on to hugely influence all modern yoga. In the 1930’s and 40’s a yoga school run by Krishnamacharya (often credited as the father of modern yoga) created the first video footage of yogi’s practicing asanas and travelled the world with his teachings. 


From humble beginnings, more and more dedicated teachers began to spread the word throughout the 50’s, 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s, and teach the benefits of yoga to eager students around the world. These days, ever increasingly diverse types of yoga continue to pop up every year, and it’s thought that anywhere between 300,000 and 500,000 people in the UK alone now take part in some form of regular yoga practice.

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