History of Yoga

Tutor: Karen O'Brien Kop
Start date: 13 January 2019


The aim of this course is to cover the key developments in the history of yoga in India from the medieval to modern periods, looking primarily at Hindu traditions. This course shines a light on the new research in yoga studies that is expanding our knowledge about the historical developments of yoga in India during pre-modern and modern times.


What we cover in this course

We begin in the 8th century CE with the writings of Śaṅkara and will travel through to the late-20th century, by which time yoga had been firmly established as a global phenomenon.

Following the classical period, in which Patañjali’s Yogasūtra was one of the main texts on yoga, one of the next significant benchmarks is Śaṅkara’s commentary on the Yogasūtra – the Yogasūtrabhāṣyavivaraṇa. This is a landmark and detailed commentary on Patañjali’s sūtras and it greatly enhances our understanding of the classical concepts. Furthermore, Śaṅkara was also the first great philosopher of Vedānta and his interpretation marks an important shift in the understanding of the metaphysics of the Yogasūtra from dualist to nondualist.

Next we will survey the key developments in the traditions of tantra, siddha, rāja and haṭha to find out about the esoteric physiology  of yoga and when and how postural yoga emerged to take centre stage.

This takes us up to the Krishnamacarya lineages of the 20th century that gave rise to the well-known modern brands of Ashtanga Yoga and Iyengar Yoga.

Such is the range of today’s globalised yoga, however, that we will not dive into contemporary practices in this course, but conclude our investigations in the modern period. This means that we keep our focus closely tied to the Indian traditions and the ways in which they were transmitted worldwide in the 20th century. The rapid and wide-ranging developments that have occurred during the globalisation of yoga during the past 30-40 years are a topic for another course.

Session One: The Foundations of Yoga in Ancient and Classical India

To set the scene for our understanding of yoga in the medieval period, we summarise the main developments that occurred in the history of yoga in the ancient and classical eras. This overview will frame our understanding of the ways in which different yoga traditions progressed from the early medieval period onwards. We will contextualise yoga in the early periods by looking at the key ideas from the Vedas, Upaniṣads, Mahābhārata, and the Yogasūtra of Patañjali.

Click here to download the OCHS translation of the Yoga Sutras in pdf format.

Session Two:

We mow consider the role of Vedānta in understanding yoga from the classical period up to the present day. Vedānta is a compound word for Veda + anta, meaning ‘the end of the Veda’. This refers specifically to the last part of the Vedic corpus, the principal Upaniṣads. We look at some Vedānta commentaries on Patañjali’s Yogasūtra and at how a set of texts called the Yoga Upaniṣads interwove yoga and Vedānta. The relationship between yoga and Vedānta has sometimes been overlooked. But since some of the first international teachers of yoga in the modern period were also scholars of Vedānta, yoga and Vedānta were intertwined as yoga teachings were transmitted around the globe.

Session Three: Yoga in Tantra and Siddha traditions

In this session we will outline the emergence of early Śaiva and Śākta theologies that emphasised techniques of yoga. Turning to tantra, we will explore how yoga was used to control the concept of kuṇḍalinī in esoteric physiology and the role of other key yogic techniques, such as mantra and meditation. We will then look at the Hindu siddha traditions that flourished in the medieval period and foregrounded yogic techniques to attain immortality.

After one has adopted a sitting posture and withdrawn all limbs, one should become motionless and meditate, while one directs one’s thoughts on the 26th reality. Gradually, one should move the wind/breath through the channels. When one sees the disk of the moon appear in the heart(-lotus), one should remain concentrated, being without emotions, due to the establishment of deep meditation. Seeing the light fixed in the body, one realizes yogic mastery. Then, due to continuously exercising in this way and the realisation of perfection in yoga, yogic perception sets in, i.e. knowledge of the past, present, and future

(Skandapurāṇa 179 28-31)

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Session Four: Postural Yoga and the Emergence of rāja yoga and haṭha yoga

In this session we survey the role of posture in early forms of yoga and consider the emergence of the distinct forms of rāja yoga and haṭha yoga in the medieval period, highlighting their intertwined nature. Much of what we know about the history of yoga in the medieval period is being transformed by new research projects such as the Haṭha Yoga Project at SOAS, University of London. This has shown that the earliest textual evidence for practices of haṭha yoga dates from the 12th-century Buddhist Amṛtasiddhi. We will also discuss early Hindu medieval rāja and haṭha yoga texts, from c. 12th-15th century, such as the Amanaska and the Dattātreyayogaśāstra.

Session Five: Yoga in Jainism and Buddhism

Yoga also formed part of the discourse and practice of Buddhism and Jainism in the classical and medieval texts. The theory that yoga only has Vedic origins has been revisited to consider that the emergence of systems of yoga was, in all probability, a result of interaction between northwestern Vedic culture and northeastern non-Vedic śramaṇa culture. It is therefore important to consider how practices and systems of yoga are also present in non-Brahmanic traditions, such as Jainism and Buddhism.

Session Six: The Pre-modern Period and Transoceanic Transmission

We review key developments in the history of yoga in the pre-modern period, particular the 18th and 19th centuries.  We will look at the inclusive ways in which yogic techniques were valued in the royal courts during periods of Islamic rule in South Asia. We also chart the way in which a renewed understanding of yoga became an important part of the burgeoning discourse of independence and self-sufficiency (svadeshi) in the Indian nationalist movement. Against this backdrop of Indian nationalism emerged key figures, such as Swami Vivekānanda, who would be responsible taking knowledge and practices of yoga overseas to the west and sowing the seeds for global and transnational yoga movements.

Session Seven: Modern Yoga in the 20th century

In this final session, we will consider the emergence of modern yoga in the 20th century. Following Vivekānanda, charismatic Indian gurus continued to travel to the west, particularly to the United States, where different forms of yoga were fused with western paradigms of thought and practice in order to broaden their appeal. Pioneers such as Yogendra and Kuvalayanda focused on scientific research in order to prove the esoteric principles and outcomes of yoga; they promoted the therapeutic and health benefits. Most notably, the Krishnamacārya lineage of haṭha yoga teachers created a timely and blended form of postural yoga that incorporated trends in gymnastics and bodybuilding to innovate new styles and techniques of āsana. This lineage gave rise to the enduring schools of Iyengar Yoga and Ashtanga Yoga. Lastly, the countercultural events of the 1960s created flows of students and teachers, who carried ideas and practices back and forth between India and the west. This enthusiastic generation gave rise to the international guru organisations that dominated yoga communities in the late 20th century and gave rise to the phenomenon known as globalised contemporary yoga.


Course delivery is 100% online

Seven weekly sessions

Study in your own time

Your tutor is available by email and forums

You can communicate online with your fellow students

All course materials are delivered via the web

Student forums with tutor participation

Recorded lectures available in video and mp3 format

Lecture notes available online and as pdf

Audio interviews with specialists in Hindu Studies at Oxford University

Supplementary materials taken from the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies teaching and research programme

Assessment is optional and is on the basis of successful completion of a single essay of 2000 words, with the exception of Introduction to Sanskrit which is assessed on weekly course work.

Courses can be completed in as little as seven weeks. There is a final deadline for essays of twelve weeks from the beginning of the course.