History of Yoga: Medieval to Modern

Tutor: Daniel Simpson
Start date: 10 October 2021


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 our History of Yoga

Our history of yoga begins with an overview of ancient and classical yoga. We move to the 8th century CE with the writings of Śaṅkara and then travel through to the late-20th century, by which time yoga has established itself as a global phenomenon.

In the classical period Patañjali’s Yogasūtra was a key text on yoga. The next landmark is Śaṅkara’s commentary on the Yogasūtra. This detailed commentary greatly enhances our understanding of classical concepts. As the first great philosopher of Vedānta, Śaṅkara’s interpretation marks an important shift in the understanding of the Yogasūtra.

Next we examine developments in the traditions of tantra, siddha, rāja, and haṭha. These help us learn about the esoteric physiology of yoga and how postural yoga emerged to take centre stage.

This brings us to the 20th-century Krishnamacarya lineages that gave rise to Ashtanga and Iyengar Yoga.

We conclude our study with Indian traditions and their global spread in the 20th century. The rapid, wide-ranging developments of the the past 30–40 years are a topic for another course.

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

Before we can understand yoga in the medieval period, we need to look at the ancient and classical eras. This will help us understand the progress of yoga traditions. For context, we examine 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: Yoga, Vedānta, and the Medieval Commentarial Traditions

We move on to the role of Vedānta in understanding yoga from the classical period to the present. 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 key Vedānta commentaries on Patañjali’s Yogasūtra and at how the Yoga Upaniṣads combine yoga and Vedānta. The relationship between yoga and Vedānta is often overlooked, but since some of the first international teachers of yoga in the modern period were also scholars of Vedānta, yoga and Vedānta became linked.

Session Three: Yoga in Tantra and Siddha Traditions

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

Session Four: Postural Yoga and the Emergence of Rāja Yoga and Haṭha Yoga

Here, we survey the role of posture in early forms of yoga. We consider the emergence of the distinct forms of rāja yoga and haṭha yoga in the medieval period, highlighting their relationship. 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 project has shown that the earliest textual description of practices of haṭha yoga dates from the c.12th-century Buddhist Amṛtasiddhi. We will also discuss medieval Hindu 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 history is only Vedic has been revisited. The emergence of systems of yoga was most likely a result of interaction between northwestern Vedic culture and northeastern non-Vedic śramaṇa (renunciant) culture. It is therefore important to consider how practices and systems of yoga are also present in Jain and Buddhist traditions. Throughout history, these religions offered their own understandings and elaborations of yoga and meditation.

Session Six: The Pre-modern Period and Transoceanic Transmission

In this session, we study key developments in the pre-modern period (the 18th and 19th centuries).  We look at how yogic techniques were valued in the royal courts during Islamic rule in South Asia. We then learn how new understandings of yoga became an important part of the discourse of Indian independence and self-sufficiency. Against this backdrop of Indian nationalism emerged key figures, such as Swami Vivekānanda, who would be responsible for taking knowledge and practices of yoga overseas to the west and sowing the seeds for transnational yoga movements.

Session Seven: Modern Yoga in the 20th century

To round off our course, we consider the growth of modern yoga in the 20th century.

Following Vivekānanda, charismatic Indian gurus continued to travel west, where yoga was fused with western thought and practice in order to broaden its appeal. Pioneers such as Yogendra and Kuvalayananda focused on scientific research to prove the esoteric principles and outcomes of yoga, promoting the therapeutic and health benefits. Notably, the Krishnamacārya lineage of haṭha yoga teachers innovated within the tradition to develop blended forms of postural yoga. This gave rise to Iyengar Yoga and Ashtanga Yoga. Lastly, the countercultural events of the 1960s created flows of students and teachers who carried ideas and practices 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 eventually produced the phenomenon of contemporary globalised yoga.


Course delivery is 100% online

7–9 weekly sessions

Study in your own time

Your tutor is available by email and forums

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

All required lecture notes included

Audio interviews with specialists in Hindu Studies

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 our Sanskrit courses which are assessed on weekly course work.

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

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