Sarah and Martin Moesgaard
A Yoga Timeline
Updated: Aug 30, 2022
Yoga has such a long and dense history that we cannot hope to get it all down in one place. So, rather than trying that enormous task, we have collected what we consider to be some of the most relevant and interesting points along the way. *By "relevant," we mean relevant to our audience - practitioners of an asana-based style of yoga, probably living in the Southern US or Northern Europe. By "interesting," we mean interesting to us, the writers, because aren't all writers just writing for themselves! So, if you find all of this extremely irrelevant and boring, we suggest you please bugger off and write your own yoga timeline! Then send us a link so we can read it.
If you are brand new to yoga, or teaching beginners, you might want to start with our article, What is Yoga?, or look read through Yoga Traditions and Schools to get an overview before diving in here. And if you are looking for a more condensed timeline of yoga check out our article, A (tiny!) glimpse into Yoga's Timeline.
600-500 BCE: Tao Te Ching: The Book of the Way, written by Lao Tzu, is the foundational text of Chinese Taoism and describes Yin and Yang energies in the world and how to harness and balance our own light/active/yang tendencies with our dark/receptive/yin tendencies. Yin yoga adheres strongly to this philosophy, but other modern styles, like Vinyasa, draw ideas and themes from Taoism, too.
400-300 BCE: Bhagavad-Gita, Lord's Song, is the first Indian text on yoga, a small portion of the Mahabarata, an epic poem, and one of the Upanishads; it is a dialogue between Lord Krishna and the warrior Arjuna in which Krishana explains how to know God through yoga. Yoga is explained as many paths and rituals (Bhakti/ devotion, Karma/selfless service, and Raja/meditation) to knowing God. around 400 BCE (?): Yoga Sutras,196 aphorisms on life, written (or collected) by the Indian sage Pantanjali, describing the ashta-anga, the Eight Limb path (yamas, niyamas, asana, pranayama, pratyahara, dharana, dyana, and samadhi) which is the basis for Raja, or classical yoga. * Read more about some of the different Yoga Traditions and Schools of Thought. 1500's (?): Hatha Yoga Pradapika is written describing the raising of Kundalini energy up the shushumna from the base of the spine through the chakras to the crown, and is the basis for Hatha, or physical, yoga. Most apparent in modern western forms of yoga. Passed down from Tantric masters, like Goraksha.
1785: Sir Charles Wilkins translates the Bhagavad-Gita into English. 1816: Rammohun Roy first uses the term "Hinduism" to describe the collection of philosophies, theologies, practices and rituals of his home country of India along with Vedic hymns, the mystical Upanishads, ritual texts of Brahmans, and influences from Buddhist and Jain ideas, in his English writings. 1842: American Oriental Society founded by three Harvard alum - John Pickering, William Jenks, and J. J. Dixwell in Boston. 1843: Emerson reads Wilkins's translation of the Gita. 1845: Henry David Thoreau moves to his cabin on Walden Pond on July 4 to "live deliberately," for two years. He is called the First American Yogi.
1857: Ralph Waldo Emerson's poem, "Brahma," appears in the Atlantic Monthly literary magazine. 1875: Theosophical Society founded by Helena Blavatsky and Henry Steele Olcott. 1893: Swami Vivekanada speaks at the World Parliament on Religions, held in Chicago in conjunction with the World's Fair. 1894: Sarah Bull and Sarah Farmer host Vivekananda's American conferences at the summer spiritual retreat center, Green Acre in Eliot, Maine. He discusses Raja yoga and Patanjali's Eight Limb path. He instructs from the Yoga Sutras and the teachings and experiences of his guru, Ramakrishna. (Vivekanada was more of a Vedantist than Ramakrishna, teaching a more abstract, formless Absolute. Ramakrishna, esp during his "Tantrik phase" preferred to picture a formed God, specifically the Goddess, Kali.) They also establish the Vedanta society - Transcendentalists, Spiritualists, and Theosophists converge. 1895: Swami Abhedanada, initiated by Vivekanada, begins teaching Hatha yoga in NYC - poses, pranayama, vegetarian diet, and internal cleansing techniques - to improve control of body, rid body of disease, and prepare the student for Raja yoga. Americans were "unawakened souls" and not ready or healthy enough for Raja yoga.
1919: Pierre Bernard and Blanche De Vries open the Braeburn Country Club (renamed the Clarkstown Country Club, or CCC in 1920) in Nyack, NY to teach Tantric yoga (poses, pranayama, mantra recitation, cleansing techniques) and some Hatha Yoga. Bernard learned from Indian Tantric Sylvais Hamati and likens Hatha to "physical culture." With the perspective that "The first duty of every initiate us to purify his body, and through his body, improve his spirit," they merged "temple and sanitarium,...." 1925: Pramahansa Yogananda comes to the US and founds the Self-Realization Fellowship in LA, CA. He uses scriptures and teachings from Christianity to bridge the gaps between yoga and Western religion. He calls Jesus, "A Great Yogi," and a, "Fully Realised Person." He abhorres Hatha yoga and claims a lineage of Kriya Yoga from Tantra traditions. He teaches meditation and concentration techniques. 1929: Swami Prabavanada opens the Hollywood Vedanta Temple. Gerald Heard, Aldous Huxley, and Christopher Isherwood are instrumental supporters and recruiters. Teaches mostly philosophy, Raja yoga/ meditation techniques and Bhakti devotion. Message is to control the mind and turn the heart toward God. 1930's: Sri Krishnamacharya develops a modern form of Hatha yoga and school at the palace in Mysore, India and teaches BKS Iyengar, TKS Desikachar, Pattabi Jois, and Indra Devi. He blends native asanas, gymnastics, Indian wrestling, and possibly British military training exercises with deep, rhythmic breathing. 1938: Margaret Woodrow Wilson goes to Pondicherry, India to study Tantrik meditation with Sri Aurobindo. She stays until her death there in 1944. 1940: Heaven Lies Within Us by Theo Bernard is published to describe his extensive and intensive experiences studying Tantrik and Hatha yoga techniques with masters in the Bengali jungle. He says humans needed the physicality of Hatha to raise Kundalini power and discover God. Most of his account is later discovered to be completely fabricated.
1946: Autobiography of a Yogi, by Pramahansa Yogananda is published. 1947: Indra Devi comes to Hollywood. She teaches a Hatha yoga that combines asana, pranayama, relaxation. She changes yoga from spiritual realisation into a health tonic and makes it digestible for Americans and posh for movie stars. Gloria Swanson is one of her most vocal advocates. Yoga starts to become associated with the young and beautiful and also marketed to housewives. 1953: Forever Young, Forever Healthy: Simplified yoga for modern living, by Indra Devi is published. She changes yoga's reputation into a system that offers "something for everyone but not everything to everyone". She sets the scene for counter culture. 1960's: Maharishi Mahesh Yogi invents Transcendental Meditation.
1960: Dr Timothy Leary of the Harvard University Psychology Department begins conducting research with LSD. He eventually convinces a generation of Americans, mostly young, that enlightenment/ Self-realization/ God-consciousness can be attained through chemical means without the need for physical, mental, devotional, ritual, or other means. Yoga in a pill. He calls himself a psychedelic explorer. When evicted from Harvard in 1963, he sets up camp with psychologist Richard Alpert at Millbrook, NY an a 64 room Victorian mansion which eventually erodes into a Bohemian slum. (Alpert later gets renamed Ram Das.) 1961: The nation's first yoga TV program, "Yoga for You," with Virginia Denison airs in LA. 1964: LSD becomes popular in California, specifically the Haight-Ashbury area of San Fransisco. And in 1966 it is made illegal. 1965: President Johnson signs the, "Immigration and Nationalisation Act," making immigration from Asia easier and more accessible. 1966: Light on Yoga, by BKS Iyengar is published. 1966: Swami Satchinanda arrives to the US bringing his own yoga style, which he calls Integral Yoga to LA, San Fransisco, Dallas, and Detroit. 1967: Swami Bhaktivedanta (Prabhupada) opens a Hare Krishna Center in San Fransisco. Allen Ginsberg sings Hare Krishna all night and calls this the height of the Haight-Ashbury spiritual enthusiasm. Prabhupada publicly denounces the use of drugs, esp. LSD to reach God. Drugs had helped yoga and meditation reach a large, young audience in pursuit of spiritual fulfilment and ultimately helped turned the focus of yoga back in a spiritual direction.
1968: Beatles learn Transcendental Meditation from Mahesh in Rishikesh, India. Yoga and hippie culture are forever linked.
1968: Richard Alpert returns from a trip to India with a new name, Ram Das, and a new way of getting high, Ashtanga Yoga. 1968: Vietnam War protests and sit-ins include chanting, meditations, songs and beads. At the August '68 Democratic National Convention in Lincoln Park, Chicago, Allen Ginsberg chants for hours while televised. 1969: Swami Satchidananda opens the Woodstock Music and Art Fair in Bethel, NY in August.
1969: Yogi Bhajan, a Sikh from Pakistan, brings his own blend of Sikhism and Tantra, which he calls Kundalini Yoga, to the States. Followers wear all white, chant, sing, and perform dynamic, repetitive exercises to raise Kundalini energy. He established the 3HO: the "Healthy, Happy, Holy Organization." 1969: Richard Hittleman opens a "yoga college" above Grand Central Station in NYC and also broadcasts a national TV show, "Yoga for Health." 1970's: Decade of the guru. Thousands of Americans claim, follow, visit, or adopt a guru, usually an Indian, in search of transcendence, or spiritual satisfaction. Some are legit; some are opportunistic swindlers. Life magazine had called 1968 the "Year of the guru," but the trend carries on well into the 70's, where yoga is much more about the person leading than the style, school, or texts from which it springs.
1970's: Cho Chat Ling moves from Hong Kong to California and begins teaching Paulie Zink Tai Shing Men (Monkey Kung-fu.) Paulie combines Cho's teachings with long held yoga poses for mobility, flexibility, and energetic beneifts, and Yin yoga is born. Paul Grilley and Sarah Powers further the practice and establish teacher training programs in Yin yoga. 1970: Swami Vishnu-Devananda has already established Sivananda Vendanta Centers in Manhattan, Washington DC, Chicago, and Fort Lauderdale. 1971: Bikrum Choudhury arrives and begins teaching in LA. His class is always the same: 90 mins, 26 poses, done twice, and two breathing exercises. The studio is 105 degrees F, humid, carpeted with mirrored walls and fluorescent lighting. The instructor guides the practice but practitioners are expected to use the mirrors and watch the most experienced students for feedback. There is no personal attention given. He becomes rich from yoga retail and by charging high prices for group classes. The first real yoga entrepreneur. He started yoga at 4 years old and studied under Pramahansa Yogananda's younger brother, Bishnu Chandra Ghosh in India before coming to the States. Bikrum moves his studio to Beverly Hills in 1974. 1973: Yogi Bhajan is hosting Summer Solstice Retreats in the Jemez mountains in Northern New Mexico. 1974: Sally Kempton, New York Post reporter, drops everything to become a devotee and disciple of Swami Muktananda.
1974: "Lilias, Yoga and You!" airs from Cincinnati starring Lilias Folan, and becomes a huge hit for home Hatha yoga practice. Time calls her the, "Julia Child of yoga." 1974-1976: Swami Muktananda tours the US along Route 66 on his "meditation revolution." Followers are moved to transcendental experiences just sitting in his presence. 1975: Sri K. Pattabhi Jois arrives in the US. He is a devotee of Krishnamacharya. He teaches a vinyasa (flowing) style he calls Ashtanga yoga: 6 series of progressively more challenging poses that use the bandhas and Ujjayi breath continuously, resembling something like a slow gymnastics routine. He teaches Mysore-style: one-on-one instruction given directly to each student within a group setting. His purpose in practicing is three-fold: internal cleansing, self-knowledge, and fixing the mind in the true Self so as to realise our true nature as supreme peace and bliss.
1975: Yoga Journal first edition circulates 300 copies, founded by Judith Lasater, Ike Lasater, Rama Vernon, William Golden, and three others. With major influencers like BKS Iyengar and Indra Devi, they take yoga back from the gurus and out of religios context in a very contemporary, mass media way. Their message is that Hatha yoga, the poses and concentration of performing them, is enough to cure most ills and also to provide the mental focus and spirit of dedication without adhering yourself to a guru or his life-consuming requirements. By 1990, YJ is circulating around 55,000 copies. 1980's: yoga interest in the US declines. Hatha yoga teachers take the spiritual dialogue out of yoga classes and reduce it again to a workout, however, the popular workouts of the decade, Jazzercise and aerobics and running, all have a "no pain no gain," and ,"make it burn," attitude, so yoga doesn't really fit the trend. Also in the 1980's and 1990's: several articles come out linking gurus to sexual misconduct with young female devotees. Yoga gurus begin to develop a bad rap. 1999: Yoga Mala, written by Sri K. Pattabi Jois in 1959, is finally translated into English.
This is, of course, not a complete account of yoga and is obviously centered around the experience of yoga in America and the conversation of yoga between America and India. We hope to find time and resources for further research and to renovate this article to reflect a more global account of yoga history, including the story of yoga on all of the continents, and especially of the practices that make up yoga in and around the Indian subcontinent. Someday....
Information in this article was collected from, among other sources, The Subtle Body:The Story of Yoga in America, by Stefanie Syman, Heart of Yoga by TKS Desikachar, and The Complete Guide to Yin Yoga, by Bernie Clark and Sarah Powers.
If you have a resource or guide that we should read, watch, listen to, or know about, please contact us! We love learning more about this important practice and its evolving place in our world.
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