The History of Yoga from Pashupati to Patanjali

Pashupati Seal

In 1928, in the territory of modern Pakistan, archaeologists discovered this soapstone seal. It is about 4,000 years old and, according to many Indologists, it depicts Shiva, meditating in Bhadrasana. Apparently, this is the most ancient evidence of the Yoga practice.

Pashupati Seal, c. 2000 BCE


These are the Vedas, the oldest Indian scriptures containing hymns, mantras, prayers; they are still used during worship services. The Vedas belong to the shruti category, that is, ‘that which is heard’. These are divine revelations and eternal knowledge. For hundreds of years they were passed from mouth to mouth before they were embodied in voluminous books written in Sanskrit.

Thus, in the 10th mandala of the very first of the four Vedas, the Rig Veda, there is Kesin Hymn where ‘the estranged long-haired ascetics, dressed in dust, wandering around the world and being friends with the gods..,’ are sung. They are the very first yogis.

Rigveda MS in Sanskrit on paper, India, early 19th (fragment)


The philosophical ideas of Hinduism, born of the Vedas, are actively developed in the Upanishads. There are 108 canonical Upanishads in total, and 13 oldest and most authoritative of them are called the Principal Upanishads.

108 canonical Upanishads associated with four Vedas

108 canonical Upanishads associated with four Vedas

Very important merit of Upanishads is the liberation from the rituality of Vedic Brahmanism and the transition to the philosophical nature of thinking. However, such a transformation would not be possible without the unique ability of India to adapt and assimilate new theories and practices. This is an excellent example of cooperation between tradition and innovation. As for the chronology of the ancient Indian texts, this is difficult. Ideas were borrowed and developed over the centuries, the texts were rewritten and each author contributed something of their own. Therefore, more or less accurate dating begins only with the beginning of Common Era.

The very word Yoga is first encountered in Katha Upanishad and Taittirīya Upanishad. In Shvetashvatara Upanishad, the benefits of yoga are listed: ‘Lightness, health, steadiness, a clear countenance,a pleasant voice, a sweet odor’ and even recommendations for choosing a place for practice are given:

‘In a clean level spot, free from pebbles, fire and gravel,
Delightful by its sounds, its water and bowers,
Favorable to thought, not offensive to the eye,
In a hidden retreat protected from the wind,
One should practise Yoga.’

Shvetashvatara Upanishad: 2.10 , 500 BCE

In the second chapter of Katha Upanishad, there is a chariot metaphor describing the interaction of the senses, body, mind, intellect and soul of a single person is set forth. Interestingly, around this time in Ancient Greece, Plato in one of his dialogues uses a similar metaphor.

‘Know that the Atman* is the rider in the chariot, and the body is the chariot,
Know that the Buddhi is the charioteer, and Manas is the reins.
The senses are called the horses, the objects of the senses are their paths,
Formed out of the union of the Atman, the senses and Manas, him they call the ‘enjoyer’

Katha Upanishad: 1.3.3-1.3.4, 600 BCE
*Atman – Soul, Buddhi – Intellect, Manas – Mind

In the sixth chapter of Maitrayaniya Upanishad, it is about the five limbs that will later form the basis of the classical yoga of Patanjali. In Mandukya Upanishad one of the most important themes is the sacral sound OM.

OM chanting

Among the late Principal Upanishads, there is a group of purely yogic texts. There yoga is divided into 4 types: Mantra Yoga is the chanting of mantras, Laya is the yoga of consciousness dissolution, Hatha is focused on physical practices, and Raja Yoga is the sum of all types of yoga, its highest form and goal.

For the first time some asanas with specific instructions for their implementation are mentioned. Most of them are sedentary meditative poses; however, Lion Pose, Peacock Pose and Headstand are already among them.


In addition, in the Yogakundalini Upanishad the mystical physiology of man is considered in the most detailed way.

In Yoga Upanishads you can also find:

  • obstacles for beginners
  • description of pranayama practice, with emphasis on kumbhaka (breath holding)
  • bandhi and mudras
  • siddhi (supernatural abilities)

In general, these Upanishads are already rather practical textbooks that have opened yoga to ordinary people. After all, the philosophy of the Vedas and the first Upanishads was not available to everyone both because of the complexity, and due to caste limitations. However, for all practicality of the Yoga Upanishads, they specifically underline that for a true liberation, practice alone is not enough. Knowledge and practice is the key to success.

Bhagavad Gita

The great Bhagavad Gita begins with expectation of the battle. Two armies, ready to begin fighting, stand facing each other and are waiting for a signal. The leader of the Pandavas Arjuna, seeing in the ranks of his enemies a lot of his relatives and friends, is in despair. He turns to his friend and charioteer Krishna for advice.

Krishna and Arjuna before the start of the battle

Krishna explains that our body is only a temporary place for the soul (Atman), which is authentic, eternal and unchanging. Anxiety of the mind, passion and desire, create a maya, shell-illusion hiding the soul and tying the person to the material. His individuality under this shell determines gunas, three fundamental properties of nature. Nature (or Prakriti) is the material origin of this world and consists of 24 elements: five basic elements (earth, water, fire, air and ether ); the unmanifested; intelligence, ego and mind; ten senses (perception + activity); five sense objects (sound, sight, taste, touch and smell). The spiritual component is Purusha – the realm of spirit, life force and source of consciousness. Together they are Brahman, which on an individual level is realized as the Atman, i.e., the Soul. However, under the influence of the materiality of Gunas, Atman ‘forgets’ its true nature. To ‘remember’ it, to overcome Gunas and know its true essence is to rise to the point of merging of Atman and Brahman, Personality and Universe, Soul and God. The cognition of the unity of Brahman and Atman is the main goal of man.

The Bhagavad-Gita Summary

The Bhagavad-Gita Summary

‘But how can this be achieved?’ asks Arjuna.

‘That’s what yoga is for,’ answers Krishna. ‘It is divided into 3 types: Karma Yoga is the yoga of action without attachment to results, when every work is a sacrifice to the supreme good. Jnana Yoga is the yoga of spiritual knowledge and self-knowledge, the search for truth. Bhakti Yoga is a devotional service to God with the understanding that God is everything and, ultimately, reunion with the God.

The Bhagavad Gita: Karma, Jnana and Bhakti Yoga

The Bhagavad Gita: Karma, Jnana and Bhakti Yoga

At the end of Gita, Krishna once again invites Arjuna to realize his duty and accept the battle. Especially if it’s a battle with yourself.

Yoga Sutras

Somewhere at the turn of the millennia, the sage Patanjali took the best that from yoga and combined it with the Samkhya philosophy. It resulted in 196 aphorisms, which later became the main yogic text. Yoga took an honorable place in the philosophy of Hinduism, becoming one of six orthodox darshan (schools), and Yoga Sutras became the philosophical foundation of ‘classical yoga’.

In the first chapter Samadhi Pada, Patanjali gives the definition: ‘Yogas chitta vritti nirodhah’ – ‘The restraint of the modifications of the mind-stuff is Yoga’. Then the Inner Observer (drashta) abides in its own form, elsewise it is identified with these modifications (vrittis). There are five types of vrittis: valid knowledge (pramana), false knowledge (viparyaya), mental speculation (vikalpa), dreams and day-dreams (nidra) and memories (smriti). The restraint is achieved with two approaches: control of emotional states (abhyasa) and disengagement therefrom (vairagya).
The result is a state of comprehension (samprajna), which is accompanied by emergence of opinion (vitarka), analysis (vichara), delight (ananda) and experience of one’s I-ness (asmita). Samprajna is given to some special people from their very birth. But there are not many of them. Most people need persistent, confident and energetic practice to achieve it.
One must struggle with mental disturbances arising in the process with one-pointedness practice (ekatattva-abhyasa). Patanjali puts it in the first place, but in addition, he offers a whole range of various techniques (anahata qualities, pranayama, etc.).
The intermediate result of successful yoga practice is a state of unity with the object of meditation (Samapatti). Herewith, the object can be gross or subtle, and its cognition – discursive or reflexive. These four types are called ‘Samadhi with a seed’, i.e. Samadhi, relying on the real external object of meditation. Perfection in Nirvichara Samapatti gives the practitioner a light of wisdom and pure knowledge and, after the removal of all unconscious imprints (samskaras), even generated by this state itself, opens the way to Nirbija Samadhi, i.e. ‘Samadhi without a seed’. And the next step is ‘Samadhi without a seed’, i.e. object-free.

Sadhana Pada
The first sutras of the second chapter Sadhana Pada are about a more practical Kriya Yoga as a method for reducing kleshas and developing the ability to achieve samadhi. Kleshas are emotional attachments that color vrittis. Unwillingness to go beyond the familiar limits, identify yourself with your body (avidya) or point of view (asmita), attachment to a pleasant (raga) or unpleasant (dvesa), clinging to life (abhinivesa) – all of this are kleshas. Kleshas are interrelated with the karma accumulation process, represented in three aspects of human existence: form of existence, life span and life experience. Being caused by virtue (punya) or vice (apunya), these aspects can bring pleasure (hlada) or pain (paritapa). However, the nature of man is such that both of them inevitably lead to suffering (dukkha). Patanjali gives an explanation to the question ‘How is it possible to avoid the future suffering?’ The cause of suffering is in the union and identification of the seer (drashta) and the seen (drishya). In this union of the subject and the object, the cognizant and the cognized, the spirit and nature, is not only the cause of suffering, but also the potential possibility of its comprehension and liberation from it.
A tool for fulfilling this is yoga, and almost half of the second chapter is devoted to five ‘external’ means of yoga (yama, niyama, asana, pranayama, pratyahara).
Vibhuti Pada
At the beginning of the third chapter Vibhuti Pada, the ‘internal’ means are explained: dharana, dhyana and samadhi. Together they form the most important part of yoga practice called Samyama. Being ‘internal’ regarding the five previous means, they are ‘external’ regarding the objectless Samadhi (Nirbija Samadhi).
Next, Patanjali describes in detail the processes of internal transformation (parinama) of the practitioner samyama. Parinama refers to all aspects of the practice: meditative, cognitive, reflexive, etc.
Then, there is the enumeration of the various psychic forces that Samyama practices gives, as well as side effects and warnings. The chapter ends with sutras on the final understanding of reality, absolute knowledge and getting the true liberation (kaivalya).
Kaivalya Pada
The fourth chapter Kaivalya Pada classifies sources of psychic forces (siddhi) and considers such an interesting topic as the possibility of creating new consciousness (nirmana-chitta) by the yogi.
Next, the concept of the karma cycle is explained. Depending on the person’s actions, karma can be white (shukla), black (krishna) or black and white (shukla-krishna). However, the karma of the yogi is neither white nor black (ashukla-akrishna). The fruits of karma manifest themselves based on the unconscious imprints (samskaras) and under the influence of the potential forces (vasana) ‘mature’ in the consciousness (chitta). Then, they are realized through thoughts, words and actions that are a new contribution to karma. Therefore, it goes on in circle.
In the following sutras, the author delves into the philosophical problems of yoga, namely, the theory of knowledge. The three fundamental properties of the material nature (gunas) exist and are governed by the space-time law (dharma). The object of cognition (vastu), formed from gunas, exists independently of the individual consciousness (chitta). In the process of cognition, the consciousness is ‘colored’ by the object, that is, an individual image (reflection) of the object that is characteristic of the given consciousness arises. In turn, spirit (purusha), which is unchanged and eternal, knows the consciousness, also ‘coloring’ it. Thus, the dialectical nature of the consciousness is emphasized: it is both a subject of cognition of external objects and an object of cognition of the spirit. The consciousness having experienced this mixing acquires the ability to distinguish them and begins to get free from karma.
As a result, it is immersed in the state called the ‘Cloud of Dharma’: the material factors (gunas) have no control over it any more, the karma cycle is broken, and the spirit (Purusha) reaches final liberation (Kaivalya).

The philosophical depth and brevity of Yoga Sutras inspired many thinkers to comment on and create their own interpretations that have become the sources of a huge number of diverse yoga branches and schools. But that will be a story of Current Era.


Satischandra Chatterjee Introduction to Indian Philosophy, 1939
Mircea Eliade Yoga: Immortality and Freedom, 1958
Jack Hawley The Bhagavad Gita: A Walkthrough for Westerners, 2001
Swami Satyananda Saraswati Four Chapters on Freedom: Commentary on the Yoga Sutras, 1976



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