Yoga History: Historical and Conceptual Foundations


Elliot Miller

Article ID:



Jul 31, 2022


Apr 6, 2009

The yoga system was reputedly developed by the grammarian and Hindu sage Patanjali most likely between the third and second century B.C. Archaeological finds suggest that yoga in some form has existed since around 3,000 B.C., but in his Yoga Sutras (i.e., yoga aphorisms) Patanjali presented the system that we’re familiar with today. The aphorisms are condensed, close to two-hundred in number, and divided into four chapters. Their main concern is the control of the mind.

It may come as a surprise to Westerners to learn that yoga was not originally based in a monistic (“all is one”) or pantheistic (“all is God”) philosophy. In India Hinduism is incredibly varied. About the only common elements in all forms of Hinduism are belief in karma (the law of cause and effect on a moral plane) and samsara (the cycle of rebirth), and practice of some form of yoga. At the time that Patanjali developed yoga, the dualistic philosophy of Samkhya (or Sankhya) was prominent in India. Samkhya held that there are two fundamental realities: (1) parushas, or individual, immaterial, eternal, and indestructible souls, and (2) prakriti, which forms the material world, and itself consists of three basic elements known as the three gunas: Sattva (goodness/truth), Raja (passion/activity), and Tamas (darkness/inertia).

According to Samkhya-Yoga philosophy, when these three primary elements are in equilibrium the world is unmanifest-all there is to prakriti is the three gunas existing in perfect harmony. There is something about the simultaneously and independently existing parushas, however, that at times mysteriously disturbs this equilibrium. When this happens the conflict between the gunas creates change and a variety of forms, with the world manifesting as a result. Throughout the history of the world one or the other of the gunas will be in the ascendant, causing goodness, passion, or darkness to dominate the epoch, until the gunas at long last reach equilibrium again and the world disappears.

The other important development in this drama is that the parushas become captive to prakriti. It is believed that out of a desire to understand the nature of prakriti they venture into it. As they come into contact with the material world, their pure consciousness generates mind and thought, which are believed to be part of prakriti and not proper attributes of parusha. The parushas’ sensations and perceptions create false egos in which they believe they are a part of the material world, and this belief entangles them in it. This bondage takes the form of transmigration of souls from one body to another and ultimately reincarnation, once the parushas reach the human level.

In their transmigrational journeys the parushas become entranced and captivated by the interplay of the gunas, which holds them in bondage to prakriti. Yoga therefore was developed by Patanjali as a method and means to facilitate the souls’ moksha or deliverance from its identification with prakriti.

The whole goal behind yoga, then, was for the yogi (yoga practitioner) to escape the goodness, passions, and darkness of the gunas and to reestablish the original pure state of consciousness of the parushas. He (or she) was to accomplish this by disengaging from his thoughts, feelings, imagination, and all the different tricks of his mind that hold him in bondage to the material world. It is a program to free him systematically from identification with his supposedly ephemeral ego so that he can identify once again with his true self, the parusha. In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali teaches a method of mind control that involves counteracting painful thoughts with thoughts that are not painful, then learning to quiet the “not painful” thoughts as well.

This entire process of prakriti manifesting as the world and then returning to its unmanifest state was believed to recur on an eternal, cyclical basis, and it later, within a pantheistic philosophical system, became known as “the Days and Nights of Brahman.” Indeed, all of these concepts and terms were retained when absolute monism became prominent in Hinduism.

Hinduism was originally polytheistic (believing in many gods), and in some significant ways still is. Beginning, however, with the Upanishads (scriptures appended to the original Hindu scriptures, the Vedas, beginning around the eighth century B.C.), progressing through sacred texts such as the Bhagavad Gita (Hinduism’s most beloved scripture, penned perhaps in the second century B.C), and culminating in the eighth-century A.D. philosophy of Advaita Vedanta that the philosopher Shankara developed, monism and pantheism became important belief systems within Hinduism. For this reason, many Hindus now understand parushas, prakriti, the three gunas, and moksha to exist against the backdrop of a fundamental Oneness of Being that is the impersonal Ultimate Reality known as Brahman. In other words, instead of ultimate reality being parushas and prakriti, it is the impersonal Brahman, within which, in a relative sense, exist parushas and prakriti. As yoga was transferred into this philosophical system, the pure consciousness that the yogi sought to identify with was now not merely his own soul (now more often called atman than parusha) but that of God (for it is believed that atman is identical to Brahman).

Liberation of the soul from its bondage to the material world is a central goal of all orthodox schools of Hindu philosophy, and for each school, some system of yoga is the means for achieving this end. Yoga also has been appropriated in the same manner by many Buddhist sects, Sikhism, Jainism, Taoism, and various occult/metaphysical traditions in the West (e.g., Theosophy and the Unity School of Christianity).

Share This