If you ask dedicated yogis how long the practice has been around, they'll likely claim it's 5,000 years old—but the truth is yoga, as we currently know it, was basically invented in the 1960s. Eventually, the complex Vedic texts were narrowed down into a more cohesive list of practices called the Upanishads.
The word yoga simply means "to add" or "to join." Traditionally, Veda is spiritual wisdom and yoga is the application of that wisdom—regardless of exercise.
While the term yoga is certainly discussed in depth in these ancient texts, there is little to no mention of asana, which are the postures people move through in modern yoga classes. In fact, mostly street performers and magicians practiced Hatha yoga, and the practice was associated with funky superstition.
Eventually, Vivekananda converted a motel across the street from Harvard into a retreat center, and people on the East Coast became obsessed with his teachings on pranayama, meditation, and positive thought. By the 19th and 20th century, yoga was blended with the fitness movement that swept across Europe and intertwined with Indian nationalism.
The result was a form of exercise derived from a 19th century form of Swedish gymnastics called Primitive Gymnastics.
The Indian government helped spread this new form of exercise around the country, and it started to gain some notoriety.


Four main types of yoga came out of the Upanishads, and none of them were stretching exercises. There are some ancient images of monks in yogic positions like crossed legs also known as Lotus position, but this asana took a backseat to things like breathing and stability to assist the meditation process. These Hatha yogis took the streets in India to earn their living, but Westerners didn't discover this type of yoga until photography was invented and people brought back photos of these strange men contorting their bodies for money.
Vivekananda publicly rejected Hatha yoga and asana in general; much of this belief was rooted in their caste-system way of thinking, as they associated asana with the aforementioned poor street urchins and performers. British colonists in India viewed the Indian people as weak; one way Indian people fought back against British rule was by strengthening their bodies.
Apparently, Rishis channeled these scriptures in deep states of meditation and heard higher beings telling them about secret spiritual wisdom, as well as practical advice about planting crops and getting married. Upanishad means "to sit near," and these texts were usually shared between a teacher and student. Vivekananda was a popular speaker at the fair and succeeded in debunking several Indian stereotypes. This mindset was common amongst countries striving to improve their national image; people believed there was a direct link between strong healthy bodies and a successful country.


Iyengar developed his own method of practicing asana-based yoga in the 1960s, and then yoga really took off in the U.S.
Vedic priests broke down this wisdom into several rituals that are still practiced today—everything from fire ceremonies to animal sacrifices were done in the name of heightened consciousness. In the Upanishads, there is a lot of information about yoga, but it's not the same kind of yoga you might practice on the bamboo floor of a 24-Hour Fitness. He gave long talks about religion and Indian nationalism, but didn't mention yoga once and didn't contort his body into asana because it would have been considered distasteful. It may seem like yoga is rooted in ancient wisdom, but it's important to remember that yoga is a business like any other.
Raghavendra Rao, who traveled through India disguised as a yoga guru and taught people yoga as a way to rise up against British rule.



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