What is Yoga? Understand The History Behind the Practice

A myriad of historical information exists, so let’s start with building a foundation.

Learn how to pronounce yoga, what it is, and how to practice it. 

How to Pronounce “Yoga” Correctly

The correct pronunciation of yoga is “yogh”. 

What is yoga? 

Yoga originated in India thousands of years ago. Sri Patanjali wrote the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali around the second century BCE and is said to have called himself simply a “compiler of yoga principles” from ancient Vedic texts. Sutras means threads, or philosophical guidelines. Patanjali describes yoga as chitta vritti nirodha, which roughly translates to “you are in a state of yoga when you can still the mind into presence.”

See also 7 Forgotten Early Yoga Teachers in America with Stories You’ll Want to Hear

Learn about the most ancient language on Earth, Sanskrit. 

How to Pronounce Sanskrit

The correct pronunciation is “sunskruth”.

What is Sanskrit, and how does it relate to yoga? 

Sanskrit is one of the most ancient languages on Earth. It is a deeply meaningful, spiritual language that is often described as poetry in words and sounds. But like any language, just because something is written in Sanskrit does not make it a religion or immediately valuable. Opting to use Sanskrit should be an informed choice.

See also Sanskrit 101: 4 Reasons Why Studying This Ancient Language Is Worth Your Time

Yoga is more than the physical practice. 

Yoga in India versus Western Yoga

Yoga in Western society often misrepresents the physical practice, known as yogasana, as yoga itself. Jnana Yoga (studying spiritual texts as yoga), Bhakti Yoga (devotion as yoga), and Karma Yoga (community action as yoga) are more ancient forms of yoga with little or no physical posturing. Classical yoga, however, is a holistic practice comprising eight limbs—the physical postures being just one element of finding peace in oneself. My Aunt Vrinda in Mumbai has been practicing yoga throughout her life and describes it as the following:

“Yoga has been such an essential part of my life. My grandparents were so yogic in the way they lived their lives. I remember their simple, non-materialistic lives based on deep human values: love and compassion, helping others who were in need. So when I was ready, the Universe cooperated to send me a teacher who taught me to look at life from a very different perspective—beyond just a set of asanas (poses). The entire gamut of Patanjali’s teachings were slowly introduced to me and my fellow students so subtly and imperceptibly that we found ourselves living by the yogic precepts without any major effort on our part. I am truly grateful.”

See also Yoga Philosophy 101: Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra Wisdom for Everyday Life

It’s important to be aware of India’s residual suffering and reconstruction after colonization.

History of Yoga: British Colonization of India

In Western society, we benefit from yoga and its adaptations. There’s been a surge in studios with trainings, clothing, equipment, and retreats. Practices evolve naturally over time, but as we freely participate in yoga, it’s important to be aware of India’s residual suffering and reconstruction after colonization.

Recounted in the National Archives, the British formally took control of India in 1858 after hundreds of years of takeover of Indian lands and companies.

Shashi Tharoor, PhD, an Indian politician and former international diplomat serving as a Member of Parliament, underscores that “violence and racism were the reality of the colonial experience” in India. He notes that under British rule, India’s share of the world economy plummeted by 20 percent. Millions of Indians died of starvation. They were required to export their rice supply and the cloth they wove themselves, which they had no choice but to buy back at higher prices. Though India fought for and won back its independence on August 15, 1947, Tharoor reminds us that “racial and religious tensions were the direct result of the colonial experience.” We see this in the disdain for and prohibition of spiritual practices such as yoga, which India is slowly working to restore as a holistic way of living for all.

There is no exact amount that can make up for loss of loved ones and for the undermining of social traditions under colonialism, Tharoor says. “The principle is what counts. Not the fine points of what and how much. The question is, ‘Is there a debt?’”

As we engage in a practice that’s designed to connect us, let’s continue to ask ourselves and one another questions. The path to individual and collective healing is yoga itself.

Rina Deshande

About our author

Rina Deshpande is a teacher, writer, and researcher of yoga and mindfulness practices. Having grown up with Indian yoga philosophy, she rediscovered its profound value as a New York City public school teacher. For the past 15 years, she has practiced and shared the benefits of yoga across the globe. After studying yoga and mindfulness as self-regulation at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, she designs curriculum for science research and K–12 education. She is the author of Jars of Space, a new book of handwritten and illustrated yogic poetry. Learn more at @rinathepoet or rinadeshpande.com.