Yoga Styles & History

It’s common knowledge among teachers that students find the different styles of yoga confusing. And, honestly, it’s no surprise. Look at any yoga studio timetable and you’re likely to see hatha, ashtanga, yin, vinyasa, Bikram, Iyengar … and countless other offerings.

Yet you look at the description and phrases like ‘breath-focused’ and ‘flow’ and ‘powerful’ and ‘alignment-led’ seem to be used for Every. Single. One.

So what’s what? Have we, in the west, entered into an era of ‘yoga fusion’ where we draw from multiple styles? Or is it all basically the same?

Let’s take it back … like, way back … and look at the timeline of yoga and how the different styles came about*.

Indus Valley & the Vedas

British archaeologists excavating the Indus Valley found a depiction of a figure sitting in meditation – there’s conversation around whether this is a man, woman or Lord Shiva. This image was dated back to 3,300BC, while we know that the Indus civilisation vanished around 1,500BC. This is the oldest yogic artifact we’ve found. There is no indication that physical asana were practiced at the time – just meditation.

Similarly in the Vedas, there is no mention of asana/postures. There are only sitting poses to aid meditation. The Vedas is a huge volume of Inidian scripture written about 1,500-1000BC. They are the oldest Hindu literature and hold sacred poems, prayers, practices and mythology, all noted in Sanskrit.

It’s important to note that, at this time, yogic practices were not written about as a form of teaching. Students who were deemed worthy or capable of learning did so at the feet of their teacher/guru. Spoken word was the medium of teaching.

Patanjali and the Sutras

Nobody put significant pen to paper about yogic practices until Sage Patanjali in the 4th century, BC. We do not know who Patanjali was – it is assumed they were male, but they very well may have been a woman. All we have are the Sutras.

Patanjali’s Yog Sutras are 196 sutras (or lines) covering the complete philosophy of yoga. They go DEEP. ‘Sutra’ translates to ‘thread’ or ‘string’, describing nicely the linked nature of each single-line point made in these documents.

It’s understood that the information was put in sutra-form because Patanjali feared topics being misunderstood – they wanted to limit the chance of their true meaning being misconstrued.

However the Sutras are complex to understand. Perhaps written so to scare off those ‘unworthy’ student – but that’s just my conjecture!

It wasn’t until the next century when six Commentators started to ‘translate’ the Sutras. They went into detail on each line, giving explanation and insight for the reader. The democratisation of yoga had begun!

They divided the Sutras into four parts – Samadhi (the highest state of meditation); Sadhana (the practice); Vibhuti (meditation, mastering psychic power) and Kaivaiya (the ‘Oneness).

A really accessible (and my overall favourite yogic…) book on the Sutras is ‘Four Chapters on Freedom’ by Swami Satyananda Saraswati.

Here Comes Hatha

In the 11th century AD, we get the first written mention of hatha yoga. Matsendra Nath can be known as the first hatha yogi. They wrote about the origin of the practice.

The story goes that, when Lord Shiva lived in Kailash, he spoke about the yogic practices. This conversation was overheard by a fish who was swimming nearby, who swam off to share this newfound knowledge. And do the practice began to spread.

A disciple of Matsendra Nath, Goraksha Nath, wrote many books including the Goraksha Samhita which includes mention of eighty-four asana. However, only two of these were spoken of in detail and those were padmasana (lotus pose) and siddhasana (master pose).

So we’re slowly, slowly seeing the beginning of this practice we love get documented…

Detailed Asana

And so we arrive at the 15th century AD and Swami Swarmarama, who wrote what is possibly the most highly regarded traditional yoga book – Hatha Yoga Pradipika. This book is on literally EVERY yoga-teacher-training reading list. It’s a big deal.

HYP includes the lineage of great yogais who came before the author, going back to Lord Shiva. It also describes 32 asana in detail! They include gomukhasana (cow’s face pose), veerasana (hero’s pose), koormasana (tortoise pose) and dhanurasana (bow pose).

This book is a tome, I won’t even pretend otherwise, and I’ve never read it cover to cover. I use it as a reference book and read bits and pieces as I need to. I would always encourage anyone wanting to deepen their practice to pick up a copy and have a look through.

Jumping forward to the 17th century AD, we meet Sage Gherand and his book Gheranda Samhita, another yoga-essential. Here we see the 32 asana mentioned in HYP expanded to 84 detailed postures. There is also the inclusion of pranayama (breathwork), shetkarma (cleansing) and the yogic diet. Overall it’s a more ‘physical book’. The adaption of traditional asana begins …

19th Century Yogis

T. Krishnamacharya (1888-1989), also known as the creator of ashtanga flow. The focus of traditional ashtanga was on posture, breath and focus. He created this new style by adapting the traditional asana, finding sequences that ‘worked’ and renaming them. This is the first of many, many times that this will happen.

T. Krishnamacharya had three students of note:

Pattabhi Jois (1915-2009) – who further developed ashtanga vinyasa and established the Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute in Mysore. He is also the author of the book ‘Yoga Mala’.

*It feels important to note that many students of Jois have accused him of sexual assault, often mentioning that the manner in which he adjusted their bodies to be sexually invasive. He is not alone as a teacher having these claims leveled against him. There is a whole other post coming on abuse in yoga but you can see a small piece on consent here.

BKS Iyengar (1918-2014) – developed his own style which is still known as Iyengar. He believed that age doesn’t matter in yoga and, so, this style includes more props to make the practice accessible. He wrote many books but most famous is probably ‘Light on Yoga’.

Indra Devi (1898-2002) – a yogini (yay!) who is credited with bringing yoga to the US. She was a Russian who has come to be known as the mother of western yoga.

Moving on from the lineage of T. Krishnamacharya we find Sivananda Saraswati (1887-1963). Having been a doctor in SriLanka, he gave up his ‘old life’ at 33 to move to Rishikesh, India. Here he went into meditation and found liberation ten years later. He is known for developing Sivananda yoga, comprised of twelve poses and establishing the famous Divine Life Ashram.

Sivananda Saraswati had two students of note:

Visnudevananda – who in 1959 established a school in the US and, also, expanded the 84 traditional asana to 300 poses.

Satyananda Saraswati – who founded the Bihar School of Yoga in 1963, which remains one of the most traditional yoga schools. He believed that yoga is not just caged in a class, that it is in fact service work that is a 24hr, full-time job.

More Modern Yogis…

Bikram Choudhury created the Bikram yoga style. If you like practicing yoga in tropical, humid climates then this is for you. It’s hot yoga. Like in rooms up to 40 degrees Celsius, hot. It uses a series of 26 postures and you should definitely be healthy (no BP issues etc) to practice.

*Choudhury is another teacher who’s faced several lawsuits citing sexual assault and general discriminatory behaviour. He fled India in light of this and, so, courts awarded ownership of his school to a student.

Baba Ramdev, the ‘modern yogi’, is credited with re-popularising yoga in India. He set up the Patanjali Yoga Trust in Haridwar, near Rishikesh. The trust offers MA and BA in yoga – you see why Indians have little time for our 200hr certificate! Opinions on Ramdev vary – I’ve heard many dismiss him as simply a smart business man. It’s up to you to make up your own mind here.

Paulie Zink brought yin yoga to the west. Holding postures for extended periods of time is common in traditional hatha (basically anything that isn’t ‘flow’). It’s also a regular occurrence in Chinese Taoist yogic practices, as it’s seen to improve health. Zink is of a Taoist teaching background. He also practiced martial arts. Eventually he fused hatha and Taoist movement, insights and postures into what is known as yin yoga.

This is a very brief background of yoga. It’s in no way exhaustive. But hopefully you can see how all yogic styles stems from traditional hatha. Practitioners simply put together different series that worked for their bodies, put a name on it and BAM, new style.

A base in hatha is always good as a foundation but then it’s all about what pace and series’ work for you. So please, if you’re a new practitioner, take a tour of different styles to find your niche. Don’t be scared, it’s all essentially the same poses – just with a different focus.

*Important!

This is information taken from lectures with my philosophy teachers, during my time in India. I did not grow up Hindu or in close contact with Indian culture. I would never claim to be an expert, or exert any kind of ownership over this topic. I am sharing what was given to me to, hopefully, answer some questions for you, the reader. Having been fortunate enough to go to the ‘source’ to learn, I feel a responsibility to share what I learned, as I learned it. Because the west is STILL watering down and culturally appropriating all over this space!

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