History of Yoga in the Western World

Yoga is not only about asanas (body postures) that we see or perform mostly in the west today. It’s more than that. Yoga is an experience of the ultimate reality, a result of physical, mental, and spiritual practice.

Yoga has been modified and categorized throughout history. However, the oldest form and knowledge of Yoga is one mentioned in various Hindu scriptures like Bhagavad Gita, Patanjali Yoga Sutra, Puranas, Vedas, and Upanishad. In Bhagavad Gita, three types of Yoga are mentioned; Karma Yoga, Bhakti Yoga, and Jnana Yoga.

Yoga in modern times is a collection of ancient techniques that involve breathing, meditating, and performing different body postures that bring balance to mind and body.

The name ‘Yoga’ derives from the Sanskrit ‘Yuj,’ which means unite, join, or union. So, yoga is the state where one realizes the ultimate reality. Those who are connected with the Ultimate Consciousness are called Yogis. Through yoga, they can walk and live a life like free spirits free from worldly sufferings.

Therefore, the main objective of Yoga is Self-realization and attaining liberation. This article will explore the origin of yoga, its history, and its development in the Western world.

Origin of Yoga

Historians and Researchers believe yoga came from India and existed even before the emergence of the first human civilization. Almost all Hindu scriptures mention Yoga, But, there is no single founder of Yoga, some believe Lord Shiva was the first Yogi who passed the knowledge of Yoga to great Saptarishi (seven mighty sages). In Bhagavad Gita, Lord Krishna says he first gave the knowledge of Yoga to Surya Dev.

In the Indian subcontinent, yoga has developed the most. Many sages and yogis traveled across all parts of India to spread the Yoga science and teach the true purpose of life.

How long has yoga been around? – There is no exact date or time to consider the origination of Yoga. Artifacts, texts, and fossils from one of the oldest civilizations, the Indus Valley Civilization, display various Yogic rituals, asanas, and figures that indicated yoga’s existence in the past.

Moreover, the word Yoga was first mentioned in Rigveda. Besides that, yoga’s presence existed in the other three Vedas, 108 Upanishads, Buddhist and Jain texts, Darsanas, and epics like Mahabharata and Ramayana.

During this timeline, yoga was practiced under the guidance of skilled gurus and had a significant value in the rituals. Surya Namaskara, or Salutation to the Sun and Pranayama (breathing exercise), was invented during this Vedic period. Later sage Patanjali compiled all the ancient Yoga-based texts into a single book called Yoga Sutras to preserve the existence of classical yoga.

All the sages, saint, acharyas, and yogis contributed their Yogic knowledge to texts and books for the growth and conservation of yoga.

History of Yoga in the West

As we enter the modern era, yoga is becoming more popular in the west. Today’s Yoga is Modernized Yoga which is more straightforward than classical yoga. It is easy to understand and to perform by every age groups people. Moreover, modern yoga gives more value to physical aspects like asanas than the mental and spiritual aspects of classical and post-classical yoga. Thus, modern yoga is more like an exercise to harmonize physical and mental energy rather than a medium to connect with the ultimate reality.

In the nineteenth century, Europeans and Americans discovered yoga for the first time. But they were keener on yoga’s philosophical ideas. Even though there were some treaties on Yoga in English by N.C Paul (A Treatise on Yoga Philosophy, 1851), they focused on the physical aspects. Thus, it was unable to grasp the public’s attention back then.

Before the 1950s, western public schools and universities were unaware of physical yoga, but it came into the spotlight that year. A popular Yoga book by a Romanian Scholar, Mircea Eliade (Le Yoga: Immortalité et Liberté, 1954), became one of the essential sources for yoga in the west. This book focuses on asanas (bodily position) to prepare oneself for pranayama and meditation. For his book, Eliade got inspired by a treaty on Hatha Yoga from the 15th century. It talks about the balance between body and mind.

1863 AD is when one of the greatest Yogis came to this world, the great Swami Vivekananda. He was the first Yogi to ever travel to the west to popularize yoga. In his entire life journey, he visited several countries and participated in numerous World Meetings so he could educate western society about yoga and its importance.

Swami Vivekananda also wrote books on yoga and even translated the entire Sanskrit language Yoga texts into English. So non-Sanskrit people could read, understand and practice it independently.

After Swami Vivekananda, Paramahansa Yogananda traveled to Boston to attend the World Religious Fair to propagate the Kriya Yoga to the west. Kriya Yoga is a form of yoga popularized by the great yogi Sri Lahiri Mahasaya.


In 1896, another great yogi, Shivapuri Baba was invited by Queen Victoria of England to give her private lessons on Yoga. After Queen Victoria died in 1901, he crossed the Atlantic Ocean and reached America. Shortly after arriving in the United States, he met with President Theodore Roosevelt.

As US Immigration imposed limits on Indian immigration in 1924 AD, the author, Theos Casimir Bernard, visited India to obtain knowledge of Yoga. After studying and practicing for 23 years, he came to the US and wrote a book on Hatha Yoga which is still popular among Yoga practitioners today.

Swami Sivananda has been another Guru who inspired generation with his traditional teaching. His mission was to serve humanity through yoga and in 1936 founded the Divine Life Society. He developed the Yoga of Synthesis, an amalgamation of the Four Paths of Yoga that he summarised as: ‘Serve, love, give, purify, meditate, realise.’ He is the author of more than 300 books on all aspects of yoga providing spiritual guidance to millions around the world. Though he never left his native India his teachings quickly spread internationally, leaving a legacy of love, peace and knowledge still unfolding today.

Since the 1950s, the establishment of several Yoga institutes and organizations has started in every corner of the world.

BKS Iyengar was another master of Yoga responsible for publicizing yoga to the western world through the television programs such as BBC and more.

In 1965 AD, the US government removed the limits imposed on Indian immigration. Such steps facilitate various Yogic and Spiritual gurus to travel to the west to spread their teachings. Since then, yoga has become a means to live a healthier life.

Tirumalai Krishnamacharya, an Indian scholar, yoga practitioner, and ayurvedic doctor, is often cited as the father of modern yoga in the west. His disciples were one of the influencing forces for popularizing yoga in the west. One of his disciples was Eugenie Peterson or Indra Devi. She was a California-based Yoga practitioner. For a decade, she traveled between Hollywood and Mexico to teach yoga.

In Hollywood, Indra Devi taught yoga to celebrities, making her a famous face in the US. Her contribution to yoga earned her the title of “First lady of Yoga.” Later she shifted to Argentina and continued teaching yoga there.

In the 1970s, an Indian yoga guru, K. Pattabhi Jois, introduced the vinyasa form of Yoga in the US and Australia, widely known asAshtanga Yoga. Similarly, Harbhajan Singh Khalsa, or Yogi Bhajan, an Indian- American yoga guru, scholar, and entrepreneur, introduced his style of Kundalini yoga in the US. In addition, he established the 3HO (Healthy, Happy, Holy Organization) foundation in over 35 countries worldwide to spread his teachings.

As the global media and Internet started to grow in the late 20th century, yoga was one of the hot topics. It was everywhere, from televisions to radios, newspapers, magazines, and online. Realizing the value of yoga on humans’ physical body and mind, western people accepted yoga openly. Similarly, they even included yoga in their daily life as an exercise to live a happy, healthy life.