How Yoga Works

Highlights of Yoga History

The Vedas and the Bhagavad Gita praised yoga as an important spiritual element, but the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, written sometime in the second century B.C., provided the first real how-to text. The scholar Patanjali wrote that there are eight limbs, or steps, of yoga:

  1. Yama refers to the ethical standards of yoga, such as not harming others and being truthful.
  2. Niyama refers to guidelines of self-discipline, including cleanliness and study of yogic philosophy.
  3. Asana refers to physical exercise.
  4. Pranayama refers to breath control as a means of linking mind and body and releasing internal stores of energy.
  5. Pratyahara refers to transcending the physical world and drawing attention within one's body.
  6. Dharana refers to concentrating on just one thing.
  7. Dhyana refers to meditating on nothing at all, a step beyond focusing on just one thing.
  8. Samadhi refers to the ultimate goal of yoga -- a state in which a person transcends the self and realizes interconnection with the divine and all other living things.

Modern-day yogis may recognize asana and pranayama among those limbs, as they're the ones that form the basis of a typical yoga class. But Patanjali's text doesn't include much information on the asanas that we practice today; the only posture he wrote about was a seated meditation pose. Though he wrote that physical exercise would help students prepare their bodies for concentration and meditation, he didn't provide much information about how to perform those exercises. That information seems to have been handed down orally from teacher to student in India, and if it was in writing, those texts have been lost.

So how did yoga become about handstands and lotus pose? The history of hatha yoga, or yoga that emphasizes physical exercise, jumps to the 1800s and the Mysore Palace. Mysore is considered one of the birthplaces of modern yoga due to the royal family's enthusiasm for ancient Indian arts. In the early 1800s, a Mysore prince wrote the Sritattvanidhi, one of the first yoga manuals to include physical postures that has been located.

A century later, the Maharaja of Mysore installed a yoga school in the palace and invited T. Krishnamacharya to teach there. Krishnamacharya had traveled India, studying with many master yogis, and was renowned for his mastery of asanas. When he started studying at Mysore in 1931, he began developing and teaching ashtanga yoga, an athletic form of yoga that involves linking many postures rhythmically. At Mysore, Krishnamacharya taught K. Pattabhi Jois and B.K.S. Iyengar; Jois would continue studying ashtanga and popularize it around the world, while Iyengar developed the form of yoga that emphasizes precision and alignment and bears his name. These types of yoga are among the most popular in the U.S., and on the next page, we'll examine how they arrived from Mysore.