Building on prehistoric roots. Current estimates suggest about 30 million people practice Hatha yoga in the U.S. and a million more practice in the United Kingdom. In the West, Yoga is posture-based exercise. Although many forms of yoga exist, including Ashtanga, Iyengar and Kundalini, Hatha has become especially popular for its combination of physical culture, breathing and meditation. Yoga has also been blended other exercise techniques to create "fusion" classes like Yogalates (yoga and Pilates).
To fully understand yoga's popularity and benefits, it is helpful to understand a bit of its long and dynamic history.
3300–1300 BCE. Six seals—ancient cylinders made of soapstone, which are engraved with pictographic stories—were discovered in western India. Centuries ago, the location was inhabited by the Indus Valley Civilization. Scholars found some of the seals depicted figures in yogic and meditative postures.
"The six mysterious Indus Valley seal images...all without exception show figures in a position known in hatha yoga as mulabhandasana or possibly the closely related utkatasana or baddha konasana...." wrote Thomas McEvilley.
These seals suggest yoga has been practiced in India for centuries. They are the earliest known connections between ancient devotion to ritual discipline and the yoga practices best known today.
1200 - 600 BCE. Yoga as we know it grew in India from an ancient Hindu doctrine of self-discipline called asceticism or tapas, which was practiced to bring a higher spiritual and moral state.
The Upanishads, over 200 philosophical texts, are the heart of the Hindu teachings. Yoga is mentioned throughout the Upanishads, beginning in one of the earliest Upanishads (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad), where a reference to meditation is made.
The actual term yoga first occurs in the Katha Upanishad and describes an ascetic with "folded legs, soles turned upwards". From there the concept of yoga evolves.
In the Maitrayaniya Upanishad yoga is explained as having six limbs (shad-anga): 1. breath control (pranayama), 2. sensory inhibition (pratyahara), 3. meditation (dhyana), 4. concentration (dharana), 5. examination (tarka), and 6. ecstasy (samadhi).
The school of yoga. Hindu philosophy is divided into several schools of thought called darshanas (literally translated, "views"). Yoga was first presented as a darshana in a Hindu scripture written around 200 BCE and the philosophical school came to be known as Raja Yoga. That classic text, Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, is still read today.
Pantanjali's yoga had eight limbs instead of six. These are known as The Eight Limbs of Classical Yoga: 1. Yama (social restraints or ethical values), 2. Niyama (personal observance of purity, tolerance, and study), 3. Asanas (physical exercises), 4. Pranayama (breath control), 5. Pratyahara (sense withdrawal in preparation for meditation), 6. Dharana (to maintain concentration), 7. Dhyana (meditation), and 8. Samadhi (ecstasy).
This classical yogic philosophy is said to have endured several centuries, later breaking into various branches or forms.
East meets West. Visitors to India, scholars and Hindu yogis carried the concept and practice of yoga to lands around the world.
In the United States it was first introduced as a study of Eastern Philosophy but expanded throughout the 1900s, as a movement toward health and vegetarianism and as a path to enlightenment.
A prominent spiritual teacher named Swami Sivananda, a Malaysian doctor and Hindu monk who wrote over 200 books and opened schools in America and Europe, may be considered one the forefathers of the current Western yogic approach.
Sivananda simplified the philosophy to Five Principles of Yoga, focusing on health: 1. Savasana (proper relaxation), 2. Asanas (proper exercise), 3. Pranayama (proper breathing), 4. Proper diet, and 5. Dhyana (meditiation, which he calls proper thinking).
As yoga gained popularity it transcended into mainstream culture.
Today. Although there remains an element of spiritual growth to the practice of yoga, the focus has shifted to holistic health. Many modern students set goals more directly related to physical fitness (gained with asanas) and stress reduction (obtained through proper breathing). And Hatha yoga remains the most popular form practiced in the West.