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Yoga Lineage – The History of Yoga and How It Impacts Your Practice Today

Alexander Berger
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The quote below from Marcus Garvey, was made in reference to members of the African Diaspora who, in the west, had a limited connection to their homeland, traditional culture, and history. While this statement by Garvey remains true regarding any society that has become disconnected with its history, it is especially pertinent to yoga lineage and modern yoga in the west.

“A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.” – Marcus Garvey

Garvey was speaking in the early 20th century. In the 21st century, with the rapid expansion of yoga in the west, we can see a similar situation occurring. Many people practice yoga with little to no knowledge of its history, its cultural significance in India, and the different forms and traditions in the yoga lineage.
Yet, if we look at yoga as part of a larger Indian tradition, it becomes quite clear that we must familiarize ourselves with the history of yoga and the yoga lineage. And as yoga practitioners, if we wish to be an upright tree, we must first establish substantial roots.

A Brief History of Yoga

According to The Yoga Sutras of Patañjali: A New Edition, Translation, and Commentary
, the first evidence of yogic activities comes in the form of seals, or carved stone tablets, found in ruins of the ancient city of Harappa circa 3000-1900 BCE, in what is now Eastern Pakistan.
The seals from Harappa contain various images. One such image is a subject seated in a yogic meditation posture, which may suggest that yogic practices were already in existence at this point in time. As noted in Teaching Yoga, Essential Foundations and Techniques, these seals come from the Vedic period of India, and are accompanied by the more recent religious texts of the Vedas, circa 1700-1100 BCE.

The Vedas

The earliest Vedas have no explicit reference to Yoga, which may lead some people to believe that Yoga existed prior to the Vedic period. However, later texts such as the Upanishads do contain explanations of meditative yogic techniques, possibly as early as 900 BCE.
As described in Light on Life: an Introduction to the Astrology of India, these disciplines were traditionally taught (and are still taught today) through “oral transmission via memorization, prosodic recitation, and discussion.” It is in this traditional method of teaching that you can begin to see the importance of a guru/disciple relationship.

Classical Texts on Yoga

Skipping ahead 500 hundred years in yoga lineage, we come to the Bhagavad Gita, discussed below. And a few hundred years later we come to the seminal text of Dhyana Yoga, The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, circa 200 CE.
Want to learn more about the Yoga Sutras? Read this: 20 Yoga Sutras Explained.
The Yoga Sutras were composed in such a way that, without a qualified teacher to explain them, many are incomprehensible. It is likely that the sutras were composed in accordance with the tradition of a guru guiding a student.

The Medieval Roots of Hatha Yoga

More than 1,000 years later comes the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, a 14th century manual by Swatmarama, which details a handful of Asanas and several Pranayamas, Mudras, and Bandhas – all attributed to primordial guru Sri Adinath.

Paying Homage to the Teacher

To Swatmarama, his yoga lineage was so important that he makes sure to list it early on in the text. And following tradition, he pays homage the teachers and masters that came before him.
The Hatha Yoga Pradipika lays the groundwork for modern texts such as Light on Yoga by B.K.S. Iyengar.
Just like the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, Iyengar begins his text with a dedication to his guru, Krishnamacharya – followed by prayers to Patanjali and Adisvara, the first teacher of Hatha Yoga.


The Guru and the Disciple

A subject that cannot be understated is the guru/disciple relationship, which is the basis in the yoga lineage.

Without a guru before you, there can be no lineage.

We can witness an example of this in a prominent holy text of India, the Bhagavad Gita, which dates back to circa 400 BCE. In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna plays the part of guru to his disciple Arjuna, teaching him the different paths of yoga.
This particular teacher-student relationship illustrates how important this tradition was in ancient India. It was valued so highly that one of the most prominent texts of Hinduism and yoga depicts a teacher guiding his student through the battlefield of life – and spirituality.
Want to learn more about the Bhagavad Gita? Read this: 3 Life Lessons We Can Learn From the Bhagavad Gita.
The direct transmission of knowledge and technique from teacher to student is of critical importance regarding Hatha Yoga because:

  • Hatha yoga cannot be learned from books or videos alone and many aspects of yoga are to be accompanied by the guidance of a qualified teacher
  • A book cannot correct your misinterpretation of what is written in it, just as a video cannot correct or assist your posture or technique


Who is Sri T. Krishnamacharya?

Sri T. Krishnamacharya (1888-1989) is considered by some to be the source of much of the yoga now taught in the west. According to The Power of Ashtanga Yoga, Krishnamacharya spent seven years with his Hatha Yoga guru, Rama Mohan Brahmachari, learning traditional methods of Asana and Pranayama.

Krishnamacharya went on to be the Hatha Yoga guru for some of the most well known teachers of the 20th century.

His disciples included B.K.S Iyengar, Pattabhi Jois, T. K. V. Desikachar, A. G. Mohan, and Indra Devi.

Can You Trace Your Lineage?

Many teachers and students of yoga can trace their lineage directly to some of these masters. Can you? How many degrees of separation exist between you and any of these great yoga masters?
Wondering if yoga has been americanized? Read this: The Americanization of Yoga: Why It’s More Good Than Bad.
One of my more influential teachers, Libbie Mathis, studied directly with both Krishnamacharya, and Iyengar, providing her students with only one degree of separation from these revered yoga gurus. Often in her classes she would explain how she is a part of this particular Yoga lineage, and by doing so, paid homage to those who taught her how to teach us.

Why Your Yoga Lineage Matters

When we take the time to get to know and understand our place on the tree of yoga, we start to recognize and appreciate the different types of yoga, where and who they originated from, and why one style or one teacher might be better fit than another.
Over time all spiritual traditions evolve to fit the current era, but that does not mean we should dismiss the past. Rather, we should use it to better understand the teachings of yoga.

On Finding Your Teacher

In the end, remember that yoga is an incredibly personal practice. When selecting a yoga studio, teacher, teacher training program, or spiritual guru, it is important to consider:

  • What or who are their main influences?
  • What tradition or lineage are they a part of?
  • Does this teacher, program, or studio resonate with me?

If the studio or teacher doesn’t resonate with you, either give it time or try another tradition or teacher. Don’t get down if you don’t find the right place immediately.
More than once I have heard yogis say “When you are ready, a teacher will appear.” Yet, if you don’t want to wait for a teacher to find you, you may just need to choose a studio to uncover what you are looking for and what interests you!
May you all find that which we all seek – Namaste!

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Alexander Berger

Alexander has been teaching yoga for almost 3 years and is a RYT 500. He is also a certified Nutritional Educator and natural chef, with a passion for permaculture. Alex is currently studying South Asian Religions & Languages at CU, as well as Jyotish and Ayurveda in his spare time.

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