A Brief History of Modern Yoga

What if the history of yoga has as much to do with the nineteenth century physical culture movement in Europe, as it does with ancient Hindu philosophy?

Jul 5, 2022By Scott Mclaughlan, PhD Sociology
ling gymnastics geothermal yoga pose
Swedish ‘Ling’ gymnastics, Stockholm, 1893, via Wikimedia Commons


Modern yoga is a global phenomenon. For many, yoga is a way of life; a transformative practice that aids millions of people worldwide with physical fitness, wellbeing, and bodily health. However, the history of yoga is curious to say the least. The origins of yoga can be traced to ancient north India. However, to properly understand the history of yoga, we have to look at the intertwined histories of colonial India, Western occultism, and the European physical culture movement. Read on to discover the secret history of yoga.


The History of Yoga and the Colonial Encounter

swami vivekananda history of yoga
Swami Vivekananda the “Hindoo Monk of India”, 1893 Chicago Parliament of World Religions, via the Wellcome Collection


In a sense, the roots of yoga can be traced in pre-colonial practice of hathayoga in medieval India. However, the roots of modern yoga — as we know and understand the practice today — can be more accurately traced to the Indian experience of British colonialism.


In this regard, the story begins in Bengal. Faced with the perceived cultural superiority of British colonialism, Indian elites endured a prolonged period of soul searching. They saw Christianity as open to all genders and classes, and saw that Christian missionaries successfully drew on the New Testament to propagate their message.


On the other hand, they saw that the Indian caste system only allowed upper caste Hindus to participate in the Vedic religion. Furthermore, the vast body of Vedic literature could not be distilled into a simple message. Christianity was gaining ground and it appeared that Hinduism was going backwards. Something needed to be done.


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In 1828, the Brahmo Samaj was founded in the center of British rule, the city of Calcutta. Their mission was to bring a universal vision of “God” into view within a reformed Hinduism. The Bhagavadgītā would become their holy book and the vehicle for its delivery would be yoga.


Decades later, perhaps their most famous member, Swami Vivekananda, would go on to present his vision of a reformed Hinduism to the world at the Chicago Parliament of Religions in 1893. Through the promotion of yogic religious spirituality, he argued that the spiritual improvement of all mankind could be achieved.


Above all, by promoting Hinduism under the banner of yoga, Vivekananda was able to promote the Hindu religion as a respectable area of personal interest for the Western middle classes. In reaction to the humiliating experience of colonial rule, Swami Vivekananda traveled to America to present yoga to the masses, and to establish Hinduism as a world religion.


The Impact of Western Occultism 

madame blavatsky history of yoga
Founder of the Theosophical Society, Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, via Lapsham’s Quarterly


Curiously, the history of yoga is also connected to the popularity of Western esotericism and the occult in the late colonial world. The most popular occult society of the time, the Theosophical Society, played a key role in the popularization of yoga.


The Theosophical Society was founded in 1875 as a popular esoteric alternative to Christianity in the West. Theosophy, its founders claimed, was not a religion. But rather, a system of “essential truth”. The major contribution of the Theosophical Society to public culture was the vigorous production of scholarly works on Hinduism, Buddhism and other “Eastern” philosophies.


The primary objective of the Theosophical Society was to elucidate the occult. Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (co-founder of the society), for one, claimed that she was a receptacle of astral communications from spiritual “masters” that instructed her to disseminate their teachings to the world.


Typically, Theosophists were drawn from the professional middle classes; they were doctors, lawyers, educators, and public intellectuals. In this regard, the society’s publishing activities and sponsorship of conferences on occult topics — from astral phenomena, to esoteric religion — effectively normalised occultism as professional knowledge.


The Theosophical Society thus played an important role in generating Western interest in Hinduism and yoga. Blavatsky even wrote in 1881 that “neither modern Europe nor America had so much as heard [of yoga] until the Theosophists began to speak and write.” She had a point.


Accordingly, the popularity of Vivekananda in Chicago cannot be seen in isolation from the Western vogue for the occult and Eastern spiritual knowledge systems.  What is puzzling, is that both the Theosophists and Vivekananda openly reputed the idea that postures had anything to do with yoga whatsoever. The role of postures in the history of yoga would come from an altogether different quarter.


The Influence of European Physical Culture 

swedish ling gymnastics
Swedish ‘Ling’ gymnastics, Stockholm, 1893, via Wikimedia Commons


Yoga as we know it today is closely intertwined with the nineteenth century European physical culture movement. European physical culture itself was closely tied to nineteenth century visions of the nation.


A common British slant on Indian men was that they were effeminate, inferior and weak. In British India a crucial aspect of resistance to colonial rule was to blend ideas of European body culture and gymnastics, with an Indian twist. The result was “indigenous” systems of exercise and physical culture. The Indian nationalist physical culture that emerged came to be known to many as “Yoga”.


By the 1890s, European ideas of nationalist “man-making” were popularized by a dizzying array of health and fitness magazines. These magazines championed the benefits of bodily cultivation through gymnastics and bodybuilding. German, Danish and Swedish man-making exercises led the way.


The Indian physical culture magazine Vyāyam was incredibly popular. And through organisations such as the Indian YMCA — not to mention the invention of the modern Olympics in 1890 — the association of health and fitness with a strong Indian nation was born.


Above all else, as the pioneering yoga scholar Mark Singleton has shown, the system of Swedish gymnastics created by P.H Ling (1766-1839) profoundly influenced the development of Western physical culture in general, and modern postural yoga in particular.


Ling’s method was aimed at medical fitness and the cure of disease through movement. Furthermore, his gymnastics aimed at the holistic development of the ‘whole person’ – in much the same way as modern yoga is concerned with mind, body and spirit.


From the start, modern yoga has been a health regime for body and mind, based on principles of posture and movement. As we will see, for modern Indian yoga pioneers such as Shri Yogendra, postural yoga was an indigenous form of exercise comparable to Swedish gymnastics — but better and with more to offer.


The Indian Yoga Renaissance 

shri yogendra history of yoga
Shri Yogendra, via Google Arts & Culture


The yoga renaissance in India was born of the colonial experience. In the face of the colonial myth of Hindu effeminacy, yoga became an important vehicle for the development of national physical culture. Accordingly, motifs of Indian physical strength and fitness became important expressions of cultural politics.


As images representing Grecian ideals of strength and vitality became symbolically important in the Indian anti-colonial struggle, yoga began to gain popularity among the nationalist elite. One of the most important figures in this process was Shri Yogendra, the founder of The Yoga Institute in Bombay.


As well as being a bodybuilder and wrestler in his youth, Manibhai Desai was educated at the elite Bombay college, St Xaviers. A man of the times, the pull of contemporary ideas of science, health, and fitness, as the keys to human progress, influenced him profoundly.


A quick glance at Yogendra’s writings shows that he was heavily influenced by European trends in physical culture. His yoga was defined in relation to curative therapy, medicine, physical fitness, and modern psychology.


Yogendra was not immune to claiming that his practice was based on the preservation of ancient yogic traditions. However, he was clear that his aim was the development of yoga into a curative therapy based on rhythmic exercise. In 1919, Yogendra set up the Yoga Institute of America in New York..


The history of yoga is thus a history of radical experimentation and cross-fertilization that stems from India’s encounter with colonial-modernity. The Indian yoga renaissance was driven by colonial concerns with mental and moral strength, health, and cultivation of the physical body.


Most importantly, the story of the Indian yoga renaissance shows that the spiritual gymnastics that we call modern yoga is a radically new tradition. In this context, while yoga undoubtedly has Indian roots, this is far from the whole story.


The Secret History of Yoga 

downward dog yoga
Downward-facing dog illustrated using thermography, via Wellcome Collection


Yoga is a rich Indian spiritual tradition. Yet the history of yoga — as we know it today — is not best explained with reference to ancient Indian culture. Modern yoga was reinvented in the context of India’s colonial experience and in relation to the physical cultural movement that emerged in Europe.


Swedish gymnastics in particular had a substantial impact on the development of modern postural yoga. Suppleness, strength, and agility are therefore as central to yoga today as breath control, meditation, and spirituality. Ideas of physical culture, health, and fitness are therefore central to the history of yoga.


While Swami Vivekananda is often cited as the father of modern yoga. In actual fact, he had no interest in yoga postures at all. Instead, he focused on breathing and meditation. As far as postures were concerned, Vivekananda was only interested in seated positions as a foundation for correct breathing and meditative practice.


Furthermore, in his magnum opus Raja-yoga (1896) he wrote that “from the time it was discovered, more than four thousand years ago Yoga was perfectly delineated, formulated and preached in India.” However, as we have seen, the history of yoga as a dynamic postural practice was born through a complex fusion of Indian nationalism, occultism, and European physical culture.


In this context, the idea of yoga as a timeless, ancient tradition is difficult to maintain.


Nonetheless, this is not to suggest that the utility of yoga — in whatever form — as a restorative, transformative practice, is not relevant today. From its very beginnings yoga practice has been constantly adapting, shifting, and evolving. Yoga is practized all over the world in many hybrid forms. In all probability, this fact is unlikely to change.

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By Scott MclaughlanPhD SociologyScott is an independent scholar with a doctorate in sociology from Birkbeck College, University of London.