Is Yoga Really 5,000 Years Old?

by Nina
The Pushupati Seal

Have you ever wondered whether yoga is really—as some claim—over 5,000 years old? And, if so, are you curious about exactly were yogis doing back then? I thought today I’d address both these questions. But I hope you’ll bear with me and allow me to take my time with this one because while there could be a simple answer, the complicated one is more interesting to me. I’ll start with a simple answer and move on from there. 

A Simple Answer 

According to Richard Rosen’s book Yoga FAQ, the claim that yoga is 5,000 years old comes from a stone seal named the Pushupati seal by archeologist Sir John Marshall  (image above). A lot of assumptions were made about the seal because the image seemed to show a yoga pose and the name chosen by Marshall reflects that. However, these days yoga scholars are saying that since everyone back then sat on the ground, this image could simply represent someone just sitting and there are others saying that this is actually seated bull, not a seated person. 

So, Richard says that as of now all we know for sure is that “yoga is as least as old as its first concrete mention as a practice, about 2,500 years ago in the Katha Upanishad":

When the five knowings cease
Together with the mind,
And intelligence does not stir,
They call that the highest bourne.

The steadfast control of the senses
Is known as “yoga”—
Then one becomes undistracted:
For yoga is the origin and the passing away. —Translation by Valerie Roebuck 

And in The Roots of Yoga by James Maillinson and Mark Singleton, the authors say, “Prior to about 500 B.C.E. there is very little evidence within South Asian textual or archaeological sources that points to the existence of systematic, psychological techniques of the type which the word ‘yoga’ subsequently came to denote.” And about the stone seals from the Indus Valley civilization, they say, “in spite of their popular currency, offer no conclusive evidence of an ancient yogic culture.” 

So, if we add 500 B.C.E. to 2,018 C.E., that puts us at 2,500 years, just as Richard said. If you want to add a bit of wiggle room for yoga that that was practiced before the Katha Upanishad was composed (practices aren’t usually documented the moment they are developed), I’ll leave that up to you.

What Preceded "Yoga"

After I read those two sources for a simple answer, I remembered from my yoga studies with Donald Moyer and my readings of The Yoga Tradition that the era before the Upanishads (the Katha Upanishad was one of many) was the era of the Vedas—the earliest of which was the Rig-Veda. And back then some people in the Indus Valley were engaged in practices and formulating ideas about the nature of the universe and humanity that can be seen as setting the foundation from which yoga evolved. 

The Rig-Veda is the oldest document that we have that describes Vedic practices by Brahmin priests and rishis (seers or sages) in the Indus Valley somewhere between 15th to 12th century B.C.E. (it’s hard to date the Rig-Veda precisely and there are some who date it much earlier due to astronomical references in the text). Georg Feuerstein uses the term Proto-Yoga to describe some of the Vedic practices and concepts. 

“The Proto-Yoga of the rishis contains many of the elements characters of later Yoga: concentration, watchfulness, austerities, regulation of the breath in connection with the recitation of the sacred hymns, painstakingly accurate recitation (foreshadowing the later Mantra-Yoga), devotional invocation (finding full flowering in the medieval Bhakti-Yoga), visionary experience, the idea of self-sacrifice (or surrender of the ego), the encounter with a Reality larger than ego-personality, and the continuous enrichment of ordinary life by that encounter (heralding the later Sahaja-Yoga).” —The Yoga Tradition 

Feuerstein says there is evidence in the Rig-Veda that some forms of meditation were practiced by the rishis. He cites Jeanine Miller, saying that she examined the Rig-Veda from the point of view of spiritual practice and concluded that “the discipline of meditation (dhyana) as the fulcrum of yoga goes back to the Rig-Vedic period.” He also says that according to Miller, “the meditative practice in Vedic times displays three distinct but overlapping aspects, which she calls ‘mantric meditation,’ ‘visual meditation,’ and ‘absorption in the mind and heart.’” 

And Sri Aurobindo says about the Rig-Veda: 

“Here we have the ancient psychological science and the art of spiritual living of which the Upanishads were the philosophical outcome.” 

The Roots of Yoga has some additional information about yoga-like activities from the Vedic era, the earliest of which is from passages in the Rig-Veda that indicate “the use of visionary meditation” and in particular the famous hymn to a long-haired sage which “suggests mystical ascetic tradition similar to those of later yogis.” Here is the first stanza of that hymn translated by Georg Feuerstein:

“The long-hair [endures] fire; the long-hair [endures] poison; the long-hair endures Heaven-and-Earth [both physical and psychic]; the long-hair gazes fully on Heaven; the long-hair is said to be that [transcendental] Light.” 

That really reminds me of a certain passage in the Bhagavad Gita. However, the authors of The Roots of Yoga caution “But it is entirely speculative to claim, as several popular writers on yoga have done, that the Vedic corpus provides any evidence of systematic yoga practice.” 

Also, keep in mind that even for Proto-Yoga, because the Rig-Veda is from the period of the 12th to 15th centuries B.C.E., we’re still only around 3,500, not 5,000. 

The Bottom Line 

If you want to play it completely safe, you can say that yoga is more than 2,500 years old. But I think that you could also say that during the Vedic era that preceded the yoga of the Upanishads there were practices and concepts that provided the foundations for what later became yoga. Saying yoga is over 5,000 years old, however, is a really big stretch. 

Though I did address the issue of what "yoga" was like 5,000 years ago, I guess I didn’t say anything about what the earliest actual yogis were doing 2,500 years ago (not much like what we do today, as you might guess), so maybe I’ll look at that in a future post. Meanwhile, I’m kind of on a roll with these questions about what is ancient and how ancient is ancient, so if you have any questions about yoga history you would like me to address, let me know.

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