Ancient Yoga Vs. Modern Yoga

April 1, 2019



"Yoga is a journey,"


I keep reading in Yoga books and listening to from my teachers and fellow yogis.

It seems this is true for Yoga itself. And what a journey! 


Yoga has been in a process of evolution (and devolution) which spans more than 5000 years!
In these modern times, like everything in our own life, Yoga seems to be changing faster than ever! 


I'm optimistic because many of us can see through this worrying devolution and fragmentation. We know all people have now the opportunity to find the real teachings of our Ancient Sages, Gurus and Richies.


Yoga teaches fearless; oneness; contentment, therefore I can only have hope and be not afraid of serving the pure Yoga, its beautiful philosophy, its scientific findings and its technical practices. 

I’m not here to criticize, this development, as many traditionalists do; I believe that the modern “asana-ization” of Hathe Yoga is proving a good thing, a way to draw hyper, body-image-conscious Westerners into the field and get them hooked.
(Richard Rosen, Original Yoga)

Further reading: What is Yoga?




Ancient Yoga  
1. Yoga and the Vedic Period 
2. The Guru
3. Different schools, different methods, …  
4. More than 5000 years old in the making 
5. The decline of Yoga 

Modern Yoga 
6. India teachings travel to America 
7. Yoga (Asana) ballooning 




One's hope
8. The future of Yoga, my attempt to predict its future 
9. Rediscovering our Spirit. 
10.Reaching all beings  
11.A possible better world

Ancient Yoga  

An oversimplification of my current interpretation of Ancient Yoga is of a personal and social, if not exclusive, educational process, a complete system of techniques, tools, behaviours, thinking, acting, etc. Created during centuries of experimentation, to makes us stronger and better beings at all levels - physical, mental, emotional and spiritual. 


Ancient yoga seems it was enshrouded in mysticism and ritualism.


The teachings of yoga were passed orally to the proven Sadhaka by his Guru, a “teacher who serves others as a spiritual guide” (*1). The relationship would be ritualised and the yoga aspirant was supposed to stay in the guru-kala till the end of his instruction. 


Mainly, schools would follow Sage Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra teachings, though it was clear that some schools of thought had less or different limbs or yogangas

Yoga, like all forms of esotericism, presupposes the guidance of an initiate, a master who has firsthand experience of the phenomena and realizations of the yogic path. Ideally, he or she should have reached the ultimate spiritual destination of all yogic endeavour - enlightenment (bodha, bodhi), or liberation (moksha). Thus, contrary to the “pop” Yoga espoused by a large number of Westerners, authentic Yoga is never a do-it-yourself enterprise.
(Georg Feuerstein, The Yoga Tradition)

1. Yoga and the Vedic Period 

It seems the practice of yoga in Ancient Vedic times was not formalised and linked to cerimonies to do with fire, the Homas. 


To perform Homa, the sages had to sit immobile for days, weeks, even months in “Asanas”, straight, still, sitting positions of the body. The Mantras chanted required tremendous breath control (Pranayama). The ritualistic accuracy and purity required intense Dharana (concentration). 
(Yogacharini Meenakshi Devi Bhavanani, The History of Yoga from Ancient to Modern Times)

 2. The Guru




The guru was not just the person to learn from, but also to serve without questioning. "Devotion to the teacher should always be practiced, because the teacher is none other than the Divine” (*2).


Feuerstein, mentions that “according to the Kula-arnava-Tantra (12.64) such service - the text actually uses the word shushrusha, meaning “obedience” - is fourfold: service through one’s bodily self (atman), through material means (artha), through respect (mana), and through a good disposition (sad-bhava)”.



There is no one greater in the three worlds than the guru. It is he who grants “divine knowledge” (divya-jnana) and should be worshiped with supreme devotion. 

Yoga-Shikha-Upanishad (5.53) (*2)



An initiation ritual would be performed. This would be the sadhaka's rebirth, a “surrender in order for the transcendental Self to shine forth” (*2). The aspirant would then become part of his guru’s paramparai. The guru and his aspirant would gather in sat-sang and aspirants would learn from this oral tradition. The aspirant would become a antevasin - living with, attending and serving his guru - and very much a bhakta, a devotee. He should expect to be repeatedly tested during his study and course to Moksha.

3. Different schools, different methods, …  

Some authors defend that yoga would start with Hatha (style) yoga and then the sadhana would evolve to Raja yoga:


According to both Hatha-Yoga-Pradipika and Gheranda-Samhita, the first stage of traditional Hatha Yoga isn’t the behavioral injunctions - the yamas and niyamas, as it is in Patanjali’s yoga - but asana.
(Richard Rosen, Original Yoga)


It seems yoga was already fragmented and different schools or followers of different types of yoga had their priorities and their methods. The scriptures seem to support this because they provide different guidelines, different limbs (yogangas) and even different meanings of yoga itself.


…yoganga (a compound of yoga and manga), commonly translated ‘limb of yoga’, but better rendered ‘auxiliary of yoga’ when yoga means the goal rather then the method. (*3)


It seems though that the most venerated and followed yoga was Patanjali’s YogaSutra system, which would be called classical yoga or even Raja Yoga - meaning Royal Yoga.


The yoga Sutras establish the higher purpose of the yogin and the search for the higher states of consciousness.


Mark Singleton mentions, though, the “scarcity of information regarding asana in the sutras” (*4).

Contrary to today, in ancient times, the yoga systems seem were not coherent in their yogangas


Patanjali lists eight limbs. The rishis Vyasa (Mahabharata), Yajnavalkya (Yoga Yajnavalkya), and Vashista (Vasishta Samnita) mention the same number.  
(Gregor Maehle, Astanga Yoga, Practice & Philosophy)

Richard Rosen presents a table showing us that the different schools had from fourfold systems to fifteenfold systems, with most schools having sixfold or sevenfold systems. This is also defended by other authors which mention that most schools omited the Yamas and Niyamas from their teachings.


Since we are asked to practice ethics in all life situations, later teachers argued that they were not exclusive to yoga and for this reason did not need to be mentioned as a limb of yoga. Another argument brought forward was that the ethics shouldn't be included since they do not directly contribute to Samadhi.

(Gregor Maehle, Astanga Yoga, Practice & Philosophy)



more on the Yamas and Niyamas >


Other considered main schools are Hatha Yoga, Jnana Yoga, Bhakti Yoga, Karma Yoga, Mantra Yoga, Laye Yoga, Kundalini Yoga; and others which yoga seems to mean practice like Buddhi yoga - practice of discriminative knowledge, samnyasa yoga - practice of renunciation, dhyana yoga - practice of meditation, samadhi yoga - practice of exactas, guru-yoga - practice that has the spiritual teacher as its focus, nada-yoga - yoga of the inner sound, kriya - yoga - ritual action, vedantic asparsha-yoga - intangible yoga, etc.


more on the Different Types of Yoga >

The practice of elements of yoga one recognises today, are described in texts like the Hatha Yoga Pradipika


Seems Hatha yoga was developed to help the body in its processes of purification, and the purification of the mind concerning Nidis (Naris), chakras, prana, and asana


The HYP names asana as the first accessory (anga) of the hatha yoga and lists its benefits as the attainment of steadiness (sthairya), freedom from disease (arogya), and lightness of body (angalaghava) (1.19). The text outlines fifteen asanas. . . . The GhS [Gheranda Samhita] places the asanas after the purifications, and briefly describes thirty-two of them. The SS [Siva Samhita] mentions that there are eighty-four asanas, but describes only four seated postures. The mainstream of Hatha practice s pranayama. . . . cleanses and balances the subtle channels of the body (nadi) and in combination with certain bodily “seals, “ or mudras, forces prana (vital air) into the central channel called susumna or brahmanadi. This in turns raises the Kundalini energy…
(Mark Singleton, Yoga Body)

4. More than 5000 years old in the making 

Yoga’s first artefacts seem to be as old as 6000 years BCE (pre-vedic era) and the first scriptures which influence yoga, apear in the Vedic Era (4500 - 2500 BCE); the first complete yoga work, the Bhagavad-Gita - part of the Mahabharata - was written in the pre-classical or epic era (1000 - 100 BCE). During this era emerges two great orientations: Samnyasa or world renunciation and Dharma acceptance of social obligation. Jainism and Buddhism emerge.


During the Classical age (100 BCE - 500 CE) the “Yoga Sutra of Patanjali and Brahma-Sutra of Badarayana were composed and its end is marked by the composition of the Samkhya-Karika of Ishvara Krishna(*2).


From 500 - 1300 CE, the tantrism influences and transforms “the spiritual life of Hindus, Buddhists, and Jainas alike” (*2). This is called the Tantric or Puranic Age. The Puranas seemed to be influenced by tantra and contain valuable information about yoga.



The Sectarian Age (1300 - 1700 CE)


The Tantric rediscovery of the feminine principle [Shakti] for philosophy and yogic practice set the stage for the next phase in India’s cultural history: the Bhakti movement. (*2)



5. The decline of Yoga 



indians looking down

writings of vivekananda


Seems events like the decline of the Gupta kings or other change in the intellectual caste had no major impact on the evolution of yoga and the other 5 philosophies. Authors seem to point that it was in the Modern Age (1700 - present) that yoga got into a crisis. The cause seems to be the invasion of Western cultures. 


Ever since the founding of the East India Company in London in 1600 and the Dutch East India Company two years later, there has been a growing impact of Western secular imperialism upon the age-old religious traditions of India. This has led to progressive undermining of the native Indic value system through the introduction of Western-style (science-oriented and essentially materialistic) education combined with new technologies. 

(Georg Feuerstein, The Yoga Tradition)


Indeed the west, with it's imposing views and ideals, seems to criticise and refer to yogis as mendicants, preforming black magic, perverse sexuality, naked, covered in ashes - I’ve actually seen that recently in the TV program about The Ganges on the BBC where this holy man covers himself with ashes for a recent cremated body… why not?! - “long matted hair, offend to be found sitting under trees engaging in painful austerities. . . . spindle arms, long twisted nails, and fixed in the posture . . . (*4)


This was also the view of prominent Indians of the time like Vivekananda: 


This portion of the Yoga is a little similar to the Hatha Yoga, which deals entirely with the physical body; the aim of the latter is to make the physical body very strong. We have nothing to do with that here, because the practices are very difficult, and cannot be learned in a day, and, after all, do not lead to any spiritual growth. Many of these practices you will find in Delsarte, and other teachers, such as placing the body in different postures, but the object in these is physical, not psychological. 

(Swami Vivekananda, Raja Yoga)


Modern Yoga 



Traditional Hatha Yoga is what might be called a “full-time job” - time-consuming, strenuous, physically dangerous, and morally objectionable to mainstream standards in more ways than one. If the practice was to appeal to a popular audience, corners had to be cut so that the average householder-practitioner could fit a practice into her busy schedule, and dangerous or objectionable exercises had to be modified or excised altogether. When the dust dust of renovation settled, there wasn’t much left to do, so exercises were imported from outside sources - indian wrestling and Western gymnastics - to beef up the practice. They were given Sanskrit names to make them seem “yogic”; in this way, modern Hatha Yoga became asana-centric, or more precisely, it became equated with asana. 

(Richard Rosen, Original Yoga)


Seems that modern yoga, which some authors say is only around 100 years old, starts with the stripping of all that was seen as esoteric, and nowadays is normally reduced to the asana practice, Asana was, it seems influenced by body-building and gymnastics, the colonisation of India and the need of having a population strong to fight the occupier. A few cleansing practices and some pranayama seems to have escaped, though were barely ever practiced. 


Recently people started rediscovering the ancient practices and even soul seeking, after the emptiness left by the abandonment of religion in the West.

6. India's teachings travel to America 


Yoga interest grew with Vivekananda’s address to the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago, 1893. 


The Masters of the first period of Modern Yoga, Sri Ramakrishna, and his disciple Swami Vivekananda and Ramana Maharishi were very much in the Vedantic, Advaitic tradition of Adi Sankara. They did not put much emphasis on Asana, Pranayama or other Yogic practices. 

(Yogacharini Meenakshi Devi Bhavanani, The History of Yoga from Ancient to Modern Times)


Vivekananda as a Raja Yoga practitioner, did much to discredit Hatha yoga and label it an inferior, if not brutal, practice of esoteric techniques. This was much in line with the though of educated Indians, European scholars and religion institutions which were trying to force their education and law in India. 


Still, other prominent yogis would emphasise tradition and help structure a modern yoga. Swamiji Gitananda and others emphasised the practices of Kundalini arounsal and “certain Asanas and Pranayama" (*5) 


The second wave of Modern Yoga Masters was also heavily dominated by English speaking, Western educated Indians who were predominately Vedantic, Adwaitic, in the tradition of Adi Sankara. 

(Yogacharini Meenakshi Devi Bhavanani, The History of Yoga from Ancient to Modern Times)


Yoga was again coming back to its philosophical roots advocating “a simple life style, pure living, Bhakti and Karma Yoga, Japa and scriptural study” (*5).


With Western education, including the study of medicine, yogis started to form parallels to yoga and health, allowing Hatha yoga to get prominent stage in the tradition once again. 


Other prominent teachers, Krishnamacharya and his disciples BKS Iyengar and Pattabhi Jois, were also very important for the increased interest in Yoga. 


They are very criticised for having reduced yoga to a gymnastic and even a circus, but from my understanding and personal practise, I would disagree. Patabi Jois seems to have a very traditional focused school. His sequences are dynamic, but he justifies that it is to create fire allowing for the purification of the body, as well as to obtain lightness so one can be conscious on his practice, making the sequence a moving meditation. This is emphasised by the use of drishits, the bandhas, the pranayama, the mantras (invocations), etc.


Yoga Mala Quotation


Iyengar, mentions in some interviews (and book light on Yoga?) that Westerners have altered his teachings so much that his yoga seems something completely different from what he first thought and from tradition inherited form his teacher and the scriptures. 


Iyengar Quotation


His emphasis was on creating a hatha yoga practice catered more to the individual student and his problems, as well as to the household, which is limited in time.


That said, he says there is no regrets from his part in some interviews.  and even that

Apart from


7. Yoga (Asana) ballooning 


Yoga Asana nowadays is huge business. The Americans, really made their version of Yoga and, living to its capitalist ideals, made it easy for everyone to take it for a fee or subscription.




For me yoga was indeed a physical practice, in tune with the well-being conscious person. This was in fact reinforced in my first teacher training course. We were told not to worry about the philosophy and culture because we were not from India, that people are not interested in chanting, incense, etc and if we ever attempted to do those things then we would not teach in his studio. Yoga would be asana, my teacher's style and all others were wrong or ridiculous.


Fair point I'm no Indian, and I'm not English, barely Portuguese nowadays... The point is I'm not trying to be something or someone. I'm just being! And very happy about my being! And even happier from being involved in a w/holistic yoga and not just asana. That doesn't make me a pretender, a fraudster... just myself in the guidance of yoga. So let me (us) be a proud yogi!




Yoga has been evolving for centuries. Nowadays, Yoga is changing faster then ever. Globalisation, mass communication and wide reaching is making of yoga a business. 


I guess this is not really a new discussion, vivekenanda would complain yogis would do poses to get money; indeed kricqhnamacharia and his pupils iyanger, jois and others would perform to the high colonial society to get funds. Nowadays we collect subscription fees, sell videos on demand and stream classes on the internet to millions of viewers. 


If we don’t do it we will lose it. With time and with more education people will get interested in the more ancient practices. Like me, they will see how they are beautiful, poetic, functional, liberating.

The future of Yoga, my attempt to predict its future 


Can a tradition that originated five thousand years ago possibly be relevant today? This question is legitimate enough. Over the part two centuries, we have seen the erosion of tradition religions beliefs, values, and practices in Europe and America and increasingly slide in other parts of the world. . . . Since then, secular humanism - propped up by scientific materialism - has unsuccessfully tried to fill the void created by this onslaught on  traditional mores and religious creeds.

(Georg Feuerstein, The Path of Yoga)

9. Rediscovering our Spirit. 


Some authors comment on the gap eft by the diminished importance giving to Christian and other faiths in the west. I agree. Personally, I found that the teachings of Catholic church were good and in many thoughts the same as the ones I’m currently learning with the studying of yoga. Most people nowadays, don’t want to be told about heaven and hell, punishment and repenting. Still people want to hear about love, being a community, being good to each other and responsible, being with a higher purpose. Yoga, as a way of living and as a philosophy brings all these ideas together. And the new approach of the body being the carrier of the soul and consciousness resonates with the modern way of thinking of the western person. The asana is the prefect way for opening the mind to these modern and ancient teachings. Is a perfect way to providing the discurse on yoga as a physical practice, and of a practice of devotion, duty, responsibility, action, equanimity, towards the self, the higher Self, nature and the subtle world, which if not believed, are still absorbed because of their beautiful and artistic view, something people are being deprived nowadays as well.

10. Reaching all beings 


Because yoga is so versatile and accommodating, all beings can take yoga or a part of it without any of the parties loose. Some might only be interested in the physical practice, others more in the study of scriptures and their wise words. 


Now that yoga is a household word, it is the duty of Schools like the Gitananda tradition to reach the people who really want to explore more, what it proposes as, the science of the self, its technologies and the rediscovery and reappraise of the ancient and even the lost practices.


Technology is here to help. And if people like the Gaia website, then let us make one. If people like yoga magazines full of nice clothes, lets make one. If people want to do juicing or detox, then let us create the opportunities. if they want to be slim, stress free, feel loved, etc, lets do it. And if we make some money on the way, lets use it wisely. If we have fake gurus is our duty to get higher then them and make people see.


Though Sage Patanjali lists “Asana” only four significant times in his 196 Sutras, the modern Yoga scene has made the “Asana” the end- all and be-all of Yoga. The “Cult of Flexibility” has risen. One’s value is rated according to one’s physical flexibility. The terrific clash of the Judeo-Christian materialistic and intellectual tradition with the ascetic, intuitive Yoga of the East, produced the most immense amount of misinformation, confusion, distortion imaginable. Truly, the ancient Rishis would turn over in their graves if they could see the advertisements in modern Yoga journals, promising “power over others”, “magnetic personalities”, “enhanced sexuality” etc. through “Yoga” in exchange for a few dollars. The modern Guru has no compunction about self promotion and the serene usually bearded faces, of hundreds of “Gurus” of all varieties can be seen smiling from paid- advertisements everywhere. 

(Yogacharini Meenakshi Devi Bhavanani, The History of Yoga from Ancient to Modern Times)

11.A possible better world


I believe yoga has a place in every household. The improvements of modern yoga should be embraced in taking the true teachings of Patanjali and other sages to every person on the planet who is seeking or who will be seeking but still didn’t found the opportunity for it. 


Ways of thinking will not change. The complaints are the same. Patanjali was writing about quieting of the mind already 200 BCE. In our mind and what we read in texts things always seem to be worse 

during our life time. Well, I would argue that for many the situation is better. Yoga can complement our education and make this world even better. We just have to make (the right) noise so people hear us.



But the age-old, well-tested Yoga tradition, which has great vitality, will easily survive public opinion. Furthermore, as the more flamboyant and questionable teachers drop out of sight as the students themselves become more realistic and mature, Yoga will very likely gain in strength over the years to come. 

(Georg Feuerstein, The Path of Yoga)


*1 - Georg Feuerstein, The Path of Yoga
*2 - Georg Feuerstein, The Yoga tradition
*3 - Richard Rosen, Original Yoga
*4 - Mark Singleton, Yoga Body
*5 - Yogacharini Meenakshi Devi Bhavanani, The History of Yoga from Ancient to Modern Times