Yoga History, Types, and Terminology

Yogi Badge, Step 1

As winter sets in we naturally slow down, take inventory, and reflect on life. Some associate this time of year with increased focus on self-improvement and better health. Yoga practice provides an excellent opportunity to cover all of these bases.

We have been yogi’s (that is, someone who practices yoga) for many years. I still fondly remember my first yoga classes at the library of our local public school. The dim lights, soft music, and refreshing stretches were just what a frazzled mom needed. I was hooked. Although I love the yoga classes of today, learning about yoga’s very long and rich history for our Yogi Badge felt like an overwhelming task. But I did it! And I boiled it down to the good stuff for you. Join us as we stretch and dip our toes into the ocean of yoga history, different types of yoga practiced today, and commonly used yoga terminology.

Earn the Yogi Badge

If you are interested in earning the Yogi Badge yourself, you can see the Journal Badge Guide, or “recipe” for the badge here. Each Badge Guide contains three steps to be completed in order to earn the badge. These steps can be done on your own, but we encourage you to grab a few friends and learn together!

Step 1 is always focused on research. Look up the topic online, watch videos to learn a skill, or visit your local library.  You can read about the resources and fascinating facts we found below.

Yoga History

Yoga means union or yoke and refers to uniting the body and the mind.

A more technical definition is offered by Merriam-Webster: “a system of physical postures, breathing techniques and sometimes meditation to promote physical and emotional well-being.” A more elegant definition can be found at Yoga Medicine who describes yoga as “a union between the body, mind, and spirit.”

The word “yoga” is usually translated as “union” or “yoke” and early writings about the practice talk about a union between the body and mind that will help an individual develop a union with the universal.
Photo by Pixabay on

A How stuff works article provides a simplified yoga history tracking the ancient tradition that originated in northern India through time.

  • 1200 BCE: Yoga was first mentioned in the Vedas, a set of sacred Indian scripture.
  • 300 BCE: Yoga is mentioned in the Bhagavad Gita. This text outlines three types of yoga: Karma, bhakti and jnara.
  • 200 AD: The Yoga Sutras are written and provides the first how to yoga text and refers to the eight limbs, or steps of yoga. Among these steps are asana and pranayama. These elements form the basis for most modern yoga classes. The only yoga posture mentioned is a seated meditation pose. Posture information was likely passed down orally from teacher to student.
  • 1800’s: Birth of modern yoga at Mysore Palace in India. The royal family practiced ancient Indian arts and the prince wrote the Sritattvanidhi, one of the first yoga manuals to include physical postures. The Maharaja (rulers) at Mysore funded the guru’s travel throughout India to demonstrate yoga.
  • 1890’s: People from the west begin to visit Mysore and guru’s began to travel west.
  • 1900’s Pierre Bernard traveled the world giving speeches on yoga’s benefits and set up a yoga retreat on the Hudson River in the US.
  • 1930’s: Mysore installed a yoga school in the palace. Krishnamacharya studied and taught there. He developed ashtanga yoga which was an athletic form of yoga linking many postures rhythmically.
  • 1947: Indra Devi, who studied at Mysore, opened her yoga studio in Hollywood. She focused solely on the physical benefits of yoga. She recruited many movie stars to take her classes (e.g., Greta Garbo, Gloria Swanson and Marilyn Monroe).
  • 1950’s: Richard Hittleman repackaged yoga as a physical exercise regimen. While teaching yoga on television, he minimized the spiritual and meditative aspects. Additionally, he wrote and sold many books on yoga.
  • 1960’s-1970’s: There is a resurgence of interest in the more spiritual aspects of yoga.
  • 1990’s: Yoga becomes a popular workout for Americans. Once again mainly focusing on the physical workout and losing the spiritual element.
  • Today: Yoga provides benefits of the physical and mental variety to a population of overworked people who spend too much time on their screens!
Photo by Samuel Silitonga on

Yoga Classes

Finding the “right” yoga class has been an adventure for me and Elizabeth. We have taken many community classes taught by many different teachers. Looking back, we often laugh at these past experiences, ranging from a dark room lit up with tons of Christmas lights to fully lit rooms, teeny bop music playing (loudly), to ultra religious music, to no music, muscular high school gym teacher type instructor (think Bruce Willis), to spiritual guru instructor types. We also have a strong home-based practice with our Youtube teacher, Adrienne.

My favorite classes have focused mainly on the physical posture elements of yoga but have also included some form of spirituality and breath work. I loved the yoga style taught by my first teacher from way back in the public school library where I fell in love with yoga for the first time. When she retired I was forced to look elsewhere for a yoga teacher. Thus began the yoga class adventures described above. Elizabeth and I would find a good fit only to have that teacher move on to another studio. The search continues. We have found that having a good understanding of the different types of yoga and yoga classes can help us find the right class fit.

Types of Yoga

GAIAM offers a great summary of the eight major styles of yoga offered today. Which type of yoga is right for you? The best way to figure that out is to try some different yoga classes. Many yoga studios offer different types of classes to “drop in” and experiment with. We have found that finding the right teacher is just as important as finding the right type of yoga.

  • Anusara – Rigorous classes that use a sequenced physical practice to assist students in opening their hearts. Developed in 1997 by John Friend and based on the belief that people are intrinsically good.
  • Ashtang – Rigorous sequence of postures that links movement with breath that is always done in the same order. Based on ancient yoga teachings. Brought to the west in the 1970’s by K. Pattabhi Jois.
  • Bikram – Series of 26 poses always done in the same order. Classes are held in artificially heated rooms. Developed by Bikram Choudhury.
  • Hatha – Any type of yoga that teaches physical postures. Typically a gentle beginner-type class.
  • Hot Yoga – Yoga done in artificially heated room – but differs from Bikram’s strict 26 posture sequence.
  • Iyengar – Focus on finding proper alignment in a pose. Uses many props such as blocks, blankets and straps. Teachers undergo comprehensive training.
  • Restorative – Focus on relaxing, restorative, and rejuvenating postures.
  • Vinyasa – Known for fluid movement and smooth transitions from pose to pose. No two classes are the same but all aim to link breath to movement, often with music.

What the heck does namaste mean? A brief guide to Yoga Terminology.

Yoga comes with its own language. Literally. Yoga’s root language is Sanskrit. You will find that yoga teachers will often use the Sanskrit language as well as the English translations and sometimes even slang terms to describe postures and other yoga related instructions throughout a class. Don’t get discouraged! With repeated yoga practice, Sanskrit phrases will soon become familiar vocabulary. Aaptiv provides a great list of yoga terms for beginners to familiarize themselves with.

  • Asana: physical poses or postures
  • Vinyasa: a flowing sequence of yoga poses often incorporating breath (both a type of yoga and a yoga technique)
  • Pranayama: breath work or controlling your breathing
  • Ujjayi: a breathing technique achieved when breathing in and out through your nose with deep inhales and exhales.
  • Drishti: a focused gaze meant to draw attention to your practice
  • Sun Salutation: a sequence of yoga flow postures, with either 12 or 16 postures. These often start with mountain, forward fold, flat back, forward fold, plank, and down dog.
  • Downward-facing Dog: an inverted V posture.
  • Chaturanga: a transition movement from plank to upward facing dog. Kind of like a push up!
  • Savasana: also called Corpse Pose-a restorative, meditative pose often done at the end of class. This pose is a lot of people’s favorite pose!
  • Namaste: typically said at the end of class while pressing your palms together. It translates to “the divine in me acknowledges the divine in you.” Saying this word reminds us that we are all one and connected.

Below you will find videos covering common yoga terms.

Yoga Fun Facts by The Good Body:

  • 36 Million people in the US practice yoga
  • 72% of yoga practitioners are women
  • June 21st in International Yoga Day
  • Yoga classes used to be just for men. Women were not invited to participate until 1937!
  • Beatle George Harrison incorporated the beliefs of yoga into his music. Some feel he was responsible for the increase in yoga popularity in the 1970’s. Learn more about George Harrison and yoga here.

Yoga Resources:

  • For more yoga history check out the Wellcome Collection website series here.
  • This podcast has an overview of yoga history.
  • This podcast debunks some yoga history.
  • Recently released Netflix documentary Bikram discusses the controversial man behind this popular yoga practice.

In our next post for the Yogi Badge we will dive deeper into the yoga pool and learn more about specific poses and the benefits of yoga. Join us as we try out tree pose, delight in downward facing dog, and carry out the cat-cow posture! Later we will transform two spaces into home yoga studios and make our own yoga mat bags!

We want to hear from you! Do you know any yoga fun facts? What is your favorite yoga style or posture? Do you have any entertaining yoga class stories to share? Message us on Instagram or Facebook or drop us a line here.

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