Origins of Yoga: Part I

I run into numerous yoga myths in the yoga community, but perhaps the most persistent myth I’ve encountered is the myth that modern yoga is part of a classical yoga tradition stretching back thousands of years. The idea of tradition, or heritage, within yoga practice is so widespread that nearly every practicing yogi and yoga organization makes claims about modern yoga’s heritage. In fact, such claims are often necessary to authenticate these people or organizations as legitimate within the field. (This very topic is one I’m researching right now for my dissertation, so I’m sure I will write more about later.) But is the origin narrative we find in yoga actually true?

The short answer to the question of whether modern yoga is as old as we say it is would be: “Sort of, but for the most part no.” I think this answer is one that ruffles the feathers of many yogis, who cherish and value the origin myth. This is particularly true for yoga teachers, who are often socialized to believe and embrace this myth wholeheartedly in their practice and their teaching by utilizing things like sanskrit, chanting, or the incorporation of mythological themes in their classes. These practices further perpetuate the belief in a classical yoga tradition among their students.

Since this is the beginning of my blog, I think it’s important to start out discussing some of the myths surrounding the origins of yoga. This is the first part of several blog posts that will focus on this topic, exploring the variety of “tall tales” that get told about the history of the practice. The final post in the series will be focused on why the myth persists and what purpose it serves for many yogis and the field as a whole.

I’d like to explore these myths chronologically in time, so the first myth about the origin of yoga is goes back quite far in “yoga history.” The practice of yoga is most often cited to be nearly 5,000 years old, having originated in ancient India. While this claim is itself questionable, and will be the topic of my second post in this series, there is another theory that claims the actual origin of yoga was Egypt c. 40,000 BCE.

Yoga in Egypt

Often referred to as Kemetic Yoga, advocates of this origin narrative claim yoga was practiced in Egypt and North African for nearly 10,000 years during the heyday of the Egyptian Empire. According to the theory, the idea that yoga is part of Indian heritage is in fact due to the migration of this practice from Africa into India, where it was eventually adopted and the claims we hear now of yoga’s Indian heritage formed. As a result, yoga is “actually” African, not Indian. This idea is based on hieroglyphics and artwork like the featured image above, and this one here:

Egyptian-Yoga

This theory was proposed by one Dr. Muata Ashby in 1994, who even published a series of books on the topic. I think it’s important to note here that his doctorate is within Theology, rather than the social sciences, and that he is a self-proclaimed advocate for “the concept of the existence of advanced social and religious philosophy in ancient Africa comparable to the Eastern traditions.” In other words, his research is driven by a particular agenda and not grounded in vetted historical methods. Anyway, regardless of his credentials, his work has spurred the creation of several organizations, numerous facebook and twitter pages, and a variety of articles and blog posts about the “true” origins of yoga.

egyptian-yoga-exercise-workout-book-muata-abhaya-ashby-paperback-cover-art

While it may be true that religious practices in Egypt looked like what we imagine yoga to be today and that within Egyptian texts there are mental and spiritual practices that resemble those of modern yoga, it’s a mistake to think that resemblance is the same thing as equivalence. Many spiritual institutions have similar practices and yet are not the same thing; many body practices look similar yet are not the same thing. Saying Egyptian spiritual/body practices were yoga is like saying prayer is meditation, and dance is postural asana. It just doesn’t equate.

The problem with this theory is that it isn’t in fact true. As Singleton (2010) and Doris Srinivasan (1984) have noted about other claims of yoga’s ancient Indian heritage, the interpretation of such visual “evidence” as hieroglyphs that depict what look like modern yoga postures or textual descriptions of spiritual practices as yoga is misplaced. Basically, it amounts to what Samuel (2008:8) has described as us “reading later practices into the material” to such a degree “that it is of little or no use for constructing any kind of history of practices.” In other words, believing yoga is in fact an ancient Egyptian (aka, African) practice is just a product of us seeing what we want to see in the records of the time and misinterpreting the data. It’s anachronistic.

Persistance of Myth

Then why has this myth persisted, and even gained in popularity since it was introduced in the 1990s? This is the real kicker. Kemetic Yoga has become popular primarily among African Americans, who have used the idea that yoga’s “true” heritage is from North Africa as a way to reclaim a practice that has been in recent decades dominated by whites. An academic study by Birdee et al. (2002) found a significant difference in racial composition of yogis, with 84% of practitioners being white and only 6% being African American (10% other). This is compared to Census data that shows African Americans make up 22% of the US population. But you don’t need this academic article to see whiteness in yoga; all you need to do is open an edition of Yoga Journal, where practically all the bodies portrayed are lithe, white women.

If yoga can be traced back to Africa (and I think it’s clear from the evidence that this is not actually the case, unless you can say the origin of french fries as a cultural phenomenon can be traced back to Chile since that’s where potatoes originated from) then it provides African Americans a way to reclaim yoga as a practice that is ultimately, well, black. Claims about Kemetic Yoga are a continuation of the black power movement that sought to reclaim artistic, cultural, and spiritual heritage for African Americans in a society that has (and continues to) be dominated by whiteness.

And here is where I’m torn. Because there is no denying that yoga is defined as white in our day and age, and most yogis would agree that they want to see yoga become more diverse and welcoming to people of color, particularly African Americans. In many ways, this population could stand to gain the most from adopting yoga. African Americans in the US have faced centuries of historical discrimination that has resulted in structural inequalities: on average, blacks today face higher rates of poverty, worse health, more stress, higher drop out rates, higher incarceration rates, and a variety of other inequalities studied by numerous sociologists. Yoga, as a practice that reduces stress and increases health, provides an outlet for youth and a way to turn a life around within and outside of prison, could be a powerful tool for African Americans.

If the yoga myth that yoga is at its root Egyptian serves to draw more black men and women into yoga, is this a bad thing? I don’t think it is. But I also know, that in my own life I value truth. I always want to know the truth, even if it is painful. A beautiful lie is another way to be controlled; it is the essence of cultural hegemony and practices of domination that have resulted in the very inequalities that African Americans face in the US today. I also think yoga is about uncovering truth, about being self-reflexive and mindful, and about revealing the lies that hold our true self prisoner to habit and conformity.

What do you think?

With love, light and…

Yoga ❤

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19 thoughts on “Origins of Yoga: Part I”

  1. I completely understand this position; the argument that ‘ancient historical yoga’ has nothing to do with today’s practice, but is in fact used as perverse marketing. And yes, Singleton’s work clarifies the role that modern political and scientific ideas played in shaping the yoga we know. I used to engage in similar arguments with so-called traditionalists myself.

    I have changed my perspective on this, for several reasons. First, before dismissing Kemetic Yoga, I recommend investigating Abd’el Hakim Awyan. He is the recognized Ancient Wisdom keeper of Sufi mystics. I know that Western rationalists assume fraud, but I have investigated him and feel convinced of his authenticity. The reason this is important is because yoga in India has always been associated with a cyclical cosmology. New Age culture is mocked for this, but I now find it compelling to believe that a pre-Ancient civilization perfected a modality of Wisdom that they foresaw we would lose, and they left us these traces, which, yes, are similar across a wide spectrum of cultures. I recommend Georg Feuerstein’s history, in which he speaks of the Shamanic origins of Yoga (he capitalizes it). Shamanism is a touchy thing, because Western rational academics are allergic to “cultural approriation”. But great work has already been done, by Mircea Eliade, by Gordon Wasson, by Michael Harner, to demonstrate the degree to which Shamanic traditions across the world have commonalities that are significant, and I would consider yoga to be one of these Shamanic traditions. Recovering this Ancient Wisdom is, in a sense, like fulfilling a Prophecy, another idea that Western rationalist are allergic to.

    The reason I advocate such a position is that I think it actually helps with the process of Yoga. It is a process of pursuing Samadhi, what the Buddhists call Enlightenment, the Japanese Satori. To deny this fundamental teaching of yoga is, to me, the greatest injustice. I do not think this goal is illusory or fictional, I think the mind, as experienced, can be brought to higher levels of consciousness, just as the texts say. This is also the basis of the Hermetic tradition, which itself claims to come from ancient Egypt, through the message of Thoth. These are crazy ideas to the Western rationalist. I understand that. But I also believe them to be valuable ideas, in that they have teaching value, and may help others achieve the liberation that I somehow managed to experience.
    #liveyogamusic

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    1. How can anyone believe Yoga started in India when know all Things Started In Africa. When the European came to Africa Invade Destroy Everthing Of Value To Africa People Including They History ,Stolen their Art Work. Invade All Their Language, Religion, Spiritually, Food and Yoga Was Part African Culture. Either The People That Are In Egypt Now Are Not The Original People There.

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      1. This post points out that trying to argue yoga started in Africa is incredibly problematic, because there is no hard evidence to back up this claim that it diffused from the African continent to the region we now call India. In general, the claim that all things started in Africa is flawed as well, given recent anthropological research on indigenous people’s has indicated it is possible that human beings also evolved on other continents, particularly the Americas. Not to mention that historically not all inventions are from Africa, so again, it’s a huge overgeneralization. Are there movement traditions that are similar across cultures? Yes. But to argue that because similar movements existed in various parts of the globe (and let’s be real, the human body and the movements we can do are not limitless) that somehow it means that all those cultures must be practicing the same thing is a misunderstanding of culture, history, and diffusion.

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  2. “While it may be true that religious practices in Egypt looked like what we imagine yoga to be today and that within Egyptian texts there are mental and spiritual practices that resemble those of modern yoga, it’s a mistake to think that resemblance is the same thing as equivalence.” AGREE TOTALLY – but – Singleton uses EXACTLY the same premise for his project too! Yoga Body (Book Review): Unqualifying “The Origins of Modern Postural Yoga Practice” (http://docs.yuj.it/people/matwitts/archive/articles/yoga-body)

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    1. I can understand this sentiment. With that said, I think there is generally just far less evidence (because of how long ago it was) for the Egyptian case, whereas Singleton had a large variety of documents, both in terms of magazines, books, ads, transcribed interviews, news stories, and other archival data to go on in researching his project, not to mention the familial or close network connections between very well-known physical culturists in India and several prominent postural yogis of the time that were instrumental in disseminating the postural tradition as we know it today (including Krishnamacharya). So there is a lot more to go on in that case. Is it 100% fool proof? No. But it’s definitely different enough from the Egyptian case to I think make this argument here, whereas I tend to lean on the other side of the scale and agree with Singleton for his argument about the more modern postural period in yoga.

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  3. I see several “soft spots” with your perspective. First, trying to determine the origin of yoga is akin to finding the origin of music, walking or wearing clothes. These are activities that most human beings deal with regardless of the historical record. What is goal of yoga? What group of people have not, in their own way, have not had yoga aspirations? Apparently you can not perceive different “brand/ expressions” of yoga. Can you perceive differences in music? I notice that your article did not mention Chinese yoga, why not? My point is any culture can and have dealt with yoga irrespective your recognition.
    As for Egyptian yoga, your scholarship is lacking if you think that Kemetic yoga is based solely or primarily on a few drawings or inscriptions on a temple wall. And if you think reading only Muata Ashby books will give you a complete intellectual understanding of Kemetic yoga, you are wrong again.
    Let me give you a brief bio on myself. I consider myself to be a scholarly yoga practitioner. I started doing yoga in 1972. I have studied with several yogis over 70 years old. I have read hundreds of books dealing with “yoga” and guess what?, there other brands of yoga out there besides Hindu yoga. Did you notice that I didn’t say Indian yoga? Let me tell you why, India consists of many diverse ethnics group who inhabited India thousands of years before the Hindu arrived in India. The “equivalence” of yoga was practiced by some of these people. Their “yoga” comprise the “proto-yoga” of India. Meanwhile, other cultures, throughout the world, were using symbolism and practices “equivalent” with :yoga”.
    I should mention that I was introduced to Kemetic yoga in 1978. Muata Ashby was not around. So for 44 years I have been practicing, studying and researching something that you say don’t exist and have never existed. Note that I said studied and researched. That means more than looking at a few pictures and reading Muata Ashby.
    You say that you like the truth. Are you willing to search for it? I am going to give you the benefit of the doubt. Here is you your homework: Darsana is a Sanskrit term that has a lot to say about Hindu yoga philosophy. Look it up and define it to the highest degree. There is a Kemetic term that is “equivalent” to darsana. I am not going to tell you the word. Do the research and then tell the world why ‘yoga” did not exist in ancient Egypt.

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    1. I think we have to ask at what point are we talking about a general mind-body and liberating perspective, which as you mention like music is common in pretty much all cultures throughout time, and at what point are we going to seek to define a particular approach and practice as yoga. If we want to just think about a general mind-body connection and a seeking of liberation, sure, every culture has something like this. We as human beings seek to explain our world and liberate ourselves from it at every time in human history, and every religious and spiritual path in some sense is a product of this seeking. You can look at shamanistic practices in Latin America, for example, and see aspects of the practice that appear “yogic.” But I would argue that just because they address similar shared human concerns and may have arrived at a similar approach, these aren’t necessarily “yoga.” I think we at some point have to define what we mean by yoga, as coming out of a particular lineage of traditions (which as you say, are definitely plural) and having a particular approach to this seeking, based on the ideas of karma and liberation from karma, self-realization, and alleviation of suffering through various practices which can be defined through an eight limbed path (Patanjali) or if we wanted to look at other traditions may be defined in slightly other ways depending on the particular yogic lineage. But what these have in common is some sort of direct lineage or transmission (through texts, for example, rather than student/disciple lineage) where there is a traceable historical connection between these groups and traditions, a cultural diffusion or appropriation process that we can historically place. Of course there are multiple paths and traditions in yoga history. But ultimately, can we say every civilization throughout time was practicing yoga just because they had similar desires, similar practices of seeking, or a mind-body practice attempting to bring liberation? I just don’t think we can. I think perhaps it’s possible that ancient Egyptians were practicing some sort of mind-body connection, liberating philosophy that may have somehow been transmitted into the area we now associate with the origins of yoga. But do we have evidence of this? Absolutely not. It was so long ago and there is so little that was known about these cultures we just can’t clearly say that this was part of the direct lineage of yoga without expanding our definition of yoga so much it becomes less meaningful. Can we practice kemetic yoga still? Sure! But we need to recognize that what we are talking about at that point is likely not a direct lineage to yoga as we know and think of it today, and we are likely reading a similarity there that does exist, because as humans we are drawn to similar practices across time, but that it is not a direct heritage of the practice that we can trace historically back to today. Sure, we need more research on this, and I would love to see it, but I just don’t think with the little we can discover about ancient Egyptian cultures anthropologically that we will ever have the evidence we need to definitely prove this connection beyond a doubt. It was just too long ago, and there isn’t enough known concretely about that culture. What I’m trying to draw attention to in this post is the fact that yoga practice has evolved and changed historically, and very drastically so within the last 100 years. So any ideas we have of a direct lineage that can be traced thousands of years back, let alone all the way back to ancient Egypt, to something that we call “yoga” and practice as “yoga” today, is something of a misnomer and anachronistic reading of practices that likely were not called yoga at those times in history and might not have a direct connection to the cultural diffusion of what we would call yoga in anthropology or sociology, or historical research, today. It means that we shouldn’t read onto the past our own desires of lineage and meaning when we cannot be sure they existed. We have to recognize the possibility that they didn’t, and that we simply don’t have enough knowledge of that time of history and what those practices really looked like in practice (rather than the minimal surviving artifacts we have). We just can’t know, and to claim this direct connection is therefore problematic.

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  4. The biggest and most persistent myth about Yoga is that it is a 5,000 year old practice that started in India. That is a plethora of research that demonstrates that this assertion is based upon faulty reason and the “myth-making” of the modern Yoga industry. The advocates of Ashtanga Yoga insist that it is the oldest Yoga and the source of all Yoga as evidenced by an ancient text, yet this text cannot be found because “book worms” have devoured the book! Some have researched and written that the main Yoga styles that dominate modern Yoga practice like Iyengar and Ashtanga are primarily the offspring of the European gymnastics and YMCA based exercise movements that entered into India during the British colonial period. These critiques are accompanied with side by side photos juxtaposing identical postures done by 19th century white Europeans and 20th century Indian Yogis.

    Without debating the veracity or utility of such comparisons, I can assert that there are numerous examples of Yogic postures, energetic symbols and philosophical concepts that are readily available from the legitimate ancient African/Kemetic record that pre-date and are more sophisticated than the available Indian records.

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    1. Again, I mentioned this in another comment, we just can’t know that certain similarities with Ancient Egypt or ancient African cultures are a result of a direct transmission to what we call yoga today. First, yoga today has changed drastically over the last several hundred years, particularly the last 100. Is it possible that there were similar practices across multiple cultures? Sure. But is it that there was a direct transmission and diffusion of these practices to somehow become through a lineage based transmission yoga as we practice it today? Highly unlikely. If we want to think of yoga so broadly that we could call certain practices in every culture some type of yoga, yeah, I guess we could. But I think at that point we lose the power and practice of what yoga is. Every culture has movement practices that may look like postures today, because the human body can only do so many positions and we as humans like to move; every culture has philosophical concepts about liberation, and energy, and so on. But does this mean everything is yoga? No. I think we have to recognize that much of what we think of as “yoga” today is not directly connected to, and even if it is, is usually vastly different than ancient traditions, both in terms of Kemetic arguments but also Indian ones. Yoga as we think of it today is simply not that old, and a wealth of historical research shows this (and that historical research is much more than just juxtaposing pictures of postures side by side; there is so much evidence of various networks, historical writings, events, etc. that took place that indicate these changes occurred, arguing that Singleton for example just juxtaposes pictures to make an argument is a complete misreading of the historical research he did, which was very thorough in part because the time period he was researching was more recent and there are still many artifacts left over from these times, unlike more ancient periods where we are limited in what we know about those cultures and practices by the passage of time).

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  5. Your logic is very flawed. You seem to think that someone needs to prove a direct link between Yoga in India to Yoga in Kemet in order for Yoga in Kemet to be real. Kemetic Yoga is not the same as Yoga in India. Meditation in Kemet was not the same as meditation in India. Each culture created it’s own ideas and practices based upon their distinctive cultural characteristics. That’s just like saying that the only culture in the world to create martial fighting arts in China because of the presence the Shaolin Temples teaching Kung Fu. That would be to deny not only the existence of martial arts in other Asian countries but just about every culture in the world. The Zulu of South Africa have their own system of martial arts. The Greeks and Romans had their own martial arts. You don’t have to demonstrate a direct link with China in order for those martial arts to be martial arts. That is the exact illogical argument you are making about Yoga. The word Yoga is Sanskrit, the idea of transformational spiritual ideas and practices that involve self cultivation are virtually universal. You can call them Yoga or mediation in India or something else in Kemet and another name among the Aztecs and Mayans, yet the result and effect are the same.

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    1. I get this argument, but again, I think it depends on how we want to define yoga. Do we want to use this term so broadly? I think many people do today but I think it’s also important to recognize that we lose something of yoga in applying the term to historical practices that may not have been called “yoga” at those times in history. Are they all transformational practices involving self-realization? Sure, but again, the application of the word yoga is likely anachronistic when we apply it to a culture that ancient when these terms didn’t exist in the same way that we apply them now.

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  6. Based soley on part one, your article “Origins of Yoga” spends a quarter of it’s time attepting to disprove the origin rather than prove it. Big turnoff for any informational peice. Secondly, the word “yoga” was not used 40,000 years ago so unless you would prefer the practice to be remamed “Kemetic Poses and Philosophies For Mental Focus, Physical Awareness and Spiritual Enlightenment: First Ones Ever!” I think Kemetic Yoga is a sufficent name.

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    1. Hi Taj, this series of posts is about myths regarding the origins of yoga. I stand by what I wrote. Obviously there are similar practices regarding the body, mind, and spirit in many cultures. The issue is whether we should call these “yoga” if they aren’t actually connected to the lineage, or if we can’t be sure they are connected to the lineage. I personally feel it is anachronistic and inaccurate, and potentially appropriative, to try and claim yoga is from Egypt. I think it’s fair to call it something like Kemetic Body Practice or Kemetic Spirituality or Kemetic Philosophy, but without more evidence that it is in fact connected to what we consider yoga, I don’t think it’s fair to use the term “yoga” as it can be misleading for people.

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  7. Interesting discussion on all sides. What I gather from all this is that “yoga” is now a very loaded word. If the Egyptians have the earliest writings on the subject its fair to say it has its origins there. I practice Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. It has its origins with the samurai. Did the samurai roll around on padded floors listening to hiphop trying to choke each other in pajamas… No. But that is where the concepts we use in combat originated. Being that it is Brazils form of the art you see heavy African and Portuguese movements in the forms. Yet there is no denying that the art came from Japan no matter how it got altered and new culture and movements became incorporated. From your research, “yoga” flexibility training that incorporates mindfulness and body awareness originated in Egypt. Could you deny that heavy metal is a product of the blues? So in the same fashion, from what you have given me. Modern day yoga practiced by millions of smoothie wielding yuppies in gentrified neighborhoods across the US are practicing an art that has its roots in Africa.

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