Yoga Philosophy Origins & Sources

Lesson Overview

In this lesson, we introduce the source texts of yoga.


Gain a basic understanding of the roots of yoga philosophy.


Discuss the potential impact of yoga philosophy within a well-rounded yoga practice. Review basic facts related to original source texts, including TheVedas, The Upanishads, The Yoga SutraTheBhagavad GitaandThe Hatha Yoga Pradipika.


  • Yoga practices are based on a vast and profound philosophy.
  • Yoga philosophy is not taught as a belief system but is intended for practitioners to experience for themselves.
  • As Pema Chodron points out, when life becomes intense, mere philosophical belief isn’t going to be enough. We each have to find out the truth for ourselves. The following quote comes from a discussion of Buddhist philosophy but is broadly applicable.

Teachings Must Be Experienced

 [Teachings] have to be experienced because when the real quality of our lives, including the obstacles and problems and experiences that cause us to start questioning, becomes intense, any mere philosophical belief isn’t going to hold a candle to the reality of what we are experiencing… Maybe [it’s] the worst advice anybody could give you, but you have to find out for yourself. Often we hear the teachings so subjectively that we think we’re being told what is true and what is false. But the [wisdom teachings] never tell you what is true or what is false. It just encourages you to find out for yourself. – Pema Chodron,

More Effective Than Physical Practices Alone

  • Researchers at the University of Mississippi reported study results that reflect what many yoga practitioners find as they study more: a regular yoga practice that includes philosophical teachings may ease anxiety more effectively than physical practices alone.

Fundamental Importance of Yoga Philosophy

There is good reason for yoga to have many adherents. It offers not only the much-sought way, but also a philosophy of unrivaled profundity. Yoga practice is unthinkable, and would also be ineffectual, without the ideas on which it is based. It works the physical and the spiritual into one another in an extraordinarily complete way. – C. G. Jung

Research Summary

A regular practice that includes yoga’s spiritual and ethical teachings may ease anxiety more effectively than a practice of asana, breathing, and relaxation alone, according to a recent study. Yoga students learning about the yamas and niyamas had significant decreases in anxiety, including lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol. “Spiritual principles can help you see meaning in your life situation,” says researcher Tammy Greer of the University of Southern Mississippi, “and that can lower stress.”  – Carol Krucoff

Primary Sources of Yoga Philosophy

  • The origins of yoga philosophy are traced back to the The Vedas (veda = knowledge) of India, estimated to have been written between 3,000 and 6,000 years ago.
  • The four books of the Vedas are The Atharva Veda, the Rg Veda, the Sama Veda and the Yajur Veda.
  • The verses within the Vedas are said to be revealed scriptures, having been heard by enlightened sages (rishis), seers in states of deep yogic meditation, or samadhi.
  • The writings are on one hand “poetic, nonlinear and therefore difficult to understand” and on another, “as simple, pure, and pristine as the rishis who received them.”
  • Yoga becomes more defined in The Upanishads (which include hundreds of philosophical texts) with language that is less symbolic and more direct than The Vedas.

Yoga is the Practical Aspect of Vedic Science

With roots in the Indus Valley civilization going back over five thousand years, the Vedas represent the poetic cognitions of enlightened sages on the origins of the universe and the evolution of life… The Vedas are the expression of perennial wisdom, and yoga is the practical aspect of Vedic science. – Deepak Chopra & David Simon

Known as Apauruseya: Not Given by Man

These sacred writings are at the very root of Hindu thought and philosophy… They are known as “apauruseya,” not given by man. Yoga, too, is apauruseya. Because these sciences are not man-made, they are universal and are meant for the whole of humanity. Brahmawas the founder of yoga, which is therefore as old as civilization. Ayurveda is also as old as civilization. – B.K.S. Iyengar

The Rishis Retained the Pristine Mind

We all came to the world with an uncomplicated mind. Those who retained this pristine mind came to be known as rishis (seers), for they were able to see the truth without distortion. Scriptures such as the Vedas embody the experiences of these rishis and so are regarded as the original sources of religion and spirituality. The knowledge and experiences documented in these primary sources are as simple, pure, and pristine as the rishis who received them… The experiences attained by these immortal beings were so profound and wondrous that they could not be contained or expressed in speech. What little could be expressed was extremely compact and exceptionally potent. These expressions—which came to be regarded as revelations or mantras—form the foundation of spirituality. The techniques that enable us to gain experiences similar to those of the rishis are spiritual practices. – Pandit Rajmani Tigunai

Vedic Commentaries

The Vedic texts were not composed in a discursive philosophical style. They were poetic and nonlinear and, as such, complicated and difficult to understand. Commentaries by great masters emerged to explain them. These commentaries took the form of philosophical discourses and oral teachings collectively known as smriti, that which was remembered. The oldest of these systems is Sankhya, founded by the great sage Kapila. The Sankhya system formed the metaphysical foundation for Patanjali’s yoga philosophy recorded in his Yoga Sutra. In this sense, yoga can be thought of as applied Sankhya. – Gary Kraftsow

The Upanishads

The first books to refer to yoga were the ancient Tantras and later the Vedas, which were written about the time the Indus Valley culture was flourishing. Although they do not give specific practices, they allude to yoga symbolically. In fact, the verses of the Vedas were heard by the rishis, seers, in states of deep yogic meditation or samadhi, and are regarded as revealed scriptures. It is, however, in the Upanishads that yoga begins to take a more definable shape. These scriptures collectively form Vedanta, the culmination of the Vedas, and are said to contain the essence of the Vedas. – Swami Satyananda Saraswati

More Behind the Vedas & Upanishads

In mythological times, Brahma, the Creator, saw the ignorance and confusion of humankind. With his infinite compassion, he sent his sons to restore the wisdom of Divine Consciousness and alleviate suffering. This wisdom became the Vedas, and Brahma’s sons became the Great Vedic Rishis. The four principal Vedas and their supporting texts contain the spiritual knowledge encompassing all aspects of life… However, the essence of each Veda is contained in the parts known as the Upanishads. Upanishad literally means “to sit close by.” So these “hidden” teachings were reserved for those select students deemed ready for higher states of consciousness. While the Vedas prepare us and bring us to the door of enlightenment, the Upanishads lift us over the threshold into the magnificence of Self-realization. Thus, as the culmination of knowledge, they became known as Vedanta, the “end of the Veda.” – Chopra Center

The Yoga Sutra

  • The Yoga Sutra was written by Patanjali, said to have been a revered yogi and scholar of many subjects.
  • It is thought to have been written 200 years before the common era (BCE), or over 2,000 years ago.
  • The word “sutra” means thread, as in a thread that strings beads together.
  • Sutras are summaries (of the “utmost condensation”) of teachings, designed to be remembered and recalled easily. They are intended to serve as reminders for a teacher to expand upon.
  • The sutras were written in Sanskrit, a “vibrational language” in which words have many layers of meaning and are designed to convey subtlety. In translating the sutras into English—a language whose strength is precision — many subtleties can be lost.

The Bhagavad Gita

  • The Bhagavad Gita is translated as The Lord’s Song or the Song of God.
  • The Gita is a key yoga philosophy text. It is “essentially a book on yoga.” (Graham M. Schweig)
  • Often called “the Gita,” it is a portion of The Mahabharata, an epic poem containing 18 books, said to have been authored by an illumined sage, Vyasa.
  • Many sources explain that it isn’t known when The Mahabharata and the Gita itself were written. Often, it is said to have been written “5,000 years ago.” It’s also common to see a date of 1500 BC.
  • The Gita is 700 verses and forms 18 chapters of the sixth book.
  • The Gita is often treated as a stand-alone text and considered as important as The Upanishads.
  • It is a dialogue between the incarnate God Krishna and the warrior-prince Arjuna.
  • The Gita describes various paths of yoga including Jnana Yoga, Bhakti Yoga, Karma Yoga and Raja Yoga.

The Hatha Yoga Pradipika

  • The Hatha Yoga Pradipika, or Light on Yoga, was written in the fifteenth century.
  • The author was an Indian yogi named Swatmarama, of whom little seems to be known. B.K.S. Iyengar refers to him as a “great yogi.”
  • Swatmarama’s name means “one who delights in one’s Atman,” indicating a person who has achieved a sense of wholeness.
  • Unlike the Yoga Sutra, the text “starts with the body” and describes the Hatha Yoga practices as a way to advance to Raja Yoga.
  • It covers asanashatkarmamudrasbandhas and pranayama.
  • In some places it is also “opaque” as it is “an esoteric work from medieval India which describes mystical entities, practices, and states of consciousness.” – Brian Dana Akers, The Hatha Yoga Pradipika 2002

Starts with the Body

One of the most outstanding authorities on hatha yoga, Swami Swatmarama, wrote the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, or Light on Yoga in Sanskrit, collating all extant material on the subject. In doing so, he reduced the emphasis on yama and niyama, thereby eliminating a great obstacle experienced by many beginners. In the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, Swatmarama starts with the body and only later, when the mind has become stable and balanced, are the yamas and niyamas (self-control and self-discipline) introduced. – Swami Satyananda Saraswati

Practices to Awaken Kundalini & Advance to Raja Yoga

While the text describes asanas (postures), purifying practices (shatkarma), mudras (finger and hand positions), bandhas (locks), and pranayama (breath exercises), it also explains that the purpose of Hatha Yoga is the awakening of kundalini (subtle energy), advancement to Raja Yoga, and the experience of deep meditative absorption known as samadhi. –