What Is Modern Yoga?

Modern yoga consists of a range of techniques including asanas (postures) and meditation derived from some of the philosophies, teachings and practices of Hinduism, and organised into a wide variety of schools and denominations. It has been described by Elizabeth de Michelis as having four types, namely: Modern Psychosomatic Yoga, as in The Yoga Institute; Modern Denominational Yoga, as in Brahma Kumaris; Modern Postural Yoga, as in Iyengar Yoga; and Modern Meditational Yoga, as in early Transcendental Meditation. The yoga scholar Mark Singleton however does not subscribe to De Michelis’s framework, considering the categories to “subsume detail, variation, and exception”. In the 21st-century, modern yoga has become the subject of academic study.

Yoga is an ancient practice, whose important texts are found in the Buddhist, Hindu and Jain traditions. It is a term in ancient Indian texts with many definitions. Yoga has traditionally referred to both a school of philosophy and many paths for an individual’s soteriological and spiritual practice. These historical texts mention asanas, but the posture practice is but one step and not their central focus. They mention either just one asana or assert there exist as many as 8.4 million asanas, but provide no details. A few Hatha yoga texts, some dated to around the 10th-century, describe many posture practices in detail. Along with asanas, these historic texts additionally include various forms of breathing exercises, meditation, sometimes tantra practices, and means to spiritual liberation (moksha). Yoga in Indian traditions has been more than physical exercise; it has a meditative and spiritual core. Outside India, “yoga” has come to mean a form of posture-based fitness regimen, a stress-relief and relaxation technique. Modern yoga has adopted innovations from Western gymnastics and other practices.

Some versions of modern yoga contain reworkings of the ancient spiritual tradition, and practices vary from wholly secular, for exercise and relaxation, through to undoubtedly spiritual, whether in traditions like Sivananda Yoga or in personal rituals. Modern yoga’s relationship to Hinduism is complex and contested; some Christians have challenged its inclusion in school curricula on the grounds that it is covertly Hindu, while the “Take Back Yoga” campaign of Hindu American Foundation has challenged attempts to “airbrush the Hindu roots of yoga” from modern manifestations. Yoga has evolved in many directions in modern times, and people are using it with different combinations of techniques for multiple purposes.

A "hatha yoga" class practising Vrikshasana, tree pose, in Vancouver, Canada

A “hatha yoga” class practising Vrikshasana, tree pose, in Vancouver, Canada


Elizabeth de Michelis – a scholar credited by Andrea Jain to have started the “modern yoga” typology and studies, defines modern yoga as, “signifying those disciplines and schools which are, to a greater or lesser extent, rooted in South Asian cultural contexts, and which more specifically draw inspiration from certain philosophies, teachings and practices of Hinduism.” De Michelis 2004 defined a “typology of Modern Yoga” as seen in the West (she excludes forms seen only in India) starting from Vivekananda’s 1896 Raja Yoga, with four subtypes as shown in the table.

Type Definition Examples given by De Michelis
of “relatively pure contemporary types”
Modern Psychosomatic Yoga Body-Mind-Spirit training
Emphasises practical experience
Little restriction on doctrine
Practised in a privatised setting
The Yoga Institute, Santa Cruz (Yogendra, 1918)
Kaivalyadhama, Lonavla (Kuvalayananda, 1924)
Sivananda yoga (Sivananda, Vishnudevananda, etc., 1959)
Himalayan Institute (Swami Rama, 1971)
Modern Denominational Yoga Neo-Hindu gurus
Emphasis on each school’s own teachings
Own belief system and authorities
Cultic environment, sometimes sectarian
May use all other forms of Modern Yoga
Brahma Kumaris (Lekhraj Kripalani, 1930s)
Sahaja Yoga (Nirmala Srivastava, 1970)
ISKCON (A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, 1966)
Rajneeshism (Rajneesh, c. 1964)
Late Transcendental Meditation
Modern Postural Yoga Emphasises asanas (yoga postures)
and pranayama
Iyengar Yoga (B. K. S. Iyengar, c. 1966)
Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga (Pattabhi Jois, c. 1948)
Modern Meditational Yoga Emphasises mental techniques
of concentration and meditation
Early Transcendental Meditation (Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, 1950s)
Sri Chinmoy, c. 1964
some current Buddhist organisations

According to Andrea Jain, “Modern yoga refers to a variety of systems that developed as early as the 19th century as a [response to] capitalist production, colonial and industrial endeavors, global developments in areas ranging from metaphysics to fitness, and modern ideas and values.” In contemporary practice, modern yoga is prescribed as a part of self-development and is believed to provide “increased beauty, strength, and flexibility as well as decreased stress”.

Mark Singleton, a scholar of yoga’s history and practices, states that De Michelis’s typology provides categories useful as a way into studying yoga in the modern age, but they are not a “good starting point for history insofar as it subsumes detail, variation, and exception”. Singleton does not subscribe to this interpretive framework, and considers “modern yoga” to refer to “yoga in the modern age”. He questions the typology as follows:

Can we really refer to an entity called Modern Yoga and assume that we are talking about a discrete and identifiable category of beliefs and practices? Does Modern Yoga, as some seem to assume, differ in ontological status (and hence intrinsic value) from “traditional yoga”? Does it represent a rupture in terms of tradition rather than a continuity? And in the plethora of experiments, adaptations, and innovations that make up the field of transnational yoga today, should we be thinking of all these manifestations as belonging to Modern Yoga in any typological sense?

— Mark Singleton

Modern yoga is derived from Haṭha yoga (one aspect of traditional yoga). However, states Singleton, modern yoga represents innovative practices that have taken the Indian heritage, experimented with techniques from non-Indic cultures, and radically evolved it into local forms worldwide.

From the 1970s, modern yoga spread across many countries of the world, changing as it did so, and becoming “an integral part of (primarily) urban cultures worldwide”, to the extent that the word yoga in the Western world now means the practice of asanas, typically in a class.

Modern transnational yoga is variously viewed through “cultural prisms” including New Age religion, psychology, sports science, medicine, photography, and fashion. Jain states that although “hatha yoga is traditionally believed to be the ur-system of modern postural yoga, equating them does not account for the historical sources”. According to her, asanas “only became prominent in modern yoga in the early twentieth century as a result of the dialogical exchanges between Indian reformers and nationalists and Americans and Europeans interested in health and fitness”. In short, Jain writes, “modern yoga systems … bear little resemblance to the yoga systems that preceded them. This is because [both] … are specific to their own social contexts.”


Pre-modern yoga

Main article: Haṭha yoga

The earliest evidence of yogis (practitioners of yoga) and their spiritual tradition, states Karel Werner – an Indologist specializing in Buddhist studies and Yoga, is found in the Keśin hymn 10.136 of the Rigveda. The Hindu scripture Rigveda uses words of admiration for the yogis, whom it refers to as Kesin. Other Vedic hymns present themes that were likely precursors of the yoga doctrines and practices, states the Indology scholar Stephen Phillips. The earliest known use of the term “yoga” is found in Katha Upanishad and other Principal Upanishads of Hinduism, all dated to the 1st-millennium BCE. According to James Mallinson – a scholar of the Hatha yoga tradition, the early textual descriptions of physical yoga practices by ascetics in India include the Buddhist Pali Canon, early Jain texts, as well as a range of Dharmasastric and epic literature of Hinduism.

The Yoga Upanishads, such as the Yogatattva Upanishad, are among the oldest known texts on yoga that provide description of Yoga techniques and its benefits, states Mircea Eliade – a scholar of Yoga. The Yogatattva Upanishad – variously dated between the 2nd and pre-13th-century – includes four chief asanas (siddha, padma, simha and bhadra) and states in its Sanskrit verses that yoga practice leads to “external signs of lightness of body, brilliance of complexion, increase in digestive power” and other benefits. Similar benefits – steadiness, lightness, beauty, elegance of body and others – are also mentioned in other Sanskrit texts such as those belonging to the Hatha yoga traditions, as well as in non-Sanskrit texts such as those of the Digambara Terapanthis sub-tradition of Jainism. These texts assert the “possibility of innumerable postures”, and many of these manuscripts are dated to between the 11th and 13th-centuries, according to Olle Qvarnström and Jason Birch.

The Yoga Yajnavalkya is another early text on yoga that provides description of Yoga techniques and its benefits. Two of its Sanskrit palm-leaf manuscripts have been dated, one is from the early 10th-century CE and another more firmly to 1024 CE, states Dominik Wujastyk – a scholar of Sanskrit literature, Indology and the history of Yoga philosophy and practice. These – MS Kathmandu NAK 5-696, MS London BL Or. 3568 – are amongst some of the oldest surviving Sanskrit manuscripts copies found on the Indian subcontinent. The original Yoga Yajnavalkya text is likely many centuries older. The popularity of Yoga Yajnavalkya teachings is apparent from the discoveries of manuscripts in regional scripts such as Malayalam (Kerala), Telugu (Andhra Pradesh), Grantha (Tamil Nadu), Devanagari (North Indian states), Newari (Nepal), with the most recently discovered Sanskrit manuscript found in 2010. This text includes some of the earliest known descriptions of Yoga posture practice (asanas), states Wujastyk. The Yoga Yajnavalkya exists in two major redacted versions, with the South Indian surviving versions describing eight yoga posture practice in considerable details and some North Indian surviving versions just one. More than twelve postures are elaborated in the various redactions of Yoga Yajnavalkya in the form of a dialogue between the ancient Hindu scholar Yajnavalkya and a woman named Gargi. These postures in the various versions of this text include svastika, gomukha, padma, vira, simhasana, bhadra, mukta and mayura, according to Wujastyk.

The Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali are an aphoristic collection of Sanskrit sutras on the theory and practice of ancient yoga. Scholars date its compilation by 400 CE from older traditions. It was a significant text, and was the most translated ancient Indian text in the medieval era, having been translated into about forty Indian languages and two non-Indian languages: Old Javanese (Indonesia) sometime in the 1st millennium CE, and into Arabic by the 11th-century Persian scholar and traveler Al Biruniwho lived with the Hindus for 16 years before returning to Persia. The ancient significance of yoga is apparent from the identical verses in the Yoga Sutras that are also found in Buddhist literature such as the Abhidharmakosha bhasya by Vasubandhu. As in the Hindu tradition, the Yoga texts in the Buddhist traditions present it as a part of spiritual pursuit and claim superhuman powers to result from its practice. With the arrival of the Delhi Sultanate era in South Asia from the 12th-century onwards, the text fell into relative obscurity between the 12th- and 19th-centuries. It made a comeback in the late 19th century due to the efforts of Swami Vivekananda, the Theosophical Society and others. It gained prominence again as a comeback classic in the 20th century.

The Yoga Sutras only aphoristically mentions asana as that which is “steady and pleasant”. The ancient Sanskrit commentaries on these sutras such as Patanjali’s Yoga-darshana mention the following twelve postures but provide no details: padma asanaveera asanabhadra asanasvastika asanadanda asanasopasraya asanaparyanka asanakraunchanishada asanahastanishada asanaushtranishada asana, samasansathana asana and sthirasukha asana. Similar listing of yoga postures without details have been found in many Yoga-related manuscripts found in the 19th-century and early 20th-centuries. A new Sanskrit commentary manuscript of Yoga Sutra Vivarana by Adi Sankara, now dated to around 700 CE, was discovered in 1952. This has been translated by Trevor Leggett. This text lists and elaborates these twelve Yoga postures. The Yoga sutras of Patanjali has been a celebrated text for some who practice modern yoga, its fame a part of the “Big Yoga – the corporate yoga subculture”. According to De Michelis, an erroneous compounding of the ancient yoga as taught in the Yoga Sutras and Vivekananda’s distinct variant of Raja yoga is typically taken as granted by the esoteric segment of the Modern yoga practitioners in the West, and assumed to be true by many in the global community of seekers of yoga.

Haṭha yoga

Svatmarama’s 15th century compilation, the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, describes 15 asanas, and states that of these, four are important, namely the seated poses Siddhasana, Padmasana, Bhadrasana and Simhasana. The earliest nonseated postures are found in the 10th-century Vimanarcanakalpa, a Hindu text of the Pancaratra sub-tradition of Vaishnavism. Additional nonseated asanas are elaborated in early Vaishnava texts such as the Ahirbudhnya samhita and Vasistha samhita, but the description of the same asanas is quite different in the 13th-century Matsyendra samhita – a text of the Nath sub-tradition of Hinduism. According to Mallinson, the Sanskrit literature suggests that the tantric physiology and related practices were superimposed into the classical yoga of ancient India and the hatha yoga corpus of about 11th-century at a later date.

From the 17th century, more asanas are increasingly described in the Haṭha yoga texts. A proliferation of non-seated asanas is found in Hathapradipika and other yoga-related Indian texts of its era. The 17th-century Hatha Ratnavali is the “first text to teach 84 individual asanas”, according to Mallinson. The Asanayogagrantha also describes these 84 postures, and murals in the Hindu temple called Natha Mahamandir (Jodhpur, c. 1810 CE) show all 84 asanas. These postures include Padmasana, Mayurasana, Gomukhasana, Bhairavasana, Matsyendrasana, Kurmasana, Kraunchasana, Mandukasana, Yoganidrasana, and many names now not in wide usage. A miniature paintings-illustrated 1602 manuscript by the Persian Bahr al-Hayat – believed to be a translation of the lost Indian text Amritakunda, and now preserved in Ireland – depicts a yogi performing 22 asanas. It describes postures including Garbhasana. The Gheranda Samhita (late 17th century) states that there are as many postures as species of living beings, that Shiva taught 8.4 million asanas, of which 84 asanas are preeminent. In verse 2.6, it lists 32 postures and then states that these “bestow success in the world of mortals”. The Gheranda Samhita elaborates the 32 postures in the remaining verses of chapter 2.

Kapala Asana

“Kapala Asana”(headstand, on a tiger skin) from manuscript of Jogapradipika, 1830.

An illustrated Yoga-related manuscript based on the Ramanandi Jayatarama’s 1737 Joga Pradipika was seized from the library of Rani of Jhansi in central India, after it was sacked by the British forces in 1858. This text was transferred to the British Library in 1861 and contains high-quality paintings of 84 seated and inverted asanas and 24 mudras in the Rajput painting style. Losty has proposed that it is probably from the Punjab and dates it to about 1830 CE. This places the manuscript with 84 illustrated yoga postures from a period before the onset of modern yoga. The illustrations are symbolic, not naturalistic. The Indologist Gudrun Bühnemann known for her work in rituals and 19th-century yoga manuscripts, states that this illustrated manuscript of yoga is a rare text. According to her, it does not prove that the 84 asanas that it illustrates are of ancient lineage because the textual evidence is “not accessible to us”, nor is there any textual evidence that such a lineage ever existed. The Sritattvanidhi, a 19th century manuscript written before 1868, illustrates and describes 122 asanas. By the late 19th century, an early modern yoga was more widely introduced to the Western world by Vivekananda and others. Yogi Ghamande’s 1905 book Yogasopana Purvacatuska illustrated with half-tone engravings of Ghamande performing 37 asanas, it is the first book to display asanas in realistic, quasi-photographic detail.

James Mallinson disagrees with Bühnemann and related views on pre-modern Hatha yoga. Hatha yoga and its asanas are described in Sanskrit texts from about the 11th-century, states Mallinson, and these are related to modern physical yoga practices. However these practices were not invented around the 11th-century: the earliest mention of ascetics (sannyasi) performing physical yoga practices are evidenced in Buddhist, Hindu and Jain texts that are over a thousand years older than these 11th-century yoga texts. The Hatha yoga texts were created to share the knowledge of the ascetic community with the wider, non-ascetic general community. Some of the Hindu Hatha yoga texts of this era “explicitly state that its practice is beneficial to all”, recommending it to grihastha stage (householders), asserting its “health benefits”. The 15th-century Shiva Samhita promises its reader that the yoga posture practice help sculpt a “beautiful body” and increase their ability to “attract the members of opposite sex”, states Mallinson. Similarly, Mircea Eliade states that the Yogatattva Upanishad mentions the physiological benefits of yoga and its regular practice making its practitioners more “sexually attractive”. According to Mallinson, “we find textual descriptions of 84 or more asanas in a variety of [Indian] yoga manuals” towards the end of pre-modern yoga period, i.e. before the modern yoga period started.

According to Singleton, the transnational anglophone yoga is not “the outcome of a direct and unbroken lineage of haṭha yoga”, but it would be “going too far to say that modern postural yoga has no relationship to asana practice within the Indian tradition.” The contemporary yoga practice is the result of “radical innovation and experimentation” of its Indian heritage.

Lost texts

According to Krishnamacharya – called the “father of Modern yoga” by Mark Singleton and Tara Fraser, and the official history of Ashtanga vinyasa yoga – a form of Modern yoga practice, Krishnamacharya learnt his yoga posture practice (asanasvinyasas) and developed his modern yoga curricula by studying ancient Indian texts in Tibet and India, such as one attributed to ancient rishi Vamana. Of these, he mentioned a Yoga Kurunta he saw in Kolkata, a text his student Pattabhi Jois had also seen in the 1920s. However, that text is now lost and said to have been destroyed by ants. Krishnamacharya also mentioned that his yoga posture styles are also found in chapters of other unknown and lost Indian texts, one such portion being the Hathabhyasapaddhati.

Types of modern yoga

The four types of modern yoga defined by De Michelis are described below.

Modern Psychosomatic Yoga

Swami Kuvalayananda

Swami Kuvalayananda established Kaivalyadhama, a school of Modern Psychosomatic Yoga, in 1924.

Modern Psychosomatic Yoga is a form of yoga involving Body-Mind-Spirit training. According to De Michelis, it emphasises practical experience, places relatively little restriction on doctrine, and is practised in a privatised setting. She gives as examples The Yoga Institute at Santa Cruz, India, founded by Yogendra, sometimes called “the Father of the Modern Yoga Renaissance”, in 1918;Kaivalyadhama Shrimad Madhava Yoga Mandir Samiti at Lonavla, India, founded by Kuvalayananda in 1924; and Sivananda yoga, led by Sivananda but whose asana practice was founded by his disciple Vishnudevananda in 1959; and the Himalayan Institute, founded by Swami Rama in 1971.

Yogendra brought yoga asanas to America, his system influenced by that of Max Müller. Yogendra founded a branch of The Yoga Institute in New York state in 1919, a year after founding the first one in India. He secularized yoga, using it in the service of Indian householders with physical complaints. The American explorer and author Theos Bernard studied traditional hatha yoga and tantric yoga, travelling to India and Tibet, and publicising these traditions in books such as his 1943 Hatha Yoga: The Report of A Personal Experience.

In 1924, Kuvalayananda founded the Kaivalyadhama Health and Yoga Research Center in Maharashtra. He emphasized its health benefits. According to the scholar Joseph Alter, he had a “profound” effect on the evolution of asana-based modern yoga. The yoga scholar-practitioner Norman Sjoman states that Kuvalayananda attempted to revive or to create a Yoga posture practice in India based on the medieval texts.

In 1925, Paramahansa Yogananda, having moved from India to America, set up the Self-Realization Fellowship in Los Angeles, and taught yoga, including asanas, breathing, chanting and meditation, to “tens of thousands of Americans”. In 1923, Yogananda’s younger brother, Bishnu Charan Ghosh, founded the Ghosh College of Yoga and Physical Culture in Calcutta; the college taught yoga to Bikram Choudhury, founder of Bikram Yoga.

Krishnamacharya observed the work at Kaivalyadhama in 1934, but while that centre has always attempted to study yoga scientifically, he continued the Mysore Palace tradition of incorporating Western physical training in his form of yoga, rather than seeking to study it as science.

Other Indian schools of yoga took up the new style of asanas, but continued to emphasize Haṭha yoga’s spiritual goals and practices to varying extents. The Divine Life Society was founded by Sivananda Saraswati of Rishikesh in 1936. His many disciples include Swami Vishnudevananda, who founded the International Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Centres, starting in 1959; Swami Satyananda of the Bihar School of Yoga, a major centre of Hatha yoga teacher training, founded in 1963; and Swami Satchidananda of Integral Yoga, founded in 1966. Vishnudevananda published his influential Complete Illustrated Book of Yoga in 1960.

Modern Meditational Yoga

Modern Meditational Yoga emphasises the mental techniques of concentration and meditation. De Michelis gives as examples early Transcendental Meditation as taught by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in the 1950s; the teaching of Sri Chinmoy’s yoga centres, from c. 1964; and some Buddhist organisations of the 21st century.

Transcendental Meditation involves the use of a mantra for 15–20 minutes twice per day while sitting with the eyes closed. The technique has been described as both religious and non-religious, as an aspect of a new religious movement, as rooted in Hinduism, and as a non-religious practice for self-development.

Sri Chinmoy, an athlete and flautist, advocated meditation both for silent sitting and for use when running, performing music or making artworks, as described in his book 222 Meditation Techniques. He also made use of mantric singing.

Modern Denominational Yoga

Modern Denominational Yoga is a form of yoga centred around Neo-Hindu gurus; each school places emphasis on its own teachings, and provides its own belief system and system of authority. The environment is cultic, sometimes sectarian. De Michelis states that Modern Denominational Yoga may make use of any other form of modern yoga, for instance sometimes using asana practice and meditation. She gives as examples Brahma Kumaris, founded by Lekhraj Kripalani in the 1930s; Sahaja Yoga, founded by Nirmala Srivastava (known as Shri Mataji Nirmala Devi) in 1970; ISKCON (the International Society for Krishna Consciousness), founded by A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada in 1966; Rajneeshism, founded by Rajneesh, c. 1964; and what she describes as late Transcendental Meditation, as it gained an institutional form.

A ISKCON kirtan performance in Moscow.

A ISKCON kirtan performance in Moscow.

Brahma Kumaris teaches meditation to purify the self, focusing on the belief that the student’s soul is moving towards God. Students sit upright with eyes open, sometimes listening to a text or to some music, often supervised by a guide. The meditation has stages: a preparatory stage with visualisation; consciousness of the soul and of God; concentration on the purity of God; realisation, when the soul is connected with God.

Sahaja Yoga describes itself as “a method of meditation which brings a breakthrough in the evolution of human awareness.” It aims for “inner awakening” which it equates to “self realization”, enlightenment and liberation (moksha). It states that this can be experienced by anyone who sincerely desires to have it through a sitting meditation, placing the hands on different parts of the body in turn, and that self realization requires the subject to forgive “everyone”.

ISKCON describes meditation as having three different forms, namely japa (recitation of the name of God, using a string of beads), kirtan (public singing of the names of God, in particular Hare, Krishna, and Rama, to musical accompaniment), and sankirtan (kirtan in a group).

Rajneeshism involved meditation and living in communities in the countryside, practising free love. Rajneesh advocated dynamic meditation using chaotic breathing and “natural body movements”. The meditation had five stages such as “act[ing] out all your madnesses”.

Modern Postural Yoga

The flowing sequences of salute to the sun, Surya Namaskar, now accepted as yoga and containing popular asanas such as Uttanasana and upward and downward dog poses, were popularized by the Rajah of Aundh, Bhawanrao Shrinivasrao Pant Pratinidhi, in the 1920s, though the Rajah denied having invented them.

Tirumalai Krishnamacharya (1888–1989), “the father of modern yoga”, claimed to have spent seven years with one of the few masters of Haṭha yoga then living, Ramamohana Brahmachari, at Lake Manasarovar in Tibet, from 1912 to 1918. He studied under Kuvalayananda in the 1930s, creating in his yogashala in the Jaganmohan Palace in Mysore “a marriage of Haṭha yoga, wrestling exercises and modern Western gymnastic movement”, states Singleton. The Maharajah of Mysore Krishna Raja Wadiyar IV was a leading advocate of physical culture in India, and a neighbouring hall of his palace was used to teach Surya Namaskar classes, then considered to be gymnastic exercises. Krishnamacharya adapted these sequences of exercises into his flowing style of yoga.

Krishnamacharya teaching modern postural yoga in Mysore, 1930s[20]

Krishnamacharya teaching modern postural yoga in Mysore, 1930s

Among Krishnamacharya’s pupils were people who became influential yoga teachers themselves: the Russian Eugenie V. Peterson, known as Indra Devi (from 1937), who moved to Hollywood, taught yoga to actors and other celebrities, and wrote the bestselling book Forever Young, Forever Healthy; Pattabhi Jois (from 1927), who founded the flowing style Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga whose Mysore style makes use of repetitions of Surya Namaskar, in 1948, which in turn led to Power Yoga; B.K.S. Iyengar (from 1933), his brother-in-law, who founded Iyengar Yoga; T.K.V. Desikachar, his son, who continued his Viniyoga tradition; Srivatsa Ramaswami; and A. G. Mohan, co-founder of Svastha Yoga & Ayurveda. Together they made yoga popular as physical exercise and brought it to the Western world. Iyengar’s 1966 book Light on Yoga popularised yoga asanas worldwide with what Sjoman calls its “clear no-nonsense descriptions and the obvious refinement of the illustrations”, though the degree of precision it calls for is missing from earlier yoga texts. The tradition begun by Krishnamacharya survives at the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram in Chennai; his son T. K. V. Desikachar and his grandson Kausthub Desikachar teach in small groups, coordinating asana movements with the breath, and personalising the teaching according to the needs of individual students.Modern postural yoga consists largely but not exclusively of the practice of asanas. There were very few standing asanas before 1900. By 2012, there were at least 19 widespread styles from Ashtanga Yoga to Viniyoga. These emphasise different aspects including aerobic exercise, precision in the asanas, and spirituality in the Haṭha yoga tradition. For example, Bikram Yoga has an aerobic exercise style with rooms heated to 105 °F (41 °C) and a fixed pattern of 2 breathing exercises and 26 asanas. Iyengar Yoga emphasises correct alignment in the postures, working slowly, if necessary with props, and ending with relaxation. Sivananda Yoga focuses more on spiritual practice, with 12 basic poses, chanting in Sanskrit, pranayama breathing exercises, meditation, and relaxation in each class, and importance is placed on vegetarian diet. Jivamukti yoga uses a flowing vinyasa style of asanas accompanied by music, chanting, and the reading of scriptures. Kundalini yoga emphasises the awakening of kundalini energy through meditation, pranayama, chanting, and suitable asanas.

De Michelis theorises that Modern Postural Yoga schools went through three phases of development: popularisation from the 1950s; consolidation from the mid-1970s; and finally acculturation, from the late 1980s. In popularisation, teachers appeared, media such as books and television programmes were created, class attendance rose, and people travelled to India, experiencing yogic ideas for themselves. Since schools were relatively small, contact with teachers was personal and charismatic “gurus” could directly attract pupils. In consolidation, many schools closed, and the remainder became more institutional, with standardised teacher training and certification. In acculturation, governing bodies like the British Wheel of Yoga were given official status, and postural yoga was recommended by health authorities. As evidence for this, she describes the history of Iyengar Yoga with respect to the three phases.

Alongside the yoga brands, many teachers, for example in England, offer an unbranded “hatha yoga”, often mainly to women, creating their own combinations of poses. These may be in flowing sequences (vinyasas), and new variants of poses are often created. The gender imbalance has sometimes been marked; in Britain in the 1970s, women formed between 70 and 90 percent of most yoga classes, as well as most of the yoga teachers.

Modern postural yoga has been popularized in the Western world by claims about its health benefits. The history of such claims was reviewed by William J. Broad in his 2012 book The Science of Yoga; he argues that while the health claims for yoga began as Hindu nationalist posturing, it turns out that there is ironically “a wealth of real benefits”. Among the early exponents was Kuvalayananda, who attempted to demonstrate scientifically in his purpose-built 1924 laboratory at Kaivalyadhama that Sarvangasana (shoulderstand) specifically rehabilitated the endocrine glands (the organs that secrete hormones). He found no evidence to support this claim, for this or any other asana.

The impact of modern postural yoga on physical and mental health has been a topic of systematic studies, with evidence that regular yoga practice yields health benefits. A review of six studies found benefits for depression, but noted that the studies’ methods imposed limitations. A review of 10 studies comparing yoga and other forms of exercise found that yoga was as effective as or better than exercise for several health measures, most likely achieving these results by regulating the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis and the sympathetic nervous system.


Yoga is becoming a subject of academic inquiry. Medknow (part of Wolters Kluwer), with Swami Vivekananda Yoga Anusandhana Samsthana university, publishes the peer-reviewed open access medical journal International Journal of Yoga. An increasing number of papers are being published on the possible medical benefits of yoga, such as on stress and low back pain. The School of Oriental and African Studies in London has created a Centre of Yoga Studies; it hosts the Hatha Yoga Project which is tracing the history of physical yoga, and it teaches a master’s degree in yoga and meditation.

The philosopher Ernest Wood referred to “modern” yoga in the title of his 1948 book “Practical Yoga, Ancient and Modern”. According to Andrea Jain, the study of modern yoga as a “concretized field” began in 2004 with the monograph A History of Modern Yoga by Elizabeth de Michelis. Prior to it, early yoga scholarship such as by Mircea Eliade did not distinguish premodern yoga and modern yoga. The typology of “modern yoga” then did not exist. The monograph by De Michelis, states Andrea Jain, was a groundbreaking work that presented for the first time a fourfold typology comprising “Modern Psychosomatic Yoga, Modern Meditational Yoga, Modern Postural Yoga, and Modern Denominational Yoga”.

Mark Singleton, a scholar of Yoga history and practices, states that De Michelis’s typology provides useful categories as a way into studying yoga in the modern age, but that it is not a “good starting point for history insofar as it subsumes detail, variation, and exception”. Singleton does not subscribe to this interpretive framework, and considers “modern yoga” to refer to “yoga in the modern age”. He questions the typology as follows:

Can we really refer to an entity called Modern Yoga and assume that we are talking about a discrete and identifiable category of beliefs and practices? Does Modern Yoga, as some seem to assume, differ in ontological status (and hence intrinsic value) from “traditional yoga”? Does it represent a rupture in terms of tradition rather than a continuity? And in the plethora of experiments, adaptations, and innovations that make up the field of transnational yoga today, should we be thinking of all these manifestations as belonging to Modern Yoga in any typological sense?

— Mark Singleton

According to Ian Whicher, a scholar known for his studies on the Yoga tradition in India, the surviving early texts of pre-modern yoga tend to be similarly redacted and dry, but yoga in its authentic cultural context “has always been an esoteric discipline taught mainly through oral tradition”. This practice-based yoga has always manifested in the form of training by gurus to their disciples in India. This emphasis on the transmission of yoga practice through verbal instruction and by direct demonstration has been a historic part of the yoga tradition. According to Singleton, it is an Orientalists’ error to rely exclusively on pre-modern textual material that has survived into the modern age, and this “reliance is particularly evident in the scholarship of yoga”. The “modern, English-language yoga”, states Singleton, is “greatly informed by the textual vision of Orientalist and anglo-Indian scholarship of the late nineteenth century”.

Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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