Insights from History

Despite the popularity of yoga, the origins of many of its practices are hard to pin down. The best-known texts – from the early Upaniṣads to the Bhagavad Gītā and Yoga Sūtra – have little to say about physical methods. Other sources with more information on how they developed are harder to access.

Roots of Yoga, by the scholars James Mallinson and Mark Singleton, is a fascinating guide to less widely studied sources. Translating extracts from more than a hundred traditional texts, it covers 3,000 years of history. Studying these passages closely reveals how yoga has evolved into different traditions, while also retaining common threads.

Although the book is aimed at a general audience, its style and approach are academic. That can make it challenging to read by oneself, but ideal for group discussion. Working through it one chapter at a time, we reflect on its insights to see which dimensions of yogic tradition appeal to us most, while identifying themes to explore for ourselves.

The book has twelve chapters, beginning with an overview of yoga history. Each of these looks in detail at one subject. To keep the reading manageable, we focus in each module on a few key extracts, guided by questions providing some structure. Conversations are moderated lightly, leaving everyone free to contribute as they wish.

Course Modules


There is little evidence of systematic practice until 2,500 years ago. The earliest definition of yoga comes from the Upaniṣads. Texts show how ideas have been put into practice in different contexts.


Is yoga the practice, its outcome or both? There are many different systems and some contradict each other. Despite critiques of yogic practice, are there ideas that transcend these divisions?


Practice requires firm foundations. Texts list obstacles and helpful supports, including ethics and purifications, along with a suitable dwelling and diet. One important condition is a qualified teacher.


The word āsana means “seat”. Early texts describe sitting, yet there are also non-seated ascetic austerities. Postures became more complex 1,000 years ago, but sequences seem to be modern.


Modern yoga highlights postures, but prāṇāyāma was originally the basis of physical practice. Control of the breath helps to steady the mind, while Tantric influences shaped more dynamic practices.


Physical yoga manipulates subtle energies. This invisible body is described in different ways. One key component is a powerful force called Kuṇḍalinī, which is raised up the spine to dissolve the mind.


Ascetics used techniques called mudrās to control vital energy. These were part of early haṭha yoga. Perhaps the best known are the three “locks”, or bandhas, which are used in prāṇāyāma


The sacredness of sound is the basis of the ancient Vedic ritual. Early yoga highlights chanting oṃ, which stands for everything. Mantras are also central to Tantric practice, invoking deities.


Yogic texts describe restraint of the mind and senses. Inward focus (pratyāhāra) develops concentration (dhāraṇā), with meditation (dhyāna) on anything from formlessness to visualisations.


The goal of yoga transcends mental activity. This takes many forms. It’s sometimes presented as the fruit of meditation, or in Tantric systems as the final stage before connection with divinity.


Supernatural attainments are said to arise from yogic practice. Modern readers find them hard to interpret. These magical powers can be distracting, so some traditions say they have to be let go.


There are multiple terms for the liberated state (including mukti, mokṣa, nirvāṇa and kaivalya), and many ideas of what freedom means. Are there ways to be enlightened and live in the world?

Video Preview

The New York launch of Roots of Yoga (2017)

Course Tutor

Daniel Simpson is the author of The Truth of Yoga: A Comprehensive Guide to Yoga's History, Texts, Philosophy, and Practices, which was published in 2021 by North Point Press (an imprint of Farrar, Straus and Giroux).

He teaches courses on yoga history and philosophy at the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies and SOAS, University of London. He also contributes to yoga teacher trainings, and offers online talks and international workshops.

Daniel is a graduate of Cambridge University and earned his M.A. in Traditions of Yoga and Meditation from SOAS. In a previous career, he was a foreign correspondent, working for Reuters and the New York Times


How does the course work?

All twelve modules are available at once, so you can study the materials at your own pace. Each module is based on a chapter of Roots of Yoga, with guidance on reading to help you prepare and video recordings of discussions that provide more context.

Is there any form of interactivity? 

Absolutely! There's an online community, where you can discuss ideas with others and ask Daniel questions at any time. Plus there's an option to add one-to-one sessions.

How long will I have access to materials?

For three months. This provides an incentive to get to the end. You can also download audio recordings of all sessions, or upgrade to unlimited access at the checkout.

What level of knowledge is required?

The course is designed for yoga practitioners. It's accessible to anyone, while providing insightful details that will interest those who are more familiar with yoga history.

Do I need to read the book in advance?

No. The aim of the course is to help you to work your way through it chapter by chapter.

Do yoga teachers get accreditation?

All students who finish the course will receive a certificate for 16 hours of study. Teachers registered with Yoga Alliance can log these as continuing education with a YACEP.


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