Clarity and Insight
Join Daniel Simpson to explore the main themes that shaped yoga's evolution from its earliest origins to what it is now. Building on ideas from his recent book, The Truth of Yoga, he brings the subject to life in engaging ways without oversimplifying.
If you've ever felt confused about yoga philosophy, this course is for you. Even if you've studied for years, you'll still find something new here – an accessible guide to the latest research, and a comprehensive overview of how today's yoga relates to the past.
We'll examine the links between philosophy and practice, seeing how their threads have been woven together in different ways as contexts change. And we'll reflect on our role in this process, respecting tradition while also acknowledging modern priorities.
By the end of the course, you'll have a clearer understanding of the history of yoga and feel better prepared for further study, or to discuss this material with students.
1 – ANCIENT FOUNDATIONS
1.1 – How old is yoga really?
We start by defining key terms. What exactly is yoga and where does it come from? Which forms of evidence help us to date it? How reliable are claims about thousands of years ago?
1.2 – Do the Vedas teach yoga?
The earliest Vedic texts have little to say about yogic practice. Nonetheless, they describe some ideas that become influential. The Upaniṣads develop these into an inward-focused system.
1.3 – Are ascetics and yogis related?
Yoga was an answer to the problem of karma, by which people suffer through endless lifetimes. Groups of renouncers sought liberation in various ways, some more hardcore than others.
2 – CLASSICAL TEACHINGS
2.1 – Why doesn't yoga mean union?
Union is the problem, says the Yoga Sūtra, so Patañjali's aim is detachment from matter to rest in awareness. This is based on Sāṃkhya, a dualistic system that shaped early methods.
2.2 – Is renouncing the basis of practice?
The Bhagavad Gītā redefines renunciation. A yogi can act in the world by abandoning attachment to personal gain. Devotional service is promoted as an antidote to self-centred thinking.
2.3 – Are detachment and action compatible?
The Yoga Sūtra and the Bhagavad Gītā share many ideas, but their goals lead in opposite directions. While it's tempting to mix them together, it's also important to see how they differ.
3 – PHYSICAL PRACTICE
3.1 – How "real" are cakras?
Early yogis saw the body as an obstacle – a source of desires to transcend. However, Tantra taught ways to transform it and make it divine, providing blueprints for physical yoga.
3.2 – Is haṭha forceful or gentle?
Although haṭha means "force", the techniques it describes are applied more cautiously. They use bodily methods to silence the mind, by manipulating various forms of vital energy.
3.3 – Why do yogis turn upside down?
Traditional haṭha teaches non-seated postures, but it's still very different to modern approaches. One clear example is the use of inversions to ensure that semen remains in the head...
4 – EVOLVING TRADITIONS
4.1 – Is modern yoga really gymnastics?
Some features of postural classes are relatively recent, from sun salutations to popular standing poses. Like sequences that end in relaxation, they may have been inspired by other practices.
4.2 – Who's appropriated what and from where?
Yoga has evolved through cross-cultural exchange. However, at times – e.g., under colonialism – this was coercive. Now debates about who owns yoga are used to bolster Hindu nationalism.
4.3 – What defines authenticity and why?
Practitioners today are not ancient ascetics, so teachings are often reframed to fit modern ideas. This was always how yoga developed, but it only has links to tradition if we preserve them.
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. He also contributes to teacher trainings at Triyoga in London, and offers online talks and international workshops.
Daniel is a graduate of Cambridge University and holds a master's degree in Traditions of Yoga and Meditation from SOAS University of London. In a previous career, he was a foreign correspondent, working for Reuters and the New York Times.
How does the course work?
All four modules are available at once, so you can study the materials at your own pace. Each module has three video presentations, plus a recorded discussion with Q&A.
Is it still possible to ask questions?
Absolutely! The course site has online forums for questions and comments, where you can share ideas and links – or request more information on any topic.
How long will I have access to materials?
For three months. Audio recordings of all sessions are also yours to download and keep. An upgrade is available at the checkout, which gives you unlimited access to videos.
Do I need to have read The Truth of Yoga?
Not necessarily. It's also fine to read along with the course, or explore the book later. If you've read it already, there are optional suggestions for further reading.
What level of knowledge is required?
The course is designed for yoga practitioners. Videos are accessible enough for anyone to follow, yet provide sufficient depth to interest those with more experience.
Does the course include assignments?
Each module has an optional quiz to test your understanding. No one sees your results.
Do yoga teachers get accreditation?
All students who finish the course will receive a certificate for 12 hours of study. Teachers registered with Yoga Alliance can log these as continuing education with a YACEP.