According to Geoffrey Samuel, our "best evidence to date" suggests that yogic practices "developed in the same ascetic circles as the early śramaṇa movements (Buddhists, Jainas and Ajivikas), probably in around the sixth and fifth centuries BCE." This occurred during what is called the ‘Second Urbanisation’ period. According to Mallinson and Singleton, these traditions were the first to use psychophysical techniques, mainly known as dhyana and tapas. but later described as yoga, to strive for the goal of liberation (moksha, nirvana) from samsara (the round of rebirth).
Modern yoga is a physical activity consisting largely of asanas, often connected by flowing sequences called vinyasas, sometimes accompanied by the breathing exercises of pranayama, and usually ending with a period of relaxation or meditation. It is often known simply as yoga, despite the existence of multiple older traditions of yoga within Hinduism where asanas played little or no part, some dating back to the Yoga Sutras, and despite the fact that in no tradition was the practice of asanas central.
Yoga is discussed in the ancient foundational Sutras of Hindu philosophy. The Vaiśeṣika Sūtra of the Vaisheshika school of Hinduism, dated to have been composed sometime between 6th and 2nd century BCE discusses Yoga.[note 14] According to Johannes Bronkhorst, an Indologist known for his studies on early Buddhism and Hinduism and a professor at the University of Lausanne, Vaiśeṣika Sūtra describes Yoga as "a state where the mind resides only in the soul and therefore not in the senses". This is equivalent to pratyahara or withdrawal of the senses, and the ancient Sutra asserts that this leads to an absence of sukha (happiness) and dukkha (suffering), then describes additional yogic meditation steps in the journey towards the state of spiritual liberation.
Yoga gurus from India later introduced yoga to the West, following the success of Swami Vivekananda in the late 19th and early 20th century with his adaptation of yoga tradition, excluding asanas. Outside India, it has developed into a form of posture-based physical fitness, stress-relief and relaxation technique. Yoga in Indian traditions, however, is more than physical exercise; it has a meditative and spiritual core. One of the six major orthodox schools of Hinduism is also called Yoga, which has its own epistemology and metaphysics, and is closely related to Hindu Samkhya philosophy.
^ Gavin Flood: "These renouncer traditions offered a new vision of the human condition which became incorporated, to some degree, into the worldview of the Brahman householder. The ideology of asceticism and renunciation seems, at first, discontinuous with the brahmanical ideology of the affirmation of social obligations and the performance of public and domestic rituals. Indeed, there has been some debate as to whether asceticism and its ideas of retributive action, reincarnation and spiritual liberation, might not have originated outside the orthodox vedic sphere, or even outside Aryan culture: that a divergent historical origin might account for the apparent contradiction within 'Hinduism' between the world affirmation of the householder and the world negation of the renouncer. However, this dichotomization is too simplistic, for continuities can undoubtedly be found between renunciation and vedic Brahmanism, while elements from non-Brahmanical, Sramana traditions also played an important part in the formation of the renunciate ideal. Indeed there are continuities between vedic Brahmanism and Buddhism, and it has been argued that the Buddha sought to return to the ideals of a vedic society which he saw as being eroded in his own day."
Yoga may have pre-Vedic elements. Some state yoga originated in the Indus Valley Civilization. Marshall, Eliade and other scholars note that the Pashupati seal discovered in an Indus Valley Civilization site depicts a figure in a position resembling an asana used for meditation, Mulabandhasana. This interpretation is considered speculative and uncertain by more recent analysis of Srinivasan and may be a case of projecting "later practices into archeological findings".
One of the earliest and most influential sub-traditions of Vedanta, is Advaita Vedanta, which posits nondualistic monism. This tradition emphasizes Jñāna yoga (yoga of knowledge), which is aimed at realizing the identity of one's atman (soul, individual consciousness) with Brahman (the Absolute consciousness). The most influential thinker of this school is Adi Shankara (8th century), who wrote various commentaries and original works which teach Jñāna yoga. In Advaita Vedanta, Jñāna is attained on the basis of scripture (sruti) and one's guru and through a process of listening (sravana) to teachings, thinking and reflecting on them (manana) and finally meditating on these teachings (nididhyāsana) in order to realize their truth. It is also important to develop qualities such as discrimination (viveka), renunciation (virāga), tranquility, temperance, dispassion, endurance, faith, attention and a longing for knowledge and freedom ('mumukṣutva).' Yoga in Advaita is ultimately a "meditative exercise of withdrawal from the particular and identification with the universal, leading to contemplation of oneself as the most universal, namely, Consciousness".