Did yoga originate in Africa?

In researching material for posts in honour of Black History Month, I came across the intriguing idea that the birthplace of yoga was not India, but Africa. The popular understanding is that yoga asana dates back at least 5,000 years and was practiced by ancient Indian ascetics. But some say its earliest documentation is actually 10,000 years ago, depicted on temple walls in Egypt.

Plow pose

Adherents often refer to ancient Egypt as Kemet and the practice of yoga in this lineage Kemetic yoga. It’s also known as Smai Tawi.  One of these proponents is yoga teacher and founder of the Afrikan Yoga Foundation, Pablo Imani, who teaches that yoga disseminated from Egypt to India. The Afrikan Yoga website associated with him serves as a virtual hub to the African yoga community and includes videos, teacher profiles, upcoming events, and heaps of other information about Egyptian yoga.
Pablo is not alone in this conviction. I found YogaSkills School of Kemetic Yoga advertising 200-hour teacher training courses in Atlanta, Chicago, Jamaica and South Africa. I also found a blog post by one Sehu Khepera Ankh which offers and insightful explanation of what Kemetic yoga is.
During this year’s Black History Month, McGill’s Social Equity and Diversity Education Office (SEDE) and Montreal’s Alkemy yoga studio presented a workshop “about the African history and roots of yoga.” Alkemy offers three Kemetic yoga classes a week. One testimonal refers to Kemetic yoga as a distinct style of yoga.
During my research, I came across an illuminating post by Amara Miller, who is a yogi and sociologist PhD student at UC Davis. She’s writing her dissertation on the evolution and popularization of modern yoga after WWII in the United States. In her post, she discusses the myth that yoga as we know it was born in India at least 5,000 years ago.
Mark Singleton discusses this myth at length in his book Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice, revealing that what many think of as an ancient lineage is a relatively recent phenom consisting of practices heavily influenced by and borrowed from gymnastics and other practices of the last 100 years.
Amara then states that it is just as surely a myth that yoga originated in Ancient Egypt. She says the belief in African yogic origins is based on hieroglyphics and ancient Egyptian art that portray people in poses that are typically seen in modern day yoga classes.
Urdhva Dhanurasana
So that’s it, I thought. The purported African origins of yoga have been soundly rebuked. …Then I read the comments below the article, where Kemetic yoga practitioners and researchers rebutted. Amara had said that this African origin myth was born very recently — in 1994 by Dr. Muata Ashby, who authored several books on the topic. My research indicates that this isn’t true. There was a Kemetic yoga movement afoot at least as far back as the 70s, and commenters pointed out this factual error.
Further discussion in the comments, which Amara participated in, yielded a more insightful conclusion: there may well have been bodily spiritual practices in ancient Egypt that were akin to today’s yoga postures, though no causality may exist.
One respondent suggested it was like martial arts. They exist, and have existed, in many cultures around the world, though there is no single lineage that has given birth to all of them. Spirituality is an almost universal phenomenon. The insights of mind-body union may well have been recognized independently in Egypt and India. There’s no need and probably little possibility of finding a definitive single origin to these practices.
To answer the title question is to wade into the evidence much more deeply. For now, I present a very intriguing subject and I’ll present my findings in a future blog post. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this one!