The history of Yoga dates back to civilisation itself
Many a time I get asked especially in international gatherings, What is yoga? Where did it begin? Is it an exercise form, meditation or a religion. My answer is, all of the above and more. For me, it’s a lifestyle!
The word ‘Yoga’ finds its origins in the Sanskrit word ‘Yuj’ “to yoke or harness.” It is the union of the mind body and universal consciousness or Spirit. The History of Yoga dates back 4000 plus years during the Vedic period.
Yoga first finds mention in the Nasadiya Sukta part of the oldest written treatise the ‘Rig Veda’ a collection of Vedic hymns in Sanskrit. However, art form predates written material, the Pashupati seal from the Indus-Saraswati civilisation dating to 2350-2000 BC shows a deity figure sitting in a yogic posture, placing yogic practice as a tradition during the time. Yoga is one of the six orthodox systems of Indian Philosophy.
It is in the Kato Upanishad dating to the 1st millennia BC, a prime Upanishad, that the word ‘yoga’ as we use it today appears for the very first time. Later on, Yoga is elaborately described in the Bhagavad Gita and in Shanti Parva of Mahabharata.
However, by far the most detailed description of the history of Yoga is found in sage ‘Patanjali Yogasutra’. This description of the ancient mind-body-spirit system is one of the foundations of Hindu philosophy. Patanjali’s writing is the basis for Ashtanga Yoga. Many practices like five vows in Jainism and Yogachara of Buddhism have their root in Patanjali Yogasutras.
Raja Yoga refers to Ashtanga Yoga, as described in the Yoga Sutras by sage, Patanjali. It is an eight-pronged practice to attain Samadhi or Union with the divine. This eight-limbed path gives us the Yama, meaning restraints; Niyama, meaning observances; Asana, meaning physical postures; Pranayama, meaning breathing practices; Pratyahara, meaning withdrawal of the mind from the senses; Dharana, meaning concentration; Dhyana, meaning focus on a single object indefinitely; and Samadhi, meaning absorption, or realization of the nature of the self. It is these eight limbs that make up a lot of modern practices along the path of spiritual enlightenment, an important chapter in yoga history.
A history of Yoga is incomplete with the mention of the ‘Bhagavad-Gita’ which elaborately describes the concept of Gyan Yoga, Bhakti Yoga and Karma Yoga. Lord Krishna speaks of Karma Yoga (the path of action and selfless service) Jnana Yoga (the path of knowledge or wisdom) and Bhakti Yoga (the path of devotion) in his dialogue with Prince Arjuna.
A few centuries after Patanjali, the evolution of Yoga took an interesting turn. While previous generations of yogis and yoginis looked at yoga as a means to exit the body consciously, the new breed of Yoga masters created a system of practices designed to rejuvenate the body and prolong its life. It was around 130 AD that we find the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, a classic text on Hatha Yoga. It describes 16 postures, pranayama techniques, mudras and bandhas. From then to the 19th-century texts are mostly silent on yoga history and its development
Yoga in the 19th and 20th Century
Interest in Yoga peaked after Charles Wilkins translated the Bhagavad Gita in 1785. Later in 1893, Swami Vivekananda travelled to America to give a number of lectures on Yoga. These lectures gained the interest of a great number of people in the West.
By 1920 the work of Hatha Yoga was strongly promoted by T. Krishnamacharya, who is probably the most important teacher of Yoga in the 20th century. He opened the first Hatha Yoga school in Mysore in 1924.
Yoga and Religion
Even though Yoga has its origins in the Hindu religion it does not adhere to any particular religion, belief system or community. It is today looked as a holistic exercise system that promotes health and mental wellbeing. Over the last 50 years, Yoga has spread across the globe with teachers across continents and cultures adapting its practices to local tastes and conditions. Today we have Hot Yoga and Pilates Yoga and Aerobic Yoga and Speed Yoga. Millions and millions of people across the globe from diverse colours, creeds, nationality and religious belief have benefitted by the practice of Yoga and for all those of us who practice this form of holistic well-being, it is a matter of pride that we are connected to a tradition that is as ancient as civilisation itself.
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