The History of Yoga

What’s past is prologue

William Shakespeare wrote that in The Tempest. But how far back into the past do we have to go to find the prologue to Yoga? To understand what Yoga is today, we should know what it was in the past, and how it has evolved.

The earliest archaeological evidence of Yoga’s existence could be found in stone seals which depict figures in Yoga poses. The stone seals have been dated to around 3000 B.C. However, scholars believe that Yoga existed long before that. In fact, they believe it had its beginnings in the Stone Age. Shamanism had some similar characteristics to Yoga, and could well be the first beginnings of the practice. Of course, we will never know for sure, but clearly we humans have been practicing mental, physical, and spiritual disciplines for our entire history.

Yoga’s Vedic Period

The Vedas (véda is Sanskrit for knowledge) are a large body of texts originating in ancient India. Composed in Vedic Sanskrit, the texts constitute the oldest known Sanskrit literature and the oldest sacred scriptures of Hinduism. The Vedas contains the oldest known Yogic teachings. These teachings are called Vedic Yoga, and are characterized by rituals and ceremonies that strive to surpass the limitations of the mind. The rishis or dedicated Vedic Yogis, taught the Vedic people how to live in divine harmony. It was during this time that Yogis living in seclusion (deep in the forests) were first recorded.

Yoga’s Pre-Classical Period

The 200 scriptures of the Upanishads (the conclusion of the revealed literature) mark the beginning of the Pre-Classical Period. These documents describe the inner vision of reality resulting from devotion to Brahman. They deal with three subjects: the ultimate reality (Brahman), the transcendental self (atman), and the relationship between the two. The Upanishads expound upon, and further explain, the teachings of the Vedas.

Around 500 B.C., the Bhagavad-Gita or Lord’s Song was created. It was written as a conversation between Prince Arjuna and God-man Krishna and it basically stresses the importance of opposing evil. This is currently the oldest known Yoga scripture. It is devoted entirely to Yoga. The central point to the Gita is this: to be alive means to be active, and in order to avoid difficulties in our lives and in others’, our actions must be benign and must transcend our egos.

In the Gita, three facets must be brought together in our lifestyle: Bhakti or loving devotion, Jnana which is knowledge or contemplation, and Karma which is about selfless actions. The Gita tried to unify Bhakti Yoga, Jnana Yoga, and Karma Yoga.

Classical Period

The Classical Period is marked by the
Yoga Sutra. Written by Patanjali around the second century, it was an attempt to define and standardize Classical Yoga. It is composed of 195 aphorisms or sutras (from the Sanskrit word which means thread). These sutras expound upon the Raja Yoga and its underlying principle, Patanjali’s Eightfold Path of Yoga (also called the Eight Limbs of Classical Yoga).

  1. Yama – social restraints or ethical values
  2. Niyama – personal observance of purity, tolerance, and study
  3. Asanas – physical exercises
  4. Pranayama – breath control or regulation
  5. Pratyahara – sense withdrawal in preparation for Meditation
  6. Dharana -Concentration
  7. Dhyana – Meditation
  8. Samadhi – Ecstasy

Patanjali believed that each individual is a composite of matter (prakriti) and spirit (purusha). He further believed that the two must be separated in order to cleanse the spirit. This, of course, was a stark contrast to Vedic and Pre-Classical Yoga that signifed the union of body and spirit.

Patanjali’s concept was dominant for some centuries. It was so dominant, in fact, that some Yogis focused exclusively on Meditation and neglected their
Asanas. It was only later that the belief of the body as a temple was rekindled and attention to the importance of the Asana was revived. During this time, Yogis attempted to use Yoga techniques to change the body and make it immortal.

Post-Classical Yoga

Today, we see a proliferation of the practice of Yoga. Post-classical Yoga differs from the first three in that its focus is more on the present. It no longer strives to liberate a person from reality but rather to teache one to accept reality and live at the moment.

Yoga was introduced in the West during the early 19th century. It was first studied as part of Eastern Philosophy, and began as a movement promoting health and vegetarianism around the 1930s. The 1960s saw an influx of Indian teachers who expounded on Yoga. One of them was Maharishi Mahesh, the Yogi who popularized Transcendental Meditation.

Today, Yoga continues to proliferate and spread its teachings, crossing boundaries of culture and language.

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