Yoga has taken the globe by storm in recent years, and has quickly become a favourite amongst health-fanatics. In the West, yoga is largely understood and promoted simply as a form of exercise that is, in some way, connected to mindfulness and meditation.
However, yoga is far more than just a way to tone the body. It is a primarily spiritual discipline, which places focus on the connection between the mind and the body. Yoga has a rich, complicated and extremely long history that has intimate links with multiple religions, philosophies, and spiritualities.
To understand this history more deeply, and thus, better inform your own yoga practice and promotion, check out the brief history of the origins of yoga below.
What Is Yoga?
You’ve likely heard a lot of people talking about, and recommending, about yoga, as its popularity has increased dramatically over recent years. However, you might wonder, what actually is yoga?
Rather than a simple form of exercise, yoga is, in fact, an ancient practice. The word ‘yoga’, when translated from Sanskrit, literally means ‘union’. This encapsulates what yoga actually is – the bringing together of the mind, body, and use of breath.
Though you’ve likely seen people ‘doing yoga’ in the form of performing particular poses and postures, the photos of which saturate social media sites, yoga can more aptly be understood as a lifestyle, of which poses are a mere piece.
However, yoga also does not correlate to a single set of religious beliefs, and can be practiced properly in a secular way. Although, it is important to understand its history and intimate connections to spirituality, in order to practice yoga more appropriately.
Where Did Yoga Originate?
Unfortunately, there is no simple answer to this question. Although, there is significant evidence to suggest that yoga has not only been a part of human life for thousands of years, but that it has changed and adapted, as humans have.
In the ancient Indian text of Rigveda, which is thought to have been written in 1500 BC, one of the first certified references to yoga can be found. The Rigveda is a collection of hymns, mantras and rituals. Though, it also discusses practices such as controlled breathing, and touches on the existence of a higher being.
These texts were used by Vedic priests, called Brahmans. It is thought that the foundation of modern yoga was laid by these early Vedic priests, who often practiced exercises to aid concentration, and performed specific body postures.
Within the pre-classical period, beginning in roughly 500 B.C., a collection of religious texts called the Upanishads are thought to have been written. Containing over 200 scriptures, the Upanishads are religious and philosophical in nature. It is within these texts that the term ‘yoga’ is written for the first time.
In fact, within one of the scriptures, called the Maitrayaniya, the practices of Karma yoga and Jnana yoga are discussed for the first time. This scripture also details a path to liberation.
During this period, the Bhagavad Gita also originated. The Bhagavad-Gita is the oldest and most renowned yogic scripture.
Unlike the pre-classical period, where yoga consisted of a number of different beliefs and techniques that often didn’t align with each other, within the classical period, yoga practices began to be systematically presented. In fact, texts from Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism from this time all begin to discuss yoga as a set of specific practices for the first time.
The first compilation of philosophies of yoga, Pantanjali’s Yoga Sutras, was created during the classical period. To this day, these tests remain to provide guidance to lead a meaningful life.
Within Pantanjali’s Yoga Sutras, the path to unify the mind, body and soul was outlined as requiring eight different factors. These factors, known as the Eight Limbs of Yoga, include:
- Yama: moral discipline and restraint
- Asana: Physical exercise and posture
- Niyama: Positive duties
- Pratyahara: Withdrawal of sense
- Dharana: concentration
- Pranayama: breathing practices
- Dhyana: meditation
- Samadhi: enlightenment
Centuries later, yoga practice began to move away from a focus on detachment from reality and instead became focused on attempting to accept one’s life and the ability to be present.
In fact, yoga masters of this time rejected the teachings from the Vedic period, and began to encourage the body as the route to enlightenment.
Many of the familiar yoga practices and poses that we see today find their roots in this era. For instance, yoga masters developed Tantra Yoga, which consisted of radical techniques to cleanse both the body and mind.
This focus on the body and the connection between the physical and the spiritual lead to the creation of Hatha Yoga, which is the type of yoga we think of in the West today.
Throughout the early 19th century, yoga began to spread globally. Yoga gurus and masters who travelled to the West became more prominent in number and influence.
Swami Vivekanada, who truly astounded those who attended his lectures, often discussed yoga and the universal nature of different religions with a public space.
The Five Principles of yoga were developed by Swami Sivananda, with the goal of teaching yoga to Americans and Europeans. Thanks to Swami Sivananda, T. Krishnamacharya, and other yogis who practiced Hatha Yoga, Hatha yoga became widely promoted in India.
The explosion of yoga in the West can be partially understood as a consequence of Indra Devi opening a yoga studio in Hollywood in 1947. Specifically, she brought the practice of Asana Yoga to the USA, and focused on the physical benefits of the practice.
Since then, yogis have continued to promote the practice of yoga around the globe.
By evolving over thousands of years, yoga has enhanced the lives of so many people. By understanding this evolution, we can not only engage with yoga in a more knowledgeable and mindful way, but we can also embrace how it will continue to evolve and grow in the future.
The origins of yoga aren’t just interesting, but they are also incredibly important to understand if you plan to practice it.