Why does Exploring the History of Yoga matter?

Yoga, a practice that has gained immense popularity in recent years, is much more than just physical exercise. It is a holistic system that combines physical postures, breathing techniques, meditation, cleansing and ethical principles to promote overall well-being. 

But have you ever wondered about the origins and history of yoga? 

Let’s dive into the basics and a very very(!) short history of yoga and explore how it has evolved over time.

The origins of yoga is a cause of debate currently, the who, when, and what. It can be traced back to ancient India, over 5,000 years ago. Some scholars have found compelling evidence that it may have come from northern invaders (Iran, due to the horse culture there) while others believe it is was Indigenous to India (north or south is also under debate). Some believe it is as old as 10,000 years ago, one reason for this is the value of time and history became more relevant. To give you some context, homosapiens were just beginning to farm barley and wheat at that long ago and goats were domesticated. One thing is not debatable, India has maintained, developed and cultivated the tradition for thousands of years.

You may have read the word ‘yoga’ comes from the Sanskrit word ‘yuj,’ which means to unite or join. However, you may not know there are many variations of this term in Sanskrit depending on where it is placed; however, the overall meaning is unity. Yoga, in its essence, is about uniting the body, mind, and spirit. It aims to bring harmony and balance to our lives by aligning these elements.

The earliest mention of yoga can be found in the ancient texts known as the Vedas. These texts were hymns, rituals, and later, philosophical musings from the ancient Indian civilization in the Indus Valley. The area is now known as Pakistan. Yoga was initially developed as a spiritual practice and roadmap to connect with the divine and attain higher states of consciousness.

Over time, yoga evolved and was refined by different sages and philosophers. One significant lineage in the history of yoga is Patanjali, who are often regarded as the grandfathers of modern yoga. Patanjali compiled and systematized the various practices of yoga in his work, the Yoga Sutras around the birth of Jesus. 

The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, written around the 2nd century BCE, consists of 196 short verses that outline the philosophy and practice of yoga. Patanjali described yoga as the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind, including the origin of thoughts. He emphasized the importance of the eightfold path, known as Ashtanga Yoga, which includes ethical principles (yamas and niyamas), the perspective from where one sits (asanas), life energy control and breath practices (pranayama), sense withdrawal (pratyahara), concentration techniques (dharana), meditation (dhyana), and enlightenment states of consciousness (samadhi).

Yoga remained mostly confined to ancient India until the late 19th and early 20th centuries when it began to gain attention from the West. One major influence was Swami Vivekananda, a renowned Indian yogi, who introduced yoga to the Western world in 1893 through his lectures and teachings. He emphasized the practical aspects of yoga, such as physical postures and breathing exercises, making it accessible to a wider audience.

In the 20th century, yoga started to become popularized and adapted by various individuals, leading to different styles and approaches. One influential figure was Tirumalai Krishnamacharya, who is often called the father of modern yoga. Krishnamacharya emphasized the therapeutic aspects of yoga and tailored the practice to suit individual needs. His students highly influenced yoga in the West with an emphasis on physical practices.

There were many other great teachers who contributed to yogic teachings in both the East and the West including Neem Karoli Baba, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, Sivananda, Paramahansa Yogananda and many many more.

In recent decades, yoga has exploded in popularity, with millions of people practicing it worldwide. It has become a multi-billion dollar industry, with various styles and variations being offered, such as Hatha, Vinyasa, Bikram, and Kundalini yoga. Yoga has also been embraced by the scientific community, with numerous studies highlighting its benefits for physical and mental health. 

How many of the deeper yogic teachings were lost is a complicated and nuanced consideration. But one thing is clear, many modern yoga practices do not include some of the richest practices such as mantra, ritual, and even practical guidance for health, such as Ayurveda.  

As yoga continues to evolve, it is crucial to remember its roots and the rich history it carries. Exploring the basics of the history of yoga allows us to understand and appreciate the deep wisdom and ancient practices that underpin this transformative practice. There is so much more to yoga, it is a life long passion.

It is also important to consider the affect of colonialism starting in 1612 in India when yogi’s were fined and householders were systemically shunned for practicing Yoga. The effect upon generations is a source of great harm. Then add to it the Western world embracing Yoga so thoroughly in culturally appropriative ways, by rejecting some aspects of the tradition while taking and changing others to suit their values. There are so many resources, consider Susannah Barkataki’s work “Embrace Yoga’s Roots.”

Whether you’re a beginner or a seasoned practitioner, understanding the history of yoga can deepen your connection to the practice and provide a context for the techniques and philosophies you encounter. It can make you aware and practice non-harming, “Ahimsa,” honouring the tradition and the people who have suffered were you may have gained. So next time you unroll your mat and find yourself in an adho mukha shvanasana or a seated meditation, take a moment to reflect on the centuries of knowledge and wisdom that have brought you to this. Then consider the best course of action. What mindful decisions will you make? How will you contribute to the living tradition of Yoga?

Photo by Varun Pyasi

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