A Brief History of Yoga
Around the world men and women practice yoga as both an exercise regiment and as a method of strengthening and centering their minds. Yoga is unique in that it is one of only a handful of systems that focuses on both body and spirit to make the two fit and pliable. Despite the fact that millions of people practice yoga worldwide, few are aware of the extensive history associated with yoga. Becoming aware of the discipline’s past and the role that it played in various cultures is key in understanding why yoga has remained relevant throughout the ages and continues to be practiced to this day.
There is a generally accepted consensus that yoga first went into practice in India, although the specific cultural origins are a matter of some contention. There is archaeological evidence that traces yoga’s origins as far back as the 3rd millennium. Seals have been discovered that appear to depict figures in poses similar to those used in yoga. These seals, dating back to the early Indus Valley civilization, suggest that the concept of yoga was in prevalence as far back as prehistory even if it was not yet practiced under the name yoga.
There is even anecdotal evidence that yoga was being practiced long before the Indus Valley civilization. Scholars suspect that yoga is, in fact, an offshoot of Stone Age Shamanism. Yoga and Shamanism share a common theme of improving the human condition and healing the community through meditation and self-discipline.
Vedic and Pre-Classical Yoga
Although yoga is often associated with Buddhism, the first usage of the term is actually found in the Brahman scripture known as the Katha Upanishad. In the Katha Upanishad yoga is described as “the steady control of the senses, which along with cessation of mental activity, leads to the supreme state.” Brahmanism is, in fact, a precursor to Hinduism rather than Buddhism; therefore yoga’s roots can originally be traced back to the Hindus rather than the Buddhists.
Yoga as it relates to Hinduism is well documented in the Vedas, a set of spiritual works that have become part of the backbone of Hinduism. These texts present rituals and ceremonies that strive to surpass the limitations of the mind. Yoga based on these ancient texts has come to be called Vedic Yoga and is still in practice today. The Vedic period is also the era in which the practice of yogis withdrawing into woodlands and unpopulated areas for meditative purposes became popular.
Following the Vedas, The 200 scriptures of the Upanishads further elaborate upon the premises of yoga and from there the Bhagavad-Gita, the first doctrine dedicated exclusively to yoga, took the discipline a step farther. It was during the Pre-Classical period of the Upanishads & the Gita around the 6th century B.C. that Buddhism came into the picture. Focusing on meditation and practicing physical poses, Buddhism and yoga naturally went hand in hand. In his teachings, the Buddha stressed the importance of mastery over the mind and body and began teaching yogic poses & meditations to his followers.
The creation of the Yoga Sutra, written by Patanjali around the second century, marks the beginning of the Classical era of yoga. During this era attempts were made to categorize and standardize the multiple facets of yoga that had been previously created and written about in the Gita, the Veda, and other such documents. It was during this time that Raja yoga and the eight limbs became an essential part of yoga.
Interestingly, during the period of Classical Yoga, the body as a temple was frequently disregarded in yogic practice. During this time yoga’s focus was more frequently on meditation with physical poses, or the Asanas, becoming secondary in focus.
Ultimately, however, the Asanas were revived. After a few centuries, yogis began to once again embrace both the mental and physical aspects of yoga. With renewed enthusiasm for the concept that held the “body as a temple”, yogis began to endeavor to create an immortal body or at the very least increase physical longevity through yogic techniques.
Following the Classical era a significant change was noted in the way yoga was practiced. It was during the 18th century that yoga was introduced to the western world. During this period, thanks in part to new technology, literature on yoga began to proliferate throughout both eastern and western cultures. It was during this period that yogic practice embraced as its objective, the concept of living in the moment rather than liberating oneself from reality.
The yoga most people practice today is a hybridization of these various forms of yoga that have developed over the ages. Whether engaging in Vedic Yoga of yore or the Transcendental Meditation more recently popularized, yoga offers millions of people the opportunity to strengthen both their body and mind.