History of Yoga

New to Yoga and confused by all the styles, types, rules and limbs? Read on to get some clarity on the history of yoga and soon you’ll understand why you’re not the only one confused!

The history of Yoga has evolved over time and is still on a journey. It it guesstimated to have first began as far back as 5,000 years ago – no one is quiet sure how far back it stretches but it was first practised by the Indus-Sarasvati civilization who were centered around Northern India. We know that from a book called the The Rig Veda which is actually a collection of scripts written in Sanskrit from the region. So far it is the oldest known reference to Yoga. The Rig Veda consists of four ‘books’ and its contents were used by Brahmans (priests) such as its songs and mantras. Over time, yoga was refined and distilled until the Bhagavad-Gîta was written sometime around 500BC-200CE. This was part of a larger volume of works but this particular section took the idea of sacrifice and placed it in the context of internal sacrifice so that the body would be liberated (i.e. Yoga which means ‘union’ in the context of uniting the physical with the divine or mind and body or male and female etc.). The story is a dialogue between Prince Arjuna and his charioteer Krishna. About to go into battle the dialogue develops so that more serious matters of the soul are considered.

During these times, there were many different types of Yoga – possibly hundreds of types. It is important to remember that Yoga itself is not the physical activity that we are familiar with in class but a pathway to union – of become one with the all. So different types of Yoga had their own rules and procedures. For example, some strands of Yoga focused primarily on meditation and discipline and physical asana practise was a minor point. Other types of Yoga saw the path to union through using the body to discipline the mind. Others still saw a path by practicing unconditional love of all things. These different pathways to Yoga still exist today. But back then there were so many various forms of Yoga that it was in danger of becoming so fragmented and specialised that its meaning would be lost to time.

Enter Patanjali, one of the most enlightened souls that ever graced the earth. He wrote the Patanjali Sutras which were the first presentation of what Yoga was in a systematic and rational way. He basically gathered up all the beliefs and theory behind the various strands of Yoga and brought them together to create a structure that we could point to and say ‘This is Yoga’. The idea of a sutra is a very short thread but because these threads are so short they can be difficult to interpret – everyone could come up with a different meaning. Step forward Bhasya who gave a commentary on the sutras (Some scholars believe Bhasya and Patanjali to be one and the same and therefore we have a single work called the Pātañjalayogaśāstra.).

Patanjali - in dhyana (meditation)
Patanjali – in dhyana (meditation) – File source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Patanjali_Statue.jpg

It was Patanjali who gave us the ‘eight limbs; of Yoga as a structure. These are (briefly): Yama (abstinences), niyama (observances), asana (postures), pranayama (breathing), pratyahara (withdrawal), dharana (concentration), dhyana (meditation) and samadhi (absorption).

Not everything Patanjali wrote was accepted by Yogis at the time and even now, some of it is disputed. If you can think of it in terms of Catholicism and its different strands (There are hundreds of types of Catholicism) you begin to get a feel for what Patanjali was up against. His particular writing was what he viewed as the essence of Yoga and because it allows for a broad interpretation and encompassed so much, it became popular when it was ‘rediscovered’.

Patanjalis’ work was forgotten about for much of the 12th – 19th century, surviving only in India. As the nineteenth century dawned, esotericism and enquiry in ancient methods was undergoing a revival with such organisations like Helena Blavatsky’s Theosophical Society in the US. Swami Vivekananda, a Hindu monk, was highly influential in bringing Yoga and its teachings to the west and founded the Ramakrishna Mission. He garnered headlines with his speech to the 1893 Parliament of Religions on the truths held within all religions and the history of Yoga and its teachings began to be examined once more.

Ever since then, Yoga has being growing in popularity and various teachers have introduced their own styles and interpretations of Yoga such as B.K.S. Iyengar and T.K.V. Desikachar. This is where the different forms of Yoga originate from. For example, Iyengar introduced Iyengar yoga and Desikachar brought forward Viniyoga.

In looking at the history of Yoga in yogic mythology, yoga is said to have started with the dawn of civilization – Shiva (in this case, a Yogi and not a god) gave his knowledge to the seven sages (Saptarishis) who traveled to Africa, South America, the Middle East and Asia where they spread these teachings. Even more interesting, is the similarities between ancient teachings in all these regions – even though the legends and stories have changed, many of the core teachings remain the same despite cultures being separated by vast oceans of water – almost as if there is a common origin for differing belief systems. Maybe this was what Swami Vivekananda meant when he spoke of a seed being planted in the ground:

“The seed is put in the ground, and earth and air and water are placed around it. Does the seed become the earth; or the air, or the water? No. It becomes a plant, it develops after the law of its own growth, assimilates the air, the earth, and the water, converts them into plant substance, and grows into a plant.”

Swami Vivenkanda

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