The Fascinating History of Yoga: From Ancient Origins to Contemporary Practice

The Fascinating History of Yoga: From Ancient Origins to Contemporary Practice

The Fascinating History of Yoga: From Ancient Origins to Contemporary Practice

Today millions of people worldwide practice yoga. Yoga has become one of the biggest export of India. Big cities are crammed with yoga studios. According to the American magazine, Yoga Journal, in 2012 there were more than 20 million yoga practitioners in the United States alone.

Yoga is a practice that has been around for thousands of years, but how did it come to be? In this blog post, we explore the fascinating history of yoga, tracing its roots back to ancient civilizations and uncovering its journey to becoming a widely practised form of exercise and spiritual enlightenment today. Join us as we delve into the origins, evolution, and enduring appeal of the transformative practice of yoga.

The Origins of Yoga: Tracing Back to Ancient India

The origins of yoga can be traced back to ancient India during the Indus Valley Civilisation (lasting from 3300 BCE to 1300 BCE), where it was developed as a spiritual practice thousands of years ago. The word yoga denotes and brings forth quite a few different definitions. The first use of the word yoga is found in India’s oldest scripture, the Rg Veda (1500-1000BCE). Here yoga does not resemble a practice or a specific system rather it denotes a chariot of war to which horses are yoked.

It isn’t until 500 BCE that yoga takes on a systematic path to find ways to end the cycle of birth (samsara) and eliminate human suffering (enlightenment). The earliest practitioners of yoga are called Sramanas (strivers). The Sramanas do not use the word yoga to describe their practice. Rather the word tapas is used. Tapas denotes heat, voluntary self-discipline, austerity and effort - and this is exactly what was needed in this era, as Sramanas, mainly men, gave up their worldly life to put their bodies through intense practices such as fasting, bodily cleansing (internal and external), long hold in poses and extended periods of meditation. The emphasis on the practice of asana (yogic postures), although performed by yogis, is mainly mentioned in passing-through-travellers diaries, as the importance was not that great. 

In the Katha Upanishad (3rd century BCE), Mahabharata (1st-3rd century CE) and Patanjali’s Yogasastra (4th century CE) different approaches to eliminating suffering are systematised, among the systems we find: Yogacara Buddhism, Mantra Yoga (yoga of utterance), Jnana Yoga (yoga of discernment), Bhakti Yoga (yoga of devotion), Karma Yoga (yoga of action), Tantra Yoga, Laya Yoga, Raj Yoga and Hatha Yoga.

Yoga in Ancient Texts: The Vedas and Upanishads

In the Vedas, yoga is primarily portrayed as a meditative practice aimed at transcending the limitations of the physical body and connecting with the higher self. It is seen as a way to attain spiritual liberation and attain a state of bliss and oneness with the universe.

The Upanishads, which were written around the 8th century BCE, further elaborate on the practice of yoga. They explore the nature of the self, the universe, and the ultimate reality, known as Brahman. The Upanishads describe yoga as a means to realise the true nature of the self and attain liberation from the cycle of birth and death.

These ancient texts provide valuable insights into the origins and philosophy of yoga. They lay the groundwork for the diverse and multifaceted practice that yoga has become today.

The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali: A Milestone in Yoga Philosophy

The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali is a foundational text in the philosophy of yoga. Written by the sage Patanjali around the 2nd century BCE, it is considered a milestone in the development of yoga as a systematic and comprehensive practice. Only very little is known about Patanjali and Vyasa (the first to explain and further explore the short thread-like style yoga sutras). 

The Yoga Sutras consist of 196 aphorisms, or concise statements, that outline the principles and practices of yoga. They cover a wide range of topics, including the nature of the mind, the causes of suffering, and the path to liberation.

Interestingly Patanjalis Yoga Sutras add two new approaches to yoga. (1) Until now the body has been seen as an obstacle to transcendence and enlightenment. With Patanjalis yoga sutras the body becomes a part in the practice of liberation. Instead of ignoring the body or treating it poorly, the body is a vehicle on the path and must be taken care of. (2) Secondly until now the philosophies of India, the religions and the schools of yoga (including Advaita-Vedanta) have been mainly focused on non-duality, meaning all is one and it's mostly about experiencing that oneness with oneself or God. Non-dualism teaches that despite countless aspects or forms in the last analysis it is all the same “thing” of pure formless but conscious existence. But Patanjali’s yoga sutras teach a dualistic approach where the aim of the practice is aloneness (Kaivalya) or separation of the body/matter (Prakriti) and the spirit (purusha) so that the spirit can be experienced on its own. 

The yoga sutras are known for the Eight Limbs of Yoga. These limbs provide a framework for the practice of yoga, guiding practitioners on their journey towards self-realization and spiritual awakening.

The Eight Limbs of Yoga include ethical principles (yamas and niyamas), physical postures (asanas), breath control (pranayama), withdrawal of the senses (pratyahara), concentration (dharana), meditation (dhyana), and ultimate absorption (samadhi).

A must read version of the Yoga Sutras:

Ravi Ravindra’s translation, The Wisdom of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras: A New Translation and Guide

The Influence of Tantra, Buddhism and Jainism on Yoga

Yoga has proven to play an important inspirational role in many traditions and the opposite way around too. Traditions such as Shaivism, Tantra, Buddhism and Jainism (to mention just a few) have been great sources of influence on yoga. 

Buddhism, founded by Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha) in the 6th century BCE, emphasises the importance of meditation and mindfulness in achieving enlightenment. The Buddha himself was said to have practised various forms of meditation, which can be seen as precursors to the physical postures and breathing exercises of yoga.

Jainism, founded by Mahavira in the 6th century BCE, also places a strong emphasis on meditation and self-discipline. Jains believe in the concept of ahimsa, or non-violence, and strive to live a life of harmlessness towards all living beings. This philosophy aligns with the yogic principle of compassion and respect for all creatures.

Both Buddhism and Jainism had a significant influence on the development of yoga, particularly in terms of its ethical and moral principles. The practice of yoga became intertwined with these philosophies, incorporating elements of meditation, self-discipline, and non-violence.

Tantra, in the period from the sixth to thirteen century, constituted india's dominant religion. Tantra has as its aim to attain supernatural powers (Siddhis). Tantra and yoga are two different paths though the tantric practices may contain yogic elements. Tantra brought a great emphasis on the female aspect (shakti) as well as mapping the energic body (the nadi and the chakra system). Tantra also brings deeper knowledge of the importance and power of the breath (pranayama) and Kundalini yoga.

Yoga in India 

India is the home to many religions and philosophies that today have a worldwide presence (Islam, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, and Shaivism to mention just a few). India is a land of pluralism when it comes to religious practices and schools of philosophy. Even within the sphere of Hinduism, there are multiple approaches and primary Gods to be tended to. India has a great and long history where civilisations have risen and fallen from as early as 6500 BCE. Dynasties have thrived and disappeared, empires build and collapsed and nations have arrived hoping to get a bite of India's riches. Some nations ruled for (too) long and it wasn’t until 1947 that India finally could rise their own flag at independence day. A day with filled with great hopes for the future as well as immense sorrow for the creation of two countries: Pakistan and India. 

Along the way, litteratur was in the easy stages carried down by word of mouth (parampara). Practices and philosophies were retold, changed, parts added and other parts taken away, creating distinct traditions with no homogeneous whole. From the early beginning until now the practice and philosophy of yoga have been in close contact with many of the world's great religions. 

Yoga Travels West

In the early 20th century, yoga gained popularity in the West through the efforts of Indian teachers such as Swami Vivekananda and Paramahansa Yogananda. These spiritual leaders introduced yoga to Western audiences, emphasizing its potential for self-realization and inner transformation.

In the 1960s and 1970s, yoga experienced a surge in popularity as part of the broader counterculture movement. Influential figures such as Swami Satchidananda and B.K.S. Iyengar brought yoga to the forefront of popular culture, attracting a diverse range of practitioners, including celebrities and athletes.

In recent decades, yoga has become increasingly accessible and mainstream, with the proliferation of yoga studios, classes, and online platforms. This has allowed people from all walks of life to experience the physical, mental, and emotional benefits of yoga.


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