history and origins of yoga

A Glimpse into the rich History & Origin of Yoga

The influence of Yoga is global with over 300 million people practicing and living a lifestyle derived from it.

According to a survey conducted in the U.S., 9 out of 10 Americans have heard yoga and that’s just from a population of 327 million people. That’s a whopping 90%! Counting the number of people following the yoga tradition on its place of origin, we call really tell that it is a popular practice around the world.

We know Yoga by its face as a series of body poses, bent, and staying in place for a couple of seconds, with the idea that as the body pose is done, you do meditation as well. Since this kind of workout is some sort of touchy-feely workout,  it doesn’t become so appealing to men machismo, we have associated it that yoga is a “women’s exercise” but in fact, that’s a myth. Although yoga today as we see it is dominated by women, most of the people who spread yoga across the globe were men.

Well, honestly speaking, this is how we define yoga in a layman’s term, isn’t it?

But how much do we know about this cool body bending stuff that most people do in groups doing it in a room that is of tranquil feels? Let’s dig in and take a look back to its rich history & origin.

The Yoga Chronicles

yoga indus valley

Yoga and its Begining

Exploring the origins of Yoga will take us back to the rich history of the Indians. Reviewing our history, if not all, most of the cradles of civilizations started to emerge on location beside rivers. Amongst them is the Indus Valley Civilization that began 5000 years ago beside Indus River.

This group of people has developed an organized society, eventually developing beliefs, ideas, and practices as time goes by. From these collections of ideas formed the culture and one of the notable Indian Cultures that we today is the practice of Yoga.

As early as the pre-Vedic India, proof that yoga has been practiced by the Indus Valley civilization is present. Archeologists found a depiction of yoga posture in Pashupati Seal, a steatite seal found in the excavation site of the ancient city of Mohenjo-daro.

While yoga is commonly known to be just a physical activity, there is more to that.

The term Yoga is derived from the Sanskrit word “Yuj” meaning “to join, union.” Written evidence can be found from Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, an Epic Sanskrit dated in the second half of the 1st millennium BCE. This literary piece suggests that this practice aims to make the human spirit be in “union” with the divine.

Although this spiritual practice has no definite details on its specifics origins, Yoga can be traced back to have developed in the ancient Indus Valley Civilization for quite 5 millennia ago. The first use of the term yoga is said to be found from a text called Rig Veda, a Vedic Sanskrit Hymn which is considered to be the oldest sacred text.

This Vedas is a compilation of hymns and rituals that are used by Brahmans (Vedic priests)  and Rishis (mystic seers) for their religious practice. Yoga started as a spiritual activity more than a physical one.

This practice was recorded in Upanishads, a collection of Vedas and some of the most notable work is the Bhagavad Vita and Shanti Parva, part of the well known Indian Epic called Mahabharata which you might have heard when you studied Asian History on your middle school.

Hinduism and Classical Yoga

When the practice of Yoga began, it was just a mix of various beliefs, ideas, and techniques that often time have a contradiction to another. From these mashed-up ideas were the foundations of Hinduism was laid. This emergence of Hinduism made the yoga practice to be organized and systematic where it was first recorded through the Yoga Sutras written by Patanjali.

This paved the way for the Classic Yoga. Patanjali systematized the practice of yoga with the illustration of Astanga or “eight-limbed path” in his yoga-sutras, where he made the instructions to reach “Samadhi” or enlightenment. Patanjali is considered to be the Father of  Yoga.

Yoga has then become a school of thought. This is supported by historical records from the time of Alexander the Great where yogins, people who practice yoga are exhibiting aloofness and stated that they are “doing body postures, standing, sitting, lying naked and motionless” making sense to how yoga position of today is being done.

Middle Ages and the Post-Classical Yoga

hatha yoga postureAs the Middle Age come forth, many religious traditions, ideas have risen from various parts of the Indian continent which paved the way for the development of various yoga traditions. Yoga masters of different orientations began to teach Tantra Yoga and Bhakti Yoga, which is yoga practiced founded by the Ashtanga concerning how humans can interact with a supreme being or to the cosmos. These practices involve physical exercises combined with meditation and devotion to a supreme being.

Also, around the 8th to 11th century, Matsyendranath founded a Hinduist Shiva sub-tradition movement called Natha Sampradaya where the belief is founded on the idea of enjoying a peaceful, free and happy life on earth through how ones think about himself and his acts. From these precepts were developed the practices of another tradition called Hatha Yoga.

The practice of Natha Yoga promotes proper diet, proper posture, proper breathing, and meditation to name a few which is considered something very similar to the yoga that we know today.

19th Century Yoga Revival

Yoga stayed to be an Indian practice from all sorts of religious traditions such as Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism, and Sikhism to name some.

By the 19th, more and more intellectual are having conferences and the sharing of thoughts globally has never been this robust compared to the earlier days. With yoga being a school of thought and a belief system, an Indian Hindu monk named Swami Vivekananda openly advocated about his yoga philosophy to the west, although not sharing the asanas yet.

The emergence of the Industrial Age by the late 1800s also has promoted a better study of human development. This made Vivekananda’s philosophy more attractive to the westerners since his yoga philosophy greatly emphasizing nationalism and human development.

He made tours to the United States and Europe on the 1890s and there, he promoted his yoga percepts attracting some notable intellectuals, especially New England Transcendentalists, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, through whom drawn European Philosophers such as the German Romanticist G.W.F. Hegel, brother August Wilhelm, and  Karl Freidrich Schlegel to name some, and others who had a growing interest about the Indian traditions and culture.

Another highlight of Vivekananda’s tour was his lecture on the 1893 Parliament of World’s Religions that happened in Chicago where he astonished the audience. He continued doing lectures all across the US, back in India, and across Europe to spread the tenets of Hinduism and the practice of Yoga as a belief.

This paved the way for the practice of Hatha Yoga to be followed by many in the United States and Europe alike.

Back in India, Hatha Yoga was spread like wildfire in the 20s and 30s through the efforts of some notable yogis like T. Krishnamacharya and Swami Sivananda.

The first Hatha Yoga school of thought was founded by Krishnamacharya in Mysore in 1924 where he rose three students that would continue his legacy. B.K.S Iyengar, Pattabhi Jois, and T.K.V Desikachar continued the legacy of their mentor, spreading the prominence of Hatha Yoga in India.

Sivananda established the Divine Life Society (DLS) in 1936 at the banks of Ganges River, a river that is considered holy by Indian traditions. In 1948, he also founded Yoga-Vedanta Forest Academy. This school of thought is known for its integration of western philosophical ideas and yoga percepts. He was described also to be a great author with over 200 books written under his name where he also established the nine ashrams, also known as Sivananda Ashram primarily thought at DLS.

Yoga to the Western Culture

Whilst yoga was originally a religious practice, its western reception has changed the course of how yoga was practiced.yoga asana pose

Since westerners are dominantly Christians and are holding to their belief firmly, the religious aspect of yoga practice faded in the west citing that “just as the Catholic Church rejects nothing of what is true and holy in these religions, neither should these ways be rejected out of hand simply because they are not Christian” emphasizing that practices that are not against the Christian tradition yet beneficial to oneself can be imitated.

However, as the numbers of people following yoga practice increase in the Christian world, the Catholic Church then started to warn people of how it could turn to be cultic due to its focus on physical and natural senses of human rather than spiritual connection to the Christian deity.

Thankfully, differences in religion never took its toll to yoga and the physical practices such as posture and breathing were the main practices from yoga that retained to the west. This physical activity has been very appealing to many as a form of exercise.

The modern-day yoga that is commonly practiced by westerners is hugely defined by the practice of Hatha Yoga. Tenets of Hatha Yoga encourages yogis to develop enthusiasm, fortitude (utsaha), courage (sahasa), patience (dhairya), the essence of knowledge (jnana tattva), resolve (nishcaya), and solitude (tyaga).

These asanas can be achieved if a yogi will practice proper diet, proper cleansing, proper breathing, proper postures (also called asanas which western cultures practices), Kundalini and meditation.

Yoga in the 21st Century

Yoga, as we know it today, is called Modern Yoga. This practice consists of Asanas, which are the postures and meditation which was adopted from the practices, teachings, and technique as taught at the Yoga School, one of six schools in Hindu Philosophical traditions.

According to Elizabeth de Michelis, author of the books A History of Modern Yoga, there are four types of the practice which are; Modern Psychosomatic Yoga thought by The Yoga Institute; Modern Denominational Yoga thought by Brahma Kumaris; Modern Postural Yoga thought by Inyegar Yoga, and Modern Meditational Yoga thought as early as the Transcendental Meditation.

Modern Psychosomatic Yoga usually practiced in a private setting focuses on Body-Mind-Spirit training emphasizing practical experience under limited constraints from sets of doctrines.

Modern Denominational Yoga is a yoga practice that is related to Neo-Hinduism that is thought by gurus revolving around teachings and it varies amongst gurus to gurus. This type of modern yoga often tagged to sectarian because some say it has a cultic environment.

Modern Postural Yoga becomes a popular trend in the 50s and was popularized by B.S.P Prantindhi as early as the 20s. It follows the patterns of doing the salute to the sun, also known as Surya Namaskar.

Modern Meditational Yoga is focused on mental concentration techniques and meditation techniques as its name say. Transcendentalists found this practice to help in self-development and practice on a non-religious matter although there is a usage of mantras.

modern yoga practice

Modern Yoga

Yoga started to be a religious practice and there were plenty of different traditions on practicing developed over time due to the passing onto different generations, gurus of different indoctrination and integration to different cultures especially to the west.

Today, the yoga that we know is the asanas or the postures being done together with other breathing and meditational practices. These exercises are known to promote physical and mental fitness, tranquility and relaxation and so much more.

Healthcare experts and practitioners also utilize yoga as supportive therapy to patients with mental illness, sleeping disorders, and also to promote better blood circulation and better body posture.

Although modern yoga has been quite focused on the physical aspects, there are still millions around the world that are following the spiritual side of yoga practice that aims to connect human souls to the divine and the cosmos.

Amazingly, whatever creed you do believe in, practicing yoga asanas will never be contradicting to different religious world views. Its undeniably universal in nature and practicing yoga is very beneficial to ones physical and mental health.