History of Yoga
The History of Yoga
Yoga, in one form or another, is said to be as old as civilization. This is a rather broad statement, but we do know that Shamanism and other ritualistic practices were prevalent dating before the stone-age. Performing physical rituals while entering an altered mental state, in order to attain a higher level of consciousness, is a timeless part of human history.
For recognizable beginnings of the yoga that we see today, archaeologists have discovered stone seals as old as 3000 BCE, depicting multiple figures performing yoga poses. We can then assume that yoga, as we know it today, has been around for at least 5000 years. These seals were found in the Indus Valley, ultimately putting the origins of yoga in that region.
The Vedas, a Brahman scripture, contain published yoga teachings. These teachings are known as Vedic Yoga. Along with the yoga teachings, these scriptures contain prayers and hymns, and the scriptures themselves eventually became the roots for Hinduism. During the Vedic period, people believed that yogis used physical and mental discipline to perceive a higher reality – a divine reality – becoming one with spirit mind and body. Much like the early monks, yogis were said to have lived in seclusion for most of their learning.
Upanishads (900 – 100 BCE)
The Upanishads (meaning ‘at the proper place’ or ‘sitting down’) were written between 900 BCE and 100 BCE, and contain many of the oldest teachings that evolved into modern day Hinduism. The Upanishads are the first texts that describe yoga directly and marry the idea of poses and meditation in a definite way.
The earliest Upanishad mentions the meditation side of yoga frequently, but does not address the physical side (poses or asanas) very often. As time continues however, the Upanishads mention yoga more often, and eventually start to describe in detail some of the fundamental poses and ideologies of yoga. For example, in the Maitrayaniya Upanishad, written between 200 – 300 BCE, describes in detail the six disciplines (or “six limbs”) of early yoga:
• breath control (pranayama)
• sensory inhibition (pratyahara)
• meditation (dhyana)
• concentration (dharana)
• examination (tarka)
• ecstasy (Samadhi)
Swami Swatamarama (1400’s AD)
Swami Swatamarama, a yogi in the 1400’s AD, wrote a text called the Hatha Yoga Pradipika. Hatha yoga is sometimes considered the yoga of the west, as Yoga practiced in Western Europe and the Americas very closely resembles the yoga described in the text. The text studies in detail asanas (poses), pranayama (breathing control), mudra and bandha. Hatha yoga is dedicated to Lord Shiva, who imparted Hatha Yoga to Parvati and thus to the people (Shiva is a Hindu deity).
Hatha is derived from the Sanskrit ‘sun’ (ha) and ‘moon (tha), representing opposing forces which need balance in order for someone to raise their level of consciousness. Thus, not only were the poses, meditation and breathing of hatha yoga the foundation for today’s western yoga practice, it was also the fundamental spiritual backbone of today’s western yoga.
These days, many people who use yoga as a wake-up exercise and relaxation technique, simply call yoga ‘yoga’, and not necessarily ‘Hatha Yoga’. Throughout history, many different forms of yoga have appeared and disappeared, and countless lines of yoga have joined and branched, making and exact history of yoga hard to pinpoint.
With the resurgence of yoga’s popularity in the late 20th and early 21st century, new forms of yoga are again sprouting. Bikram Yoga, a hugely popular form of hot yoga, is now practiced worldwide. Naked yoga is becoming so popular, that it is only a matter of time that this practice will have its own name, following and place in history.
One part of yoga will probably never change; the ability it has to calm, center and balance the individual who seriously practices it.