It’s believed Yoga originated in India 5,000 or more years ago. In the early 1920s archaeologists discovered the so-called Indus civilization – one of the largest ancient civilizations.
In some of the big cities such as Mohenjo Daro and Harappa, depictions engraved on soapstone seals that strongly resemble yogi-like figures were found. Many of the findings show a number of similarities between that civilization and the later Hindus society and culture.
Questions about existence and spirituality
Traditional yoga seeks to provide answers to some profound questions such as ‘Who am I?’ , ‘Whence do I come?’, ‘Whither do I go?’, ‘What must I do?’ – questions which we sooner or later ask ourselves.
Yoga promotes awareness in all forms including self-awareness, which essentially will give us the opportunity to make conscious and better choices.
The history of Yoga can be divided in four broad categories:
The Vedas are the earliest known texts related to Hinduism. The Sanskrit word ‘Veda’ means ‘knowledge’, while the Sanskrit term ‘Rig’ (from ric) means ‘praise’. The sacred Rig-Veda (the oldest Hindu text) is a collection of hymns that praise a higher power.
The other Vedic hymnodies are Yajur-Veda ‘Knowledge of sacrifice’, Sama-Veda ‘Knowledge of chants’ and Atharva-Veda ‘Knowledge of Atharvan’ (Atharvan was a famous fire priest who has been known as the master of magical rituals).
Vedic Yoga is also known as Archaic Yoga, which is deeply connected with the ritual life of the ancient Indians, involving sacrifice in order to join the material world with the invisible world of the spirit. To be successful the sacrificers had to focus their mind for prolonged period of time. This inner focusing is the root of Yoga. Great teachers include the names of many famous Vedic sages such as Vasishta, Yajnavalkya and Jaigishavya.
This category covers a period of about 2,000 years until the second century A.D and it comes in various forms and guises. Still closely associated with the Vedic sacrificial culture in its early stages, Yoga then later started to become into its own with the Upanishads, which are Gnostic texts expounding the hidden teaching about the unity of things. A few if those were written before the time of Gautama the Buddha (5th century B.C).
One of the most significant Yoga scriptures is the Bhagavad-Gita (Lord’s song) with one of the main characters being Lord Krishna, who is said to be the greatest yogis. The script composed of 700 verses is of high importance for Hindus, and its main message is that to be alive means to be active; if we want to avoid difficulties for ourselves and others, our actions must be benign and go beyond the grip and ego.
Many preclassical Yoga schools were opened at that time in India, developing various kinds of techniques for achieving deep meditation through which yogis and yoginis can transcend the body and soul and discover their true nature.
This is also known as Raja-Yoga, taught by Patanjali in his Yoga-Sutra – a Sanskrit text composed of under 200 aphoristic statements. Patanjali believed that each individual is a composite matter (prakriti) and spirit (purusha). He understood the process of Yoga to bring about their separation and thus restoring the spirit in its absolute purity. Patanjali taught an eightfold (Ashtanga) system of Yoga emphasising an internal spiritual development including ethical disciplines (Yama and Niyama), postures (Asana), breathing exercises (Pranayama), control of senses (Pratyahara), concentration (Dharana), meditation (Dhyana) and absorption (Samadhi).
This comprises the great number of Yoga schools that have continued on after Patanjali’s Yoga-Sutra. In contrast to classical, postclassical Yoga affirms the ultimate unity of everything. A few centuries after Patanjali some great adepts were beginning to probe the hidden potential of the body. Their interest lay in the contemplation to the point where they could exit the body consciously. Their goal had been to leave the world behind and merge with the spirit (formless reality).
Under the influence of alchemy, Yoga masters created a system of practices that were designed to rejuvenate the body and prolong its life. They regarded the body as a temple of the immortal spirit and not merely as a container that was to be discarded. They also explored the possibility of energizing the physical body to such extent that its biochemistry is changed and even its basic matter is reorganised to tender it immortal.
This practice led to the creation of Hatha-Yoga, the earliest version of today’s widely practiced type of Yoga. It also led to other various branches and schools of Tantra-Yoga, of which Hatha-Yoga is just just one approach.
Historically it is thought to have first began in Chicago, USA in 1893 with the arrival of the young Swami Vivekananda (‘swami’ meaning master), who initially knew no one but thanks to some well-wishers who recognised his inner greatness, he was invited to the parliament and ended up being its most popular diplomat. He then travelled widely attracting many students to Yoga and Vedanta.
Before Swami Vivekananda a few other Yoga masters have travelled to visit Europe, however their influence remained local and ephemeral. Vivekananda’s success opened up doors for many more eastern gurus, including Swami Rama Tirtha, Yogendra Mastamani, Paramahansa Yoganda, Jiddu Krishnamurti, Ramacharaka (pseudonym for two people: William Atkinson, who left his law practice in Chicago to practice Yoga, and his teacher Baba Bharata).
Yoga in the modern form of Hatha-Yoga entered mainstream America when the Russian-born Yogini Indra Devi, also called the ‘First Lady of Yoga’, opened her studio in Hollywood in 1947. She taught stars such as Gloria Swanson, Robery Ryan and Marilyn Monroe, and trained hundreds of teachers.
Other names of people that have contributed towards the developing and introducing of today’s modern Yoga in the wider world include Selvarajan Yesudian, Richard Hittleman and Shrila Prabhupada. In the 1960s and 1970s many swamis trained by the Himalayan master Swami Sivananda, opened their schools in Europe and the Americas.
A more controversial but widely popular guru in the 1970s and 1980s was Bhagavan Rajneesh (also known as Osho), whose followers regularly made the headlines for their sexual orgies and other excesses. Rajneesh – a former philosophy professor drew his teaching from authentic Yoga sources in combination with his own personal experiences. He allowed his students to act upon their repressed fantasies, notably of the sexual variety, in hope that this would free them up for the deeper processes of Yoga. Many of them, however, got trapped in this form of hedonism, proving the rule that ‘too much of a good thing is bad for you’. Though many of his disciples felt disappointed by him and the sad events surrounding his organisation, just as many still regard him as a genuine Yoga master.
Until modern times the majority of Yoga practitioners have been men, yogins. But there have also been some great female adepts, yoginis. For example Meera Ma (Mother Meera), who doesn’t teach in words, but communicates in silence through her simple presence.
Since Yoga is not restricted to Hinduism a mention should also be made of the Dalai Lama, a firm supporter of non-violence and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. He is a truly great yogi of modern Tibet, who demonstrates that the principles of Yoga can fruitfully be brought not only into a busy daily life, but also in the field of politics.
Today Tibetan Buddhism (a form of Tantra-Yoga) is extremely popular with westerners. During a CNN interview in 2000, the Dalai Lama recognises that there are different varieties of Yoga. Some are on a more physical level, dealing with ‘channels of energy’ and ‘nerve centres’; a sense of ‘control’ or ‘change’ to the physical level that also has an effect on the mind. Others involve ‘training of the mind’ , trying to ‘utilize the mental force and then change the body’s mental level’.
The Dalai Lama also advises that it’s worthwhile to practice Yoga in combination with positive mental training to ensure full effectiveness.
Today yoga is most often known for its asana tradition or yogic postures. Many people who have recently studied yoga in the West have only learnt this side of the teaching, and not the rest of the philosophy.
It’s important to not forget the original yogic system, which includes calming the disturbances of the mind through meditation. Therefore, a good yoga teacher will have studied and practiced both the asana tradition and the science of meditation.
1. Traditional Yoga and Meditation of the Himalayan Masters, Self Realisation through Yoga Sutras, Vedanta, Samaya Sri Vidya Tantra – A short history of Yoga – http://www.swamij.com/history-yoga.htm
2. American Institute of Vedic Studies – Yoga and Buddhism: Similarities and Differences – http://vedanet.com/2012/06/13/yoga-and-buddhism-similarities-and-differences/
3 thoughts on “A Brief History of Yoga”
Nice article! Thank you for sharing ~ Lisa