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The 6,000-Year History of Yoga

Updated: Apr 14, 2023

In its early days, yoga was primarily a spiritual discipline focused on achieving enlightenment and union with the divine. The physical postures, or asanas, that are a fundamental part of modern yoga were originally just one aspect of the practice.


As yoga spread throughout India and beyond, it evolved and diversified, and different schools and traditions emerged.



Pre-classical Yoga, the Vedas, and Shiva


The word Yoga was first mentioned in the Upanishads, a collection of ancient Indian philosophical and religious texts, part of the Vedas, the ancient scriptures of Hinduism, that are believed to have been composed between the 8th and 6th centuries BCE.


We don’t know how old the Vedas are or who wrote them, but It is said that God himself revealed the true knowledge of the entire creation to enlightened saints while they were deep in meditation. The Vedas are therefore said to be Shruti or Divine Knowledge.


In these texts, Shiva, also known as Adiyogi is considered the God of Yoga and the first Yogi. He is said to have taught the science of yoga, a path to union with the Divine, to seven sages, who then spread his teachings throughout India and the world.



Shiva


The Vedas prescribe 4 major paths of yoga :

1. Bhakti Yoga: This path of yoga involves the practice of devotion to a personal god. The goal of Bhakti yoga is to cultivate a loving relationship with the divine and to live in a state of constant surrender to the divine.


2. Karma Yoga: This path of yoga involves the practice of selfless service and performing actions without attachment to the result. The goal of karma yoga is to cultivate a sense of detachment and surrender to the divine will.


3. Raja Yoga: This path of yoga involves the practice of meditation and various yogic techniques for controlling the mind. The goal of raja yoga is to attain a state of inner stillness and peace.


4. Jnana Yoga: This path of yoga involves the practice of self-inquiry and the study of spiritual texts. The goal of jnana yoga is to gain deep insight into the nature of reality and to ultimately attain liberation from the cycle of birth and death.



Classical Yoga, Patanjali, and the Yoga Sutras


Patanjali, an ancient Indian sage and mystic, is often regarded as The father of yoga. He is credited with authoring the Yoga Sutras, the first systematic presentation of yoga.


It is a collection of 196 aphorisms, describing the path of Raja Yoga, and forming the foundation of the yoga school of Hindu philosophy, sometime between 400 and 200 BCE.

patanjali sutras

Patanjali’s teachings focus on the eight limbs of yoga, a system of physical, mental, and spiritual practices. These eight limbs are :


-Yama (moral codes)

-Niyama (self-purification and study)

-Asana (posture)

-Pranayama (breath control)

-Pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses)

-Dharana (concentration)

-Dhyana (meditation)

-Samadhi (absorption).


Through the practice of these eight limbs, Patanjali believed that one could achieve Kaivalya (liberation).

Nowadays, these teachings still strongly influence most styles of modern yoga.



Post-Classical Yoga, Tantra, and Hatha


Tantra yoga originated centuries later in India, around the 5th century CE. Tantra means "to weave" in Sanskrit, and classical tantra weaves together many different systems and techniques, such as mantras, mudras, pranayama, meditation, and visualization.

Tantra yoga is based on the belief that everything in the universe is interconnected and that humans can access divine power and enlightenment through a combination of physical, mental, and spiritual practices. The primary goal of Tantra yoga is to achieve Moksha, or liberation from Samsara, the cycle of death and rebirth.

Moksha is freedom from ignorance: self-realization, self-actualization and self-knowledge.


Tantra yoga focuses on the use of mantras, meditation, and physical postures (asanas) to help practitioners connect with their inner power and find greater spiritual awareness.


Hatha yoga is a subset of Tantra yoga and is believed to have emerged in the 11th or 12th century. Hatha yoga focuses on developing physical strength and mental clarity through the use of specific postures and breathing techniques. Its goal is to create balance and harmony between the body, mind, and spirit.

Hatha Yoga is the foundation of modern yoga and is the basis of many other forms of yoga, including Vinyasa, Ashtanga, and Kundalini Yoga.


Hatha Yoga is a gentle, slower-paced practice that encourages relaxation and inner awareness. The poses in this practice are designed to balance the body, mind, and spirit.


Modern Yoga, from India to America


Swami Vivekananda was a Hindu monk, philosopher, and spiritual leader. He believed that the Vedas, Upanishads, and Bhagavad Gita contained the essence of Hinduism and that it should be practiced in its purest form for the benefit of all. He also promoted the idea of a universal religion, in which all religions are seen as paths to the same goal.


To that end, he encouraged the people of India to practice yoga and meditation as means of spiritual growth.


He also advocated for the universal brotherhood of mankind, stressing the importance of mutual understanding and respect among different cultures. He ultimately sought to unite the East and West through his teachings of Vedanta and yoga.




Vivekananda

The introduction of yoga to the West began when he delivered a speech at the World’s Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893.


There, Vivekananda spoke about the ancient Hindu practice of yoga and its potential to bring peace and harmony to the world. His speech was well-received, and he soon found himself teaching in America, where he was met with both enthusiasm and skepticism.


While Vivekananda’s teachings were appreciated by many, some saw them as a means of reinforcing colonial rule. Some argued that yoga was a form of cultural imperialism, a way for the British to control the spiritual and mental lives of Indians. Others, however, argued that yoga was a way for the East to reclaim its ancient traditions and that it could be used for the benefit of all.


Nowadays, we all heard about Ashtanga, Vinyasa, Kundalini, Dharma Yoga, and so much more. All these forms of yoga were born during the 20th century and are all based on the eight limbs system, which emanated from the ancestral Raja and Hatha Yoga.


Today, yoga is practiced around the world and it has become a popular form of exercise, relaxation, and spiritual exploration. While there are still debates about its cultural roots, what is undeniable is that yoga has had a profound impact on the world. It has become an integral part of many cultures, and it continues to inspire people to pursue their spiritual journey.



Modern yoga and its different forms


There are many different forms of modern yoga, and each one has its own unique characteristics and emphasis. Some of the most common forms of modern yoga include:


  • Hatha yoga emphasizes physical postures (asanas) and proper body alignment. The word "hatha" comes from the Sanskrit ha, which means "sun," and tha, which means "moon." This name represents the balance and integration of opposing forces.


  • Vinyasa yoga emphasizes fluid, continuous movement between postures. Vinyasa yoga classes are often more fast-paced and dynamic and may include elements of dance and flow.


  • Iyengar yoga emphasizes precise alignment and the use of props, such as blocks and straps, to assist with proper form. Iyengar yoga is recommended for those who want to focus on alignment and the therapeutic benefits of yoga.


  • Bikram yoga is practiced in a heated room (usually around 105 degrees Fahrenheit) and consists of a set series of 26 postures and two breathing exercises, and is known for its challenging and sweat-inducing nature.


  • Ashtanga yoga follows a set series of postures, with an emphasis on the breath and a smooth, flowing movement between postures. Ashtanga yoga is known for its physically demanding nature and can be challenging for beginners.


  • Kundalini yoga focuses on the release of kundalini energy through the chakras (energy centers in the body) and the use of chanting, breathwork, and physical postures. Kundalini yoga is often described as a spiritual practice that can be emotionally and mentally challenging.


  • Dharma Yoga is a combination of traditional Hatha and Raja Yoga. It is a modern interpretation of the eight limbs system deeply rooted in the ethical precepts of Dharma. This form of yoga is focused on opening the heart physically and spiritually and is designed to cultivate empathy and compassion.





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