Yoga History

Yoga: Beyond the Painful-looking Body Contortions

Long before Hollywood actors jumped into the yoga bandwagon, this form of discipline already existed. Just how old do you think yoga is? A few hundred years? A thousand? It is more than that, believe it or not. Its history could be dated back to 4000-1500 BC, well, approximately. Yes, that’s even before the medieval era or Confucius’ time!

The exactness of its actual beginning is hard to determine because, by nature, yoga is considered sacred, and thus, spoken and taught in secret. In fact, early records of this practice were written on palm leaves, making it prone to being lost or damaged.

There were hints of yoga practice in the civilization of Indus Valley (circa 3000 BC) and even the earliest known religions, Buddhism and Hinduism, were known to incorporate this form of belief in their teachings.

India is the first country that would come to anyone’s mind when yoga is mentioned. This is because the first known, detailed, yoga transcription was in sacred Hindu records called Vedic shastras.

Yoga could then be divided into four periods:

The Pre-classical era

This could be traced as far as 5000 years back. The Indus-Saravasti in Northern India was the first to mention ‘yoga’ in Rig Veda (holy texts). These texts were not solely used for religious teachings but also for keeping records of rituals and songs by Brahmans or priests. These were termed as the Upanishads (the root word being ‘upa’ which means near, ‘ni’ which means down and ‘shad’ meaning to sit), mainly described as a form of discipline which unites these six ‘aphorisms’: control of breathing or ‘pranayama’ meditation or ‘dhyana’, inhibition of the senses or ‘pratyahara’, examination or ‘tarka’, concentration or ‘dharana’, and ecstasy or ‘samadhi.

The Bhagavad-Gita is, by far, the most famous part of the Upanishad texts. With this in mind, it was comparable to our modern day form of religions where yoga is used to achieve spirituality minus the physical rigors.

The Classical Era

Enter Patanjali, author of the Yoga-Sutras and believed to be the ‘father or founder of yoga’. Just like the obscurity of yoga’s history, Patanjali’s profession is still unknown as of this day. Some believe he is a teacher of grammar. Some say he teaches the philosophy of Samkhya. Others go to the extreme by believing that he was an incarnation of the ruler of serpents named Shesha (which had 1000 heads!).

From the six limbs of the Upanishads, Patanjali added two more. According to him, the path to enlightenment can be obtained through the practice of these eight-limb discipline. Added to the other six were Niyama and Yama, both comparable to the biblical Ten Commandments as they focus on ethics and morals.

The Post-Classical Era

It is hard to define when the classical period actually ended. The teachings of Patanjali were used in many different practices that soon different forms of yoga were established. However, there were only slight modifications from Patanjali’s form of discipline. The only two schools that taught ‘radical yoga’ were tantra and hatha. These two schools deviated from Patanjali’s belief and instead focused on both the formless type of consciousness and using the physical body to achieve the so-called enlightenment. Both tantra and hatha teach that there is a Higher Being that could reside in each individual and detachment from this Being could result in suffering and much pain. So, thanks to their teachings, we now visualize yoga as painful body contortions that raise a person’s spirituality!

The Modern Day

It was not until the 1800’s that masters of yoga discipline traveled to the west. Being completely different from any form of religion or practice, these masters had many curious followers.

Hatha Yoga or modern day yoga was made famous in India by T. Krishnamacharya. He traveled far and wide to demonstrate and teach the poses of hatha yoga. He was also the first to open a school for formal yoga practice. He called this the Hatha Yoga School. Krishnamacharya was also the teacher of famous yoga advocates Pattabhi Jois, B. K.S. Iyengar, and T.K.V. Desikachar.

Hollywood had its first taste of yoga when Indra Devi had her studio opened in 1947. It was a giant leap for modern yoga and ever since, it gained followers by the million. And yes, today, we never lack schools that teach many styles, yet, their goal is still common--- self-enlightenment.


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