The History of Yoga
Although yoga is something of a recent fad in the West, you’re probably aware that this system of gentle exercise and meditation has very ancient roots. What you might not know is just how ancient some aspects of yoga are, or how much yoga has changed on down through the millennia, with some of the most significant changes coming in just the last few hundred years. It’s a fascinating tale stretching through most of human history, with many twists and turns.
No one knows exactly when something like yoga was first practiced. Some believe that it has its roots in the Stone Age, drawing comparisons to similar practices of the time that sought to bring harmony to the communities of our ancient ancestors. There is no conclusive proof of this, however.
The earliest confirmed evidence of something like yoga dates back over five thousand years, to the third millennium BC. Stone carvings from that era, depicting meditative poses similar to those used in modern yoga, have been found in the Indus Valley region of India. While it might not have been exactly yoga as we’d understand the term, it’s clearly an ancestor of the modern practice.
The next major milestone in yoga history – at least that modern scholars have found – is the Vedas, a series of spiritual texts dating back to about twenty-five hundred years ago. Believed by some to have been written by the divine, the Vedas helped to form the foundation of Hinduism and shape the culture and philosophy of South Asia right up to the modern day.
The Vedas also contained some of the earliest yogic teachings. It should be noted that this was definitely not modern yoga. It didn’t bear much resemblance to what we practice today – indeed, the modern practice is more recent than you might realize. But more on that later.
The significance of the Vedic teachings with respect to yoga is that they did lay the groundwork for the core principles of yoga. Specifically, the Vedas helped to establish the ideals of physical and spiritual harmony that yoga is based upon.
This is a good opportunity to clear up a slight misconception about yoga. It is commonly held that yoga sprung directly from Hinduism, but this isn’t quite accurate. As the Indus Valley discoveries show, in some respects yoga can actually trace its roots back farther than Hinduism can. Since those ancient practices were not necessarily yoga as we have come to understand the concept, it would perhaps be most accurate to say that the two belief systems evolved alongside one another, each influencing the other. The relationship of yoga and Hinduism is more akin to that of siblings than of a parent and child.
The term “yoga” first appears in the Katha Upanishad, a Hindu philosophical text dating to around four hundred BC. There, yoga is defined as the technique of using an empty mind and control over one’s senses to achieve a state of spiritual enlightenment. Several other Upanishads over the next few hundred years expand on the concept of yoga, helping to further define the practice as a way to achieve a transcendent spiritual state through the use of techniques such as meditation, mental control, and proper breathing.
Several foundational concepts of yoga are first recorded in the Upanishads. One example is the idea of “Chakras”, focusing points of Prana – life force – corresponding to important locations in a person’s body. Another is meditation on “Om”, a sacred Sanskrit syllable used in prayers and rituals.
Another crucial early text on yoga was the Bhagavad Gita, a Hindu spiritual text that expounds heavily on the proper practice of several branches of yoga and its importance to living a good and balanced life.
The three branches described in the Gita were karma yoga, a philosophy of selfless action; bhakti yoga, a total faith in the divine as opposed to rote memorization of scripture and ritual; and jnana yoga, a difficult path of selfless spiritualism intended to bring one into unity with the true reality.
You’ll note that this still sounds quite different from the “soccer mom” yoga commonly practiced today.
As the centuries progressed, yoga continued to evolve, branching into many different practices and philosophies. Around the second century AD, the Yoga Sutra, a scripture of aphorisms related to yoga, was published. In stark contrast to the harmony of mind and body preached by yoga previously, the Sutra stated that spirit and matter must be separated to purify one’s soul.
The common theme for yoga for much of its history was that it was a primarily spiritual practice. While it might have included some physical techniques – such as meditation postures and methods of proper breathing – it was ultimately more a metaphysical practice than a physical one.
The Middle Ages saw the rise of the practice of Hatha yoga, and it is here that it finally begins to resemble the yoga practiced today. Practitioners of Hatha yoga drew on the philosophies of the previous centuries, such as those outlined in the Yoga Sutra, but focused more on the purification of the body as opposed to that of the spirit. Hatha expanded on the traditional sitting pose of yoga and created several different postures, or asanas, that utilized the whole body. This sowed the seeds of the modern perception of yoga.
The next, and final, major milestone in yoga’s development was its introduction to the West in the nineteenth century. The man primarily responsible for this was a Hindu teacher named Swami Vivekananda. While touring Europe and the United States, he found an interest in Eastern philosophies, and particularly yoga, amid the intellectual elite of the day. Yoga’s principles of harmony between the mind and body meshed well with popular spiritual philosophies of the day, as well as a growing interest in physical fitness and exercise regimes.
It was in the West that yoga became primarily a method of exercise as opposed to a spiritual practice. So much so that many well-known western yoga forms actually have their roots in European gymnastic techniques, rather than ancient tradition. As such, yoga as we now understand it is actually a hybridization of traditional Hatha yoga and relatively modern physical training regimens and spiritual beliefs from the West. It is a meeting of East and West, as well as ancient and modern times, drawing strengths from both viewpoints.
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