Yoga History

In order to prepare for a presentation I gave this morning, for a 9th grade Humanities class at the Austin Waldorf School, I have spent the last week researching and diving into the rich history of yoga. I feel compelled to share this history with those that are interested.   In order to discover a righteous path of yoga for oneself, one must understand where it all started, how it evolved, and where it is today in order to fully embrace all that this practice offers.

Yoga, its traditions, and philosophies, date back to almost 10,000 years ago, when the first artifacts depicting yogic-figures (individuals seated in Padmasana, Lotus pose),  were found in the Indus-Sarasvati civilization of Northern India.  It was also during this same time that Hinduism, one of the worlds oldest religions, was being widely taught by priests and Brahmans throughout the region.  Shiva, the Hindu God of destruction and renewal and one of three main deities in Hinduism, became the archetype of the original yogi.  Shiva embodies change, both in the form of death and destruction but also in the form of destroying the ego in order to allow the true, hidden beauty from within to unfold.  

These beliefs and cultures, along with the mishmash of many yogic ideas and stories were beginning to be documented into various sanskrit texts during this period.  The Vedas are among the earliest religious texts of the Brahmans, which is the highest, priestly caste in Hinduism. These texts contain a collection of songs, mantras, and rituals to be used as a guide for the Brahmans.  The Upanishads consist of over 200 scriptures, written by the Brahmans and priests to document their practices as they traveled and taught their studies to new followers.  Finally, The Bhagavad Gita or "Song of the Lord", is the most renowned of the yogic scriptures.  This famous Hindu text, presents an approach to the spiritual path, that is suitable to all and is written as a great epic.  This story tells of a family rivalry, a great battle and the internal struggle of conforming one's actions to the will of God through self inquiry, karmic action, personal wisdom, and the sacrifice of the ego.  

It wasn't until around the second century that we see the first systematic presentation of yoga come about, which was in the form of Patanjali's Yoga Sutras.  This refined, yogic text describes an eight limbed path and a step-by-step process one must go through in order to achieve Samadhi (true enlightenment), which is the ultimate goal of yoga.  The Yoga Sutras consists of 195 small, concise Sanskrit words/aphorisms that describe human consciousness in detail.  Patanjali uses yoga and the sutras as a platform, to help transform the way we think, communicate, respond and act, by directing our attention inward and harnessing our own consciousness to free us from suffering and open us up to true happiness.  This text was the main foundation that created Raja Yoga.   

Around the 15th century, we see yoga take a major shift into a postural focused practice, that used physical techniques (asanas) supplementary to the broad conception of yoga.  During this time, the Hatha Yoga Pradipika by Svami Svatmarama, was written and the physical body was now seen as the main device one could work with to mold and transform into a more conscious being.  The main goal of this text is to illuminate the physcial disciplines and practices of Hatha Yoga and intergrate these with the higher, spiritual goals of Raja Yoga and the eight-limbed path towards Samadhi.  

During the early 20th century, we are introduced to the renowned teacher, Sri Krishnamacharya, often times coined as the "Father of Modern Yoga".  He began to influence many populations of people through his teachings of yoga at his Hatha Yoga School in Mysore, India.  Throughout his life, many passionate, and inspired students came to him and developed their own personalized practices in yoga.  These personalized practices that these students developed, helped to created the many styles of yoga we see today.  Of those students we have:  BKS Iyengar, who came to Krishnamacharya as a sickly young man, seeking yoga as a way to improve his health.  He used yoga as a form of medicine, and became the founder and legendary teacher who developed Iyengar Yoga.  He has written numerous books about his life's work and talks in great detail about the healing power yoga can have for the body, mind and spirit. Next we have TKV Deiskachar, the son of Krishnamacharya.  Desikachar used yoga as his form of personalized therapy and developed the practice of Viniyoga.  Viniyoga helps each person create a practice that individualizes and actualizes the process of self-discovery suitable for their own personal needs.  Finally, we have the student and teacher K. Pattabhi Jois, who would eventually be known for developing Ashtanga Yoga, a much more regimented and acrobatic style of asana.  Each one of these styles of yoga, developed by three different students, all taught by Sri Krishnamacharya, create what is known today as Vinyasa Yoga.  

The westward movement of yoga began around the same time as Krishnamacharya's teachings began taking effect in India, during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  Practitioners, teachers and scholars of yoga began speaking about the benefits of yoga to several universities throughout America and Europe.  We see yoga gain a lot of attention in Hollywood in the 1940's, when a handful of celebrities began practicing with gurus and brought these sacred, yogic traditions into the lime light. The popularity kept up into the 1960's, with the counterculture movement due to the influence of musicians/artists such as, The Beatles, taking yogic beliefs and rituals and incorporating them into their music and livelihoods.

So, a super long story short, and now here we are today.  Taking all of that information into thought, combining it with the current capitalized yoga-for-profit market, and the attention yoga has all over the media, we can get a better idea why yoga, for many people, is so convoluted.  Yoga, today, is being used for all kinds of purposes: physical, mental, spiritual, cultural, social, etc.  For me, I have found that yoga is my form of therapy.  I feel intrigued to study it.  I feel better about myself after practicing its traditions and ceremonies. It inspires me to be healthier and cherish this life I've been blessed with.  It has helped me connect with like-minded individuals, who continue to inspire me through their own personal practices.  Whether its your own personal therapy, your way to achieve fulfillment through acrobatic poses or maybe even ironically enough, your way of boosting your own ego through Instagram posts, in the end the beauty of this practice is that you can transform it to fit your needs.  So, whatever it may be for you, well to each their own.  From me as a student and a teacher, I can only hope that the truth of the practice and its history helps you see through all the labels and misconceptions placed on what should be an honest approach of self-discovery.

Like always friends, Namaste.  ~       

Meditating Shiva - By: Pieter Weltevrede

Meditating Shiva - By: Pieter Weltevrede

Indus-Sarasvati Artifact - Yogic figure sitting in Padmasana, Lotus Pose

The Beatles with yogi guru, Maharishi Mahesh - 1968

Yoga Today ... How am I to live in this world?